Christian Hecker takes us through the process for creating an atmospheric sci-fi scene using Vue, Photoshop, and Lightrooom...
Despite the title this artwork has nothing to do with the well known video game series. If the viewer wants it to be a part of the Halo universe then sure, let your imaginative juices flow. It certainly is a sci-fi themed piece with some architecture that surely has something in common with places we know from the Halo games. When you ask me if there was an original, planned out idea for this piece then I have to disappoint you. Overall it was a piece created for fun where everything started to fall into place and resulted in a pretty cool scene. It started with a different scene that I had set up in Vue. There I was tinkering around with an eclipse atmosphere. It ultimately didn't work out for that particular scene but I kept it in mind for later. That 'later' came sooner than expected when I was playing around with some models in Vue. As usual it 'clicked' at a certain point and I decided to spend some extra time and see if I could create a fully realized piece.
Step 1: Modification
The models I was playing around with were bought via DAZ. I have used them a lot in the past and managed to get some really cool scenes off of them. The export from DAZ to Vue (as OBJ) works nicely, and I decided to play around a little more. Some of the models were even modified in Cinema 4D. You don't want your stuff to look the same all the time, right? Variation is key.
Modifying models in Cinema 4D
Step 2: Playing around
After modifying the buildings and extending my ever growing archive of models with them, I decided to play around with them in Vue. Creating copies, rotating them, flipping them, putting them together. Kitbashing, so to say. See what sticks and get the creative juices flowing. Sure enough it clicked at some point and I started to aim for something more specific looking. Maybe a gigantic spaceport/hub in the middle of an otherwise flat and empty city environment? Absolutely!
Step 3: Camera and perspective
Relatively early on I knew I wanted to try out a very wide angle view. Something you would achieve with a 16mm camera lens. Definitely no 'fisheye' view but something that captures as much of a scene as possible. I also wanted to place the camera relatively low to push the effect of perspective and size of the spaceport/hub part.
A nice and low angle to capture the scene and scale
Step 4: A halo atmosphere
Vue is really strong when it comes to creating realistic and striking atmospheres. Since it's a tool specialized on landscapes and environments, of course, atmospheres have to be powerful. Up to this point I hadn't tried a solar eclipse atmosphere for a scene I've worked on. So this was new to me and I had to do quite a number of test renders until I got something I was happy with. Also, the placement of the halo required some testing, to find the perfect spot for it, composition wise. All this was very experimental and ate some time. It was included in the 3dtotal galleries... so yes, absolutely, the invested time was worth it!
Placing the eclipse at the perfect spot
Step 5: Adding life
No sci-fi scene is complete without some ships or speeders zipping through the air. So, of course, I had to implement that element as well. If that gigantic building complex is supposed to be a spaceport of sorts, naturally there have to be some ships in its vicinity. The ships are also the result of kitbashing and nothing too sophisticated in close-up. They don't have to be in this particular case since I planned to mostly only use their silhouettes anyway.
Step 6: Micro-composition
What I did take care of was the placement of the ships. This can be tricky when it comes to the composition. You don't want them to block the view of something important - you want the audience to see/discover. Or make the ships too big and hinder the viewers' eye to travel to the right parts in the scene. On the contrary! You actually (almost) must use the ships to help the viewer to read the image the way you (as the artist) intend to! In this case we certainly want the spaceport to be the part with the main focus/attention.
Some ships to add life and a sense of scale
Step 7: Rendering the scene
Usually I render a picture multiple times for all kinds of different reasons. Not this one. I wanted this one to also be an exercise in working fast with best results. So I did a single render with passes like Indirect Lighting, Shadows, Diffuse Light, and Specular Light. So-called Multipass rendering. These different passes, combined in Photoshop, can bring out some additional details in certain areas of the picture and round out the overall appearance.
Selecting the passes for the render
Step 8: Overpainting, Fixing & Texturing
Once the rendered material was in place and I found that I got the most out of it, I started fixing parts of the scene with overpainting and added textures to the city. Since we mostly have the silhouette of the city, it was pretty easy adding typical cityscape lights to the structure. That added additional life to the scene and helped make the city look much more believable. I did not work with a specific system; I just randomly placed textures, set them to screen or lighten and looked out for happy accidents. I did sit down and invest some extra time, making the textures work better with the buildings to avoid overlapping.
Step 9: A stylized look
Obviously a 3D rendered image is as clean and sharp as it can get. So once I finished working on the details I started thinking about giving the overall image a more painterly look. The easiest way to go for that is the filter gallery in Photoshop. I have a set of filters I've used in the past and tried them out here too. I was pretty happy with what they did and kept it that way. The hard part here is not to lose too much of the detail you want the audience to see. So it is a balance act getting it all right. Not just pressing the magic 'run filter' button.
Step 10: Final color touch-ups
As usual I moved my Photoshop finished piece into Lightroom. I always do that as a last step or even when still working on major things in the actual image. Just to get a feel for where I can direct the image to when it comes to final color treatment. Sometimes it can change the whole feel of a scene. Here I kept it relatively simple by just emphasizing the eclipse lighting, atmosphere, and feel of the scene. Pushing the reds and dark blues. I love working on the final part of the creative process.
Last color touch-ups to push the atmosphere
Christian Hecker's website
Follow Christian on Facebook
Add Christian to your Twitter
Check out Christian's ArtStation