Making Of 'The Water Generators'

This is a tutorial meant to give away some tips and tricks I used throughout the creation of the "Water Generators". I will not go in too deep on any subject (lighting, modeling, texturing, etc.) as there are already a lot of great tutorials out there, we will just be taking a look into some details I think could help some people out there. This
is my first tutorial so be forgiving.

Before I begin I always like to create a little story behind the image, this helps me to understand my characters or environments so I can clearly identify what should be there and what should not. The tale of this piece is that this alien race (whatever name you give them is fine) needs to expand. They go out in search of planets suitable for life, however there are some planets that need a little work, so they take some few thousands of these islands (the water generators) and scatter them around the surface of the planet carrying seeds and, of course, the technology to create water; you can watch in the Discovery Channel (great source of inspiration :) ) that water estabilizes the temperature of the planet and plants generate oxygen and... well, you know. There's more of this but you get the point.

Ok, the first part holds no secrets. Sketching is the beginning of everything and as far as I am concerned nothing can replace the good old paper and pencil. Here are some of the final sketches for the islands. Of course I will save you the pain of countless other pencil drawings that lead me to this.

Here is the protruding "face" of the islands. This is the basic shape of everything. There's 2 to 3 faces like this on every island and on the structure over the main generator. I modelled this extruding edges and moving verts. After the first one was completed I just cloned and tweaked it so that other faces would not look exactly the same.

You should know that I had a very tight deadline for this image (5 days : / ) so I had to keep the modeling to a minimum. I chose the angle in which it would be seen and modelled only the part of the island visible in the shot. There is nothing behind or in the top (other than a hole). This works fine for a still but I just can't use it for animation.

Ok, here's something interesting. Take a look at how I used the cilindrical gizmo to texture the island. I rotated, moved and scaled the gizmo so that I would have the whole front of the island clear and simple to texture for the shot. I tried all possible mapping types (planar, box, spherical, etc.) and this gave me the best results.

This is the image that texporter gave me to texture:

I had to go out and hunt for some textures. I don't own any texture libraries (as I should) so I took about 20 photographs of cliffs, rocks and walls, everything that looked "rocky" to me. If you can get your hands on some texture CDs do, they can save you time and sometimes minutes can be precious. You can get the Total Textures libraries here in the site (and no, they didn't pay me to say that).

After some color correction and a lot of editing I got the color map. I tweaked it a little and used it as a displacement map. Here's a little note about displacement: I don't think of it only as a texturing tool but also as a modelling technique. What can I say? I love displacement. Final Render Stage 1 came to the rescue here, it renders pretty fast with very nice results.

Notice the black shapes in the center of the displacement map? I didn't want the faces or the stairs to be affected, so I painted them black. I also added some noise as bump to give the sensation of more detail.

Ok, so the basic body of the island is ready. The tree was really simple actually. I made some splines and lofted them along a straight line blending between the shapes, then I curved the path and voilá we get a tree. The extensions were made either by extruding the edges or by making separate lofts and welding vertices together.

The roots were made as separate pieces, they are not really attached to the tree, but you can't see that in the image :).

Here's a little viewport wireframe of the tree with a light meshsmooth modifier applied to it:

The structure over the island follows the "face" principle. There are no real secrets in this, it doesn't even have displacement. I just used noise (turbulence) as bump and color.
Now this is nice, at least I think so :): the plants. Ok, the first thing I wanted with the bushes was to avoid the flat look of a real photographed bush with an alpha channel. See those strange red objects? Well, those are 5 non-renderable objects meant to contain the bushes, they are actually spheres modified with edit mesh and soft selection. I created 4 particle arrays that would fill these containers with particles.

The main "leaf" object is this (Above).

Just 4 spheres put together with some scale variation.
I used a random rotation and some variation in its scaling to avoid "patterns". Now, why 4 particle arrays? I used 4 colors to fill the bushes, a dark green, a mid green, a light green and a red with different settings on the specular level and glossiness. Every one of the particle containers (the red objects)was filled with a rate of 3000 dark green particles, 2000 mid green particles,1000 light green particles and 500 red particles (to serve as berries or flowers).

Here's a closer look at the bushes:

Many particles seem to be floating around, I added those little branches later in Photoshop to make them look attached to the body of the bush. To avoid a 3dsmax crash (I sadly only have 256 MB of RAM) I had to render each bush separately and added them later in Photoshop. I used the body of the island and the tree as a matte object to retain the shadows and to have the bushes "cut" where needed.

For the lighting of the scene I first though of using global illumination... I quickly discarded this idea because of time. Micro triangle displacement (as Final Render's) + GI = HUGE render times. I had to solve this by faking it with omnis. There is a main direct light to serve as the sun and a lot of little omnis which cast very blurred shadow maps around. I also added some green and blue lights inside the island to make you believe that there is "something" else inside. The top and front views of the light setup is here:

Ok. The island is done. Now for the background.

I hand painted most of the background, some clouds, the colors, the haze... the clear cloud on the top right and some on the back ones are tweaked photographs. The planets (moons?) are modified images of our moon mapped on geospheres. This is pretty simple, the back plate looked like this:

I think there's a useful thing to note here. I chose a vertical image (rather than the typical 1.333 image aspect) because it's easier to use as a poster or a cover. The final image resolution is 3000 X 4500 pixels.
Now that I have something to use behind my terrain I set up my scene. Remember that I told you that I consider the use of displacement maps as a modeling technique? Well, I think I can make my point here. What you see is the actual scene, there is nothing but a fraction of a sphere. I didn't move a single vertex to make the terrain.

To be consistent I merged the lights from the island file and placed my sphere basically in the same place as the island in the other scene.
I used 3 textures for the terrain mapped with a planar gizmo: a color, bump and displacement map. I chose to use a bump here because due to my time limitations I could not use very high values for the displacement subdivision in the terrain so I needed it to look a little more detailed. It took a lot of tweaking to make the river look right, I had to find a good balance between the bump (as in the foam and little waves) and the displacement. Basically the same rock textures I used on the island I applied to these maps along some other dirt, hand painted grass and masks.
The terrain is a little arid so far, remember what we said about using our story to build our scene? This planet's atmosphere and surface are still under construction, give it a couple of hundred years and it will be a forest.

The river is 100% hand painted. Here are the basic steps for doing it.

Step 1: First paint the basic shape with a light blue and add a little texture and some light.

Step 2: Add the rocks beneath it as you don't want it to look like ir just runs over the grass. Play a little bit with its opacity and saturation.

Step 3: Add some dark blues and greens.

Step 4: And finally paint some foam and waves wherever the water hits a surface as a rock or the walls or where you feel like a little waterfall would look right. And you're done!

This is the result:

I made two other minor islands for the background. These are variations of the first, they needed more time than I thought. Both have some texture stretching problems but they would be far away so it's ok, they didn't need displacement maps either just bump. I used the same plants rendered for the main generator with some deformations. The tree on the top on one of them is a photograph I took against blue sky, this helped to apply a mask to it easily. I had to add some shades, lights and color correction to the tree so it would match my palette.

Now for the waterfalls.

I searched the web and found a lot of images that looked the way I wanted mine to. I found that when high volumes of water fall down they tend to form kinf of "V" shapes before it starts to dissolve into veils. So I made this image and mapped it onto facing faces on a particle system on the opacity channel.

This is my gift to you out there, if you can find a way to use it be my guest.

As the waterfall goes down I used the blur tool and the eraser to fade them, then I applied some brush strokes and blurred them to make it seem like wind was taking this veils away.

Finally I added some stars, a little color correction on the islands (they were too yellow), the fog, the rainbow, some extra shadows on the world below (casted by clouds and the islands themselves), little touches on the shadows casted by the plants over the generators, little highlights on the river, some extra colors on the eyes of the faces and a couple of extra general touches.

And that's it!

Well, I hope this helps. If you would like to see more about something drop me a line. Comments and critiques are always welcome. C ya!

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