#AlwaysBetter reads the company mantra that’s painted in bold letters adorning the hallway leading up to the office of Norm Li. This mantra is perhaps what has led the studio to grow from a small freelance practice that started from the basement of Li’s parents to what has now become Canada’s largest architectural visualization studio, imagining projects around the globe. The studio creates carefully crafted renderings, animations, and now offers interactive Virtual Reality experiences for the real estate and design industry. For a unique ULI Toronto members’ only event on February 22, a guided tour around the downtown Toronto studio was orchestrated with the pairing of dishes cooked up by Norm Li himself.
As guests arrived at the event and acquainted themselves with one another, two staff members took posed photos of unsuspecting attendees and coyly implied that all will be revealed later. Li suddenly burst onto the scene carrying a large 12 gallon pot, exclaiming “I don’t know if you know this, but it’s hard cooking for 30 people!” Through their active social media accounts (Instagram: @NormAndTheGang and Norm’s person account, @CookingWithNorm), the Norm Li team is known for their vibrant studio culture on top of their thoughtfully curated visualizations. Four different food items were crafted exclusively for the event to pair with the four different stations across the office tour.
Studio directors Brian Lee and Shelton Foo led the first station, which was paired with the first course of the evening: tuna poke, a salad of tuna sashimi, avocado, and greens. Since Li specifically seeks out team members with architectural training, the studio is able to take a rough sketch and build it from the ground-up in 3D for all stages of a project from schematic design to marketing campaigns. The strong architecture and design background of the team allows the studio to add value to its client’s design process by imagining the potentials of the built form with as much accuracy as possible. The Rail Corridor Housing, a project in Singapore for a winning architectural competition was presented to explain the design process behind the images. A rough rendering of the architectural form is first modelled to gather feedback from the client. Once the model is approved, materials are applied, followed by lighting, and then post-production work where context specific items are added to the image. Since the example shown was a farmers market, location specific details such as the local vegetation, people and their cultural idiosyncrasies, down to fine details like the produce being sold are all carefully considered to create a sensible portrayal of what the space could be.
Phil Ryan, a studio director at Norm Li led the next segment of the tour where he spoke about the technical infrastructure of the studio. Char Siu Don was served while Ryan described the workings behind the office’s “render farm,” which consists of multiple computers networked together for the sole purpose of pumping out a high-volume of renderings in the shortest amount of time possible. This is particularly important for creating rapid draft visuals to gather client feedback as well as for animations, which can easily take up thousands of frames for a short presentation.
The two mysterious staff member who took photos of unsuspecting guests at the beginning of the event turned out to be artists from Norm Li’s Entourage group, who are charge of some post-production magic at the studio. Eadaoin Dempsey and Natalia Osmolovskaya walked us through their process while we sunk our teeth into scrumptious morsels of General Tso chicken, fried to a crisp perfection on the outside and succulently tender on the inside. The people placed into the renderings during post-production are carefully vetted with the context and environment in mind. One example shown was for a hospice and the mood created had to show a strong sensitivity in mind for the client’s investors. A serene atmosphere in the rendering was created via lighting and people engaging in a calm and supportive gatherings. The Entourage team is also behind a recent creative campaign that imagined what Canadian musician Drake’s new home in Toronto’s Bridle Path could look like; a playful exercise that garnered the studio a lot of attention and excitement from press outlets such as the Toronto Star, Azure Magazine, and Canadian Interiors, to name a few.
To further illustrate their technique, the Entourage team revealed the reason why photos of the attendees were taken at the beginning of the event: they were actually placed into new renderings that were created on the spot during the event. The ULI members who had their photos candidly taken were first individually cropped out from the surroundings and then placed into the renderings, where lighting and color balance are corrected to allow the subjects to fit seamlessly into the environment.
No multi-course dinner would be complete without dessert. That night it was a Sticky Mochi Pudding, served as studio director Terry Sin presented the studio’s virtual reality platform. This platform is designed to work on any web-enabled device and can be interfaced via a wired or mobile headset for an immersive experience. Guests had the opportunity to navigate the interiors of a high-profile residential development project via a VR headset. “We’ve spent the last 5 years working with VR technology and collaborating with our clients to create the most effective platform available,” said Norm Li. “We built it with designers and developers in mind: it’s easy to use, easy to deploy and can be custom tailored to a target demographic.” With its “Always Better” mantra in place, it’s exciting to see where the studio will go next.