Founded in 1996 in New York, DBOX is now a world renowned iconic Archviz and creative marketing studio with offices in New York, London, Mi...
CG Record: Could you please tell us a bit about DBOX, how it was created and the journey so far?
It was the early 90’s and Charles and myself proposed something that was somewhat unconventional for our 4th year design studio. Our studio was dedicated to presenting design in 3D. Charles was well aware of my ability to draw, and his initial studies of light and shade in 3D (using software developed by the legendary Don Greenberg at Cornell) really caught my eye. I could quickly see that the future for me as a learning artist had to be about embracing new technology and not relying on past and present skills. I knew instinctively that my 'eye' would translate even if it were a painful translation. At the time, I hated computers. Honestly. I still have a rather volatile and unfaithful relationship with them. Anyhow, we proposed to the faculty that we would like to collaborate on a design studio project. At first the faculty denied the request, but I put forward the argument that the profession of architecture was inherently collaborative so what were we waiting for? Together we produced a project that was considered a sea change moment at Cornell with regards to 3D as design tool.
The Cornell project can be seen here
Due to this work and work that I produced in my 5th year, I was offered a teaching position immediately after my thesis review. Charles was offered one a little later and James (a few years younger than us and wise beyond his years) started out as our TA and then went on to be a faculty member after he graduated, by which time I was doing a graduate degree at Princeton University. We named the course ‘Dialog Box’. The idea of the course was loosely based on using the computer as an interactive and iterative design tool. The name was catchy and we ran with it. We were met with considerable resistance from some of the faculty, partly due to the type of assignments we gave out which involved an esoteric assortment of serial killer sites, radar towers, general nonsense etc… and partly because we were young and very full of ourselves. One faculty member still denies that we were ever on the faculty! We do however have a great relationship with Cornell. We have hired many Cornell students over the years and currently DBOX teaches a Cornell class out of our NYC studio called ‘Time Frames’.
‘Time Frames’ is essentially 'Dialog Box' and DBOX has taught the class in some form consistently for the last twenty-five years. To round off the story, James worked with me on my Princeton thesis presentation, producing a very wacky animation which involved the changing fashions, from ‘topless’ to ‘suit and tie’ as a sectional idea where building parts fell and rose with the tide on Brighton Beach, liminal “Quadrophenia” vibes! The day after my thesis review, James and I moved to Brooklyn and started the 'business'. The 'business' consisted of us sitting around drinking a lot of coffee whilst trying to convince Charles to come and join us.
The ‘journey so far’? To condense the journey into something that might make total sense is pretty hard. When we started DBOX, the ‘industry’ that we know today, that I assume young graduates aspire to be a part of, didn’t exist at all. At the time, we were vaguely aware of Hayes Davidson and we knew of Archimation as Charles had done a short stint with them in Berlin before joining us. In NYC and the US, there really weren’t any firms. They might have existed and I know there are firms that purportedly started before us, but we weren’t aware of them in 1996. There was no place to look for guidance. There were no blogs to see other work, certainly no forums. To put it all in context, Jeff Mottle started CGARCHITECT in 2001 (thank you Jeff!). Getting work was extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible. Cold calling an Architecture firm to explain that, “We are Dialog Box and we make computer renderings of architecture that doesn’t exist yet” usually resulted in us getting hung up on, often as soon as the word ‘computer’ was mentioned.
Image below: Matthew Bannister accepting EMMY on behalf of DBOX
There was a week in around 1997 or ’98 when we all concluded that if the phone didn’t ring by end of business on Friday with a real paying job then we would have to call it quits. We had all maxed out our credit cards - super high interest rates back then - and it was becoming blatantly obvious that we weren’t going to be able to survive. It was a frantic week of making as many cold calls as possible. Lo and behold, KPF rang at about 5pm on the Friday. It was Peter Schubert and that was the beginning of a working relationship with him that lasted for many years (thank you Peter!). We just worked with Peter again last year. So, anyway, we were one phone call away from me never being asked to do this interview!
One question that people ask is how did we arrive at the full marketing and branding of projects? The simple answer is that I got really fed up with other graphic design agencies, cropping our work and dropping it into brochures and then conveniently forgetting to credit us. The only solution was for us to be the guardians of our work through the entire process. Today I am extremely proud of our graphic design and brand strategy groups. That has been a glorious end result to an initial plan that was about just gaining some control. In that journey I have gained a great appreciation and learned a lot about graphic design. Always learning. Most architects think they are graphic designers, producing their own identities etc… they aren’t and it really shows.
Matthew Bannister: Thank you for the very kind words. To be truthful, we didn’t have a goal at the beginning. One thing we all shared from the beginning though, and has become the culture within DBOX is a relentless self-criticism. It’s a blessing and a curse. You will very rarely hear a member of DBOX compliment the work of another. We just don’t tend to do it. Quality is expected and we help each other’s art education with constructive criticism. “We are only as good as our worst image” is an expression I like to use, and I use it often. DBOX is probably not the right environment for someone who needs a lot of praise. Culturally, we help each other to always make things better. We work incredibly hard to keep things consistent. Consistency is what the clients expect from DBOX and it is the reason I believe people choose to work with us. They know we aren’t going to put an inexperienced new employee on the job. That team consistency is what makes the right person proud to be a DBOXer. We will never win any awards for jumping through hoops, saying yes to any suggestion just to please people. That just isn’t us. I bet you are all thinking we work in a dungeon and scowl at each other all day long… In truth, we have a good time in lovely studios and we sleep at night knowing we are continually on an artistic journey together. Actually, I rarely sleep. I am an insomniac… so the sleeping part is a fib.
Matthew Bannister: Firstly, I personally don’t believe we are on top. We are always working to be someplace that to us is sort of unreachable. Secondly, there are a lot of amazing studios out there producing some very beautiful work. I am sure there are many that I am not even aware of, that are producing amazing work. If I had to answer what makes us different (from some studios) then it would go a little something like this. I think that our imagery is the end result of a LOT of experience in the very high stakes marketing game. In marketing, the message needs to be clear and colour is critical. Monochromatic imagery, while powerful, tends not to do so well in marketing. So we focus on clarity and colour. Colour in my opinion is the greatest challenge. Colour is really essential as it has the ability to strike a positive or negative emotion in the viewer. Those emotions will either push a critical mass onwards in the marketing effort or off-wards towards a competing project. When a client comes to DBOX to create a marketing image, they shouldn’t be just thinking about how they can use the images. They should be thinking on how a wider audience will embrace it and pass it on. Will a certain image be shared more than another type of image? How much mileage will an image get outside of organized placement of the projects media plan? So to tie this all up in a digestible comment, I like to think we focus on the end result. We attempt to make images that will sell or lease property. Our last concern is whether others inside our Arch Viz industry will like it or not. I feel some studios and CG artists make images for each other as if we are the audience or purpose for the imagery. That hypothetical bedroom with lots of weathered wood and lots of bought 3D models of stuff lying around... is not what we do. We understand we are commercial artists and with that we need to work backwards from our target market. Generally that target market is primarily the agents and brokers that have high net worth clients, and then secondly the high net worth end users themselves.
We make brand imagery. “Building brands, creating desire, adding value.” Sounds like a tag line right?
I see there is a lot of emphasis on 'story telling' in the industry, but I am often left with the feeling that people are desperate to tell stories, but to what end? Leaving a treasure hunt of obscure things in an image tells a story but I am not sure to what success? Le Corbusier left his glasses and pipe in photographs of his work for a very specific reason. If you don’t know why he did it then read up on it. He was a branding and marketing genius. He was a legendary architect and is a continual personal branding inspiration to me.
Another thing that I believe makes DBOX a bit different is that peoples' careers can evolve into other disciplines. We have seen people that start in CGI and end up writing strategy or becoming creative directors of an entire marketing account.
Matthew Bannister: That’s funny. I look at our images from twenty years ago and they make me cringe. I think we have evolved a lot… or at least I try to tell myself that. I believe we have evolved because we have been fortunate that some great people have come to DBOX and many of them have stayed, each adding something beyond the founding and early senior partners. It’s not just their ability but their attitude. Those people are glad to be in a kick ass ‘rhythm section’ and not just another ‘lead singer’… the architecture we work on needs to be the ‘lead singer’. Good attitude adds up over time and you start to arrive at a special vibe within DBOX.
Another element that raises our standard are the projects we work on. We are fortunate to have remarkable projects that challenge us. Every time I think we have seen it all, another project comes along that breaks new ground architecturally or culturally. We are working on an absolute beauty at the moment in Miami, designed by Foster + Partners. It’s a project that I know will change the way we all think about residential living and the way in which a residential building can drastically improve the public environment it shares within a city. It is nothing less than extraordinary.
Matthew Bannister: The most challenging aspect is staffing. We get so many applications that require tricky, expensive and time-consuming visa approvals. We also conduct interviews with people that are living in a fantasy world of their own individual brilliance. While they might be talented, we know they will mess up the DBOX vibe.
Another challenge we face is we are at a size where we need a dedicated PR department. We could even use in-house legal to chase down all the copyright infringements that we see on a daily basis. Watch this space, we will be striking out this year.
I think the industry faces the challenge that more and more architectural offices will be capable of making very solid presentation images for their clients. This will be a challenge for studios that only work on presentation imagery.
Matthew Bannister: It’s a very tricky balancing act. We work really hard to build a lifestyle at DBOX that doesn’t require stupid hours. We tend to start at 10 am and we tend to go home between around 7. We also do our very best to avoid all rushed work. We want all our artists to have the appropriate amount of time to do a DBOX image. Clients say, “You are four times as expensive as X” but what they tend to not appreciate is we spend four times as long working on the image. We have started to charge differently for marketing images as we have found that the design development tends to get figured out through our work. I speak extensively on this topic in an article in CGarchitect. Worth a read if you are interested in the way we conduct business.
Matthew Bannister: I think the big change will inevitably be that fully photorealistic renderings will come out of most architect’s offices. Software will continue to develop and less will be left for artist interpretation. They will ultimately develop designs in VR in photorealism. Producing limitless volumes of still images will be ‘easy’. This is going to be a bit of a bummer for many Arch Viz studios and the industry in general. Extending one’s offering to be more than presentation renderings would be a good plan. It will take a while… but it is definitely in the mail/post.
Dbox London team presented their breakdown at 3DSLondon last week
Matthew Bannister: Understand the reason why someone, whether it be an architect, or a developer or a sales agent is asking you to make what you are about to make. What is the exact purpose of the visual? Is the idea of this visual to sell ‘bay windows’ or is it to make the building chameleonic in an historic district. When you are starting out it is so easy to miss the point. You make a really ‘cool’ rendering, but it doesn’t succeed and the client doesn’t come back. Don’t expect the client to be able to give you a specific and useful brief. You have to do some forensics and ask a lot of questions to come up with a plan. The right plan and visual might not be as cool as the one you want to make, but you can make that ‘cool one’ for yourself at the weekend. The ‘directors cut’ can also end up in the portfolio. I do know amazing commercial artists that make exactly the images THEY want to make. Their attitude is basically “to hell with the client”. Hats off to them. I appreciate this approach, but it isn’t one I would recommend if you want to make sure everyone always gets paid. You need the phone to ring always. If you can make that phone ring, even when the real estate market takes a downturn then you have a business that will last. Of course be brave with your imagery, but just make sure you are working towards a target.
Secondly make sure you are selling the client an idea… your idea as you interpret the assignment. Be articulate; make sure someone from your studio (hopefully someone with an Architecture or Art degree or two) is selling that idea. Don’t become the hands to someone else. If you aren’t in control of the idea and the direction of your images and if your clients don’t trust you, then this can be an extremely unrewarding and incredibly tedious profession. Don’t become your client’s employee, be their collaborative partner.
Lastly, read the CG architect interview I mention above. In there is lots of information about how we conduct business.
Matthew Bannister: I am personally leading an absolutely incredible project with a fantastic development team for a project based in Miami. We have spent a year on the strategy and positioning of the project... creating the brand identity and naming. We are now about to embark on an amazing sales gallery concept, with a lot of juicy 3D and VR content. I spend most of my time in our Miami Beach studio and this team will be heavily involved in this effort. It’s going to be incredibly challenging, as the story we need to tell is by far the most extensively rich story I have had to tell in my career so far. I started off studying fine art and then went on to study architecture. Designing a sales gallery experience brings together all the arts. We will have visuals, graphics, film, VR, audio. It will be total ‘theatre’. This is what makes me excited and gets my heart beating. Producing all of this under one roof is what we do at DBOX. Seeing something through from the beginning to end. That is DBOX
The Beautiful Fear album was voted a Top 10 record of 2016 by one music blog. I am currently working on a double album, a 'rock opera', which I will probably release in the next year or so. I get up at 5am most days and do a couple of hours' work on the album before DBOX kicks in.
How does it inspire my DBOX work? I encourage all DBOXers (and anyone in the industry for that matter) to pursue a different art outside of what they do during their working week. A very different pursuit I feel is better for one’s learning. The ‘Art muscle’ is something you need to tune all the time. It is an endless education and something as challenging as music can up your visual game. It makes you harder and more critical. In the case of music, it is very spatial. I do photography outside of DBOX, but the photos I take are completely different than anything I shoot for DBOX. I challenge myself to take photos of essentially nothing. If I can hopefully make ‘nothing’ look good then a beautiful cocktail hour marketing image of beautiful architecture should be… doable, eh ?
Anyhow, thanks for asking about the music. Interesting question… and thank you very much for inviting me to talk about DBOX. Much appreciated by all of us at DBOX. Cheers!
CG Record: Thank you Matthew for great interview! We wish you Have great birthday tomorrow! and Please say Hi to everyone at Dbox!
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