Making Of 'Airbase (2200 City Without a Name)'


This is an overview on how my work, "Airbase" was created, from the draft idea through to the final 3D image.
I have split this 'Making Of' into 4 parts; you will find some of references, my sketches and technical snapshots of Maya throughout this article.  I will be focusing more on the inspiration of my work and less on the technical side, and I intend this article for those people with a basic understanding of Maya and Photoshop, and who are interested in the process of my work.  OK so let's start!

Part I - Overview: Draft Idea of Design

The work "Airbase" is part of my "2200 City without a Name" project; it is the airbase of a city existing in the future.  South-east Asian cultures were my references for this design (Bali's grave stones, some Thai influences, Minangkabau's peaked roofs, Hindu colours, etc.), but I did not want to duplicate all of these cultures; rather, I selectively chose elements and re-designed them with a mixture of technology and with my own interpretation (maybe the future is not as prosperous as we expected?).(Fig.001)

Fig. 001

Fig. 01

At the beginning, I spent some time imagining how everything should look; what was going on; what was happening, etc.  I then started making some draft sketches in 2D - most of time falling inside my imagination and putting myself in the position of an architect in the city, or perhaps a guy who had arrived in the city.  With this, some virtual pictures started to pop into my mind: the atmosphere, colours, weather and so on. (Fig.002)

Fig. 002

Fig. 02

After getting a concrete idea down, and with my draft sketches complete, I then went on and made a detailed sketch and colour version of the drawing. (Fig.003)

Fig. 003

Fig. 03

I could then start building my airbase in 3D.  Sometimes I prefer to work like a sculptor, with the added possibility of turning an object around and shaping it.  At this point I created some more fragmented sketches for some of the details and added elements that I hadn't included in the sketching stage.  This was a lot of fun, and after the basic construction was built, I could then start searching for the right camera position and considering the camera movement before going any further with more detailed works.  This is very important for a large scene such as this.

Part II - Production: Modelling/Texturing/Rendering

Modelling Process

I didn't import any drawings when working on this piece, because the structure of the building was clear cut and I was using some simple figures as references for scale during the modelling.
Everything was started with a basic polygon cylinder for the top of the building, and a polygon box for the bottom.  I usually keep the face as low as possible and use the "Add Edge tool" to add more faces if necessary.  I also use the "Extract" tool to separate some faces and the "Booleans" tool to cut out the shape I need. (Fig.004)

Fig. 004

Fig. 04

With regards to the creation of the dynamic form, I created a "Polygon box" and a "CP curve", selected the face and shift-selected the curve, extruded them with the "Extrude" tool and adjusted with the "Division" and "Taper" sections to get the shape I needed.  At the end, I duplicated and grouped them together and used the "Lattice" reformation tools to reshape the form to what I needed. (Fig.005)

Fig. 005

Fig. 05

After some extruding and adding faces, the upper part of building was almost done!  At this point I decided not to go into further detail until the whole building was complete. (Fig.006)

Fig. 006

Fig. 06

With the same techniques as before, I kept going to build up the lower part of the building. (Fig.007)

Fig. 007

Fig. 07

With regards to the creation of the cliff, I created the cliff with a simple polygon plane and added some more faces in between, shaping them with "Sculpt Geometry tool" and using the Maya "paint effect" to add some plants on the cliff. (Note: you can mix some texture maps to create plants as well; if your machine is not able to handle any more polygons, try exploring the forums and you will see how other people do it!) (Fig.008, 009 & 010)

Fig. 008

Fig. 08

Fig. 009

Fig. 09

Fig. 010

Fig. 010

After all the basic objects were done, the most interesting part arrived: turning the object around and adding the detail; searching for the camera position; getting the right composition; reviewing my sketches and doing some more fragmented sketches in 2d or 3d.  Sometimes organic forms can make your image become more interesting, but they can also destroy your image if they go too fancy at the end (do some studies on the development from Renaissance to the Rococo period - you will see the changes!) (Fig.011 & 012)

Fig. 011

Fig. 011

Fig. 012

Fig. 012

About the texturing: for big scenes, I usually apply some common textures to the particular type of objects and add in some more detailed maps, based on the camera view that I need.  During the texturing, I keep the lights and shadows, because they are the key points of the result.

Texture Map

Texture maps can eat up a lot of your computer's resources!  Concerning the final output of the image when I was texturing the models, here are some examples of the texture maps I created.  I created several sizes of texture maps (from 512x512 up to 4056x4056) for different camera angles. (Fig.013 & 014)

Fig. 013

Fig. 013

Fig. 014

Fig. 014

For the specular highlights, I applied a noise map inside Maya's shading network. (Fig.015)

Fig. 015

Fig. 015

Lighting and Rendering

I created an environment sky in Photoshop (Mental Ray has a Sky light system after Maya 8.5; it is effective but I wanted to achieve something different with this piece), which was a 4000 pixel width matte painting.  I didn't paint too much detail as I was more concerned with the colour scheme. (Fig.016)

Fig. 016

Fig. 016

I applied the environment sky to a polygon sphere as a key light, along with 2 extra directional lights - one for the direction of the sun (with shadows) and one for the backlight area (low intensity with a cold colour tone and without shadows). (Fig.017)

Fig. 017

Fig. 017

Moving on to the rendering settings, I usually start with a small image with low final gather (500 rays) and an anti-aliasing setting of 0 to 1 in order to do a test render of the lighting.  Come the final render, I had pumped up final gather to 1500 and the anti-aliasing to a 0 to 2 setting, and I also used a Mitchell filter.
With my current working process, my main goal with this image was to output it as a still image with a 4000 pixel height resolution, to present the design... but when you come to such a large resolution image with a heavy polygon count, you tend to face a memory problem.  Here are some of the solutions to the problem:

Do a BSP Diagnostics test on the BSP depth and size. Under Render Settings > Mental ray > Diagnostics, check the "Diagnose sample" box and select the "Depth" or "Size" (adjust the BSP depth and size to a reasonable level; red represents the density of the detail).  "BSP" can be adjusted inside "Mentalrayglobals"; go to "Outliner" and open the "Mentalrayglobals" in the " Attributes Editor", find the "Acceleration Options" and you will see the "BSP size" and "BSP depth".

Try to lower the Memory Limits.  Under "Render" > "Render current frame" or "Batch Render" you will see the section for Memory limits.

Render your image in Windows/Linux command line without opening the Maya Program.

Render your image in tiles (but this is for a single image only).  I used an MEL script provided by; search for "tile render for mental ray" (note the version!) - it is a user-friendly script and be sure to read the instructions inside the .zip file for how to use it!

Convert your texture maps to Mental Ray ".map" files; file sizes will become bigger but very effectively!

Part III: Post-production - Post-production in Photoshop

This is always the enjoyably part for me, and after a long period of process work you need a clear mind in order to keep the origins of the idea.  I did a Photoshop painting of the whole city before this image, and I tried to achieve an abandoned and dusty city look.  A realistic look was not in my interest, and I wanted more of a theatrical-style look.

What makes a picture interesting?  Well, besides the content of an image, it is the magic of the composition, and the contrast and harmony that are some of the usual common aspects that will make a picture look interesting.  It is not hard to find these elements inside a lot of works that you will see, such as in architecture, paintings, film and photography (do some studies on these subjects and you will very easily find the key to opening the door!), but from an artistic aspect everyone has their own taste or theory, and besides this aesthetic theory the most important thing is how you transfer them to your own idea.  Still images and moving pictures have some common points and differences as well, because in moving pictures there is a continuity; you have a story, camera movement, characters moving around, sound effects, music and so on (a lot of the time one of these elements are much more important than others!).  All of these elements were part of my consideration when I was working on this image.

I won't go into too much detail on the process of Photoshop, but here is a breakdown of my post-production work:

1. An occlusion layer can give objects a good relationship with each other, but don't over do the occlusion layer - I usually render some masks for fine-tuning on the occlusion layer and adjust the opacity under the "Multiply" filter.  Be sure to examine the dark areas to avoid losing all your details (unless it's some kind of effect you are looking for!) (Fig.018)

Fig. 019

Fig. 019

2. I added a highlight to the image from the sun's direction, and I gave a washed out lighting effect to the entire image (to achieve the kind of atmosphere I wanted) and adjusted the saturation of the image (if necessary, use the Gradient mask to fine-tune those layers).  I then added in a smoke layer to create a feeling of depth (you can use some smoke/cloud sky photos from the internet or hand paint them with the blur/smudge tools) (Fig.019)

Fig. 19

3. An overall adjustment to the Levels and Hue/Saturation was made, and I added in some more smoke to achieve the atmosphere I wanted. (Fig.020)

Fig. 20

4. Finally, I touched up some of my textures (see below for the close-up views) (Fig.021 & 022)

Fig. 21

Fig. 22

Part IV - Final Conclusion

If you want to create an apple, it won't turn out like an orange.  This is the basic skill that you have, and besides the technique there is also a space for our imagination to play around.  It is in our own hands; focus on what you want to achieve and find out ways to solve all the problems you face and the goal is the result, not the tools.  There is Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, but there is Van Gogh's sunflower, as well.  Sometimes I will spend some time to think when I am walking by the water, or sitting at my LCD monitor, and this helps me a lot.

Thanks for your time and I hope this 'Making Of' has been enjoyable.  See you!

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