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Blender tutorial : Build a stunning cliff scene environments

This blender tutorial was written by the amazing Robert Nathan Garlington and appeared in issue 100 of 3D Artist

Tools used

After Effects

Discover how to create a breathtaking scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a blockbuster movie

Over the next 17 steps we’ll be going over the design, workflows and some quick tips that were used to bring Vigilant to life in Blender. Since composition is the key to creating a memorable and lasting image, we will be exploring various simple but powerful compositional techniques developed by classical and digital artists. Then, once we have blocked out the foundations of the scene, we will be diving into the details and learning how to use assets from The Rock Essentials assets to create convincing looking rubble, cobblestone and custom sculpts with photoscanned brushes. We will also explore how to add particle grass from The Grass Essentials assets to specific parts of the models for that extra fine level of detail. Ultimately the renders will be exported using the OpenEXR format and brought into Adobe After Effects, where colour grading will be applied to make a final image that stands out!

Blender Tutorial Step 01 – Use a real-world scale

Blender tutorial - environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

Just as architects must draw up plans and use precise measurements for their creations, an important first step for the 3D artist is to make sure that their scene units are set up using a real-world scale. Fortunately, Blender has the option to set the scale using either metric or imperial units depending on your preference. Setting this up from the beginning grounds your digital stage in reality and helps the mind to consider the size and weight of how the CG objects will be used, placed and scaled together.

Blender Tutorial Step 02 – Vision and scene blocking

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

Many successful works of art are born out of having a clear and definitive vision at the start of the project. However, not everyone has access to a concept artist to help them flesh out their ideas, so a great way to work around this is to block out your scene with basic geometry. Not only is this inexpensive, but it’s the most effective way to see if your composition will work conceptually in 3D space.

Blender Tutorial Step 03 – Play with the camera

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

Just as important as the blocking, the placement of the camera will dramatically affect the overall mood. It helps to create multiple cameras saved at various angles so that you can switch between them and help to narrow down your final position. For an outdoor scene like this one, it was important to grasp and capture the largeness of the surrounding environment, and so a nice, wide focal length of 28mm was used. It’s advisable to keep experimenting with the camera positioning until it looks good to you and then make sure to lock it down so that it cannot be moved by mistake.

Blender Tutorial Step 04 – Decide on the focal point

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

As you are blocking out the scene, the positioning of the objects should be geared and designed to purposefully lead your eyes through the digital canvas and directly to the focal point, which in this case is the spectral guard character. To aid in this, artists throughout the centuries have developed simple tricks to lead the eyes of their viewers towards the focal elements in their artworks. In this example, directional lines have been added to show how the objects in the scene can be positioned and angled to subtly point towards the focal element.

Blender Tutorial Step 05 – Establish the lighting early on

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

The lighting direction and hence the general mood is also very good to have established at the very beginning of an artwork. A simple sun can be added to give general direction to the light, but it’s far better to use a high dynamic range image (HDRI), which will also give realistic ambient sky lighting. To do this, a Blender Guru add-on called Pro Lighting: Skies was used to quickly play around with a multitude of HDRI light setups. It’s as simple as selecting a thumbnail preview and adjusting the various sliders within the add-on to achieve the desired light strength and direction.

Blender Tutorial Step 06 – Model the basics

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

Now it’s time to further define the shapes and work out the more specific details of the ruined tower. This is done with simple box-modelling techniques by extruding faces to the general width and height of the tower, and ultimately forming the foundation for the detailed sculpting later on. It is also very important at this stage to layout the UV coordinates correctly to avoid the hassles of texture stretching later on.

Blender Tutorial Step 07 – Gauge the negative space

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

Modelling and blocking out a scene is all well and good, but the real litmus test for your composition is how well the scene reads when looking at its negative space, which can be done by rendering out a silhouette cut-out of your primary subject matter all in black and then putting it against a pure white background. As you can see in this example, the negative space for the ruins creates a strong and dynamic shape that creates interest for the viewer. Also bear in mind that if a negative space silhouette is scaled down to a thumbnail size and can still be clearly made out, you’ve got yourself a winner!

Blender Tutorial Step 08 – Add the textures

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

For the texturing, the website www.poliigon.com was used because of their seamless high-resolution images and accompanying maps for PBR workflows. These maps included: Ambient Occlusion, Displacement, Normals, Gloss and Reflections. For the eroded wall structures, several varieties of medieval cobblestone and their accompanying Displacement maps were used, and since the UV coordinates had been done previously, texturing turned out to be a breeze.

Blender Tutorial Step 09 – Use The Rock Essentials

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

The Rock Essentials is a Blender Guru collection of hundreds of photoscanned rocks. Photoscanning is a process that takes multiple photos of any given subject and then re-creates its shape precisely in 3D. This collection also comes with an assortment of 33 Sculpting Cliff brushes that were similarly photoscanned from real cliff faces, as you can see in the example. The great advantage of photoscanning rocks over more traditional methods is that you are able to extract the realistic height information, which is extremely useful for sculpting your own detailed rock formations in your scenes.

Blender Tutorial Step 10 – Embrace the Multiresolution modifier

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

One of the most powerful tools in Blender is the Multiresolution modifier, because it allows you to subdivide a low-poly mesh and then sculpt in the fine details in a similar fashion to ZBrush or other popular sculpting tools. Used creatively with the Sculpting Cliff brushes, many elements on the ruins, including the steps, had erosion details easily added to them with this modifier enabled.

Blender Tutorial Step 11 – Create the trees

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

For creating trees there are a couple of good options inside of Blender. The first one is a free add-on called Sapling, which gives a nice degree of fine-tuning control in order to create very convincing-looking trees. However, if it’s speed you are looking for then there are also commercial tree add-ons such as The Grove by Wybren van Keulen, which allows you to create complex trees with just a few clicks. The Grove also has an assortment of bark textures and fantastic twig meshes, which can save a lot of valuable time in your artistic creations.

Blender Tutorial Step 12 – Hand place the rocks

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

Once the large elements are in place, it is time to start adding some individual stone details to the ruins, again using The Rock Essentials. Now while it would be easy to randomly place the rocks using a particle system, usually, hand-placing such elements will give your scene a more personal touch and subconsciously make the render look less computer generated to the viewer. Also, if you look at the archways, individual rocks were placed along the rim to emulate a rough cobblestone feel. Now in addition to its individual rocks, The Rock Essentials also has five large rock heap piles available, which were very useful to quickly add the look of rubble to the areas surrounding the ruins.

Blender Tutorial Step 13 – Work with The Grass Essentials

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

The Grass Essentials is another Blender Guru product for effortlessly adding greenery to a scene. It consists of 28 species of grass and weeds, hand-modelled and optimised into individual particle systems that work seamlessly in Blender. Because there are so many varieties of grass species to choose from, it’s possible to mix only a few types together and create some incredibly detailed, unique and diverse grass setups.

Blender Tutorial Step 14 – Apply vertex painting

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

Next, we need to start defining areas where details such as the grass particles will appear. To aid in this, Blender has a great tool called Weight Paint, which lets you define these areas by painting the vertices of a mesh with varying degrees of influence, saved into a vertex group. This is visualised by a colour spectrum ranging from blue to red, where blue shows areas of zero influence and red shows where the greatest concentration of particles will be. You can also create as many of these vertex groups as you like for the purposes of mixing multiple particle systems together.

Blender Tutorial Step 15 – Add environmental cloud effects

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

For the clouds there is a simple trick to add volumetrics to any mesh using a simple node setup with the volume shader inside the Cycles render engine. Just create a mesh shape, subdivide it and then displace it with a Fractal texture (such as Noise) for some random extrusions and then apply a simple volumetric material. Any hard edges that are visible can then be either masked and blurred out, or you can continue to refine the node settings and base mesh to your exact specifications.

Blender Tutorial Step 16 – Add in the character

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

For the spectral guard character, the intent from the beginning was that he would be a semi-transparent silhouette, and so his mesh was incredibly simple and no fine details were needed. Then to achieve his mysterious and ethereal quality, a tweaked version of the clouds volume shader was used to flesh out his form. Later on, a few compositing effects were added to change his colour and distort the overall shape with some finer details.

Blender Tutorial Step 17 – A passing grade

Blender environments: Build a stunning cliff scene

Because of the density of polygons mixed with heavy amounts of particle systems, it was necessary to break the scene into multiple render passes and then bring them into a separate compositing software. Blender has a solid compositor, but it can’t outshine a dedicated program like Adobe After Effects, especially when you factor in all of the fantastic third-party plugins that you can get for specialised tasks. Usually working in a 16 or 32-bit format is preferable, and Blender exports a powerful OpenEXR format for such tasks. Having this rich depth of colour information available will really help your renders to shine with proper colour grading and also give you a myriad of other tweaking options. Remember, the compositor is where you really get to let loose with being creative and it can easily be the most enjoyable part of the process, so have fun!

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