In the previous post of the series, I discussed my goals for the series and gave a quick introduction on “virtual photography”. Now we’re ready to actually dive in! As I said last time my goal is to produce a tropical beach image — the kind of image that gets you thinking about your unspent vacation time. However, before we can take the image we have to create the environment!
Before we actually start, the program I’m using in these screenshots is Carrara 8 Pro. Other programs are available, both for cost (Vue, Maya, and Lightwave, just to name a few), and for free (Blender and POV-Ray). I’ve found, however, that although these programs share the same basic principles and ideas, they differ greatly in user interface, ease of use, and most importantly price. Some artists will try to convince you that one is superior to the others. In my experience, the skill of the user matters much more than the choice of program.
Ok, let’s get started. Because my intention is to produce a beach scene, I need to create a beach. Fortunately, Carrara has a tool built-in to make producing landforms easier. I won’t go into detail on how the controls work; suffice to say, the preview you see in Image 1 is not what I want.
After some editing I’ve gotten the terrain into a form that I like. Now, looking at Image 2 you might be saying to yourself, “That doesn’t look anything like a beach!” You’re right. But use your imagination — cut off the hill at the edge, as if it didn’t even exist. Put your thumb over the giant crater on the right side of the image… Can you see the gentle slope of the beach rising to the left from your thumb, into the rougher terrain of the coast? (It may help to click on the thumbnail to see a larger version of the image.) If it still looks more like the surface of the Moon than an idyllic beach, trust me.
Closing the Terrain Editor, I return to the workspace view. In addition to the beach I’ll need an ocean. Carrara has an infinite plane primitive; as you might expect from the name, it’s big and flat. I place that at the zero point of my scene, then maneuver the beach terrain up and down until I like the look of the coastline. Now does it look more like a beach?
At this point I usually start considering possible locations for my virtual camera. As you can see in Image 3, I finally decided on an initial placement at one end of the coastline. I’m almost positive I’ll end up moving it before I’m finished, but it’s a good starting place. Image 4 shows what the scene looks like through that camera. Right now it’s named Camera 1; once I’ve decided that I like the view through it I’ll rename it Production Camera, to indicate that this is the camera that will produce the final image.
The base scene is slowly coming together! The drab grey of the ocean annoys me, however, so I’m going to change it. At this point I will reveal a small secret: I’ve only been showing you part of the Carrara interface. My computer has multiple monitors, so the workspace you’ve seen sits on one. On another, however, I have my palette. The palette contains a library of tools, such as shaders and props. Going to the palette, I’m going to grab a simple water shader to put on that big grey plane.
Shaders are incredibly useful, as they completely control the appearance of an object. It’s more than simply slapping a coat of paint on the virtual object — the shader controls how the object interacts with the virtual light (or even whether it interacts at all). An object’s shader dictates the object’s color, transparency, reflectivity, refractivity, etc. Shading is what differentiates “nice” from a “photorealistic”. However, my current goal is just to get the base scene set up, so I’m satisfied with the relatively simple shader from the palette. The beach terrain came with a “grassy” shader, so I won’t change it. Once the scene is more complete I will be spending a lot of time tweaking shaders, so I’ll talk more about them then.
Now I’ve got the land and the sea. The only thing left is the sky. Carrara has an atmospheric “Sky” tool. The tool isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it works most of the time for the things I want it to do. For now I set up a basic sky, and just for fun I activate the Moon so that it will be visible from the camera. I’m done!
Before I finish I’d like to see what the image looks like so far by taking a “virtual photo”. Let’s go back to the analogy with traditional photography. A traditional camera collects light reflected from objects in its field of view. That light always comes from the environment. But here there is no environment other than what I’ve created! Therefore, the program does something called ray-trace rendering (or just rendering for short). Instead of watching rays of light come in, the program traces lines out from the virtual camera lens. Effectively it does the same thing a traditional camera does, only backwards! The actual implementation of this can be quite complicated, and is almost always computationally intensive. Suffice to say, as I add more things and my shaders become more complex it will take longer and longer to produce the virtual photo, or render the image. For now it’s fairly quick. The image below only took a few seconds to render. (For comparison, Amalie was rendered on a network of eight computers over six months!)
At this point I’ve spent about an hour on the image; that’s pretty typical. Going forward, I’ll start adding details. I’ll also decide what I want in the foreground — perhaps a figure sunbathing on a blanket? What would you like to see in this beach image? Give me your suggestions in the comments area below!