BLACK VIII — Behind the scenes

A year and a half ago, I began teaching myself 3D and its intricacies. Some of my first creations were wallpapers.

Why? Wallpapers setups can be simple, they teach you fundamentals of modeling, texturing, lighting. It’s a still image so you control and perfect every details.

Holistically, the third dimension helped me create things I had in mind but couldn’t previously create. It gives you more freedom than anything you experienced before. Space, scale, textures, shapes, camera angle and obviously and most importantly — light.

Making this wallpaper series, I wanted to get better at all of the above, explore a wide range of softwares, understand their strengths and weaknesses to better integrate them in my workflow.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions about my process and I will try to explain the thinking and the process. This article is not an in depth tutorial.

Behind the scenes of the creation of BLACK VIII wallpaper

Inspiration

I started with the top left photo from Tobias van Schneider then explored what kind of shape and materials I was really looking for.

Nature is the best source of inspiration for me. Organically beautiful and perfectly imperfect. The 4th row is a pattern I really like. The sand waves catch the light nicely and have a fair amount of texture detail. The random blows of wind created this very complex structure (Great article on why this happens).

Research and development

You know the saying, it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey?

The best part of creating the wallpaper is actually the process. It’s where I can satisfy my curiosity. Discover and learn new skills, tools and techniques. That’s how I learned design, deconstruct, understand and build from scratch. It can be frustrating because all of this takes time but learning and producing is rewarding and fun.

Hand made

The first approach is to manually create it, from scratch.

Drawing — 2D height maps

What’s that? To put it simply, it’s a 2 dimensional grey-scale top view image. The colors between black and white will define the elevation.

To get a really good mesh edges / shape definition, you need high resolution and 16/32 bits images. Even then, using a sub polygon displacement will not give you great control. I never manually created theses maps before so I wanted to try and see how far I could push this.

Pretty disappointing results :(

I drew a height map in Photoshop for a quick test. The result was not great but I understood the limits.

To achieve good results, I would have to spend a lot of time in the 2D software to get the perfectly hand drawn strokes with precise size, hardness and fall-off. Time consuming trial and error process. Since there is no live preview, I would need to do a lots of back and forth between 2D and 3D.

Drawing? Why not Sculpting?!

Sculpting — 3D geometry

This is where most 3D artists would start. There are good built-in tools within 3D softwares such as Maya, Max and C4D. There is also dedicated sculpting 3D packages like ZBrush and 3Dcoat.

This solution gives you way more control because it’s like sculpting clay in real life. Lots of tools are available, you can pull, grab, smooth, wax, knife, pinch, flatten, inflate, amplify, fill, scrape the polygons from your mesh.

Using C4D built-in tools to sculpt from top view then refining edges in perspective mode.

Huge improvement over the 2D approach. You can zoom in very close to add a tons of details and you can sculpt your final product in real time. That means creative, geometry and topology control.

The small downside is that it requires you to have or learn sculpting skills. I am not a pro, but it takes little time to create such a pattern because the shape is pretty simple. Sculpting is the best solution but there are other tools I wanted to explore.

Procedural

When you look at the references images, you can notice patterns with slight variations. That’s where procedurally generated height maps can shine. This is a method of creating algorithmically as opposed to manually.

There is something magical about this approach because it’s like building LEGOS, it’s fun.

C4D layered shaders deformations

Cinema 4D have a good procedural way to generate complex patterns with the defaults noises. It requires you to stack and mix more than one. It’s really powerful and you can do a lot with this.

Since there is not a ton of built in shaders, it’s difficult to fine tune exactly for what you are looking for. Another problem was that I did not found a way to make the Cinema 4D layers renderable via Octane.

Stacking layer of noise and gradient

While doing some research about procedural textures and height maps, I learned about another tool which piqued my interest.

Substance designer

I knew Allegorithmic for a long time because their tools have been more and more industry standards. I have played with Substance Painter a few weeks ago and it was really impressive. It’s a 3D painting software allowing you to texture on the fly. Check the trailer.

Substance Designer was the one I was interested in. It’s a node-based non-destructive application for material authoring.

Because of the live preview and non-destructive approach, you can iterate really fast. After some tutorials to learn the basics and few hours of creation, I was able to get really close to what I wanted.

The node is a bit complex but the results are really good.

I exported the maps generated from Substance and used them in Cinema 4D, Octane displacement node.

Substance Designer is an amazing tool. The fact that every node can be tweaked, all the maps are generated on the fly and resolution independent is a really big deal for the creation process.

The learning curve is not steep but it takes some time to understand the interface, the logic and which node you need in order to get the results you want. Obviously not something you will master in a few days. Texture creation is a deep area of expertise and artists dedicated their career to that craft.

World Machine

If you follow me on Twitter you know that I had a blast playing with World Machine and the BLACK VI wallpaper has been created using it.

Like many other extremely powerful 3D tools, the user interface seems outdated but this is just a facade . This software is a monster for fast creation of 3D terrain with realistic geological effects. If you work with game engines like Unity, World Machine can export splat maps which is really handy.

After a few hours in the program, it’s easy to generate pretty much any terrain, including sand waves.

World Machine terrain generation

World Machine can output different things, including a mesh. Obviously I wanted a high poly one so it took some time to generate, export and import into Cinema 4D.

33M+ poly, really dense mesh… The OBJ file is 2.6Gb

Working with World Machine was the best option overall. The learning curve was really fast. I was able to get satisfying results quickly which encouraged me to go further. The geological algorithm produced lots of cool details. Exporting the dense mesh was huge for me because it would allow me to have great details in case of closeup shots.

Rendering

This is the last part of the process. Using Octane for Cinema 4D helps me get a live preview of the render. It’s very easy to create, tweak materials, lights and cameras, almost in real time.

I used a poly reduction on the mesh as a proxy to be able to create my studio setup with a responsive viewport. I used a simple 2 point lighting setup. I created a roughness map using the height map to get the exact results I was looking. After that, I applied my material to the high poly mesh and used a subtle smoothing deformer for the creases.

This is the final render.