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Kenneth A. Larson has a quarter century of experience in design and construction of scenery for the Entertainment Industry and Theme Parks using Computer Aided and Traditional approaches to Design. Also experience in other areas of Design.
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Using AutoCAD as a Tool in Computer Modeling and Pre-Vis for Set Design

Kenneth A. Larson - I.A.T.S.E. Local 800 Set Designer
This article, written for AutoCAD © R14, has been updated for AutoCAD © 2012.

The other day, I lost a job because I was an expert in AutoCAD and the Production Designer didn't believe that AutoCAD could be used for computer modeling and pre-visualization for Set Design. Well, he was wrong. AutoCAD, especially when used with 3D Studio Max or 3D Studio Max Design, is an excellent tool for computer modeling and pre-vis.

AutoCAD produces computer models in a variety of ways and is more accurate than most other programs. Also, once the computer model is complete, you can more easily and accurately generate 2D construction drawings from that model.

The simplest method for producing 3D drawings in AutoCAD (read on for a better way) is to draw a plan of a room or other item and change the thickness of the lines with the CHPROP command, giving the lines a third, or z-axis, direction. A 2D solid can also be given thickness using the CHPROP command. Using this method, an ordinary 2D drawing can be given a 3D appearance in about 5 seconds. These models are somewhat crude and extra time must be spent adding headers and details.

The method I prefer involves solids which generally produces better results than the first method. These are true 3D solids with mass and volume.

Another way to use AutoCAD for 3D computer models is to upgrade to AutoCAD Architecture which automates many of the functions required to build accurate and detailed computer models.

Autodesk has not spent the development effort in the 3D portion of AutoCAD as it should, preferring to concentrate on its other products such as 3D Studio Max and Revit. Both of these programs are the equal to, or superior to, most other high-end modeling programs, including the one that I was asked to use. Using the 3D Studio product with or without AutoCAD, superior models can be built. AutoCAD and 3D Studio are closely linked with back and forth editing capability. While AutoCAD by itself has only a simple animation capability, 3D Studio has an excellent animation capability and by using the two together, an accurate model can be built in AutoCAD or AutoCAD Architecture and materials added in 3D Studio and then add lights and animation.

Now let's individually discuss the four methods of using AutoCAD and 3D Studio to produce accurate and detailed computer models quickly.

Surface Meshes

In the beginning, I used surface meshes but this method is going away. Meshes are good for curves and free-forms. There is also a collection of canned messes such as hemispheres, geospheres, and others. I have created hundreds models using this method. When working for an architect designing a tent structure, the edgesuft produced the concave shape of the tent panels. I've used it for the nose of submarines, spacecraft, and aircraft. You can use surfaces for wall, but I think solids are better. I have used revsurf for space station parts, accessories such as vases and tableware, spaceship details, and columns, but recently have begun making these with solids. There is still a use for meshes in free-form shapes. Shrek's Swamp
Mesh model of Shrek's Swamp.

Sacramento Light Opera Association and Sacramento
Sacramento Light Opera Association & Sacramento Theater Company.


In recent years, I have begun using 3D Solids more. Generally these are quicker for shapes other than compound curves. Using boolean operations, holes for windows and door can be cut into the solids. I often use this method to trace 3D Solid walls over a 2D plan of my set, or better, make sure the wall lines make a closed polyline and extrude.

There are a few standard shapes, such as box and cylinder, from which to build the models or make
Bird's Eye of Version 1
Trade Show Display using AutoCAD Solids.

Sit-Com Set, computer massing model.
your own profile and extrude the z axis. Unlike using CHPROP to change the thickness of a line as described above, a solid must be extruded from a closed polyline. A closed polyline or a circle can be extruded along a path which I find useful for making cables, moldings, and complex arches. REVOLVE is used to lathe a closed polyline around an axis to produce space station parts, accessories such as vases and tableware, spaceship details, and columns. I am currently working on a round house and will use the REVOLVE for the surface and then cut in my windows. In addition to box and cylinder, other shapes available are cone sphere, torus and wedge.

Use the same commands to create plant-on pieces, details, and other parts. It is sometimes advantageous to use the UNION command to join two or more solids into a single object. Once joined, they can not be unjoined but through the use of the History, some editing is possible. I often will make copies of parts before doing a Union and save them on a parts layer which is frozen, just in case I later change my mind and need them as separate parts again.

Once you have created your basic shapes, use the same commands to create your negative spaces such as doors, windows, holes to pass pipes through, and flutes on a column. Use the SUBTRACT command to subtract the negative spaces from the main body. The intersection command is similar to subtract, except that instead of leaving a hole in a object behind, all that is left behind as the space common to both of the original solids. I dont use this often but one example is the Acantha leaves on a Corinthian column where I use two perpendicular closed curved polyline to produce the leaf.

There are many advantages to solids and I am now building models mostly from solids, but I can still use surface messes when I need to.

AutoCAD Architecture

I am one of the few Set Designers who used AutoCAD Architectural Desktop when it was first released. Unfortunately, most Set Designers have not made the switch and since I need to interface with them, I am usually requested not to use the excellent version of the venerable AutoCAD. To put it simply, AutoCAD Hillside House
The topo is a mesh, the rest of the model is AEC objects.
Architecture works with intelligent 3D shapes, such as walls whereas AutoCAD sees only a collection of lines. When you trim or extend a wall, it trims or extends just as a line would, only it's the entire 3D wall which may already have door and windows in place. Even the corners heal. It is a very quick method to produce accurate 3D models from which 2D construction drawings can be quickly generated. It's like working with solids, only better.

Since most Set Designers are not using this version of AutoCAD, I generally use AutoCAD Architecture for my Architectural and Interior Design work when I am not interfacing with a coworker at the next desk still using "Plain Jane" or "Vanilla" AutoCAD.

AutoCAD Architecture is designed to interface well with Autodesk's 3D Studio Max or 3D Studio Max Design. VectorWorks does much the same thing, AutoCAD Architecture did it first and better, but Autodesk ignored the entertainment industry while VectorWorks embraced it. Revit is similar and SketchUp works similarly except that is uses faces instead of solids.

3D Studio Max and 3D Studio Max Design

Several years ago, Autodesk advanced its original 3D Studio modeling and animation program into 3D Studio Max which was a powerful enhancement. A year of two later, it produced 3D Studio Viz which was like Max, with a few things removed and many items of particular interest to Architects added. The two versions were Waiting Room
Click the image to download a Pre-Visualization animation.
converging, then Autodesk replaced 3D Studio Viz with 3D Studio Max Design. The two are similar. 3D Studio Max is being pre-eminent for game designers and Motion Picture Visual Effects.

Where 3D Studio works for me is that it is tightly bound to AutoCAD which is my preferred 2D drafting program because of its power and accuracy. A computer model can be created in AutoCAD, then materials added in 3D Studio, then any changes made in 3D Studio can be saved back and still edited in AutoCAD. Using the two programs together produces superior results to almost anything available.

Materials, Lights, and Rendering

The woman who called me about a job asked, "But can you do renderings with materials?" "Yes," I answered, "I've done it many times."

Just like other rendering programs, AutoCAD supports materials and comes with a large library as well as allowing the user to create his own. This allows the rendering of signs and graphics. I have used Photoshop to create many materials.

Does AutoCAD allow lighting. Of course. AutoCAD supports the usual point, distant, and spot. In fact, AutoCAD is the only program I know of that allow shadows in a point
Rendered in AutoCAD © R12. Materials created in Photoshop 5.

Early concept rendering for a feature.
or distant light. Most programs only allow shadows with spot lights requiring work-arounds. AutoCAD does not support self illuminating materials, but 3D Studio does.

And AutoCAD can render in three modes, Render, Photo-real, and ray-trace, not to mention shade, hidden line, and wireframe. AutoCAD outputs in a number of file formats including TIF and TGA.

As stated elsewhere, AutoCAD does limited animation, but 3D Studio is a full animation package.

The one drawback in AutoCAD is that it does not include the capability of opacity mapping. I did once have to model a decorative metal fence because AutoCAD lacked opacity maps. Had my employer be willing to buy 3D Studio Viz or Max, I would have been able to use an opacity map in that program.


As stated in the opening, I lost a job because the Production Designer didn't think that AutoCAD could be used for 3D computer models. As I hope I have made clear, AutoCAD, and especially when used with 3D Studio, is comparable or superior to the programs the Production Designer requested to be used in Pre-Visualization on a motion picture.

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This page last updated: Sunday, 11-Aug-2013 00:26:29 PDT

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