Creating a digital environment of an Historical Place by Simon Kotowicz, 27th June 2021.
In 2020 the world-famous, heavy metal drinking venue in the heart of London closed its doors – beaten by a global pandemic and the greed of London’s landowners. An iconic place that once served drinks to famous musicians and their fans is now just a distant, drunken memory…
…until Craig Tuohy of The Flow State XR and good friend to the owner of The Crobar jumped in, just as the doors were being closed, to photograph every inch of the place. Craig’s vision - a digitally preserved venue visited in virtual reality or from a mobile phone.
It was hoped that the photos would form a photogrammetry dataset and a 3D model could be extracted. Unfortunately the dataset had a problem and Craig reached out for help.
Having spent many-a-night in The Crobar we offered our expertise and analysed the dataset. Indeed, there was a problem. Fortunately the photographs covered every millimetre of the bar and we offered to use them as reference to model the place from scratch. The photographs could then be projected onto the model’s surface to create realistic textures.
Armed with 1,000 photos and the original carpenter’s floor plan “Yes, My Lord Ltd.” set about rebuilding The Crobar. Simon Kotowicz used Autodesk's 3DS Max to model the 3D environment whilst Daria Dabal used Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to extract texture maps from photos. Between them they calculated and estimated measurements and worked their way through the building, until every corner was covered.
Next, Daria projected the photos onto the model using Allegorithmic Substance Painter. Some areas would be simpler to cover using procedural texturing and would also look better in the end. Simon used Substance Designer and Substance Share to create or find floor textures, or panels and then applied them to the model using Substance Painter.
During the six weeks it took to model and texture the place, we needed extra information, as Craig’s photos documented an empty bar. We wanted to add back all the missing ornaments and features, like the Jukebox and the Tattoo Glass, or the skulls that once hung on the walls.
We searched the internet for photos of the missing items, but there was a scarce amount of such pictures. It just goes to show how much fun people had inside The Crobar – Merry people without the need for social media. There was the occasional paparazzi picture of when Lady Gaga visited and numerous photos of people drinking with Kerry King of Slayer. There are even kind messages from Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and fund raising efforts from Bruce Dickenson of Iron Maiden, all wishing The Crobar their best. We examined every photo we could find, paying attention to the background, to help us recreate the place people loved.
Whilst studying the photos of the good old days inside The Crobar we noticed subtle changes to the décor, including wallpaper, graffiti and even the size of the fridge on the bar. Doubts about the historical accuracy of the 3D model started to rise as we began to ask questions like “Did that fridge belong at the same time as that wall mural?” or “Which version of the Jukebox will you put in?”
In the end we decided to make The Essence of Crobar – A digital reconstruction that everyone would remember as The Crobar, yet would not actually be of any particular time. That way we could add the most memorable Jukebox, the Old Fashion Wizard, along with the iconic Trooper beer window graphics, which may or may not have been there at the same time.
On some photos we found parts of the stained-glass window which sat above the bar. After a lengthy search we eventually discovered this was called Tattoo Glass, made by artist Tom Spencer. Unfortunately there was not a full photograph of the window to be found anywhere on the internet, so Daria set about piecing it together from fragments found in the background of customers’ photographs. Despite her efforts there was still large amounts of the window missing and she had to paint them in Adobe Illustrator using her imagination.
Meanwhile, Simon set about researching the guitar hanging from the ceiling. The red flying-V guitar that was part of the charm turned out to be Machine Head’s Phil Demmel “Demmelition King V” signature model by Jackson guitars. Searching the internet even further revealed its dimensions and some good reference photos, enabling Simon to model the exact guitar.
Lighting the model was another challenge. The photos Craig provided were captured during the day and did not contain any of the usual lighting most customers would experience. To recreate the atmosphere of the bar we returned to the photographs on social media. We were able to see how the lighting looked throughout most of the bar and recreate it using 3DS Max. We included the ceiling lights, some of which had coloured bulbs, the lights from the fridge, the Captain America shield lamp on the top shelf, the bulbs inside the cow skull and the merch display cabinets. We even recreated the light from the fly zapper and the jukebox. Along with the orange glow of the street lights we managed to achieve more Essence of Crobar.
As this was the last opportunity to record a now fading memory of the bar we needed to make some future-proofing decisions. We decided to create each object, wall or feature with its own 4k texture set, to preserve as much detail as we’d been sent.
Certain parts of The Crobar’s interior were ignored. Parts that nobody would remember would needlessly take up our time and precious data which could reduce the smoothness of the mobile app. Things like a black pillar standing next to the door or the giant speaker-stack hanging from the darkness of the skylight were not worth reducing the details of the drinks menu on the wall, or the Judge Dredd comics used as wallpaper. VIP areas and store cupboards, places the general public would never see, were also left out.
Along the way we’d upload our work-in-progress to a private webpage, where Craig could view and share what we’d done so far. This was presented using Unity Game Engine, which allows people to wander around and view the environment. Unity does this using WebGL, a 3D programming language for the internet.
Once satisfied that The Crobar looked as we all remembered it, we then set about optimising it for mobile applications. We had created 1,820 4K texture maps, totalling about 10GB of data. 3DS Max can easily handle a project like this but there is no way a smart phone would load and display a model with this much texture.
We optimised the vertex-count of the 3D model and then reduced the amount of texture maps required to display on a mobile device. These new, smaller texture maps also contained the lighting in a process called Texture Baking. The result is a model with around 60 texture map files with a total of 40MB. Ofcourse, the detail has been reduced, but we keep the original model and textures for a time when mobile devices and VR headsets can handle larger datasets, upon which we can rebake for higher resolution.
The baking process took us around two weeks to create these new textures. Well, I say us, but it’s basically two weeks of the workstation running at 100%, processing files non-stop. During this time we went away for a little adventure along Hadrian’s Wall.
From Craig’s 3GB of photographs we created over 150GB of project files. The finished result will be squeezed down to a few hundred megabytes for use in an app.
It is at this point we present the model to Craig and await eagerly what the Flow State XR developers do with the model. We also wish Richard of The Crobar good luck with his future Crobar venture and hope to visit for a few beers and put a few pounds in the new Jukebox.