This theory based tutorial is intended for beginners who are making the switch from creating and building assets, to creating whole scenes or environments. I’ll take you through the processes and techniques I use, and show you the challenges and mistakes I've faced when making larger sets.
The original idea for this scene was to have a giant dragon wrapping its entire body around a mountain. The dragon would have been a mix of stone and elements of the mountain infused together. The sketch below outlines some basic ideas of how the dragon would wrap around the mountain. I also made a few sketches of some of the foreground elements. I knew I wanted to have a "village" feel in the foreground.
For the entrance of the temple (located at the bottom), I had designed a grand entrance, pulling inspiration from Greek architecture. I wanted large pillars, with a strong architectural read and something really bold. Almost something out of God of War, but with a mix of Asian inspired architecture as a starting point or base. I pictured having two giant Samurai warriors in front of the gate.
After taking a step back from my sketches and the more I looked at them, the more I realized I had already done this scene before. I’'d basically sketched out the same thing, as I had previously done for my Yuki Machi scene.
I even went ahead and did a simple block of the scene in 3ds Max, just to see if the block out would feel different then my last Asian inspired scene. Too much of my block out was too similar to what I'd done before, so back to the drawing board to see if I could add anything fresh to the scene.
For me, the scene that I was trying to create was about improving on my past mistakes, and challenging myself to create something bigger. So I finally decided to take out the dragon and Samurai statues and focus more on building a city/ village feel. I still basically kept the same camera angle and FOV, I just changing the key elements.
The trickiest part about the change in direction was creating a new interesting focal point. I knew it was going to be a series of temples along the side the mountain, but the overall look and guiding principles were still undetermined. So I just went ahead and placed a ton of Lego kit objects together in the focal point, hoping something would stick, instead of drawing out more sketches.
2. The Checklist
Over the years I’ve made a checklist of general art related triggers (I encourage you develop your own checklist.) I often refer to mine when brainstorming ideas. You can download the checklist that I’ve developed below. Please check it out, I hope it helps you with your art.
3. Block Out
After my first block out, I started noticing problems with the overall scene. The basic composition was OK, but overall, the scene was just too busy. With way too many lines in the foreground, overlapping the wrong way.
The focal point (the temple) was also way too busy. With way too many objects and no clear architectural style. I really just tossed a ton of objects together to see what would work.
If I was to do this again, I’d stick with brainstorming more temple ideas on paper first and use my style guides as much as possible. There is also a bit too much detail on the floor tiles in the extreme foreground. Overall the scene is over dressed. So it's time to pull back and remove all the over done elements.
At this point, I also start doing a lot of paint overs on my renders. I personally find this very useful, it helps me focus on the final result of the image. I don't spend more then 30 minutes working on it and it's an easy way to see which ideas work, before blocking it out in Max. In the example below, I’ve tried experimenting with waterfalls, mountains in the vista, clouds, and some basic overall colors for the mood of the environment.
More paint overs (I really like doing paint overs.) I know some people just like building everything in Max and never touch Photoshop or Nuke until the very end. But I honestly feel the back and forth process works.
In this render, I finally refined the layout of the main temple. Its simpler then before, but the silhouette could still be improved (it's still a bit too symmetrical.) I also experimented with different foreground elements. The first one being a dragon design on the stone walkway. I needed to try and express more symbolism in the scene, since it's an element that is currently lacking in the big picture.
Another element I tried to play around with were the trees. At first I really wanted to have a ton of trees, trees everywhere, but that really didn't work out. I ended up placing trees in the corner areas that would help break up the straight lines. Another element I played with was a tiny tree. I really wanted to place a cherry blossom in the middle section of the composition. It's pretty small in the scene, but it did add a bit more life.
In the current scene I haven’t showcased any sense of "life elements", or anything to really prove that people actually live here, a sense of history.
4. Main Temple
For the main temple, it was pretty tricky trying to rework the entire design. I’ll be honest, I didn't spend a lot of time preparing the design when I first started brainstorming ideas. What I had originally blocked out really was a mess. It didn't make much sense logically in terms of how the temple was constructed, or what the main purpose of the temple was. It didn’t have a strong underlying theme.
I later created a stronger sense of separation from the lower and upper part of the temple. At the very top of the mountain is a smaller, more isolated temple with a simpler design and the midsection has more of a "housing" theme to it. With the stacked layers of windows.
After looking at the new placement in 3ds Max, the overall focus did look better. It had a stronger single focal point, and the temple was pushed into the mountain and not just "sitting" on top of it. But a few issues still remained. The very bottom section had no architectural elements, just space for a mountain or hill to be placed in front of it, not very interesting. I tried doing paint overs with a small bridge, that didn't work. So at the end of the day, I decided to "fix everything in post'.
5. Scene Layout
For my scene setup, I personally start blocking out the foreground elements and then drop in a camera and fix the FOV (field of view.) I honestly try my best to snap a lot of objects to the grid at first, its a good practice to have.
So you probably already know the saying "model only what you see in the camera" it's a good saying, but there are some down sides to this. The issue I personally faced was not creating the extended environment around the scene. For example, buildings, towers or mountains that might cast a shadow into the scene. In my scene, I created fake buildings to the left and directly behind the camera, this helps create the long cast shadows you see in the foreground.
I also later created two fake mountains to the left of the area (both are off camera). Those mountains helped create a cast shadow on the main temple area. One goal I had in mind for this project, was to push the scale of shadows. In the past I had always had simple, small shadows, but in this scene, I have the main temple 50% covered in shadow and also have a lot of the foreground in shadow as-well.
My lighting setup is super simple. One direct light for the sun, a couple of spot lights pointing up at the scene to create the effect of bounce light, and another set of lights pointing at the main scene in a dome array for my ambient light. I prefer that setup over a single Omni light, because Omnis create a really flat look, and it's not something you can fix in post.
For my direct light, I actually attach two donut like shapes to the light, strictly just to help me position the light. The image below shows the colors I used for each of my lights.
7. Render Passes
For my render passes I stick with the basic stuff:
- Z Depth
- Lighting (Direct/ Ambient)
- AO (Ambient Occlusion)
For the AO pass, I create multiple versions with different settings for my AO material. I’ll try the render using a close distance, and again with a smaller distance.
For object and material IDs, I make simple self-illuminated materials and place them on the elements I know I'll need during post. To save on time I render my object IDs in sets, having up to 10 objects per render. Breaking it down more into foreground, middle ground, and background areas.
Now I've realized I made a huge mistake. So big, I really should have gone back into 3ds Max and reworked a lot of the layout of my scene. After importing my Object ID and Z-Depth passes, I realized that I’ve got a lot of tiny little holes and gaps in-between my lego kit objects. This mistake cost me a ton of time in Photoshop, because I had to go in and fix the tiny gaps by doing a lot of cloning and paint overs. Lesson learned, snap your objects correctly the first time.
8. Compositing Workflow
For my Diffuse pass I do a simple check to see if I can spot any major problems. For example, objects with the wrong texture, or bad UV mapping. This is also the time when I start masking objects or materials to color correct with an adjustment layer. This is where I also place a lot of "dirty mask" images overall, this helps break up a lot of the repeating diffuse texture. Some people might actually create a decal in Max for this, but I really prefer to add these details in post, because you have more control in terms of placement and scale.
A good example of this, is in the extreme foreground on the stone tiles. The actual diffuse I used was super simple (as you can see in the image below.) It's just a generic tiling stone texture. But I added all the cool elements, the roughness and aging, in Photoshop.
For the Z-Depth pass, I do a lot of color overlays and add the Z-Depth pass into many of the adjustment layers. For example using the Z-Depth to desaturate the mid and background elements.
Another big mistake here was, not placing a placeholder mesh at bottom of the mountain at render time. It caused problems when compositing the final image because I had a giant hole in the bottom of my render pass. I had to spend a lot of unnecessary time adding many fog layers to even out the over exposed matte painting.
For the shadow pass, I really only do a few simple things. First I usually adjust the contrast and add more or less to the shadow areas which helps to push their values, since shadows are both light and dark. I also do a bit of a color correction on them and usually add a bit of a blue hue to add more realism. I also blur the shadows a bit, because having super sharp shadow lines isn't realistic.
For the lighting passes, I honestly don't do too much. I mainly just add a Curves adjustment layer in Photoshop and push the contrast. I also change the layer type and drop the opacity.
For the lighting on the main temple. I made some adjustments by hand painting and masked out some of the highlights from the direct lighting pass, and then used a fill layer with the sun light color. Which helped push the contrast a bit more. Since the main temple is the focal point of the image, it needed to stand out.
I did the exact same thing for the foreground. I really wanted the colors and shadows to pop a lot more, so I pushed the blues and reds and really sharpened the elements.
For the actual painting aspects, I wanted to go for something simple and clean. I had already tested layouts with mountains and some clouds, and had previously tried placing another Asian temple in the vista. But I cut it, since it didn't fit into the image that well. I also went ahead and added many adjustment layers to help balance the elements into the matte painting.
Another mistake I made was, I for some reason decided to paint on top of the alpha for my diffuse, instead of painting behind it. The problem this caused was that the alpha edge didn’t blend together properly, and since I didn't want to rearrange my layers and folders (because I would have had to spend a lot of time tweaking the adjustment layers), I ended up doing a lot of cloning on the edges to fix the painting.
Clouds for me have always been a bit difficult. I've personally always failed at creating a good sky. The main problems I've had in the past are, one, creating depth. And two, adding highlights from the sun or from other light sources (i.e the moon) onto the clouds. Obviously some might say, just take a single photo and use that. Well that's true, a matte painting is just a collection of images combined to create a great sense of harmony and unity.
For me adding the fog and clouds into the mid ground was a win, and placing a few clouds around the main temple at the top, was another win. It finally felt like the clouds had some depth to them.
My intention for the vista elements was pretty ambitious. I wanted very detailed mountains, mini temples on top of all the mountains, and super tiny details all over the place. The problem was, most vistas should be simple and not overly detailed, so I later removed the smaller temples and refined the vista area directly behind the focal point. Creating a simple vista will help with the overall readability of your final product.
As you can see below, my final image changed a whole lot since I first sketched it out. Looking back at the final product, I always like to list the positives and negatives I can take away:
- Nice layout.
- Clear leading lines.
- More contrast on focal point.
- Greater sense of life/history.
- Weak focal point design.
- Didn't fully utilize the rule of thirds.
- Low poly models, too boxy.
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