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Musings of a jobbing designer: DIY CAD

Someone once told me that had the pencil been invented after the computer then it would be seen as a great advance: light weight, flexible, inexpensive, and through the hand, directly connected to the brain. In many ways this is true. For all it’s sophistication and mystery, the computer can be an unwieldy way of performing simple tasks. Yet it has, particularly for an untidy worker like me, many advantages…….
Very early in my struggle with CAD I went on a 5-day intensive AutoCAD course, geared directly at TV designers. It was most illuminating, but in the end I felt that that particular programme, however wonderful, was geared to corporate rather than individual use.
AutoCAD being far beyond my resources, I purchased AutoSketch, a simple 2D programme from Auto Desk the makers of AutoCAD. It is an entry-level product: very user friendly to people coming to CAD from the drawing board. Unlike AutoCAD scales and paper sizes are set from the word go, though these can easily be changed during the course of a drawing if necessary……
But for the lone designer working from home it is a real alternative to its glamorous big brother. The main drawback of CAD work, and this applies to whatever software is used, is the finished paper output. With AutoSketch and I guess with all other programmes one has to resort to tiling unless one is the owner of a plotter. I found this a less laborious a process than it sounds. The A4 printer churns out A4 sheets which are then carefully trimmed and joined with magic tape to create an A1 / A0 sheet which can then be printed at the local photocopy shop. For years I quite happily did this. However you don’t need to own a plotter to use one. The last job I designed was for Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (Welsh Language National Theatre). They have an in house plotter and I was able to email my drawings to the production manager, who printed them off and distributed them to the workshop and me. Bliss. The other consideration, now that I was linked with another computer, was compatibility. To begin with I was not concerned with my programme being compatible with anyone else’s so the fact that AutoSketch uses its own file format – SKF – was of no concern to me. Now I had to make sure to save the drawings in DWG format, which can be read by most CAD software.
Working on this production, emailing and CAD work really came into their own for me as it was very geographically spread. I designed it at home – Bethesda, North Wales; the company base was in Llanelli, and it was built in Mold, N E Wales. So there was a lot of driving anyway but the ability to communicate electronically cut down the miles considerably. Also I was able to access most of the theatre plans in CAD format and overlay them on my drawings.
Time has moved on since I first wrote this article (2006) and I have now progressed to using TurboCAD v15pro. This enables me to work quite extensively in 3D as well as 2D. I am self taught and I still approach the work I do with it as though it was an unlimited supply card and build the models in much the same way I would a physical model. In that sense I am not computer literate and I cannot hold a geeky conversation about the virtues of one file format against another.
Most of the CAD work I do. and certainly all I do for the theatre, is merely a substitute for making physical models and avoiding the nightmare of clogging Rotring pens. One project I did in 2007, the files I produced appeared directly on the screen.
Out of the blue I was asked by Griffilms, a Caernarfon based animation company, who were producing a short feature, ‘Gelert’ for S4C, , whether I could design the architectural backgrounds for the ½ hour film.
When I was first approached, neither the company nor myself new how to tackle the work. All I was told was that the backgrounds were to be 3D while the characters were 2D. The story of Gelert is an old Welsh legend set in the 12th century and tells the story of Prince Lllewelyn and his faithful dog Gelert. The story board had been done and this was to be my bible. I was intrigued and suggested I do a sample CAD model to show what I was capable of and what the limitations of my programme and ability were. They liked what I did and I started out on a new adventure.

Up to this point I had been using CAD for working drawings and had also done as an exercise computer models of my last two theatre productions. But nothing on the scale that was asked for here. The brief was the exterior and all interior rooms, halls and corridors. of a Welsh Castle and the interior of a Cathedral and also all the furniture and fittings. I stressed that the TurboCAD programme was not suitable for rendering except crudely, but that was not a problem as another company, ThinkPLay of Aberystwyth was charged with doing this and also creating the 3D landscapes with make up the bulk of the backgrounds in the first half of the film.

It was a daunting but exhilarating challenge. The style was to be realistic but slightly overblown, eg the main hall has flights of stairs and multiple columns that would never be found in a Welsh castle, but my job was to flesh out the story board, not to design from scratch. My whole approach was as if making a card model but with out the UHU. And I also had to specify to the rendering firm what the different textures should be. File by file I modelled doors and windows and thrones and tables etc and then it was a comparatively quick process to mark out the walls and insert the openings. Never has the multiple copy tool been so useful as when adding the battlements.
The big break I had was when I upgraded my turboCAD v9 standanrd edition to v12 professional. The difference in speed was amazing and it was not prohibitively expensive,- about £220 if I remember.

I was able to work almost entirely from home. I would produce the designs set by set: send jpeg views to the director for his approval and when they were OK’d would save the turboCAD files as 3DS files and upload them onto the company FTP site, (that was new to me) and didn’t see them again except to approve the rendering of the first set, until I went to a private view. As the files are genuinely 3D the company was able to film them exactly as if it had been a physical set.  It was strange in a way be so detached from the whole process and yet it was extremely satisfying to see the actual files I had produced on screen.


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