Snapping photos of the future with Computer Graphics Artist Brian Townsend

Microsoft

Nearly everything about Brian Townsend’s job reads like science fiction. Put simply: He works in a room nicknamed “The Vault,” and he creates photographs of products that don’t yet exist. When Townsend does his job, you get a Surface tablet that’s real in every way but for one: It doesn’t yet exist in three dimensions. Not yet, anyway.

If you’re confused, believe me, you’re not alone. Townsend needed to explain his work to me several times before it finally stuck. He was patient, even enthusiastic in doing so, which kinda goes against the sci-fi stereotype. Brian Townsend, it turns out, is also kind of in awe of his job.

“It’s an interesting blend between technical ability and artistic ability,” he said. “What we do is take the CAD that the engineers produce and turn it into something that can be used to create a photorealistic image. It gives you a head start on the marketing, and it also gives you a lot more control over the look of the product.”

Okay, I get it: The Industrial Design team hands Townsend a file containing the exact specs of their latest doohickey—say, a Surface Pro tablet with a keyboard. He and his team take that file and create an exact image of it that can be used in advertising, manuals and in-store demo reels. That much, I understand. The part I don’t get is, why do that? Why not just take a photo of the latest build, and use that?

It’s to Townsend’s credit that he answers my question as if it weren’t, you know, kind of dumb.

“A lot of times, the products are still evolving by the time the marketing team needs to see them. The products aren’t done yet, so there’s no physical version that actually exists for them to be photographed.”

And even if there were a physical build, they couldn’t use that photo everywhere: “We cater to 28 different markets,” he said. That means that if he’s assigned an image of a Surface Pro with a keyboard, he has to create that piece of hardware 28 different ways. “We create a lot of images in a day,” he said, chuckling.

In that moment, which happens in the first minute of the interview, I decide that I like Townsend a lot. He’s friendly and deeply humble; rarely do you meet artists or architects who are so quick to share credit with others. He can’t seem to say enough nice things about the work he does, the people he works and the company in general. He seems like the proverbial best friend ever: the man who’s only too happy to pick you up at the airport, or help you to move a couch up a flight of stairs.

“He’s technically my boss, but it doesn’t feel like that,” said Brittany Rediger, who works alongside Townsend in the vault and assists with re-touching and localization. “I think it’s probably the best working relationship I’ve ever had.”

And as Townsend and I continue chatting, I figure out part of the reason why he is the way he is: Like me, he hails from Las Vegas, Nevada. Forgive my hometown pride, but some of the most grateful souls I’ve ever met have been Vegas natives. It’s hard to come out of that desert town being anything other.

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