Christian Hecker talked about his 3D environment Journeys Of An Unknown Huntress made with Megascans, Vue, and World Machine.
My name is Christian Hecker but most of my work can also be found under ‘Tigaer’. I’m from Nuremberg, Germany, and work as a freelancer. A look into my portfolio reveals that I’m quite a Sci-Fi fan, who strays into Fantasy every now and then. But my heart definitely leans more towards the realm of Sci-Fi or Futurism. So far I had the opportunity to do Cover Illustrations for all kinds of media as well as creating concept art, video workshops, and tutorials for magazines and books. The biggest project I’ve worked on was 3rd installment of the Galactic Civilizations series. I also had the chance to work on short story covers for a project initiated by the XPrize folks.
The Road into 3D Environments
I’m a fan of wide-open landscapes greatly inspired by Matte Painting work in movies, especially of the 70s & 80s. So I don’t think it’s too weird that I started trying to find ways to do similar things with the skills I have. Beside that… it’s fun!
Journeys Of An Unknown Huntress was what I like to call a personal ‘benchmark’ project. I wanted to push myself, my hardware and use that opportunity to learn new things. Up to that point, I had only limited experience with PBR materials. Late 2016 I noticed that Megascans started a sale and I checked out their assets. I certainly liked what I saw! I bought a couple of collections they offered in that sale. These packages included selected materials/assets for certain types of environment. As far as I can tell they don’t offer these packages/collections anymore, which is a little unfortunate if you ask me. I’m much more the collections guy instead of going for single assets bit by bit.
However, it was the right opportunity to learn some new things by checking out how I could efficiently use my newly bought materials. Since I’m working with Vue to create my scenes, I had to work with a couple of workarounds to properly use the PBR materials provided by the assets. Vue (at that moment) had no options to properly assign PBR materials to objects. This has changed in the most recent version.
The first thing I noticed, of course, was that using hi-res PBR textures would eat up your memory fast. Back then and right now I’m on 32gb RAM (plan to upgrade to 64 later this year). That was a very frustrating experience but still very useful. It helped me learn how to optimize things more when needed.
Modeling the Scene
The base for the environment was created in Vue. Then I started importing the Megascans assets and materials, looking where I wanted to place the elements and doing tons of test renders during that process. For the foliage, I used some of the stock assets that ship with Vue. Then I wanted to experiment around with some of the foliage textures by Megascans and created some small grasses with Plant Factory. That process helped me to learn a little more about Plant Factory as well.
For the other side of the river, I originally had some stock Vue assets planted there. These trees didn’t really hold up with the quality I had in mind and I replaced the most obvious ones with high-quality models created with Plant Factory. That gave me the level of detail I had in mind. Since Plant Factory and Vue go hand in hand, by easily switching back and forth between the tools, it was easy to go in and modify each tree to make it look not too much like a copy and paste adding size and branch variation. A lot of copy-paste did happen though when creating the shoreline on the opposite side of the river. I used Megascans rocks and due to my hardware limitations, I reused the same rocks over and over again. With modifications, of course.
The fortress on the mountain was done in C4D with some kitbashing to speed up the creative process a bit. I struggled with that bridge quite a bit. I gave myself a hard time deciding whether I need to use it or not. It’s not the best solution when it comes to the overall composition of the scene, but I opted to leave it because I think it connects the foreground to the background nicely. And so far I haven’t heard any complaints about it, so I think my decision was probably right.
Creating the background with World Machine & GeoGlyph 2
The background landscape parts/mountains were created with World Machine and the plugin GeoGlyph 2. World Machine itself is a very powerful tool that allows you to do most basic things needed to create a landscape with some natural features. If you aim for the maximum of natural features on your terrain then GeoGlyph is the way to go. It comes with a series of filters solely created for generating all kinds of natural landscape features you can find on this planet. That doesn’t mean you cannot create alien-looking landscapes with it, too. You can do pretty much everything you need and receive natural-looking results.
GeoGlyph also enables you to create basic textures for your terrain. It has options to define very precisely where to put certain elements of any texture. This can, of course, also be used to create masks. For masks, GeoGlyph has dedicated outputs as well. There’s a lot of freedom and it’s easy to use if you are familiar with World Machine itself.
The guys who did GeoGlyph now created a standalone terrain tool as well. It’s called Gaea and it’s as versatile as GeoGlyph, with a more intuitive way of handling things. A lot of fun!
If you are looking for a tricky cloud workflow, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you here. The clouds are photobashed into the scene, there are no rendered clouds as they would have been a real chore to set them up. Not to mention render time that ended up taking ages anyway. I can tell though that the clouds took quite some time, too. I had to overpaint and fix a lot of stuff to integrate them as well as possible.
In the most recent version of Vue, it’s possible to import *.vdb clouds. Now that opens up a lot of flexibility. They also render faster than the native Vue clouds. So, today I may approach the sky part of the scene in a different way.
Handling Materials & Composition
The first thing I did was finding out how to use the objects and textures in Vue properly, which wasn’t easy since, as mentioned before, Vue didn’t have real options to setup objects with PBR materials. So it took a lot of time. The cool thing is: when playing around, you get the creative juice flowing and will most likely end up with some cool ideas.
Once I had the objects ready I started to block out the scene with objects and played around trying to find a solid composition, at first with a more cinematic aspect ratio. I switched to the final aspect ratio a little later in the process. I did not want the Megascans objects to be the main focus of the scene, I wanted them to be complementary. Rocks alone are not the most exciting hero elements of a fantasy scene, wouldn’t you agree?
When I noticed how big the impact of hi-res PBR textures on my memory was, I had to go in and reduce the size of some of the PBR plant materials. It helped to reduce the memory footprint but the overall rendering of the scene still required some effort. I had to restart it a couple of times and tweak the quality until I had the right settings for a smooth render process. Especially with the high memory consumption due to the PBR materials, I had to tweak quite some time to make room for additional multipass passes I needed.
For best and most natural results in Vue, it’s best to only use one light source. That light source is of course the Sun. The overall lighting of the scene in Vue can be adjusted directly through setting up the light of the sun and atmosphere settings. Normally, I would go for the more dramatic setups like sunsets or something with the strong dark and bright areas. For this one, I from early on understood that a daylight scenario would work best to bring out the maximum detail. That’s what I wanted to make the Megascans assets shine.
Different lighting setups. The bottom was the final:
For some parts, I had to cheat a little bit. I re-rendered a couple of parts to put them into the sunlight when otherwise they would have been in the shadows. I often use this little cheat to highlight certain foreground elements a little better. At least when it comes to parts of the scene where it isn’t obvious if the lighting is not 100% accurate. Things like that can help the composition work a lot better.
In the case of this project, the biggest bottleneck would be my hardware. I try to look at these limitations positively though. Limitations force you to be creative and find solutions not only to the creative problems but the technical problems as well. And you never know if you stumble over a happy accident/an idea that makes your artwork even better or adds a detail you otherwise would have never got.
Render time was also an issue. Even without volumetric materials like clouds. All these heavy PBR textures (I tried to use 8k textures as much as possible) took quite a while to render, especially in a final resolution of 7500×5000 pixels. At that point, I figured out that PBR assets would be the future and I started to check out new hardware. I’ve been doing that for two years now and hope to upgrade my workstation soon. My current setup is almost 5 years old and solely the 3D part of the project took me more than 2 weeks to finish, if not more.
Switching back and forth between all the different tools I used wasn’t easy as well. I have never used as many different tools for a single project: Vue, World Machine/GeoGlyph, DAZ Studio, Plant Factory, C4D, Photoshop, and Lightroom. It often felt like a marathon getting elements out of one tool into another and doing tons of test renders to check if it all works and looks right in Vue (with Vue acting like a ‘Container’ tool – where everything comes together).
How the scene came together:
The post-process stage in Photoshop/Lightroom took two more weeks. After that, I had the project on hold for a while and checked it out every now and then to make some fixes here and there. As you can see, I spent quite a lot of time on it to polish the piece as well as possible. And I think the invested extra time certainly paid off, and I’m fairly happy with the result.
Last but not least, I want to mention that I have some Terrain assets in my shop. Two of them are free. I have used them in a series of other projects already and used the modified versions for this project as well. Feel free to check them out: Gumroad, Artstation.