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Environments in Vue: Alien planet

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Date Added: 20th September 2016
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Sculpt an alien planet in ZBrush with instruction from self-taught artist
Aron Kamolz


This tutorial is about making a tropical alien landscape with Vue. The main focus in this project is on the crystal and stone structures that create, together with the flora, an alien-planet like atmosphere. So one important step in this tutorial will be showing you how to set up the displacement and material for the crystal and rock structures in the scene. For that I will take a look at Vue?s function editor and the nodes used.

Another step will be building the stone structures out of Metablobs with the previously created material. I will show you my way of painting the terrain in the editor with the help of terraces, plateaus and rock filters. The physical water setup also plays an important role in this scene, since I want a more or less fluent transition between water and sky. A sci-fi scene needs a moody atmosphere and what would an alien landscape be without the proper flora!

I won?t go through every single step in my explanations. Instead I will show you the most important settings and you can experiment on your own with them, or instead simply load the materials or scene file included as a downloadable resource.
I only use plants and materials that come with Vue in this tutorial, as I know many Vue users don?t work with the Editor and just use pre-made materials. I therefore hope that I can motivate some of you to dive with me into it! So let?s get started!

Step 01: Crystal displacement setup

I open up a new scene and create a standard sphere object. Then I open the material, choose World Parametric as mapping mode, check Displacement mapping under the Bump tab, and open the displacement production. There I create a math node with ?Multiply by a constant? selected, followed by two simple fractals with cellular patterns/crystals as noise, and at last a blender node to connect them.

The two fractals differ in their values for the largest and smallest features to get more variance in the resulting structure. To achieve the crystalline form, it?s important that we set high values for these two settings. In the blender node, I set the combination mode to max with a ratio of 1. That combines the max settings from the two fractals, resulting in a nice crystalline shape. I close the editor and set a displacement depth of 2.5.

In this image you can see both fractal settings and a preview of the resulting displacement

Step 02: Crystal color setup

Now I take care of the further material settings, like color and transparency. I want some color variations ranging between purple and blue, and a pattern with lines/cracks for the crystals. To achieve this, I first create Linear Interpolation 2, choose a light-purple for Color 1 and a light-blue for Color 2, and connect it to the Small Crystals fractal.

Thereby I have converted the vector space into a color space. To get more color gradations and disturbances, I create a Color Variation and connect it with Linear Interpolation 2. To get even more variance into the material, I would like to have some effects in it like a line pattern that covers the crystal shape. For that I create another simple fractal, choose line patterns/cracks as noise and connect it with the contrast input of the Color Variation.

A closer look at the line patterns/crack fractal and the color variation including preview of the setup

Step 03: Crystal transparency setup

The displacement and color are already set up, and now I need to work on the highlights and transparency. I close the function editor and go to the Highlights tab. I want a lot of strong, shiny anisotropic highlights on the crystals, so I set high values for all three sliders and choose a very desaturated purple as the highlight color.

Then I move on to the Transparency tab and turn the Global transparency to 70%. Crystals have a high refraction index (2.42 for diamonds), therefore I choose the highest possible value in Vue, which is 2. I also check Physical transparency with a purple scattering color and a backward anisotropy of -0.87.

The crystals need a bit of reflectivity. By raising ?Turn reflective with angle? to 70% I get the desired effect. The setup is complete and I can save the material.

Preview of the final material with the settings of the transparency tab

Step 04: Setting up the AlienRock material

I use the crystal displacement as a base for the AlienRock material to get a similar look, but change the Small Crystals fractal with distributed patterns/square Samples.

I change the colors of the Linear Interpolation to a more rock-like brownish color ? but as we are on another planet, every other color would suit, so feel free to experiment!

Apart from the displacement, which affects only the bigger rock shapes, I want some small bumps in the material where the lines and cracks from the material color appear. For that, I take the lines/cracks fractal and connect it with the Bump output and choose a low value of about 0.2, so that there?s a visible bump, but not that much so the lines/cracks pattern is still visible. At last I save the material.

Node setup for AlienRock material with settings of the distributed patterns/square samples and the linear interpolation

Step 05: Creating the ground terrain

I generate a standard terrain with a size of 1 km², open it in the Terrain editor, and paint the terrain for the scene with a final resolution of 2,048 x 2,048. I mainly use the stones, terraces, and plateau effects beside the raise and flatten brush to shape the terrain. The next step is to paint the path onto the terrain. I close the Terrain editor, check the scale of the terrain, and resize its Z-axis to 40m. I open the terrain again and choose the Altitude brush with a brush size of 60m and an altitude level of 43m, and start to paint a curved path. After that I apply the stones effect two or three times, and choose ?River valley? from the Erosion effects panel to break the surface of the path a bit more.

Terrain editor preview of the terrain with the river valley erosion applied

Step 06: The physical water setup

Now that I have my ground terrain, I create a water surface. I place it about 40m on the Z-axis, so that only the path is a bit above the surface (the exact position in this case is 39m, since the last erosion effect has taken away a bit of the height) and open the material.

I want calm, relatively clear, but slightly milky water without any foam, where the deepest spot of the terrain is barely visible. For that I turn the foam layer alpha boost to -100%, and in the Transparency tab of the water I turn the depth to 40m. For the milky-ness I turn the anisotropy backwards to -0.82. The only thing left is to set ?Turn reflective with angle? from the standard 40% to 81%, so that I get a bit more contrast in the water.

Here you can see the various settings of the water material together with the water surface editor

Step 07: Setting up the Metablobs

With the ground terrain and water created, I can now set up the rest of the scene. One tip: at this point it?s a good idea to start working with layers, so that you can hide elements of the scene and have a clear viewport for the Metablob setup. For my scene I need five different Metablobs: two low blobs for the fore- and mid-ground, one arch blob (which is duplicated twice), and two high blobs for the background.

I create them out of standard primitive cubes which I move around till I?m satisfied with the look. Once I?ve created the blobs, I resize them to fit to the ground terrain. For reference: the small foreground blob is about 30m high, and the two big background blobs a bit over 500m.

In this picture you see the arranged Metablobs together with the ground terrain and water surface

Step 08: Islands and planet setup

Now I need four islands for the blobs, so I create a standard terrain, resize it to 130m² and paint it with the same technique as before. The height of the terrain should be just slightly above the water surface. Then I duplicate it three times and distribute the islands onto the ground terrain with the Metablobs on top.

The three arch blobs get no islands; instead, I place them across the path of the ground terrain so that they overlap a bit. Next, I build the distant planet by creating a sphere of about 180m and placing it far away.

Inside the material, I change its color to yellow, and in the Effects tab I set a high Illumination of 5000% and a glow of 1% with a radius of 10000%. This simulates the corona of a distant sun.

Top view of the scene to show the distance between the objects, and also the main settings of the planet material

Step 09: Material and ecosystem

Next I create a sphere and load the crystal material. Then I duplicate the sphere three times and place them in a row.

Since the crystal material uses World Parametric mapping, all three crystal displacements look a bit different, and that?s exactly what I want. I bake them out as objects so that I can load them in an ecosystem and save them.

I assign the AlienRock material to the Metablobs. Since I want crystals on the rock surface, I make an ecosystem layer, load the three pre-made crystals in, and hit populate.

For the ground terrain I want a few big crystals both under and above the water surface, surrounded by smaller ones. They should only appear on both sides of the path, leaving the middle part of it free. The same applies to the alien plants.

Close-up of the ground terrain to show the free middle section, and the ecosystem layer of one of the rock arches

Step 10: Ecosystem and atmosphere setup

Now to the setup. I load the Sand Flat material that comes with Vue and create five ecosystem layers. Layers 1 and 2 have the crystals assigned, and the other three layers contain one alien plant each.

I use the Z-Megaspore, and the Parrot?s Thistle and Tropic Plant as small fillers. For my exact settings, you can load the resource material provided. The island ecosystem is a copy of the ground terrain material, without the crystals and with slightly different settings.

Now the atmosphere setup. I use a standard spectral atmosphere with global radiosity and volumetric lighting, adjusting the settings until I have a fluent transition from sky to water.

For a better depth effect I turn the aerial perspective to 10. For the background cloud, I use a cloud texture downloaded from, applied to an Alpha plane.

Layer preview of the ground terrain, and both tabs of the Atmosphere Editor with important settings


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