HAPPY NEW YEAR! Many thanks to all of you happy-go-lucky, loyal Darth Mojo readers. I really do enjoy sharing all this neat stuff with you, and it truly makes me smile when someone tells me they learned something from a post. I hope all of you have at least a few moments worth remembering from 2008 (aside from the day you discovered this blog) and let’s all work together to make sure 2009 kicks some serious ass. For me, finding a project – and a crew – that tops Battlestar Galactica sounds like wishful thinking but, then again, having BSG come back and finding myself working on it was a dream come true itself, so it just proves that we never know what’s hiding around that corner.
Speaking of boldy going into the future, the image you see above is just a small section of a poster I recently did for a friend’s Star Trek-related project. If you click on it, you’ll be treated to a hi-res picture that seems fitting for our charge ahead into the new year…
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Darth Mojo post if we didn’t go into extreme detail about the picture you’re looking at, so allow me to share a little bit about what went into creating it.
GO AHEAD, MAKE A PASS
Rarely in the world of visual effects is anything completed in one render, or “pass,” as we like to call it. A “pass” is generally what we call a single element that will be used to construct the final image (calling it a “pass” may originate with early motion control, in which the camera (on a computerized rig) would pass by the ship to simulate the ship’s movement). All of this work generally could be done in one pass, but by breaking it up into multiple elements, you give yourself the flexibility to make small changes and tweaks to individual parts of the image later.
For example, if we did a shot of the Enterprise flying in space all in one pass and decided later we wanted to make the stars brighter, you’d have to re-render the entire image. However, if we rendered the ship in one pass and the starfield seperately, then we can easily adjust the stars without affecting the ship. To give yourself more control over how the ship itself looks, the most basic passes you’d want are for the key light (the main source of illumination in your scene, usually the sun), fill light (a slight amount of non-directional, ambient light, to make sure that the parts of the ship not in the path of the sun don’t turn out totally black) and, in the world of Star Trek, it’s also handy to have the running lights in a seperate pass (all the little pools of light and bright windows dotted around the ship).
If you want to get really anal and have maximum control, you might split out the running light pass into seperate passes for windows, spotlights, warp engine lights and the light reflected from the warp engines, but for this image I decided to keep it simple.
Here is what the key light pass looked like (yes, you can click for the full res):
Pretty dark, huh? The “key pass” is generally the most important, since the direction of the key light is what largely will determine the look and mood of the scene. In this case I knew I’d be putting the sun behind the ships, so I (more or less) wanted to be consistent with the direction of light. Unfortunately, it’s rarely as easy as setting one light and going home, since the shape and position of every ship means it takes light differently. A key light that makes one ship look great might look like poop on another (and often does), so you find yourself setting multiple lights (I think I had five key lights for this image). One handy feature in Lightwave is you can tell the lights which objects you want them to effect, so I don’t have to worry about the light I set for one ship hitting the others. Without that feature, I’d have to manually set light-blocking objects (like a piece of cardboard) to stop the light from going where I didn’t want it to (and until a few years ago, that’s exactly the way it was). The other important factor when setting the key is to make sure it’s not too bright – if it is, you’ll overexpose your objects and, once you have that ugly, bright white smear on the hull, there’s no getting rid of it! It’s usually best to set a medium-range for your key and make it brighter afterwards. Next, we move onto the fill pass:
This is done using “backdrop radiosity,” a technique described in detail in my last post. The idea here is to have very soft, non-directional lighting to bring out all the hidden detail in the ships. Afterwards, in Photoshop (or After Effects for animation), you can strike a good balance between how hot the key light is and how dim the fill (there’s no real rule for this – it generally comes down to a matter of taste. Back on Babylon 5, we went for a more realistic, harsh look, using very little fill. Conversely, Star Trek’s style was a little more even-tempered, generally requiring a brighter fill area). And finally, we have our oh-so-tantalizing running lights pass:
Kinda looks like Christmas in space, huh? This is another pass that you generally season to taste. When parts of the ship are bathed in bright light, you may find yourself goosing up the running lights so they aren’t lost. On the other hand, if you really want to nitpick, you might say that the aperture of the camera is so stopped down to expose properly for the sunlight, you wouldn’t see the dim light coming from the windows anyway! While this is certainly true, people like to see the cool little lights all over the ship, so, again, you tweak this to simply look the way you (or the producer) likes best. To round things out, we have the starfield pass:
The sun pass:
And the sun haze pass:
And there you have it! Everything you need to create your very own, professional visual effects shot. In fact, if you were feeling really adventurous, you could download and save all of these hi-res elements, load them into Photoshop and experiment with balancing them out to create your very own Star Trek poster! And no one says it has to look like the one I did – you could ditch the sun, remove a few ships or add your own elements. I encourage everyone to let their imaginations run wild. If you want to send me your finished work, I’ll be happy to share my favorite ones with the rest of the world in a future post (send your images to: DathMojo4U at aol).
So click, save and begin the new year by practicing to be a digital effects artist!