Building Cathedrals with 3DS Max

Building Cathedrals with 3DS Max

Alexander Lang talks about complex architecture creation with 3ds Max, Vray and Substance designer.

In this interview 3d artist Alexander Lang talked about the creation of his exciting environment Cathedral of Blessed Waters. It’s an incredible effort, which shows the power of modern 3d production software and the talent of the artist. Check out the full breakdown below.


My name is Alexander Lang and I’m a 3D-Artist from Germany. I just recently finished studying Interactive Media Systems at the University of Applied Sciences Augsburg and got my Master degree. During my studies, I was responsible for the successful implementation of 3D content in many different projects, which were team efforts most of the time. Over the years, I worked on 3D short movies, as well as games and had the pleasure of working in quite different departments. Because of that, I got insights in rigging, animation and compositing to name a few, but I eventually started to specialize in environment and architectural design with the production of high quality models including modeling, texturing and lighting.


Scene Production

I usually start to paint or 3D-blockout some black and white thumbnail sketches in order to determine the composition and depth of the scene. After that, I think about a colour scheme and maybe do a rough coloured sketch or even some photobashing, to get a more precise idea of which direction I want to go with the environment. Searching for proper references is what usually comes next in my production process. Even in a fantasy landscape, it’s still very important that everything looks believable and physically plausible. I then start to block out the environment using primitive shapes, like a box or cylinder almost exclusively and try to match the composition to my preferred sketch I made earlier or modify it again if I feel the need for it.

More and more smaller objects will be added to the scene and the primitives receive the most necessary modifications to refine their broad outline. Once I’m satisfied with the shape of an object, I can already start detailing most of the time, where I always try to keep the distance to the camera in mind. If the size of an object in the scene is quite small and therefore some detail would not even be visible in the final image resolution, it’s obviously better to keep it more simple. This approach is specifically part of my workflow for still images and changes significantly, when you want to animate the scene or if it’s part of a game environment, where you would make additional LOD’s instead.

Texturing is the next big step but doesn’t necessarily only come into place after I finished modeling everything. When I work on personal projects, I tend to create the materials a bit earlier sometimes, especially if it changes the look and maybe even the shape of an object through displacement drastically. A lot of test rendering is done while texturing and lighting to get the desired look just right and to compensate unforeseen outcomes. Properly rendering the image is really important as well but is a more technical part of the process. Setting up render elements like a z-depth or global illumination data file for post production is necessary, when you want to get the most out of your work.


Cathedral of Blessed Waters

I started building the cathedral by laying out the rough shape of it. Once I was satisfied with its overall silhouette, I began to refine those forms by adjusting the original primitives, so they started to look more like the parts of the building, they would eventually become. At this stage, I already had a pretty solid idea of how this piece would turn out, but there was still some room for adjustments of course. Everything was created from scratch and was split into different parts like the roof and walls and refined piece after piece later on.

Obviously, modeling in all the details was one of the most time consuming parts of the process and was achieved in large part by using simple operations over and over again, like adding edge loops, extruding and beveling. I wanted it to be pretty detailed but it should have also parts, where there is much less density in detail, which is important so you can grasp the forms pretty quickly and also direct the viewer’s eyes.


Building Textures and Materials

Two of the tools I used for the texturing of the scene were FloorGenerator in combination with Multitexture for 3Ds Max. They made my workflow for all of the bricks I needed to create much more efficient, while providing a more realistic look at the same time. Instead of just applying procedural mappings or unwrapping everything, I was able to use multiple textures on the 3D geometry that I generated. The textures themselves need to be the same kind of stone, so they match in color and structure, but through the use of multitextures, each of them can have its own individual properties and gets spread randomly, which makes everything much more realistic. It is possible to adjust every single material, that’s used on these bricks and change the gamma or the strength of the bump map for example. Creation and editing for most textures was done in Photoshop and Crazybump. The textures for rocks and mountains were created in ZBrush by using the polypaint option and got imported into 3Ds Max afterwards.


Adding the Details

When I build a scene like this, I always have a short story about it in mind, even if it’s just one or two sentences. It really helps me a lot to not only build one object, but rather have it fit into a world around it, because then it’ll become much easier to give it a purpose and make everything fit together, so it looks like it’s meant to be there and has a reason for its existence. In the case of my cathedral artwork, I wanted to create this giant building in an open landscape, which you don’t see very often in the real world. I thought about the reasons why the people in this world would take the risk and challenges of building it there and not somewhere more convenient.

Many of the objects that surround the cathedral also really help to underline its enormous scale, especially if you look closely and see the population I added and can compare the whole thing to the size of a human. When you’re building a scene with architecture in it, it’s always incredibly important to build everything in real world scale, because it affects how the lighting behaves and it’s also much more unforgiving when it comes to scale and perspective, in comparison to a pure landscape, which is usually a bit more forgiving.


Skybox Production

If you’re only working with a single image, you normally don’t really need a skybox, but as soon as you want to animate the scene either prerendered or inside of a game engine, you probably want to always create a proper skybox for it. In the case of my own artwork, the sky consists of multiple 2D elements, which were color corrected and composited together to form the finished sky without any seams.

When I build a skybox in my 3D environment, I usually want to do it with a HDR environment map nowadays. The incredible advantage with this method is that you can use the HDR file for your image-based lighting, based on its pixel colors and values, which also affects the reflections, so you get a more realistic result in a relatively short amount of time. When you can’t get a fitting HDR image, another approach would be to create your own CG generated HDR skies. You need to render it as a 360° panorama of course and can then use the resulting CG HDR image as your skybox.



From a technical point of view, I used V-Ray as the rendering and lighting software in 3Ds Max. The most important lightsource and realistically speaking, the only one in this scene, is the sun of course. There are a few other artificial lights, which I used to enhance some areas or entire objects by including and excluding them in the properties of the individual lights. There was a lot of research involved and quite a bit of trial and error, but I eventually got it just the way I wanted it to look. There’s also a dome light, that’s used for HDRI lighting.


Other than that, the light serves an important role in the scene in the way that it can also be incredibly helpful in directing the viewer’s eyes and giving depth to the objects, as well as setting the time of day. It is therefore one of the most crucial things you need to construct in order to get the right mood in your environment. The part of the building with the big circular shaped window is one of the brightest spots, since it reflects much of the sunlight and is the focal point I chose already while sketching. Also notice my decision regarding the density of details I talked about earlier. There is much going on in this specific part of the building and as a result more likely to catch the viewer’s attention, while still remaining consistent with the rest of the environment.

Useful Tools

I actually use 3Ds Max for most of the modeling I do, since I got really comfortable in using it over the years and I think it’s one of the most powerful tools, especially when it comes to modeling. You can achieve extraordinary results, when using additional plugins, such as V-Ray or Forest Pack. For example, the only objects in the cathedral project of mine, that are not done in 3Ds Max, are the mountains and rock formations. I did those in ZBrush and also textured them there. The standard procedure followed by importing the low poly mesh into 3Ds Max and applying the displacement map from ZBrush onto them, to get the high detail back. There’s always Photoshop involved, which is used for the creation and editing of textures, as well as post production. I also included Unfold3D and Substance Painter for UV mapping and texturing in my current workflow.


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Comments 2

  • Duacan

    hello Alexander, I really loved your these draw works. I loved cathedrals too.I started 3ds Max new. And I really really want to meet you, if you wanna to do. By the way, my name is Duacan, from Turkey. also Im working for learning and speaking German. Cause Deutschland is the my first country for living. Whatever, take care yourself, Tschüss.

    insta: 06optimusprime06



    ·3 years ago·
  • mavin

    have you this 3ds max making video



    ·3 years ago·

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