Making Of 'Neturu'
I am an admirer of trees, as well as all forms carved by nature, and with this piece I sought to reconcile this interest with my love for art and CG. Instead of drawing out a concrete concept as per usual, I cast the seeds of my ideas out to the winds with the intention of creating some type of forest. This was substantiated, of course, through the collection of reference imagery along with the unearthing of one of my concept sketches that was calling out to be given new life (Fig.01).
During this process, I thought of my workflow, in a sense, mimicking how one might think of a real-world forest coming into being through the chaotic distribution of seeds that are all able to be read as an ordered, green landscape in due time.
The first thing to consider when embarking upon the creation of any image is the hierarchical flow of elements to be introduced, along with their relationship to the grander scheme of your compositional goals.
I knew from the start that I wanted to create a woodland landscape of some sort, so I devised a mental outline starting with the most prevalent and basic items to be blocked out followed by those of increasing number and/or complexity. Taking this small, simple yet important, step helps you to maintain a level-headed perspective during the creational process should any issues arise.
With that said, it is now time to move onto the initial phases of my modeling process. After opening up a new scene, I switched into the front camera view and assigned my loose concept image a couple of units beneath the grid using Maya's image plane feature.
Next, I created a poly primitive plane and positioned it over where the image had been placed. Using the Split Polygon tool and the reference as a guide, I began redirecting the edge flow of the vertices to loop where I intended to place the lakes of water or portal hubs on the land (Fig.02).
Once this was complete, I activated the Sculpt Polygon tool with Pull switched on to a moderate displace height. I then set about creating some interesting features of irregularity on the landscape, being careful not to disturb the border edges that were to be framed later on too greatly. Hitting B and mouse scroll left, I decreased by brush size and held Alt to inverse the brush direction to sculpt in the cavity areas drawn in earlier (Fig.03).
After this, I took a quick render and then exported the image into Photoshop to assess how the model was progressing and to do a quick paintover. This paintover consisted of me adding some basic grass and earth textures to help in the visualization process of the scene. To my surprise, as I began painting, cloaked elements of the composition made themselves apparent as I made the decision to accept and magnify their presence in the image. More specifically, some of topology of the landscape began to resemble certain anthropomorphic/zoomorphic forms found in nature called simulacra. In essence, I ran with this idea and established a basis for the tree trunks I would be including later on.
Back in Maya, with this idea fresh in mind, I shuttled my mesh over into ZBrush via Go-Z to begin the block-out process for the arboreal entities. Using ZSpheres, I began to create the eight different life forms I'd envisioned, making sure that their position and shape complemented one another with respect to the surface on which they were placed (Fig.04).
Next, utilizing the new DynaMesh function, I established a basic shape for each of the beings. I would like to emphasize here that although the sculpts were kept simple during this step, it was still important that I took my time to establish a nice sense of form. With the Standard and Clay Buildup brushes, along with Trim Dynamic, in hand, I was shooting to convey human/animal features filtered through a tree trunk's weatherworn perspective (Fig.05).
Once the preliminary sculpts were completed, I retopologized them in ZBrush using ZSphere > Edit Topology. After this was done, I brought the models into Maya to create UV maps and into Photoshop for texture painting. It was important that the textures for these models got done immediately as I would use their modified gray scales to create alphas - a jumping off point for the higher res sculpts (Fig.06).
In ZBrush, I imported the UV'd models in tandem with dialing up their subdivisions. Subsequently, I brought in the flipped grayscale maps, masked by alphas, and then used the Inflate Geometry slider to displace the surface for each one. Using the Dam Standard, Clay Tubes and Rake tools, as well a projection painting, I went in to shore up any glaring texture seams along with gradually building up the bark texture (Fig.07).
Shifting back into Maya, I created a separate scene to house the creation of the supporting vegetal materials and other models to be included in the main scene. Starting off, I consulted some botanical references and decided upon a few species that would integrate well within the scene. At this point, I began creating models for the leaves, flowers, branches, rocks, water and portal hubs, etc. For each of these elements, I created libraries of many different shape iterations. At the outset, I shifted the pivot points particularly for the vegetation to take up residence at the beginning of their stems. This was to ensure that they would snap appropriately where I wanted them to go in the next step (Fig.08 - 09).
After finishing up this task, all of the supporting models were imported back into the main scene with each object family being assigned its own layer. Using the Snapping tool along with some animation deformers and duplication, I switched on each layer individually, placing and morphing members of the object families where they would most benefit the composition (Fig.10).
Going right into the texturing portion, I identified three essential categories in the scene primed for reception of texture maps. These included the main tree trunk characters, the landscape and any other supporting elements, all of which already had UVs laid out during the modeling stage.
Starting off with the landscape, I imported two tiling textures into Maya, one being a mossy grass and the other a sandy soil. I plugged one of the maps into a test lambert and then assigned the material to the land. Next, I dialed up the repeats in the 2D texture placement node to suit the palate. Afterwards, I selected the object and then the material inside the hypershade, and then hit Convert Maya Texture to Material from the drop down menu. I repeated the same process for the other texture as well (Fig.11).
Note: although the same procedure of creating larger tiling images may be done strictly inside Photoshop, I have found its patternmaking widget will distort your repeats if you forget to set the resolution of your project file fairly high. Keep this in mind.
Once these maps had been created, I imported them into Photoshop, placing the grass map above the earth. Next, adjustment layers were utilized, along with hand-painting and color correction, to get the look I was aiming for (Fig.12).
Once the color map was finished, I went about creating its accompanying bump and specular maps. These were created by utilizing a grayscale adjustment layer and increasing or decreasing values accordingly. For the bump, I wanted a raised surface for the mossy grass so I increased the layer's luminance value while keeping the earth layer at a neutral fifty-percent gray, with the darker exceptions being attributed to irregularities of the terrain. For the specular, I followed the same basic process as the bump, however this time I leveled out their values on the darker end of the spectrum. I did this because, from a real-world standpoint, neither earth nor grass gives off much spec values in most cases.
Transitioning into the tree trunk characters, I had decided early on that I would be creating only one tree type in the effort to give the image some consistency and cohesion amidst other things going on. Coming to this realization greatly helped to streamline the texturing process as I based their shape loosely off the Acacia tree.
Whenever creating texture maps it's best to always create them at a higher resolution initially and then scale down if need be to meet the requirements of your scene or project.
With all of these factors taken into consideration, I next opened up one of the four UV maps for the trunks in PS, layered it, set its blending mode to Screen then locked it down. Underneath, I created another layer, filled it with a neutral brown and then began building up my base texture of variation for the wood (Fig.13).
Next, after bringing in some references, I established the bark texture on successive layers using a combination of adjustment layers, masks, the Clone tool and photo references (Fig.14).
For its final polish, I brought in some color maps generated from projection painting in ZBrush to help with seaming issues. Last but not least, I applied a blending mode to a special map that I created inside ZBrush with the MatCap White Cavity to really help the textures to pop. Using this map has proven to be invaluable in many circumstances because of its quick ability to liven up textures. Therefore, I will be explaining in detail how to create it in the following steps (Fig.15):
- After finishing your high res sculpt with UV'd geometry, create a displacement map
- Clone your map and it should now appear in the alpha channel to your left
- Drop your geometry and clear the canvas
- Click on the same Alpha button and in the submenu, hit Crop and Fill
- Clear and zoom out your canvas until the square is clearly visible
- Create a plane 3D object, make it a polymesh and then set the material to MatCap White Cavity, leave the color on default white
- Press F to frame in on the geometry
- Go into the Subdivisions menu and turn off SMT, hit Subdivide either two or three times then reactivate SMT and dial up until you get into the millions (the reason why you want to initially turn off SMT is so that your plane can maintain edge integrity)
- Apply the displacement after tweaking the settings to your taste
- Click on the MRGBz Grabber, drop the image, and draw a marquee around your entire composition
- Your map has now been generated and is ready for export in your texture window.
At this point the bark color textures were mostly complete, but I still needed to devise a way to sufficiently bed them into their surroundings. This time, instead of painting in the grit of mossy undergrowth in Photoshop, I used some of Maya's nodes to quickly build up the textures.
Using the grass tiling texture, two ramps, a fractal and a luminance node, I set up a temporary shader network to work out the position of the moss on each tree, along with its orientation of bump strength. Once satisfied, I selected the model as well as it's shader in the hypershade and then hit Convert to File Texture (Maya software). As a result I received a color and a bump map, which I ported over into Photoshop for processing (Fig.16 - 17).
Turning off Contiguous, I used the Magic Wand tool to select and copy the green tiled moss from the color map. I then pasted it into the according bark texture sheet. With the same settings for the Magic Wand tool I then selected, copied and pasted the cutout bump onto a 50% gray fill in the same file. This image was then saved as a jpeg, sent into CrazyBump for normal map conversion, then back into Photoshop to be cut out and was finally layered over its matching bark normal generated in ZBrush from the sculpt (Fig.18 - 19).
I used the same tools and techniques described above to create the remainder of the trees, along with the supporting natural and vegetal elements in the scene. ZBrush was utilized to bake out some of the normal and displacement maps, as well as Photoshop for alphas colors and specs. As far as material setup goes, I used MIA materials, with tweaked settings to simulate different surface qualities.
Lighting, Render and Composite
For the lighting setup, I used a few directional lights: one key, another for bounce and the last light linked to the objects with translucency and refraction. Additionally, I used an environment sphere for reflections, an ambient for fill diffuse light and a couple of point lights with decay to help simulate glowing surfaces (Fig.20).
Mental ray was used for the final render with Final Gather switched on at production settings at a resolution of 3K.
For the composite I opted not to take out a plethora of render layers with the exception being an ambient occlusion pass.
In Photoshop, I made use of tools such as High Pass, Unsharpen Mask and Lens Correction to add the finishing touches to my final render (Fig.21).
Thanks for joining me on this tutorial journey, as it is my hope that you have gained something from it!
To see more by Amanda Jessup, check out Prime - The Definitive Digital Art Collection