Vue Masterclass: Chapter 1
Welcome to the first part of a series of Vue tutorials. We will be exploring the creation of landscapes, tackling a different environment each chapter.
The special thing about this series is that the tutorials will be very results-driven. This means that I will concentrate on pointing out the essential elements of landscape creation and a cost-effective way of getting great results, rather than getting stuck into the technical side of things. The reason I am doing it like this is that I want to write articles that are easy to follow and that are about the principles more than anything else. Working as an environment artist in the film industry, I know the pressure of production and that is why I feel the end result is the most important thing. The software is just the tool that will help you reach that result.
The series should be interesting for beginners and intermediates, but it will also be filled with enough great tips to keep advanced readers interested. I would like to start by recommending that you take a look at the work of Dax Pandhi. He is a very advanced user who creates stunning final results.
Choosing Your Subject
Starting a new project can be a bit difficult. But the most important thing is to set a goal. If you already have a brief, that shouldn't be too hard. If you don't, take the time to come up with one yourself. Working without one can be a lot of fun as a quick exercise, but when working on a bigger project the goal should be very clear from the beginning.
For the first tutorial we're going to create a Mediterranean-style coast scene. I know that I want to go for a result that looks pretty photoreal, so it makes sense to start by looking for good reference images as this is the key to creating realistic 3D environments. It is easy to get carried away into thinking that your image looks photoreal, but only by comparing it with real-life examples will you be sure of that. I will talk a bit more about this later on.
To build my coastline, I start with a procedural terrain (Fig.01). By editing the function that generated the terrain I create the result I want. The setup is based on a model created by Dax Pandhi. This approach uses two terrain fractals that are later combined. I use one of them to create the larger features of the terrain and then the second one for the more detailed shapes. The one that creates the large features has been filtered to give it a canyon aspect. I need that for the steep cliffs of the coastline.
The two terrain filters can then be combined with a Blender node. You have to experiment with the values of the nodes until you get the result you are looking for. This is where experience and technical training comes into place. You should know that by clicking on the Terrain editor window with the Function editor open, you will update the preview of the procedural terrain. So any changes you make to the nodes will be previewed straight away.
The last node I use is a strata filter, which creates the nice lines running across the full length of the coastline. There is just one thing to be careful with here: the scale of your ground. Having the right scale set up will save you a lot of trouble later. Go to the Size tab, lock the scaling proportion and then choose the size you are aiming for (Fig.02).
Setting up the Camera
Now that we have a general idea in place for the terrain, we can choose a nice camera view. Before I do this I create a sea layer, because the water level is going to affect how much I see of my terrain, and of course the composition of the image. After doing that, I am free to move around with the camera, and choose something I like. I want to see the nice steep cliff in the distance, the bay and have an interesting foreground, so let's go for something that includes all of that. This is a moment where you should spend a bit of time exploring your scene because you might find some great surprises. This is where the power of Vue becomes obvious: after just one hour of work, you are already exploring a full 3D environment.
Setting up the Lighting
After finding the view that looks right, there are still two things to worry about. The first, and probably the most important, is the lighting. Choosing the lighting scenario is very important so this is where having a good reference comes into play. Find a good image and aim to light your scene like that.
My advice would be to start from one of the default "physical" atmosphere setups. Choose a good direction for the sunlight that helps to show the volumes of your terrain. Usually a side light which is not too high will give you nice daylight results. Here are my atmosphere settings (Fig.03). Notice the lowered setting for the quality boost which improves the render times. Of course, if you are not planning to move the camera you can reuse the indirect lighting calculation to speed up your test times.
The First Render
Before starting the first render there is one last thing we have to take care of: the material of our terrain. For the first test I use one of the default materials, "Rock and Grass", from the Landscapes option. It helps you read the volumes of the terrain well. I leave the water with the default material for now, choose the "Final" render preset, and press go. Here is the result (Fig.04). It isn't the most photoreal thing you'll ever see, but we still have a way to go.
Building The Materials
The next step is to start working on the materials. I'm happy to keep the lighting as it is and the terrain also looks like it could work for now. What you have to keep in mind when reading this is that my approach is influenced by how you would work with this kind of scene if it was for a movie. I'm trying to keep the elements as neutral as possible, with a lot of range for changes. Our final result is an image, which means that I will do all the final tweaks in Photoshop, so the important things to concentrate on now are those elements that I can't control there.
One of these things is the distribution of materials. This is where we get to see the power of the Vue Material editor. One of the things I use most is the altitude distribution. With the correct settings, you can create a complex material that simulates real ones very closely.
In the case of this image I start by working on the cliff material. By using the mixed material and altitude distribution I create three big areas: the cliff, the beach and the underwater sand (Fig.05). I also modify the parameters of the water to get it closer to the look I want. It's looking way too transparent and reflective at the moment so let's concentrate on those and change the overall hue. This is what I've ended up with (Fig.06).
Control is the Key
It could get a little tricky now because of the large scale, but I want to further refine the materials. The obvious solution is to try to split the terrain into smaller pieces that will be easier to control creatively. So I duplicate my ground three times and then sculpt away the parts I don't need. This makes working on the scene a lot easier in the long run (Fig.07).
Focusing on Specific Areas
The next natural step is to focus on improving each piece of the terrain. So I start with the far cliff, working on the material. I add another step, trying to create a darker line along the area where it makes contact with the water (Fig.08). This idea came from looking closely at my reference images.
Please keep in mind that when working on a specific area you should always use the render region option to reduce the time wasted in the test renders. You might have to test the values of the mixing amounts in the Material editor a couple of times until you get what you are looking for. An important detail is to specify the way the two materials blend and if you want a sharp or a progressive transition between the two. In this case I want a sharper line to get a better feel of that area where the water touches the cliffs. I apply the same technique on all the terrain segments. It is also noticeable that I've changed the color of the water to create a better sense of scale. Having deeper blue for the water means having deeper water and therefore automatically a bigger scale (Fig.09).
Adding the Vegetation
I'm happy with the terrain now so it's time to start working on the vegetation. The ecosystem technology is what revolutionized Vue a couple of years ago, and it is a very handy tool. In a specific environment, like this one, I tend not to use automatic distribution, but paint the areas I want the vegetation to grow on. This way I have a lot more control over the vegetation and on the composition. Adding vegetation can be a very tricky task though. Recreating the natural variation is not easy, and a lot of time must be spent trying to improve the look of your ecosystem. Because of the more general approach of this tutorial, we will not go into that, but keep in mind that this is a very important point when you are creating your 3D environment.
A lot of the time you might need to create custom plants, or even use outside models to get the look you want. Again, I have to repeat, having good reference images is essential (Fig.10).
But as I said, I want to keep it simple and so I only use a type of tree, the "Springtime White Birch". Here is how our scene looks after the ecosystem painting (Fig.11). The beach seems a bit too empty so let's add some bushes using the same technique (Fig.12).
Adding Details to the Terrain
Now that the general elements are in place, we can concentrate on making things a bit more interesting. The far cliff looks a bit boring, so let's modify the terrain a bit on the far edge. Here is how the terrain looks after I've worked on it a bit (Fig.13). When making these kind of changes always check the result through your render camera. There is no point in making it look cool in the terrain editor if it is not interesting in the final image. I know there are some artefacts here and there, but there is nothing that cannot be fixed later (Fig.14).
Rendering the Image
At this point, I'm happy enough to start a serious render. Not everything is perfect and it doesn't look photoreal, but I have faith in the way things were going. This is another step where experience will tell you say if it's the right time or not to go to post-render work. On the other hand, you can always come back and tweak stuff, so if you feel like throwing your renders into Photoshop and playing with them give it a go and see what happens.
It's time to prepare everything for Photoshop now. It's not just about the render at this point, it's also about all the things you can use in Vue that could help the tweaking process later. Enable the multi-pass render, and start adding stuff that you think could be useful. You should always render passes like ZDepth, Indirect Illumination, Shadows, Reflection etc, plus object masks, material masks and any other thing you think might help. Be careful though; this will increase your render time, so if there is a time constraint, keep it under control.
Be careful with the output PSD file. All the layers will be locked and there will be a lot of information in extra channels (object alphas, etc). When you open the PSD file look around and try to think about the way that you could use the extra passes. They will have several blending modes which can be changed by default, so take a look at how they look in Normal mode – you might be surprised at the effect (Fig.15). Here is the render with some extra passes on the bottom. So the work is done now, surely? No, not even close (Fig.16)!
The Photoshop Processing
As I said earlier, what I'm actually looking for in my Vue render is a good base to work with. That means that I want all the elements in place, I need the lighting, I have all the extra passes, so all I need to do is tweak all this information to get the best result. In film visual effects, the result of the CG pipeline is what we have at the moment and it's the role of the compositor to make all the elements fit together nicely. Of course, this is just a simplified description of the actual process, but the principle is the same.
The reason behind all of this is simple: speed. At this point our render times are already a bit slow. A change in the color of the water will take way too much time to render. However, having the water as a separate element in Photoshop, allows us to do that extremely quickly. So we can be flexible and creative, and most of all, results driven. Having good references will come in handy again, because right now we can actually have the two next to each other.
Only one question could arise. Given the fact that we are processing the image in 2D, aren't we losing the power of 3D? What if you have a moving camera in your scene? Well, at this time, this is not our goal. We just want to create a good looking image using the power of Vue. And that is still in reach. But, don't worry; there are a lot of techniques to do exactly the same thing using this process. It's not the purpose of this tutorial, but I will probably talk about this subject in a later article.
I am sure you've noticed that I haven't talked much about the sky at all. Well, there is a reason for that. Even though Vue skies look good, in most cases there is simply no need to use a CG sky. There are tons of amazing picture libraries that you can use, and the result will be well, photoreal. This is what you would do in real-world production where time is an issue, so unless you have a good reason for it, I wouldn't spend too much time trying to get it to look right. I choose a very typical daylight sky, because I don't want the image to look too dramatic. The goal is still a natural looking image (Fig.17).
The image is really coming along, but at this point, I'm not very happy with the tones and the values of my CG elements. So by having the reference images on top of my render I color correct my cliffs and my water to match those from the photographs. This way I know I will be closer to real values (Fig.18 – 19). In the next step I take advantage of the extra passes I rendered earlier. For example, I think that the trees are a bit too shiny and the hard light makes them look a bit too plastic. So I use the indirect illumination pass and mask the ecosystems alpha to get rid of those and add to the natural feel. I add depth to the far cliff using the depth pass, and lower the contrast in the foreground. When doing large scale outdoor environments, it is important not to have too much contrast, because that doesn't really happen in real life (Fig.20).
The next thing I do might look a bit strange, but it is actually very easy to do and efficient. I add a bit of extra detail to the overall image in the places that look a bit too clean to me, by creating adjustment layers and then painting in the masks. For example, on the far cliff I create a Hue adjustment layer that makes it green, and then invert the mask. By taking a small brush and painting in the mask you can reveal a bit of the green in places of your choice. I use the same approach for the beach (Fig.21).
Going back to Vue for a bit of extra help painting bits of grass on the cliff is easy, but some other stuff might not be so. This is true for the water. I feel it needs a bit more underwater stuff around the far cliff, but painting those in could turn into way too complicated a job. So let's go back to Vue and do a fast render of the ground with the underwater sand/vegetation material everywhere (Fig.22). This can now be used as a pass, multiplied and revealed around the far cliffs and shore (Fig.23).
The Finishing Touches
The image is starting to look pretty good, right? But there are still a couple of things to do. First, if you look closely, you can see there are still a few places where the render has some issues. Just took the Clone brush and sample some places next to the problem areas. This can be done around the far cliff and the vegetation on the beach, which looks a bit too big (Fig.24).
Time to add a bit of fun to the image! It's a shame to create such a nice place and have nobody to enjoy it, right? So let's bring in a couple of human elements to add a bit of life to the image… not to mention scale and a bit of a story. People love to see environments populated, and a detail like this can make your image more appealing (Fig.25). The tiny boat on the left really looks great, and helps the composition too.
Speaking of composition, there is one last thing. When I do a Vue render, I tend to render a bigger area then I initially intended, just to get more space to play with. In terms of this image, I think cropping the image will make it look a bit better. So after adding a bit of chromatic aberration, and de-focussing some areas, I crop the image and it's done!
This concludes the first tutorial about Vue environments. If you got this far it must have been a pretty interesting read, so if you have any questions feel free to email me. Cheers!