Making of Chasing Nymphs
3D generalist and matte painter Michael Johnson shows the photobashing and painting workflow behind his atmospheric "Chasing Nymphs" environment...
The goal I wanted to achieve for this image was to create a moody, surreal, fantasy environment. One in which you want to explore a bit. Something that feels a bit safe but can also have danger lurking beneath the surface. Also, something that looks a bit familiar but when you see the silhouette of the mountains you can instantly tell this is somewhere you've never been.
In this initial concept phase we want to block out the shapes and composition. I wanted to sort of guide the eye with a golden spiral technique. As you can see, the foreground mountains swoops across the bottom of the page to guide the eye to the midground mountains that swoop across to the right. Guiding your eye to the focal point which is the glowing Nymphs.
So I chose to find a cloudy sky where some light could sneak through the clouds. Creating shafts of light if you will. This way I could direct the eye to the focal point with the light rays peeking through. After I found the right sky image, it was now time to adjust it.
Sky color correction
In this phase, I used a curve adjustment layer to bring down the mid tones of the image, creating more contrast and making the sky pop a bit. Then I created a layer in a "Soflight" blending mode to lighten the top-right corner of the image because it was getting a bit too dark. And lastly, creating another "Softlight" blending mode layer to darken the top-left corner so later your eye doesn't drift to that area of the image.
Now it was time to start bringing in mountain elements. I like to start from back to front, so now we'll drop in some background elements. I started with a large mountain on the left, and used a color overlay FX to help integrate with the background. Color overlay is a very useful tool for blending in colors and acting as haze. I also did the same steps to the right-side mountain.
Now we add the mid-ground mountains, cutting out mountain images that fit the initial block out shapes of the concept, using the same techniques such as curve adjustments to match the levels. And another curve adjustment to match the colors. Also, we should not forget while we are doing it to make sure our values are fading so we show depth. Elements in the background should have a lower contrast then elements in the foreground.
In this step, we use the same technique such as value correction and color correction to integrate and stitch together multiple photos to create the ground level. After we integrate the base photos, I like to create duplicate layers of the base elements, screen them and paint in where I want the key light areas to appear.
Now we add the foreground element. I combined two photos that I also warped to create the directionality of the element. This way, the foreground piece directs your eye towards the mid-ground, which directs your eyes towards the focal point. This element would also have more contrast in color and value because objects that are closer to the camera are less affected by the aerial perspective. I also added a guy at the peak of the mountain to make the viewer think "What is he looking at?"
In this step we added the Nymphs. I wanted them to look like magical beings that were pure energy. What better way to do that then to mimic light flares themselves. So I combined a bunch of lens flare elements, painted in some streaks and gave it a motion blur effect.
Atmosphere fun! Now's the part where you add smoke, dust, fog, and god rays to bring depth and life to your image. So, with a custom smoke brush I added smoke between mountains to separate them and to give depth. Also, with a soft brush, I sampled a color from the background sky and painted in some fog as I moved toward the background of the image. Last, I added one big ray of light peeking through the clouds to direct the eye towards the Nymphs.
Last but not least, grading! Up until this point the image had seemed very blown out because of all the atmosphere we've added. Now it's time to bring it back down and add some contrast and unifying color to the image. I started with an overall levels adjustment to bring the mid-range down to add contrast, then I color corrected to add more of a cyan tone to the overall image. Then we go the "Filter" tab "Lens Correction" and offset the sliders under the "Chromatic Aberration" setting. This mimics real life camera artifacts. Last I added a bit of film grain by going to "Filter" then "Noise". At this point I'm pretty happy with the image and can call this one complete!