How Studio Jester Blank Digitized Collections for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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What we love doing

We are a creative studio based in Berlin working in the field of cultural communication and advertisement. We focus on high-end 3D digitization and photography and also do post-production, animation, and interactive design. During the last couple of years we focused on capturing cultural heritage and started working for the Humboldt Forum project in Berlin. It was a perfect match, since we could provide our full production service expertise—everything from pre-production to high resolution photography and also 3D digitization. During this cooperation we worked with numerous museums, which are all contributing to the Humboldt Forum.

Recently we teamed up with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin to digitize the “Near Life” exhibition in the James-Simon-Gallery. We had to digitize a vast 650 sq. m. interior space containing approx. 200 exhibits, which was a welcome challenge for us. Luckily, we could keep the quality level high and everybody involved was really happy with the result, which can now be seen on Sketchfab.

Combining disciplines

Since we started as a duo, coming from different backgrounds, our training is quite diverse. Philipp is the photography and 2D professional, while I come from a 3D/animation background. 3D-wise, I come from making my own shorts and working in the advertising industry mostly in London. I am more of a generalist than an expert in one particular discipline of the 3D process. However this came in pretty handy for working with 3D digitization, since almost all disciplines are involved. From cleanup and modeling, to texturing, shading, and animation.

Collaborations & opportunities

Philipp and I were working in the same studio space in 2017. A couple of years ago we organized a joint exhibition with everyone in the space. One of our guests was working with cultural heritage and we started talking about developing a visual language, to showcase objects including photography and 3D digitization. We then researched and experimented for a couple of months to come up with the best possible combination of technology and on-set equipment. Following that, we got the opportunity to digitize two objects for the Humboldt Forum. Those turned out really well and we’ve been happily working in the field of cultural heritage since.

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin digitization

Process image of shooting in a very confined space. Nandi, Shivas mount. 19th century. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst / Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss / Foto: Studio Jester Blank

All angles everywhere

For us, creating high-end digital twins for artworks is the closest you can get to the actual object without visiting it yourself. Another aspect we love about it is that it vastly broadens accessibility. Objects can be viewed from all angles with high-quality textures from all over the globe. They can be enjoyed on desktops, tablets, mobiles, in AR, VR, and so forth. But mostly 3D digitization gives a large number of people, who might not have the means to travel to a museum especially in another country, the opportunity to view certain pieces or exhibitions in a digital environment.

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin crocodile

Pointcloud view from ‘Crocodile’ Master model, 1892; Plaster, shellacked; Length: 290 cm; © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gipsformerei / Studio Jester Blank

How to approach an object

If we shoot inside a museum or archive, we visit the space and the object(s) first. We then talk about lighting, what kind of equipment we’ll use, and the challenges a particular subject poses, like material, areas that are difficult to reach, lux limitations, etc. Access and time constraints are often an issue. To deal with that, we create a shooting plan in order to have a good idea what to do once we’re on set and to ensure that everything runs smoothly. For larger shoots we also work together with a Gaffer/Director of Photography, so we can focus on the capturing process and can get the most out of our setup and lighting situation.

jester blank photography

On set at the Asian Museum after capturing a Votiv Stupa with our DOP Cornelius Diemer.

Equipment-wise, we vary what we use depending on the subject. Sometimes we work only with DSLR’s, sometimes we combine structured light and photogrammetry, and sometimes we bring laser scanning into the process as well. The most important thing for us is to get the best possible data set of our subjects.

The tricky ones

There have been quite a few. Later in this article, I talk about scanning the Mangaaka, an African power figure from the Kongo area, which was quite complex. (There is a video towards the end of this article with more information about this particular object.) Scanning large objects obviously brings its own difficulties. We had to scan a huge statue on the hottest day of August inside a workshop with a Molton covered glass roof. It must have been about 40°C in there and the shoot took about 8 hours. Reflective objects like the Kazike shown below are a challenge of their own. Also, small objects, like the matchbox that features a portrait of Karl Liebknecht, can be quite tricky, as you have to deal with depth of field limitations and balance your choice of lenses and aperture settings carefully.

mayan war vase berlin

Taking lux readings. Mayan war vase, Guatemala, 700 – 900, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum / Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss / Studio Jester Blank

But the most challenging project was probably the 3D exhibition inside the James-Simon-Gallery, mainly because of the size of the space and the number of objects. After aligning cameras and calculating the geometry, we had a model with billions of polygons. The model had to be viewable on the web, tablets, and other mobile devices, so polycount and texture optimization was going to be an issue. As a result, shelves, walls, etc. had to be remodeled, all of the over 200 models had to be remeshed, UV’d and equipped with bump & normal maps. In order to preserve the maximum amount of quality, it was necessary to work on the UVs and reduce the geometry as carefully as possible, so we would not start losing too much information.

Sketchfab fun

Sketchfab is great because of its reach and, as a platform, it works very well to bring the objects to a large audience. We love the UI and the easy way to work on the look of the model via the lighting, shading, and post-processing system. Also, working hand in hand with the Staaliche Museen zu Berlin, the platform proved easy enough to be used by people who don’t have that much experience with a 3D environment.

Apart from what we mentioned above, we really liked the annotation feature, which became an integral part of our exhibition concept. Not only for context but for our key idea, to provide links to individual high-resolution models that viewers can navigate to. There you can look at the objects in a yet different way, with more detail and also with the exhibition’s audio guide.

Cultural heritage for everyone

AR and VR will obviously have a big impact towards greater accessibility of cultural heritage. The biggest push in terms of the combination of 3D technology and cultural heritage will hopefully happen in a somewhat less glamorous, more subtle way. Only a small minority of people on the globe have the privilege to visit a museum. However, more and more people gain access to online tools via mobile devices. Hopefully, this will broaden and democratize access and prove to be a stepping stone for educational projects that could otherwise not provide a visit or similar viewing experience.

A good start

Good photography and on-set lighting skills are as important as knowing your way around 3D packages. Research those and try a couple of things before jumping into complex projects. Photography and light setup are the foundation for everything that follows. Do not rush that part. Also, try to get into 3D digitization with objects that are not super complex at first. Early on, we had to scan a Mangaaka, an African power figure which had hundreds of small metal pieces rammed into its wooden chest. A bit like spikes on a hedgehog. Using an optical process, this was a challenge, even though we were already quite experienced. I would not have liked to start out with something as complex as this piece.

For anyone interested in seeing what that particular exhibit looks like, here is a video about the restoration process (German with English subtitles).

What inspired us

This would be what the Scottish Maritime Museum did for their workshop. We really loved how you feel like you are in the space, with the ambient sound and the narrator providing context. Actually, this was the piece that provided the inspiration to embed further high-resolution models and the audio guide into our exhibition.


If you’d like to stay in touch, find us online: Website / Sketchfab / Instagram / Facebook


About the author

Studio Jester Blank (Philipp Jester & Jens Blank)

Happily working with 3D-Digitization, photography, digital strategies & virtual exhibitions.

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