Making Of 'Crow'
Hi, I'm Andrius Balciunas, and I'm going to guide through the creation process behind my image "Crow". I suggest you go and make yourself a cup of coffee or tea, so that reading this will be more enjoyable. I hope you find this Making Of useful and that you learn something new!
I started to develop the concept for this project in 2006. It all began when I saw the cover picture on a pair of stockings in a store. I really liked the pose of a girl on that cover and I thought it would be interesting to make something of my own with that pose. So I bought those stockings for a reference (my girlfriend got a present, I got the cover, everyone was happy...) and started to brainstorm further.
I already had the vague idea that I wanted to make something "gothic" and so I started to put those ideas all together. I began by posing the girl using my default basemesh, which was rigged on biped (Fig.01 - Fig.03)
When I had a rough pose, I started to overpaint it with my various ideas. Each time I came across something that I liked, I roughly modelled those elements. So in the end I had more developed concept and base meshes of all the main elements (Fig.04).
By the way, at this point I actually ended up putting the concept away because of other things that I had going on in my life at the time. It was only at the end of 2008 when I was able to come back to it!
After returning to the image, I saw that I already had a rough pose worked out and so I started to fix it further to give the woman a more natural and realistic look. At this stage I used 3ds Max and ZBrush simultaneously, because some things were easier and quicker to do with one over another and vice versa (Fig.05 & Fig.06).
I also kept the model's poly count as low as possible, because I wanted to do all the detailing in the end. When I was happy with her look, I unwrapped the model and started to do the final detailing in ZBrush. When I finished all the detailing and I was fully happy with the model, I created a displacement map of the highest level in ZBrush using Multi Displacement and exported the model at the middle level, which gave me a decent amount of main details and had an average poly count. All of this was done to optimize the model, because the highest level had around 3 million polygons and my exported middle only had around 120 thousand.
The tail cloth was simulated. As my concept had been designed with a primitive modelled "tail", I already had an abstract shape to follow. So I started with a plane which had an average poly count. I animated it so it would lie down on the ground, making the path I needed on its way. I tweaked the parameters of cloth, as well as the animation, until I got the result I was happy with. After that I moved it into ZBrush and sculpted further for a better result (Fig.07 & Fig.08).
The next step was to add all the details like the chains, the ring on her leg, eyebrows, eyelashes and so on. As this was more detailed, accurate work it was rather hard. For the chains, I started to put splines all around her. After that I made few versions of chain pieces and used them to make the full chains (Fig.09 & Fig.10).
For the hair I used the integrated Hair and Fur system. However I started with Ornatrix, because I still find it better for modelling hair guides. One really good thing about Ornatrix is that you can start with the low guide count and increase it by interpolating your current guides. This is extremely useful because you can have as much control as you need over your guides and therefore you can be as precise as you want. Anyway, when I had the haircut that I wanted, I converted it into splines and made the hair with Hair and Fur using the "Recomb From Splines" function (Fig.11).
Hair and Fur is a really good tool to use if you wish to render your hair with mental ray. It gives much better results, allows greater control and also renders faster. For this image, instead of the default shading I used the "muhHair" shader, which was written by Daniel Rind.
To make mountains in the background I started by applying fractal noise on the plane's displacement map. Then I moved it to ZBrush and sculpted further until I was satisfied. When I rendered the mountains, I also did some cloud overpainting and added fog (Fig.12).
Shading & Lighting
My scene had two omni lights and skylight for GI. I also used an HDRI image for the environment. At this stage I spent most of my time on the skin shader and its textures. As always, I paid most of my attention to the overall shading, so I tweaked the colour of the lights and the textures, as well as the shader's parameters until it looked good to me (Fig.13).
I started to make some rough skin textures for a better preview and at this point I kept them at a low resolution by having only the main colour tone. Then I increased the size and started to add details, keeping the same overall colour tone. This time, for educational purposes, I used a lot of high res skin samples to analyze their patterns. From some of them I made brushes for Photoshop, which I used to paint the textures. I realized that this time I actually wanted to remake the look of a skin instead of mimic it like I'd done in the past. In the end my skin textures were reaching a resolution of six thousand. However, I can strongly say that I recommend avoiding such texture sixes and that it's better to split them into smaller pieces (Fig.14 & Fig.15).
I was also doing render tests at this stage, to try and keep a lot of parameters, such as samples at low levels, to maintain a decent render time. I also had to be careful with assumptions about the final look, especially in relation to the hair.
Here is the final view port wire and shaded mode (Fig.16 & Fig.17).
This was my first project ever that I rendered for so long. The hour count reached six weeks overall. The rendering size was 3600x4500. This was an experimental process for me and I was prepared for this long process from the beginning. I would never ever wait that long again though. The main reason for this crazy length was because of the hairs which were all geometry this time, fully responding to GI, and ray traced shadows cast by transparent textured hoods on them. Also almost every element in the scene had glossy reflective shaders, that spread the reflection. This slowed down all the rendering dramatically. The shadow samples, shader samples and overall anti aliasing were also set to high so that all the details would stand out more clearly in the final image.
Of course, I used a separate machine for rendering. So while it was rendering the whole image without hair, I was finishing my hair and preparing them for rendering next. The part with hair was rendered later and it took even longer then the whole image without them.
In the end I composed mountains in the background with the whole image, did some colour correction, some levelling and applied depth of field with chromatic aberration as the final touch (Fig.18).
I enjoyed making this image mostly because the creation process was a real learning curve. I have never experimented so much before with any of my images and this is what I'm most pleased with. Of course the final rendering was more like a challenge rather then something really educational and if I had to render it again I would go searching for some alternatives for sure. I'd probably try to "bake" some of materials; do some sort of faking to match the desired result or go deeper by exploring parameters to find a better compromise between quality and speed. In any case, as I tried the hard way first, hopefully this will be something I can do more easily in the future.