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Jonathan Lampel talked about the way he build very nice looking natural 3d environments.
I grew up in the Seattle area and continue to work there. I taught myself 3D modeling during high school using online tutorials, and since I enjoyed it quite a bit I decided to go to college for animation and game design. I received an associates degree from Lake Washington Institute of Technology in media design and production last year, and I currently work at CG Cookie researching and teaching 3D production. Before then I had mostly worked on various freelance animation projects for advertising, and helped create a 2D mobile game called Pixl.
I always start environment renders out with a rough sketch of a composition. Nature scenes are notorious for looking flat if the lighting and composition are not focused on, so I wanted to be sure that I had a pleasing foreground, middle ground, and background in order to covey depth.
This project is already a few years old, and since then I’ve moved away from most noise based landscape generation. Looking back, it just looks too procedural. What I would do now is use a height map from satellite or other scans based on a real area on the earth and then use procedural noise to add in the smaller details that can’t be captured at that scale. I would also manually shape the resulting mesh with sculpting tools in order to achieve my desired composition. The most important thing to keep in mind is that there needs to be layers of detail – high, medium, and low frequency – in order to appear realistic.
The procedural shader I used for the mountain was built in Cycles and works by taking the geometry of the mountain into account. First, it calculates the normals of the mesh and places snow on all the faces pointing upwards. It also uses the pointiness attribute to remove snow from the sharp peaks. The snow, rock, and grass are all separated based on height, with noise added in to make the transition not seem so sharp. I also filled in the cavities below the tree line with snow where it would likely have not melted quite yet. These pockets of snow also decrease as the height decreases.
For the pine tree, I used Blender’s built in tree generator. Since it’s so dense with pine needles, I actually created a tree with very few branches and then instanced those branches four or five times at random rotations so that it looks full and random but is actually quite decent to render. I have a video on how to make it here:
The trees in the background are also much more simplified versions of the ones in the foreground, so they don’t take quite as much memory. A great technique for this is shared by Zacharias Reinhardt.
Except the mountain, there are no textures in the scene. It’s all based on fairly simple shaders – the geometry is what gives it its complexity. The trick is to use the right amount of glossiness and translucency, as well as some procedural noise to vary the saturation and luminosity across the surface. I have more recent courses that go over this in more detail here and there.