build cinematic environments
Master the fundamentals of developing cinematic exterior landscapes
The fundamentals for building a cinematic environment
There are some key fundamental steps to follow during the process of developing CG environments before you can reach the final composited result. These ‘fundamentals’ refer to colours, shapes, textures, modelling, lighting, atmosphere, exposure, contrast, saturation and so on, and these parameters are the basic principles to learn before starting any work. For example, if we are working on an intro for a film or a series, we should take note of any important details of the script in order for us to understand the essence of the work, which will in turn enable us to understand the needs of our client. Sketching environments using references is a good way to start because it helps us to organise our scattered ideas.
It is also very important to understand colour theory and how colours are connected to different emotions, and after mastering these principles we will be ready to enhance the final scene. Improving a piece of work is not simply a process from one day to the next, but rather an ongoing development involving trial and error.
For this tutorial, we will focus on exterior landscapes where atmospheres, fog, lighting and texture play an important role. Over the next few pages you will learn fundamental processes such as developing height maps, texturing, lighting, rendering, post-production and colour grading to achieve a visual balance in cinematic environments.
01 workflow overview process
Look at references of nature and think about how you will develop your composition. Merge your scattered ideas with emotions, objectives, and how you will develop the scene by texturing, modelling, sculpting, rendering, post-processing, lighting and colour grading. The workflow overview is fundamental for understanding the processes step by step.
02 observe references
It’s important to begin by collecting and observing some relevant references. Try to look at the vegetation, shapes, textures, colours, leaves, trees, clouds, haze, atmosphere and lighting. Take notes on a blank page in Photoshop, ipad or paper of all the important details that will enhance your final scene. This will be helpful in preventing us from forgetting any key details during the next steps, because it can be easy to miss some of the fundamental key aspects that we need for our image.
03 think About the composition
Next focus on your scene style (futuristic, dystopian, fantasy, etc), the story behind the scene and where/when it takes place. Once these parameters are set, the next process will be easier to develop. It is like a staircase; we cannot go to the second floor if we do not start with the first step. Working in an organised manner is essential to achieve balance in each new job.
04 Merge scattered ideas
The notes we have taken so far should be linked with emotions and objectives; otherwise, everything will lose its meaning. Consider elements such as using warm or cold atmospheres; haze, fog or dust; isolation or many people; green or dry vegetation; desert or soil; trees or just sediments. All these parameters will shape different situations for the final work. You can choose the most appropriate process according to the script and the story that is being told.
05 Develop the scene
Create a mental map with all your scattered ideas. Start thinking about the modelling of the terrain (World Machine, Terragen, Vue, etc), texturing using nodes, rendering the scene in the native software or exporting the height map or geo to another software, and postproducing the final render with some simple adjustments, such as fixing details, colour grading, etc.
06 sketch the scene
For the sketching process we used Photoshop to set the perspective view to see how the scene objects will be located on the terrain. Considering what the viewer will see is fundamental when setting the perspective. During this process, we recommend the use of references from movies, series, etc. It’s like the process of developing concept art for a film, where we draw a series of frames.
07 world Machine: basics
Before creating the terrain we should understand the basic nodes and how they work. Firstly, open the Advanced Perlin noise with a left-click. A new window will appear and in the top-right side you can choose different presets; you can see how they work in the view on the left-hand side. Presets are a great way to start when you don’t know too much about how each parameter works.
08 world Machine: octaves & persistence
Open the Advanced Perlin generator and move the Octaves slider to see how it changes the resolution of the final terrain. Have you noticed the difference? Lowering the Octaves to 3 will decrease the layers of noise for the fractal, whereas higher octaves will add more layers, that is, more details, but by default this option is ‘automatic’. Another parameter is Persistence which controls the degree of strength of each layer of noise. If you decrease the Persistence this will result in smooth terrain, and vice versa.
09 world Machine: natural>erosion
The erosion in World Machine simulates millions of years of weathering and erosion by rain, so this feature is great for increasing the realism of your terrains. In this step we do a test of standard and channelled erosion to compare the results. Standard erosion produces weathered features without deep gullies, and channelled erosion deepens and carves gullies.
10 world Machine: using Macros
On the World Machine website there are a lot of macro options that will impact on your final work. In this case we used Fractalnoi to demonstrate how it generates fractals and achieves channelled slopes. For this kind of work, it is important to understand the geological language, so that we know what to modify instead of simply playing around with a lot of unknown parameters.
11 Develop the terrain in wm
To begin we’ve added the Advanced Perlin node with the preset Experimental-basicperlin. We changed the Feature Scale to 6.7km, Steepness: 0.84, Activity: 0.563, Offset: 0.188, Lead-in-level: 0.031. It is important to focus on the Feature Scale, as it is the base of the terrain. We recommend using some references for a better understanding of mountain sizes, rocky formations, etc.
12 Mask Areas for plains
During this process, we added terraces and the Layout Generator node. The Layout Generator can work as a mask controlling where the previous nodes will affect the terrain. Experiment with the Falloff Distance and Opacity (strength) sliders. For the edges the Falloff Profile Curve is perfect for achieving a natural merge. For this kind of VFX, we activated Deactivate Static Dynamic Objects with the aim of selectively activating them later, so using Activate by Geometry you can use a geometry to destroy selected areas.
13 world Machine: erosion node
Go to the Natural tab and search for the Erosion node. This node allows us to add more details to the mountains and terrains for a natural-looking landscape. To get a preview of how this feature will affect the terrain, select the Erosion node and click on Lock Preview. Go to the 3D view icon and in the left panel double-click Erosion. Modify the values to preview the effects.
14 create the Diffuse MAP in wm
To create the diffuse map, we used the macro Colouriser by HYLK for this tutorial, but there are other macros available for download from the World Machine website. For visualising the output of this node, merge the output from this node (HYLK colouriser texture) with the Erosion node output (Primary output) using Overlay view. Now, click on Overlay view, Lock Preview, go to 3D view and click on the left panel in Colouriser by HYLK. Adjust the parameters according to your preferences.
15 export Maps from wm
Now it’s time to export the normal map. Go to Converter>normal-map Maker and connect the input to the output of Erosion, and the output to Bitmap Output, exporting it as TIFF (16bits). We do the same for diffuse. For exporting the mesh, go to Output>mesh Output, and connect it to the primary output of Erosion. Follow the reference to understand the node connections.
16 import the Mesh in MAYA
Import the OBJ file into Maya. Go to File>import and add the terrain. obj file. If your terrain is rotated or is underscaled, just select the terrain mesh, go to the Attribute Editor>transform Attributes, and there you can rotate, translate and scale your mesh. Now if your terrain has too many polygons, select the terrain mesh, go to Mesh>reduce. Once you have a lower resolution, go to the right panel>channel Box/layer Editor>select Input> Polyreduce>edit>delete History.
17 Assign Maps to the terrain
Go to the Hypershade editor>arnold>shader>aistandardsurface. Now in this new shader, go to Base Color and click on the small icon>file. There we import the diffuse texture created in WM. For the normal map, add the ainormalmap shader, and connect the input to the texture of Normal Map and the output to the input Normal Camera of aistandardsurface. For specular we used Flowmap. In the ainormalmap increase the Strength to 5. Right-click on the aistandardsurface shader and ‘Assign material to viewport selection’.
18 set the lighting
Go to Arnold>lights and add Physical Sky. Check the image to see the parameters used for this scene. Another good option for lighting your scene is using a Skydome light with an HDR map. We achieved good results using a simple Physical Sky lighting. There are no rules for this, just trial and error and testing the parameters of Elevation, Azimuth, Intensity, Turbidity etc.
19 ADD Details to Diffuse MAP
For this scene, we added a jeep or a car as the main subject, but we reduced the size of this object in order to emphasise the immense size of the mountains in contrast to the small object. For the generation of small details over the diffuse channel, we have imported the map into Photoshop and there we add some road tracks. In Photoshop we can add textures over the diffuse map to increase the level of details, and when you render in Maya you will get awesome results.
20 set the camera Angle
Once you have added the main object to the scene, try to focus on your favourite camera angle. Move the perspective view, then go to View>create Camera From View. Select the new camera, and in the tab Film Back try to change the Film Gate to test cinematic views. For this tutorial, we used 16mm Theatrical. Another good Film Gate is Vistavision or Imax.
21 configure render AND lighting
For the render settings, we used the default values of Arnold Renderer. Just increase the Ray Depth>total= 32 and check Adaptive Sampling. If you want to decrease the noise level over the surfaces, you can increase the level of Samples in the Skydomelight Attributes. Sometimes we can achieve really impressive results using just the default values.
22 ADD More Details
We can add more details to enhance the scene. For this, we used a plugin known as sppaint3d, which lets you add random rocks over a terrain. Import different rocks or model them, and below Brush Geometry click on add. In the Target Surface, select the terrain and click on add. Now, click on Paint and you can paint random rocks with different sizes over the terrain.
23 export the render to photoshop
For exporting the final render, we can use either the TIFF or EXR format. These file extensions are great for preserving detail for post-production. In the Render Settings, go to Image Size and change the resolution from 72 to 300. If you need to add any detail in the maps, or maybe add more objects to the scene, do so before rendering. Now, render it and save it as EXR using Raw.
24 colour GRADING in photoshop
In this final step we can finish enhancing our image. During this step we added dust trails, adjusted the colour levels using LUTS, increased the contrast and added a little blur in some areas. Try to add new layers of rocks or sediments over the final render and blend them using overlay or another blending mode with the rocky formations – this way we can increase the final resolution level. In addition, we can add gradients as volumetric lighting to enhance the atmospheric feel.