IKEA has been very interested in the interface of digital culture and production with the traditional methods of making and selling furniture. Their “bookbook” video introduces their catalog as a world-changing app, in book form.
Similarly, in the summer of 2004, IKEA decided to evolve from the use of traditional photography for the IKEA catalogue to its current system, where the bulk of its imagery is computer generated. Martin Enthed, the IT manager for the in-house communication agency of IKEA explained what his team does, and how CG has changed their job. “When it comes to products,” explains Martin, “IKEA of Sweden designs and develops the product range. The global marketing and communication department … does the assembly instructions you all know so well! We create product images, labels, the IKEA catalogue, the IKEA.com website, prints for in-package and on-package etc.”
For the team, traditional photography was ok quality-wise, but required too much logistical effort. To make the process simpler, cheaper, and faster, 3D modeling eliminated the need for prototype furniture being built and shipped from different parts of the world to be photographed. With photography, if there were changes, everything need to be re-shot. The most difficult rooms are kitchens, because they differ widely depending on where you are in the world. Kitchens in the US look quite different from Japan or Germany.
The IKEA “look” had been established, and the team did not want customers to see or feel a difference. “Manager Annelie Sjögren, decided that all the 3D artists had to learn photography, and all the photographers had to learn to be 3D artists,” Martin said, “This process is absolutely what made for an increase in quality — both in 3D AND photography.”
Part of this phenomenon is also the programs, where ray-tracers allow a photographer’s knowledge of light to work in the 3D world as well. They can move lights wherever they want just like in a real studio. Once, when some skeptics within the organization questioned the process, they looked at all the images in question, and the ones they disliked were all real photos. Now, 75 percent of the images are digitally crafted, and they have around 25,000 models rendered in hi-res 4K by 4K. This allows them to print them on large walls in-store, or wherever they need them.
“We use 3D Studio Max and V-Ray,” explains Martin, “We produce huge numbers of still images every day, and with V-Ray it’s easy to crank up the values, set, and forget. We don’t mind so much how long the rendering takes, so long as the artist doesn’t have to go back and tweak something, like they’d have to in mental ray and other renderers. When artists learn to see through the noise in previews, then it’s just about changing one value when you go to production renderings. It’s easy to learn and it behaves the way light should behave.”
”Everything is done here in-house. We have our own rendering system internally, based on commercial components Deadline and spawn rendering in V-Ray connected with some internal tools. We use every computer in the building to give power to rendering as soon as they are not being used. The system works well, the render queue is emptied out pretty much everyday. Hundreds of images.”
“We’re always looking [for more artists]!” laughs Martin, “We have 40 different nationalities working in the building here at the moment. We also spoil our artists with a lot of great tools. We have a button you can click — an internal asset tool in the web browser — where you can just select a piece you need for your scene and you can put it straight in. We built that and connected it to Max.” They created these custom tools to make it easier for photographers and interior designers to work in the 3D environment.
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