Making Of 'Heading South'
This image was originally an environment I made for a Fable 2 cinematic shot at Blur Studio. I really liked the subject of a peaceful winter scene in the countryside, so later I decided to take the project a bit further by adding more details and atmosphere. It was also a good exercise for snow modeling. My goal was not to make an ultra realistic image, but rather giving it an illustration look that suits to the subject.
Concept & Refrences
For this project I had a concept design, which roughly gave me the composition of the image (Fig.01).
From this point I gathered some references of a typical countryside: trees, fences, mud paths, preferably snow covered (Fig.02). The image was supposed to be in medieval times, so modern structures like electric poles were prohibited.
The environment is divided in three distinct parts: foreground with the muddy path and detailed trees, midground with the farm and mud path continuation, then background with distant hills and mountains. This way it was really easy to manage the level of details according to the distance from the camera (Fig.03).
The ground consists of one plane with both the ground itself and the snow layer integrated in the modeling. It was more difficult to change the snow distribution this way, but it allowed better control of the snow/mud transition when texturing.
At first I roughly modeled the snow using the Paint Deformation tool in Editable Poly. Then, satisfied with the basic shapes, I added a lot of details simply by using a Displacement map on top of the original modeling (Fig.04).
The foreground trees are Xfrog models. Adding a believable snow layer on these was a little tricky. For me, the most logical way of doing it was to pour some particles on the leaves, using Particle flow (with speed at 0 after the collision), but this was way too slow, even after a good mesh optimization. I ended up using Blobmesh (in Compound Objects), which basically creates a sphere on each vertex of a selected object then "melts" the spheres together to form a single mesh.
I applied Blobmesh only on the most exposed leaves. I had to find a balance between not enough details and too many. With too much resolution, the Blobmesh tends to look like the leaves shape, which is a simple plane with opacity map (Fig.05).
I also added some modifiers like Relax, Turbosmooth and a little bit of noise (Fig.06).
I used the same technique for the smaller vegetation (Fig.07).
The rocks are very old meshes I did about 10 years ago (it's time to make new and better ones, maybe for future projects!). For the snow, I used a Landscape shader, which is a kind of "Top\Bottom" material but with much more parameters (part of the Lume shaders, works only with mental ray I think). I applied this shader both as a mask for the rock/snow material and as a Displacement map (Fig.08).
I used the same technique for the fence, with an additional extruded mesh from a selection of, theoretically, the most exposed polygons to the snow (Fig.09).
Most of the small vegetation was grabbed from older projects. The tall grass was just painted on the ground using the script Advanced Painter (Fig.10).
For the midground and background I scattered some long grass, billboard trees and bushes. It's a fast process, but it's worth looking at the reference pictures as much as needed and to try to have a global view of the result at all times to keep the overall consistency (Fig.11).
Texturing / Shaders
The snow material is a simple white standard material. I did some tests using an Arch and Design material with sub-surface scattering, but it increased the render time without really improving the look of the snow (although I did use A&D; materials but only for objects with opacity maps, as A&D;'s "cutout" works better with mental ray than "opacity" in the standard material).
I guess with this type of lighting (sunset with a low and relatively dim light), the modeling is more important than the shader to make it look believable.
Also, using a simple shader was much easier to manage than a complex one. Indeed, as almost all of the objects had at least one snow material on them, they had to look exactly the same (Fig.12).
I was not quite satisfied with the snow covering the pine trees in the foreground. There was clearly a lack of details compared to the scale of the trees. So after testing a couple of possible solutions (I tried to completely remodel the snow using a new selection of leaves and some tweaking in the Blobmesh parameters), the best way I found was to use a Landscape shader in the Opacity slot, so when rendering we see only the upper part of the mesh.
Another trick to simulate a snow layer on the trees was to bake a set of lights placed on top of each source tree (using Render To Texture). The resulting black and white maps were used as masks in the leaf materials (Fig.13).
These maps could have been used for snow displacement, but I did some tests and it took a bit too long to render. Maybe it needs more optimization; I'll give it a try for a future project!
The map for the field and road in the midground was painted in Photoshop, as I needed something specific for this part of the environment. In the background I used a satellite view grabbed from Google Maps and edited in Photoshop (contrast, color correction, adding and suppressing some details here and there). Same for the mountains in the background, with a different map (Fig.14).
Lighting is a single mental ray sun and a plain blue Skylight. I did some test renders with HDRI maps, but wasn't really satisfied with the results. There's also a warm colored omni for the farm (Fig.15).
At first I tried to use some photographs for the sky, but none of them really matched what I wanted in terms of cloud shapes, colors and lighting. So I tried with Terragen 2, and after a lot of time experimenting with the many different parameters, I got the desired result (Fig.16 - 17).
I could have painted it, but it was a good opportunity to test the possibilities of Terragen 2 for skies. The final sky consists of two 2k renders assembled in Photoshop, as there is no panorama export option in Terragen. I used a wide ratio to adjust it freely in the image composition (Fig.18).
Rendering & Compositing
I wanted to keep the compositing process very simple, so there were only two passes: the beauty pass, which contained everything including the sky (fortunately I had enough memory to render everything at once), and a distant fog pass, which was used as a layer mask with a blurred version of the sky (Fig.19).
Once the beauty pass was rendered, I kept updating the scene in Max while starting compositing in Photoshop. From this point I rendered only small regions of what changed and integrated them in the PSD file.
There are also two layers for older versions of the beauty pass (I like to compare the latest version to older ones, so I know if I'm still going in the right direction), and one layer for the birds (cranes), taken from a photograph. I color-corrected them and changed their position for better integration and composition.
Then I painted over the beauty pass to fix some minor issues that would have taken too long to do in Max. The rest was mainly color and contrast correction (Fig.20).
And here's the final image (Fig.21).
That's it, thanks for reading!
To see more by Olivier Vernay-Kim, check out Prime - The Definitive Digital Art Collection