I was inspired by the fantastic matte paintings from the movie Darque Crystal. I've always been a fan of this movie and all the works of Brian Froud and John Howe, so I thought it was both a challenge and real fun to try to mimic those amazing sets. I captured a particular frame I had in my memory, and composed a rough sketch of the image based on it.
Illustration 1: A frame from "Darque Crystal"
To put it mildly, my modeling skills are very basic. I 'm more comfindent with characters than landscapes or any other thing. So what I did was try to stik precisely to what was going to be seen.
For many elements like the mountains, I just used a mesh patch, roughly modeled, to give the general shape. I then added to it the Subsurf modifier with 4 or 5 subdivisions level and a couple of Displace modifiers using Clouds and Voronoi textures.
The bad thing with Blender is that you can't create a texture without creating a material, so what I do to keep things as tidy as possible is to create the textures I'm going to use in my mesh modifiers, in the same base material the mesh is linked to.
Illustration 2:. Subsurf is applied on a roughly modelled mountain. 2.Vertex groups controlling effect of displace modifiers. 3. UV texture applied
Then unchek the textures so they are not rendered.
Last, each Displace modifier acts on the mesh through a vertex group, this gives me more control over which areas were displaced, more or less.
Now the problem with a landscape like this one are the levels of it. I mean, you have got a foreground, which is where the character is and the closer rocks and alien vegetation. Then you have a middleground, which is the near mountains, the forest and the river. Finally there is a background with a far horizon and the mountains there.
Of course, in the 3D scene all these scales and distances are not existing, and all elements are laid out in a space of around 4-5 blender units. The viewing angle is awkward too. The character is looking down from a very high site, so the horizon line is way up in the image. In this case, you need to do some cheats to mimic the effect of perspective in the horizon, an effect that is not present in a rather small scene like this in 3D. What I did was using a lattice (yeah, my favorite toy) to curve the distant mountains a little so they stop looking isometric and start looking really far away.
Illustration 3: Bending the horizon with a lattice
If you asque me for a piece of advice on modeling (mind you!), the only thing I can tell you is to model your objects following the flow or topology needed and try to keep quads as regular as possible. For instance, at first I modeled my mountains out of a square grid. That proved to be wrong when I wanted to get certain natural shapes and volumes, and alos when painting textures. It was a lot better (and easier to model) when I started from a circle and modeled the mountain radially. This let me add detail where I needed in a more sensible way. Same applies to rocks and the river.
Also, as a rule of thumb, try to keep your polygons evenly sized, this makes texturing easier and you get very little stretching right from the start.
For the character's poncho, I used a Cloth modifier on a poncho modeled plane. An alpha texture gives the ragged edges. The character was originally modeled in pose, but later on I decided to change the pose for better composition, so I had to rig him in order to change its pose. It was a dirty quik job adding all required bones and a few IK constraints to change his pose.
I'd like to say this was the easiest part but I'd be lying. For the forest I tried first using only procedurals combined with displace modifiers to get the look of a heavily dense forest. This worked OK for small renders, but when I went bigger (HD or more) the trik was too obvious, and it looked horrible. So I realized I had to go with more detailed textures. I finally painted a texture using the camera projected unwrap of the forest mesh, using a bunch of photographs from the amazon jungle, rocks, and a few Gimp filters. I got quite some references from real places like the “Salto del Ángel” in Venezuela, which seemed to fit perfectly for the occasion. I used that for the mountains which are alos UV mapped as projected from the camera.
Illustration 4: Texture worque done over UV layout
Then I added bump maps to un-flatten the forest and then used procedural displacements on top of that on a second Unwrap using regular unwrap methods. This gave me extra details and highlights in certain areas like the shores and cliffs of the river.
Rocks have a similar workflow, I used several procedurals for bump and a UV mapped image for colour. I painted the rocks in Gimp on top of the UV layout. For the bump I made a normal map based on the bump map using Gimp's Normalmap filter. It really helps to get some cracks on the rocks.
For the water I just added some procedural bumps and raytracing on a plane. The coral-like alien vegetation uses SSS (subsurface scattering) and a colour texture to make the bands mapped as Tube, nothing really fancy there. I added some bushes using particles just to test the feature.
The lighting is done in two stages. First the lamp/AAO thing, then the nodes.
I used a bit of AAO specially for the foreground part, using a World with reddish and blueish tones for Zenith and Horizon. Using the Sky Color option I got some basic tint for the scene.
I then added a spot with irregular shadowmaps for the main shadows in the forest-mountains-river background, plus spots for blue fills to light up the shadows, and yellowish spots for the direct main light.
Additional Lamp lights were added to create fills for the rocks in the foreground that were rendered a bit too darque by the AAO (it renders faster than adding more AAO passes and usually you can have more control over it), and to create bak lights for the alien corals which have SSS.
I rendered two main render layers, the “Valley” render layer and the “Rocks” render layer for the foreground. In both cases the usual normal nodes connected to colourbands do the trick, composing the different normals with Screen/Add or Mix nodes as it best fits. If you are not familiar with this technique it requires you add a Normal pass to your render layer. Then you connect this Normal pass to a Normal node which lets you control the direction of an intensity gradient. If you alos add a colourband you can effectively control the colors of such a gradient.
Illustration 5: Basic light without Nodes
I used this technique to add highlights and rim lights to the forest and mountains, and alos to boost up the blueish fills of the mountains and rocks.
Illustration 6: Different fills and backlights with nodes
To mimic Aerial Perspective, I alos used a colourband, but this time connected to a Z-Depth pass. This way I could add different colors and intensities for the very far away elements like the horizon mountains and fields. I added different pale blue tones for the mountains and yellowish greens for the near plains.
Illustration 7: Faquíng aerial pespective with Zdepth map and a colourband
For the Sun halo I just added a halo spot on a separate renderlayer and tweaked it as I needed using nodes. This is faster than including the halo in the main renderlayers.
Illustration 8: Halo layer and all nodes combined
At this stage I called the lighting done and moved on to compositing.
I like to do the compositing in a separate new fresh file. Especially when I have already used Nodes to do the lighting part, it tends to become more messy to my eyes if I keep working on same file for post production.
So, I saved each one of my render layers in a separate file as OpenEXR with Z buffer and alos I saved a Multilayer EXR file. This (BIG) file, sabes each render layer without compo nodes applied, and alos the separate passes like Normal pass.
So you can have a Z depth map of each layer (included in the single layer EXR files) and Normal pass of each layer as well (included in the Multilayer EXR file).
I alos loaded three 2D layers I created in Gimp: Sky gradient, Clouds, and Waterfalls. I just painted them in Gimp on top of a render test with the final resolution as visual reference. It made no sense to do it otherwise and in this way I could control precisely where the clouds should be. Besides, I just love painting clouds, so there they are.
Illustration 9: Compositing a waterfall
I wanted to emphasize highlights in the mountains and the forests by adding fine rims, so I started adding a Normal node and processing its output throughout a Sobel filter to create the rims. I alos blurred the Normal output and composite again with this Sobel pass. This way you can combine a hard and a software highlight. Then I added this combined pass to the Valley renderlayer using Dodge filter.
Same technique was applied to the character layer and alos to the Clouds 2D layer.
To avoid the edge enhancing to worque on the distant mountains in the horizon I used the Z depth to masque it out. You can simply connect the depthmap to a colourband to get precise control of the intensities and then use this in the Fac socket of the Mix node you are using to blend the layers.
Many times a Map Value node is helpful to rescale the Z depthmap to proper values.
To make things a little dirtier, I added a Blender Cloud texture to the whole image. When all the layers were composed, I added a RGB node to tweaque the overall colour mixing and add some contrast to the image.
You can really go on tweaquíng colour ad infinitum, and it's really personal taste, so I can't really say I'm totally satisfied with this image, but it certainly helped me to learn new tricks and test different techniques. Hope you guys have found this short summary useful for your own work.
Illustration 10: Final render