Fore Blog Post 5

Final Lines on Fore Abbey Cloisters

Moving towards a model end

The deadline for completion of our 3D project on Fore Abbey’s Cloisters, led to a great concentration of work and a forward momentum that meant our initial concentration on detailed site measurements fell somewhat by the wayside!

We had created our arch array on one machine and worked through our textures and overall cloister area on another and were confident that using the plans of the abbey as a guide would allow us to scale and adjust with some ease.

The Benedictine Abbey remains at Fore in County Westmeath are impressive in their ruined state, both from the sheer scale of the remains, but also from their position in the landscape. Tucked into a valley near Lough Lene the Abbey is a striking visual monument and one can only imagine the awe and sense of wonder it would have cast in its heyday, as it would have been the most impressive manmade object that many of its visitors would ever see.

To do it justice in a 3D rendering we measured what we could of arches, bevels, pillars and physical space. We looked at similar abbey constructions and leant heavily on the OPW plans drawn up by H.G Leask many decades ago. Discussing the project with our supervisor, with some of our fellow students and with an expert in 3D graphics we became aware of the difficult nature of the task but were determined to work towards a model that could form the start of a long term 3D visual project on the Abbey.

Fast forward to the days and nights before the deadline for the project completion and we found ourselves with a mountain to climb in terms of creating the cloisters to a level we would be happy with. One of the most difficult issues was applying the textures that we had intended to use.


Applying a texture by loading a bitmap into the material editor we applied it to the main walls of the cloisters and turned on the shaded material with maps viewport setting – but time and again after applying a UVW Map modifier, we lost sight of the material as we utilised the gizmo to rotate and resize the map. After spending hours with no great progress we tried to divert ourselves by creating a compound material using a series of textures we purchased, and which looked very impressive when properly applied but here again while we came close to a result we had spent far too long and achieved very little (which with a deadline approaching is akin to nothing).

We returned to applying a simple texture and went back to the UVW map and after struggling with the Planar/Box selection on the entire element – we tried to apply purely to polygons and set Poly ID’s – applied the material and then the UVW map. But again a problem, as soon as we moved off the Poly, the material seemed applied to the entire element and so with much wailing and gnashing of teeth we selected the Edit Poly modifier and began again. This time the UVW map modifier appeared to stick and we began to work on another part of the walls as a separate poly – disaster – the UVW Map gizmo affected the original poly and we got lost again.

After many fruitless attempts with these settings we managed to apply the the UVW across the full element as a box – and achieved a reasonable result and began to look at the roof tiles. Here we had more success when we altered a setting int he incoming dialogue box from ‘Explicit’ to Planar WXY’  and finally the map applied in a manner in which we could work at a basic level. Yet again it felt like we had stumbled through a maze without having a key to the ‘map’ but we were so close to the end that we kept pressing on rather than going back for directions!

Our final challenges arose when we moved back to the main machines in the Iontas lab and combined all our elements. In spite of our attempts to stick always to architectural plans and to keep our measurements as guides throughout, we had underestimated the effect of a small mistake when amplified across 14 cloisters. The arches were slightly off scale and the more we attempted to adjust the cloister square, the further askew they seemed to go. We debated how to proceed and were at a loss, until we remembered that the one area we were totally reliant on guesswork was the height of the cloister roof pitch. Our initial creation was constructed on photos which showed the remains of a connection seal or gutter high up around the cloister square walls – a point which we had never measured, just extrapolated from the photographs. By re-adjusting this point, which we were estimating to being with, we were able to adequately scale the arches array and press on with the model.

Once again however the texturing would not apply correctly – perhaps we had used the wrong shaders, perhaps our rendering was badly set, but as the night wore on into morning it became clear that the texture we had chosen would not display as we would have wished and we were unable to resolve it. Nonetheless the cloisters looked like cloisters, our roof construction had solid beams under the texture for support and although not quite up to modern roofing standards our guttering was based on similar abbey designs and gave the roof a more finished look. The grass in the centre of the cloisters was a combination of a purchased texture and a patchwork using free textures adjusted in a photo layering app – again we needed more time to apply a bump map and create a more pleasing look, but we contented ourselves with the look achieved and the addition of a single fallen stick gave a sense of realism to an Abbey which would have been surrounded by forests in its heyday.

Looking back on the entirety of the project, both myself and Marianna, who worked with me, feel that we lost a lot of time trying to create a very accurate pillar for our arch array and that the time to cut our losses on this part of the project was missed. We spent far too long working and re-working combinations of cylinders, splines, and modifiers and in the end we wound up working on a version that was as close to the photos as a version we had worked up weeks before.

Our enthusiasm for the project never waned and in spite of our not being entirely happy with the end result, I think we both feel that it is a very good point for us to move on from as we look to create a piece of work for the community to use in their promotion of the Abbey as an important historical and spiritual centre that deserves to be preserved and researched to a far higher level than at present. Throughout the project we talked to local people on the ground, several tourism co-ordinators and historians connected with the Abbey – these connections have convinced us of the need to create something that can further the future of Fore Abbey and perhaps restore some of the awe and wonder that would have been felt by those who saw it in its heyday.

They say there are ‘Seven Wonders of Fore’ – the eighth wonder is perhaps that so little is made of this gem in the middle of Westmeath and we ourselves are left wondering if someday we can make a model to bring this amazing site once more back to life in a digital realm undreamed of by the monks who first textured its walls with the rough stone of the valley and breathed life into its cloisters with their prayer and song.

Textures, Wraps and Scales

Fore Abbey Cloisters

Wrestling with Wraps, Maps and Texture Aps

Our efforts to model the cloisters at Fore Abbey have moved from the large scale idea of the whole abbey as a loose model, towards a more concentrated look at the cloisters which sit in the centre of the abbey space. The cloister area has several columns and arches still standing and as such there are visual references as well as our measures to work from.

Throughout the process, the most difficult task has been to correctly figure out the start point to construct from. We have drawn and extruded from splines, we have taken basic shapes and used modifiers to morph them towards our pillar shapes and we have used boolean operators to unify sets of cylinders – none of these efforts were entirely satisfactory but they did lead us back towards a spline based object to work from. The principle issue with our pillars was a massive poly count and so we removed modifiers especially the Turbosmooth modifier that had beautifully bevelled our pillar caps and edges.

Redrawing from a spline, we used the CapHoles modifier to fill out a new pillar and then reused our original bevel base and tops but added a chamfer rather than Turbosmooth.

Returning to the overall model we used boolean operators to extract door spaces in the outer cloister wall and began to look at our arch shapes. For these we used a basic box shape and drew cylinders over the plan of the arches and then used a ProBoolean subtraction to cut holes through the box to make our arch. These we then took into a separate 3Ds Max project to combine with the pillars and began to create an array.

Having worked together on the one computer throughout – we began to press further into the project on two fronts. Marianna took the arches and began to reshape and tweak them to create more realistic looking shapes as I began to seek out textures and looks.

Through conversations and our own research we decided that aged concrete might give a good look to our pillars, arches and the walls on which they stand.  We also sought out medieval textures online and scanned many websites for comparable buildings that might give us further visual cues to work from.

The outer walls still standing are composed of rough stone and for this reason we chose a texture that, when combined properly, would give a sense of the rough, solid stone that has stood for the centuries.

As the cloister began to assume some kind of shape,  we worked on a schedule to try and finish the model in so far as time and our skill-sets would allow.  The texturing and the scaling into a finished form were the areas we hoped would push our flat looking construction onto a different plane and as we found a wonderful interior roofing texture we entered into our final weeks work on a hopeful note.

Fore Abbey Cloisters

Inch by Inch Stone by Stone

Trying to build a virtual stone wall

In taking on Fore Abbey as a 3D visual image project, we always imagined that there would be some hard labour involved. The Abbey was a vast space, added to and amended through the centuries as it grew from its original 7th Century wooden structure through to the fortified stone towers and vaulted arches of its high point in the 13th Century. But when we decided to rescale our efforts and work solely on the cloisters we thought it might be a simple task.

There are several columns and arches still standing as part of the cloisters on the site – with free access to the site I took a lot of photographs to use as visual guides and we consulted the plans that had been drawn by OPW architect H.G Leask for a pamphlet in the 1930’s.

By comparing the plan and the photograph we struck on a plan to create multiple cylinders on top of the plan but to begin to create the cylinders using the measurements from my trips to the site as a starting scale. In this way we believed we would find an acceptable level of accuracy in the construction, mindful that although our brief was to create a visualisation for a television documentary, we still wanted to stay as close to the real measures as possible.

Our first attempts led to a very confused looking series of shapes that became far to complicated when we tried to extrude them to height. We had measured the primary rectangular base and constructed a 1inch box, we then separately constructed what we hoped would be the next three beveled bases that sit on the rectangular base. The measures from the site were accurate but not professionally done, when I measured a beveled edge I did not have the architectural or archeological nous to produce a proper diagram of my figures and consequently there was a confusion in the construction.

Nevertheless we brought the cylinders to a point and then tried to combine them into one element using the boolean union tool. In this we were somewhat successful but it took far to long to create our basic bases and somewhat disheartened we turned towards the column themselves as they seemed like a simpler proposition and offered the chance to create a structure that would reward our hours of labour with a solid piece of geometry.

During the work, we discussed how we might incorporate the cloister model into a documentary style piece on the Abbey. We talked about shooting some more videos on the site and using these, allied with some pre-existing drone footage we could license, to incorporate our construction. As we talked we decided to look at two possible video integrations, one was to overlay the cloisters into the drone footage, the other was to license the plan model from Leask’s drawings, or to create our own and add the cloister model on top using a simple crop or transparency option to reveal the 3d Image.

Returning to the model as it stood, we struggled to create a low polygon unit out of our cylindrical assembly. We found the align tool and moved and measure our way to a series of objects that we could work with, but found that we were, once again, hours behind our hoped for schedule and parked the model where it was – hoping to reconvene having done more research into the areas of the software that were taking us so long to overcome.

I suggested I might try and model some of the stone wall upon which the cloister columns stand and that we would try and talk to others with more knowledge of the software or the 3D visual field in order to find simpler ways to progress the project.

As ever I am amazed at how difficult it is to find the right way to start into a model even with multiple tutorials to follow on the web. The old Irish line ‘well I wouldn’t start from here’ comes to the Fore far too often!

Fore Abbey Cloisters

Fore Abbey Cloisters

On taking more first steps (backwards) and realising the difference between plan and possibility 

When we began looking at Fore Abbey as a 3D visual image project, we suspected that it would be a tricky task. To master the 3Ds Max interface over the course of a module is in and of itself a challenge but I little suspected how many false steps there would be in the process.

We began our efforts by importing, with great difficulty a plan of the Abbey, from H.G Leask’s visual renderings from the 1930’s. The difficulties came from using a new version of 3Ds Max and running it via Parallels on a Mac. This meant that some of the labelling of Viewports was different to the labelling we had learnt in class and by running it via the Mac there was always a concern that not seeing an object in a scene was a glitch between the OS and the software.

After some frustrations we imported a Plan of the Abbey and sized it to the correct proportions – being now convinced of the veracity of the image, we took it as a good guide to work from.

Our first attempts at drawing a spline led to far too many vertices as we traced each bump in the plan far too closely. When we closed the spline and began to work with it as an editable poly it became clear that too many vertices on top of each other caused confusion to ourselves and the software!

We redrew the spline several times and eventually extruded a wall shape across the plan of the Abbey and considered it a good start. On reflection however we realised that the number of hours it had taken us to achieve this basic image was not a positive indicator. Following in class discussion we agreed that to try and revisualise the cloister area was a far more realistic proposition and with that in mind I headed back to Fore Abbey with a measuring tape, some string and my two daughters in tow.

The promise of crisps in the small pub nearby was the bargain struck to allow me to work and I began measuring arches, angles, extrusions on the pillars and any other parts of the cloister that I thought would allow for a more accurate model.

With the rain falling on Fore, I packed away my measuring tape and slightly soaked copy book, but not before I reflected again on how little I knew about some of the art and science behind accurately recording a physical site.

 I enjoyed scribbling in my notebook but I felt like I was only scraping the surface and needed to be far more meticulous in what I measured and how I recorded it, but for the time being it had to suffice.


The next day in Maynooth we set to again and began to draw another spline, but this time only over the cloister plan. 


We extruded to the height, and width I had measured and then inspected the photos I had taken to see if we could figure a good way to model the stones into the wall. Unfortunately temptation took hold and we started to attempt to create the pillar bases for the cloister, figuring these would look good and represent progress. Several hours and many, many attempts later we parked a model that had thousands of polygons and was in danger of crashing the software. We left the digital humanities lab slightly unsure of our next move, but satisfied that we were making some progress as our basic wall structure – an extruded spline – was still standing!

Fore Abbey Cloisters BlogPost1

First Steps to Fore

Documenting a 3D Interpretation of Fore Abbey

Seamus Callagy and Marianna Sylviri, March 2017

Beginning at the Beginning

In thinking of a suitable project to explore the tools and methodologies of three dimensional visualisations, we both felt that the televisual case history was suited to a site that was not very well known and had less of a visual library associated with it than some of the larger, more well touristed sites.

Fore Abbey, in County Westmeath was chosen due to its relative obscurity in national or international terms and also due to the ongoing efforts of the local community to revitalise the location and increase awareness of its significance.


Changing Directions

The Abbey was once an important seat of learning, prayer and indeed power with well over a thousand inhabitants within its walls at one stage. Even today in its ruined state it is an impressive sight, set into a shelter valley in the Westmeath countryside.

Initially we travelled to Fore with the thoughts of trying to digitally recreate the Mill which stood on the site at the entrance to the Abbey from the main road. We sought information on the mill from local sources and from written material but were unable to find any details on the building and on site the ruin is almost totally overgrown and inaccessible. Having walked the site and spoken to several people from the community we noted that there was a dearth of visual assets for both tourist and pilgrim. There are some artist impressions on signboards within the abbey and there is an old DVD featuring a narrated overview with video footage shot around 20 years ago, but there does not appear to be any modern treatment of the site that makes use of current 3D visualisation software.

From our initial recce, both Marianna and I agreed that Fore was a place to work on, but we were unsure how to create a model that would be of value outside of the college course for which it would be created. When we discussed the issue in class we moved towards creating a model which would not carry a huge amount of detail but would give a visual sense of the scale and import of the abbey as it stood before political concerns about its Benedictine loyalties led to its falling under suspicion and slow decay from about the 1400’s before the dissolution of monasteries under Henry VIII led to its eventual ruin.

With this in mind I returned to the Abbey to walk the newly opened tourist trail which runs through the grounds of the ruin and to talk further with some of the locals about the Abbey. The tour guide on the day, Bartle D’Arcy and his wife Una D’Arcy were very enthusiastic about our attempts to create a visual rendering of the Abbey and offered assistance and pointed me towards several people who had an interest in the Abbey and its stories.

All Roads Lead to Leask

Starting into this project (creating a 3D visual model of a ruin), it almost seemed like a given that an accurate scale drawing and a reference visual guide to the site would be invaluable. Marianna researched the Office of Public Works sources and found a manuscript from the 1930’s with drawings by H.G Leask.

Simultaneously I began to talk with some of the contacts suggested to us and some other names garnered through Failte Ireland. Most if not all of these contacts pointed back to the same drawings by Leask. But at this point, and several times since, I noticed that I had a tendency, in my own 21st century way, to subconsciously dismiss these line drawings from 80 years ago. I knew myself that looking at them reproduced in a 2 dimensional static, simplicity, that I was not giving them the same weight that I would attach to a 3D architectural rendering – in essence I was smiting myself with the double edged sword that Harrison Eiteljorg warned of in his 2002 article.

A quick search revealed Leask as an architect of some standing throughout his career and a man who had worked for the OPW and the government for many years and whose work I would not have doubted at the time. It was a salutary lesson for me in taking these early steps along my own digital humanities journey – the veracity of a source shouldn’t depend on the medium. If it was written words I would not have doubted, but the image holds such sway today, that my subconscious discounted the old drawings – the humanities lost out to the digital.

After more discussions between myself and Marianna, we agreed to take the drawings as a base for measurements and visual guidance and to supplement these with our own onsite photographs and drone footage from various sources. But for now I will take my lead from Leask and his artistic but accurate 2D modelling of the ruins of Fore.

‘The Letters through a lens’ – Filming with Letters of 1916 Transcribers

Today was a day to think about what it is that a letter has captured when it is signed, sealed and sent. The ‘Letters of 1916 Project’ has digitised and allowed access to hundreds of letters that have lain in boxes and binders for decades, but more than this, it has humanised history for us and in doing so the project has opened an insight into a world long gone.

Born and bred in Dundalk, Fidelma Carroll has transcribed many letters that are now displayed in the Project’s searchable database. Her motivation came from a general desire to contribute something to the overall good of the country and perhaps gain an understanding of some of the key participants in the seminal events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.fidelma-2

Fidelma kindly agreed to let me film a short interview with her about the Letters project, and in the company of her border collie Gabby, we talked a little about the letters. As she talked and transcribed we discovered we both shared a sense of why the Project has had such an effect on those who contribute – it is because through the letters we read about human beings, real people who happen to have left a legacy written on a page.

Sometimes, we imagine people who were always ‘historic’ that is to say people who only exist in the moments we read about in historical tracts – Gavrio Princip, General William Haig, Padraig Pearse – once we close the book, we loose sight of them. In the ‘Letters of 1916 Project’ we read the words of men and women, including Pearse, who reveal something more about themselves in the simple, non ‘historical’ words they have written. It is here in these little moments in the lives of people who are now filed away as ‘history’, that we find a point of contact, a means fidelma-1of humanising and connecting with those long gone.

in the short little piece of filming from today we have captured no great detail, no earth shattering insight that will change how we view the past, but in many ways that is not what the moving image is about. Although we talk about frames and composition, ‘rules of thirds’ and points of interest, the fact is that the visual is all about the ‘feel’. In this kind of filming, I believe you firstly try to capture the sense of something and leave the detail to other documents. And so today, hopefully, we captured a sense of the connections that the ‘Letters of 1916 Project’ have made, connections that cross generations, move through time and place and connect a woman in her kitchen in Dundalk, with a soldier suffering at the ‘Battle of the Somme’.

The Letters of 1916 project is Digital Humanities writ large, opening new connections, allowing access and building resources in people that were never there. Looking at the letters through a lens is a most rewarding sight.fidelma-3

What you see is what you beget.

This blog is just a short post on the subject of my own review of the Dariah Teach videos ‘My Digital Humanities’- a series of videos introducing key ides underlying Digital Humanities and raising some of the issues around the field.

In my review I struggled to separate the message from the medium, an area where Digital Humanities  are striving to create new methodologies to do just that. As someone who spends their time wrapped up in the visual world I find it impossible to separate what we see from the way we see it, almost like seeing a signpost and being so struck by its appearance that I don’t see what the sign says.

There have been many experiments where the visual has either confused or obscured the verbal, the textual or in another sense the meaning. John Ridley Stroop’s 1935 thesis ‘ Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions‘ contains one of the more famous examples of the effect on perception when the visual and textual are in conflict, or at the very least out of sync with each other.stroop-effect-test-from-math-unt-edu stroop-effect-test-from-math-unt-edu So as we move towards a world where the presentation of data can be delivered in ever more varied ways, across ever more varied devices and with ever more varied contextual supports, how do we frame this new world in a way that is not only sympathetic to the data but also to the human being absorbing it.

To those who have spent decades involved in this discussion it must appear that these are questions that can never be answered fully, as the context, i.e what is the digital is constantly changing. Which begs the other question, is there a reason to ask the question, or should we just go with the flow and let the digital data flow take us where it may?

Hello world!

To begin at the beginning, this is the beginning of a series of blog posts based on my learnings around the subject of Digital Humanities.

This was a static unchanging post, but now I have changed it by adding to the initial line, is this the same post, or a new post entirely. This is probably what goes to the heart of issues surrounding Digital Scholarly Editing: when a draft is amended, in this first simple case just by addition, which version is the true version.

Intuitively it would seem that the latest version must be the truth as this is closest to the context in which it is being read, but perhaps the truth is closer when we use a ‘versioning’ system, to display the amending, changing document in a timeline. This kind of argument seems quite simplistic when the document is amended in a linear, chronological and additional manner – but what about when subtraction enters the picture and deletes the initial meaning, the original context from the blog.

If the ‘Hello World’ blog post as initially constituted gets re-written so fully that the initial post disappears, where does the truth lie in retaining it as part of a version timeline if the author obliterates it fully.

Perhaps I shall find out when future self posts again