Point of Beginning

Immersed in Versailles

April 1, 2013
Laser scanning and 3D modeling with SketchUp brings the Palace of Versailles to life in video and imagery.



Few monuments enjoy the international recognition of Versailles, the French royal chateau located 12 miles southwest of Paris. Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, transformed the court of Versailles into the center of political power in France when he moved there from Paris in 1682, reinforcing his absolute rule. Almost no other building in Europe has had greater symbolic importance over the last few centuries.

Versailles retained this position of prestige and influence until 1789, when the French Revolution forced the royal family to return to the capital. Today, the palace is a major tourist attraction, and it also continues to serve political functions. For example, the Hall of Mirrors provides an opulent venue in which visiting heads of state may be hosted in style.

To capitalize on the fame of the palace, Google France initiated a project in 2011 to create a 3D model of Versailles for use in animated films and Google Earth. The project was implemented in cooperation with the Versailles marketing team and other organizations, particularly Aloest Productions, which acted as coordinator and project leader for the films. Altogether around 100 people from several organizations were involved.

Due to its broad capabilities and ease of use, SketchUp was selected as the 3D modeling tool. But there was a catch: Nobody on the project--not the production company, nor the Versailles marketing group, nor the 3D modeling team in charge of the work--had ever used it before. The project team engaged Bertier Luyt, a French 3D-modeling expert, as a SketchUp consultant.

Luyt’s task promised to be substantial. With its extensive gardens and additional chateaux, the Palace of Versailles covers about three square miles. It is one of the largest palace complexes in Europe: The main building alone has more than 700 rooms, 67 staircases, 325 fireplaces, 2,153 windows and a 1,870-foot–wide garden façade. As if that weren’t enough, the gardens include 607 fountains and waterfalls, five grottos, 250,000 trees and more than 300 statues.

The data collection effort required careful coordination. Over the course of six months, Luyt’s primary job was to act as consultant and contact person for the various teams onsite. He helped collect the best exterior and interior images for subsequent modeling in SketchUp, with video and photographs of the palace, park chateaux and gardens taken from multiple perspectives. In creating the model, as many elements as possible had to be textured to achieve a highly realistic effect. Large numbers of detailed photos and film sequences were created for the project; the team even used a captive balloon to take bird’s-eye-view photographs of the land and roof textures.

To ensure the necessary level of detail, onsite field work required a correspondingly intensive effort. Francois-Hugues de Vaumas, film director and producer at Aloest Productions, was ready. “We first got a general view of the whole area,” he recalls. “It was enormous and exciting, but also a massive undertaking.”

A 3D laser scanner was used to help achieve the desired results for particular elements. “To obtain maximum accuracy, we used a 3D scanner for many statues and interior features,” de Vaumas says. “This was the first time that 3D scans of statues had been incorporated into Google Earth.”

The next step was to convert the massive volume of data into models of the palace. Five models were converted--one of present-day Versailles and four from different construction periods--1624, 1668, 1670 and 1715. Throughout the modeling process, the team consulted old construction plans and drawings that had been kept at Versailles for centuries.

It took very little time to train the modeling teams to use SketchUp. The modeling program is specifically designed for intuitive, self-explanatory use. As a result, there is no need for complex 2D drawings or various parameters which must be formally coordinated for extrusion without affecting the model. SketchUp also makes it possible to display the special architectural features of buildings so they are almost photographically realistic.

The final Versailles model presents the two styles of the palace, early French Baroque and classical Baroque, and highlights the distinctive influence of the master builders who constructed it in different stages. When embedded and exactly positioned in Google Earth, the models give an impression of reality. For example, from a distance, the town facades of the palace seem to be composed of numerous individual buildings. Only on closer observation is it evident that it is a single connected building.

SketchUp provided a high degree of detail and plasticity in conversion. The building geometry on facades and roof surfaces was broken up using modeled elements and then refined. Functional and ornamental architectural details were displayed in 3D using indentations and protruding elements, and photos taken previously were used to texture the elements. Fences, ledges, columns, balconies, windows and many other features were detailed and modeled with almost photographic realism.

In order to scan a statue, three scans were made from different perspectives; subsequent processing, which included data cleansing, triangulation and texturing, required an additional four hours. The statues created using the 3D scanner were then imported into SketchUp. Using the still-visible triangulation on Google Earth, it is possible to see which individual models created by this method have been incorporated in the overall work.

The massive amounts of data in the model created unexpected challenges when it came to rendering and exporting to Google Earth, as well as the film animation work. As a result, the project team had to seek additional help from SketchUp experts in Colorado, where Luyt presented the project and received the necessary support.

Through his contacts in the SketchUp community, Luyt brought together Abvent and Aloest Productions as well as other geomodelers. Solutions for exporting the SketchUp models into Google Earth and for film animation were worked out as a team. Software included Artlantis, which was updated in the conversion process (sometimes overnight) to meet the demands of the project. The international SketchUp community, which is passionate about the software, also proved its value in helping to solve problems.

The SketchUp models prepared during the project formed the basis for wide-ranging marketing applications, while the animated models became the core content of www.versailles3d.com. Embedded in the real surroundings, the films vividly illustrate how Versailles has changed over the centuries. Viewers can get an almost photographic view of the entire complex and some internal rooms beforehand.

The complete Versailles model can now be seen on Google Earth: the palace, the gardens with park chateaux, the water features and the statues. Thanks to SketchUp, the 3D modeling expertise of Luyt, and a tremendous effort by a creative and dedicated project team, the historical heritage and architectural beauty of the palace is now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, even if they never have the chance to visit Versailles in person.

Today, when visitors tour the palace, they enter through 11 recently remodeled rooms never before shown to the public. The new rooms showcase Versailles’s history with its art and furniture. The remodeled areas also highlight the SketchUp 3D models and show films that walk viewers through the history of the palace.