Revisiting the Apple Fall Country Hall

The Country Hall by Apple Fall. A beautiful, 100% mesh, build that lends itself to extensive customisation and optimisation.

The Country Hall by Apple Fall. A beautiful, 100% mesh, build that lends itself to extensive customisation and optimisation. Click on any image for the full-size version, they all open in a new tab.

Last year, I wrote of my involvement with Apple Fall’s builds. In that post, I had written about the Portobello Corner Store, which is sort of an ever-ongoing project, with little details always being added. This time, I’m going to write about the Country Hall, which he had launched in the January 2016 round of Shiny Shabby, and which I’ve also been working on. It, too, will be part of my sim design project, and I think it would make a good office with a nice little garden around it. Being who I am, though, I wouldn’t leave it without a fair degree of customisation – which it honestly needs, and not just to make it more “me”.

What a beauty…

OK, now that we’re done with the professionally-edited picture on LTD, let’s examine the actual building. It’s an all-mesh construction, made of 88 individual objects (“prims”), has a 14x15m footprint and an LI of 148. Surprisingly enough, it’s not yet on Apple Fall’s SL marketplace store, so you have to head over to his in-world mainstore to buy it; its price is extremely reasonable: L$600. It’s very beautiful. Its shape is beautiful, and the same goes for the textures. It has two spaces, a square entrance hall and an oblong one with a skylight above it brightening the space. There are also two patios, one in the front and a bigger one, guarded by a side wall, in the rear. The texturing is very detailed and atmospheric, giving it the look and feel of a building that had been abandoned for many, many years, with moisture and mould having taken hold in the walls, with pieces of plaster having fallen off, exposing the brickwork, with words carved into the patio walls, with chipped paint on the doors, door frames, and windows. It really has to be seen up close and personal.

The Apple Fall Country Hall, front and side view. All shadows are pre-baked.

The Apple Fall Country Hall, front and side view. The shadows on the walls, door and window frames, and on the crown mouldings are pre-baked.

…But it’s a lag monster

I kid you not. You can literally watch your frame rate drop like a brick as you rez it on your region, or as you approach it on someone else’s land – unless you’re lucky enough to have a good machine with a mid-range to top-tier graphics card that takes such things in its stride, copious amounts of RAM, and an SSD – yes, they do make a huge difference in SL viewer performance. Why is this happening? Let’s dig a little deeper: The Country Hall’s display weight is a massive – for its size – 76922. Why is it so high? It’s all about the textures, really. Apple Fall uses literally too many textures in his builds, and, typically, all but one or two of them are 1024x1024s.

What does this mean? Well, an awful lot – please see my old post “How we turn Second Life into a lag hell” for more details. The Country Hall itself is burdened with more than 300MB of textures. Remember that the default maximum amount of graphics card RAM the viewer can allocate has always been 512MB, and that only recently have SL viewers (the 64-bit version of Firestorm got this first, I’m not sure about the others) allowed you to allocate up to 2GB of your graphics card’s RAM to textures – depending on how much RAM your graphics card actually has, of course.

The Apple Fall Country Hall, viewed from the rear and above.

The Apple Fall Country Hall, viewed from the rear and above. Again, the shadows on the walls are pre-baked.

Let that sink in for a bit: Consider the situation where you’re running the 32-bit version of the viewer and you have rezzed the Apple Fall Country Hall on the region. It’ll immediately gobble up 300+MB of your available texture RAM, leaving 212MB or less to other objects (trees, pavements, flowers, furniture, etc) and avatars. I don’t think you should wonder how this leads to a serious drop in performance, texture thrashing, and – yes – crashes.

Inside view.

Inside view. On the floor, you can see the thin, diagonally-running shadows being at odds with the thick shadows rendered by the viewer under Advanced Lighting Model.

Quite honestly, I believe Apple Fall could have gotten away with far less than half that number and total filesize of textures, if he had made different decisions from the outset. The thing is, he has chosen to appeal to the “shabby chic” crowd, so he needs to make his items look (heavily) worn – and, if this derelict look is to be realistic, it must  the wear and tear must be uneven and different for each object – even if we’re talking about three identical columns; this wear and tear is, after all, dependent on which areas of the object(s) in question suffer the most from everyday use and / or neglect. This dictates a different texture set for each instance of the same 3D object.

In the Country Hall, Apple Fall divided the two floors in different faces, with each face having a different, always 1024×1024, texture showing a different amount and pattern of aging and damage. He applied the same approach to the doors, door frames, window frames, ceilings, rooftop, patio floors – and this explains how quickly the texture count rose so high and so quickly. But even if it wasn’t for his desire to make it “shabby chic”, his decision to offer it with pre-baked shadows would again necessitate the usage of different variations of the same textures on things like walls, floors etc. This only leads to one result: lag. Simply put, Apple Fall – and others like him – hasn’t bothered to read LL’s Good Building Practices. Or he has, but has chosen to ignore them.

Let’s get physical

Physics-wise, an avatar can walk through the doors without any trouble, and, thoughtfully, an avatar’s feet don’t seem to float ten centimeters above the mesh floor, as is the case with many other builds However, this also means that, should you try to rez an object on the floor, it’ll sink in it rather than be placed on the floor. I wonder if this has something to do with the way mesh works in SL. Improving upon the doors from his Portobello Corner Store, the doors’ physics shapes are good and there’s no way you can walk through them when they’re closed, because there’s no gap in the physics shape.

The skylight. Note the pre-baked shadows on its wooden frame.

The skylight. Note the pre-baked shadows on its wooden frame and the walls.

Scripts

Nothing to write home about, really. Just a very basic script for the double doors, which doesn’t play any sound when you open or close them, and their movement is not terribly smooth. There are no scripted light sources, no central locking system for the doors, nothing. It’s a blank canvas for you to start adding things. Of course, I’m pretty sure you’ll all replace the door scripts and add scripted lights yourselves.

Extras

The build comes with a number of extras designed to give it this air of dereliction the designer was going for: A rather worn (and, typically for SL, oversized) café chair scripted with AVsitter 2.1 and equipped with nice, but non-animated, poses; a crumpled newspaper; a long curtain (which is described as an “old item”); the Verdant Oil Painting, which is also sold as a standalone item in Apple Fall’s mainstore and on his SL marketplace presence, and a Victorian-era radiator, which is obviously too small to warm up the build in the British winter. All items are copy/mod, and the chair responded exceptionally well to resizing for my RL-sized and scaled avatar, and the poses, although non-animated, work very well with realistically-proportioned avatars.

The case against pre-baked shadows

Pre-baked shadows have always been a preferred way for SL content creators to emulate the effect of either ambient occlusion or the shadows cast by the sun or the moon. I remember one particular Open Development User Group meeting, where Oz Linden wondered why people would want pre-baked ambient occlusion (AO) maps or pre-baked sunlight shadows. Truth be told, the Windlight system leaves much to be desired; I’ve seen occasions where the starting point of a standing avatar’s shadow isn’t at the base of the avatar’s feet, but many centimeters further. And, with Project Interesting, there are known inconsistencies in the way shadows are rendered (for instance, if the light source – sun, moon, or a point light like a chandelier) is behind your avatar, then no shadow caused by it will be cast from your avatar.

The main hall

The main hall. I’ve included myself (avatar height: 1.70m, just the way I am in RL) to give you a sense of scale. As seen in the first interior shot, there are inconsistencies between the sun’s shadows and the pre-baked ones.

Despite the shortcomings of SL’s graphics pipeline, when you view a scene from a certain angle, things are consistent. You know what direction the shadows must have, you know what thickness, density, definition, resolution etc. the shadows will have, and so on. Pre-baked ambient occlusion and shadows are supposed to add realism, especially for those using low-end machines. To be honest, my experience has shown that pre-baked ambient occlusion does add realism, but pre-baked shadows are troublesome.

First of all, these shadows are static. Second, when you have a sim with builds whose pre-baked shadows all look in different directions, it simply isn’t realistic at all. I’ll give you an example: In a region I visited recently, I had to delete the photos of the bar, because the stools had pre-baked long, sideways shadows, and they were all over the place, as each stool was turned in a different direction! Now, if you add the dynamic, real-time shadows of the region’s day cycle, it can be pretty messy, and your in-world experience, your photos, or your machinima, won’t be realistic at all.

Finally, pre-baked shadows were conceived to help those on lower-end machines that have a very hard time rendering shadows in real time, much less at high resolutions – but they have ended up causing a need for a larger texture count, which, in extreme cases (as in Apple Fall’s buildings), degrades viewer performance pretty badly and negates the intended benefit. In a nutshell, buildings with pre-baked shadows are too heavy and laggy for the very people they’re supposed to help.

Not a fan of “shabby chic”

While the texture work is quite excellent, I’m not a fan of the “shabby chic” concept; I don’t like mouldy walls, I don’t like musty smells, I don’t like pieces of plaster falling off the walls and ceilings, I don’t like rotting floors, I don’t like windows that look like they haven’t been cleaned in decades. While I understand the usefulness of such a build in a specific setting, I wouldn’t want to live that way in RL. Hell, I happen to personally know people in my country who, due to the sadistic, racist, German-imposed austerity policies, have been forced to live in cold, damp, mouldy, crumpling places like the “shabby chic” buildings that hipsters have made so popular in SL, Yes, I’m ideologically charged, but to the people whose wages were barbarically slashed, and then were priced and taxed out of decent shelter, the “shabby chic” concept is an insult, and so I’m vehemently against it. If you love shabby chic so much, try living in a place with no heating for the winter, and without money to clean it up, fix the plumbing, paint it etc. That said, I don’t have a problem with the “lived in” look and feel, i.e. the patina of a building that does get regular maintenance, but is also used daily and its tenants aren’t obsessive about making it look like a  late 1980s Bang & Olufsen catalogue.

The objectives

First of all, I had to make it less laggy. To achieve this, I cut the texture count drastically. There were textures that I absolutely wanted to replace (walls and floors), and there were textures that could not be replaced (doors and door frames, windows and window frames, skylight, columns, sideskirts, ceiling woodwork), but needed to be cleaned up in GIMP to remove the shadows and the “grungy” look. So, I determined which texture sets I’d process and use and which ones would be left out; in those cases where the same object was present more than once in the build, I’d use only one texture set, because, as I wrote earlier, each set of doors used a different pair of textures, and each window used a different trio of textures.

The modified Apple Fall Country Hall, front and side view.

The modified Apple Fall Country Hall, front and side view.

Second, I wanted to change the look of the build in order to make it look more like something you’d see in an old neighbourhood of Athens. There were decorative elements characteristic of what I wanted, i.e. Greek neoclassicism, but most of them were not available in SL. So, while searching for reference material to use as a guide for whatever content creator would do custom work for me, I looked in my inventory and on the marketplace for the textures I’d choose.

The exterior and interior walls, ceilings, the floors and the roof were easy; I already had purchased textures of the kind I wanted to use, and their look pleased me. For the walls, I chose the “Mediterranean Breeze” set from Insight Designs. For the floors, I went with DT.com’s “16 Herringbone Parquet Wood Floor Textures” set, which included normal and specular maps; I reduced these to a 512×512 and upped the repeats from 1×1 per face to 2×2. For the patios, I used, again from DT.com, the “15 Terracotta Tiles Textures” set; again, it’s from the Materials Collection, which includes normal and specular maps. As for the glasses, I just used the default blank texture, tinted and with adjusted transparency, and I was ready. I also used the default blank texture as a specular map for the windows.

The modified Country Hall.

The modified Country Hall.

As you can see, the build now looks much cleaner. Yes, there are some repeats in the textures, but I’m not fussed, because these will eventually be hidden; a trellis with a bougainvillea here, an ivy or other climbing plant there, etc. I have plenty of options, really.

The Apple Fall Country Hall, rear and side view.

The Apple Fall Country Hall, rear and side view.

Additions

Plenty of other things were added to enhance the look of the build; an air conditioning, with its external and internal units; switches and Schuko-style mains outlets, as well as a chimney, from Zimberlab; lights (the black Countryside Outdoor Wall Lamp) from Trompe Loeil; the mesh cast iron fireplace from Dutchie. At first, I had also added radiators, a name plaque between the two front doors, as well as a doorbell, but as you’ll see in the picture near the end of the post, they literally fell apart when viewed from a moderately long distance with the viewer’s camera set to a more telephoto setting, so I removed them. I’ll have to get someone to make me new ones that’ll have better LOD. But we didn’t get to the most prominent of the new features…

The main hall.

The main hall, retextured and equipped with eletrical switches and plugs.

The antefixes

As I said, finding bits and pieces to make a good building in the Greek neoclassical style (yes, in case I haven’t made it obvious enough, I’m Greek, and unabashedly so) is more than a bit difficult. You can find Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian etc. stuff. Lots of it, thanks in no small part to the popularity of the cyberpunk aesthetic. And, well, some of it can fit the bill nicely. You can find art deco, art nouveau, rococo, baroque stuff. Again, some of it may be used. But things like ancient-style pillars, antefixes and such are hard to find. Especially the antefixes.

The antefixes

The antefixes.

So, I eventually teamed up with ica84, who runs the Icaland store on the Marketplace, and, after a few exchanges in which I detailed what I wanted and gave him the necessary reference material (reference drawings from academic websites, drawings I made myself based on RL originals, other photos), he delivered the goods, and he did a really fine job indeed.

Back to the issue of lag

At the beginning of the article, I said the original build was, due to its extreme texture load, a lag monster. To be honest, I’m still not done with it, and both the number of linked objects and the LI have gone up considerably: 146 linked parts and 253 LI. But still, the display weight is 55696, which is significantly less than the original’s 76922. I believe most of my version’s display weight is due to the geometry of the build and its components, and not due to the textures involved, as very few textures are 1024x1024s now, and most are kept at 512×512 or lower.

LOD issues. When viewed from a medium distance, and with the viewer's camera at a telephoto setting, the name plaque and the doorbell fall apart.

LOD issues. When viewed from a medium distance, and with the viewer’s camera at a telephoto setting, the name plaque and the doorbell fall apart.

Finally…

Well, what can I say? I’m very pleased with the design of the original build. I don’t care for the “shabby chic” thing at all, as I detect a bit of hipster bourgeois callousness in it, so – thankfully – the build is copy/mod. But it’s a really great design that lends itself well to customisation and creative experiments. I have also made a version without the skylight, and I’ll eventually make one with a tiled roof. I want to make one with exposed red brick walls as well, but I’ll have to make entirely new outside walls from scratch, because there’s a texture face issue above the front patio. And maybe I’ll make a version with the outside pillars replaced by Ionian ones, who knows? The possibilities for kit bashing are endless.

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Flickr album: https://flic.kr/s/aHsm9qbLU6

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2pUmX-RC

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