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Paul Milinski

How to: Tropical scene full of plants

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Hey team,

I'm looking to create something similar to the image attached but I have no idea where to start when it comes to something like this. How would you go about it if you had to re-create this image?


screen shot.jpg

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This isn't too tricky if you break it down into small enough parts...


Start with the general scene composition, and make the base planes (ground / water) out of planes or Landscapes (with noise driven displacers).
Then work out what types of plants of you need, and make a list somewhere.


You need 2 main types - the smaller, non-hero ones that you can clone everywhere and mush together into a general covering (possibly using hair), and then some hero plants that are dotted about or manually placed to get the effect you want. Either way, you can look around for free models on places turbosquid, etc or you can make your own, which is more effort obviously, but will give you more exactly what you want. Look at at LOADS of reference so you DO know what you want before you start 🙂


I like to start each plant model in a different file.


For each plant you need to work out what is the 'base unit' - ie for rushes it's a single leaf, whereas for ferns it's a complete fern frond containing many leaves etc.

And then you start to build those, very simply, out of polygons, using symmetry and bend deformers / cloning where you can, and group displacement in world mode, so that each leaf gets crumpled differently even if it's the same model..


When I have a section built I like to take a copy of that and combine it down to a single model that is easy to clone about in the main scene - that way your setup doesn't become a nightmare of multi-nested cloners !


So that's my general approach, but there are lots of ways to go about this.


Important not to forget the value of lighting in this sort of scene - I would be looking at some sort of volumetric god-rays type light to bump up the jungle feel. If you were feeling brave you could investigate caustics off the water surface !


If I get time later I will show you how to model a fern leaf OR you may find it quicker to just cut one out in photoshop and apply it to a (bend deformed plane), which is the cheat-y way to go if you haven't got the time or inclination to model these things properly... this is great for distant plants and in-game stuff, but doesn't stand up to close scrutiny or support cool effects like sub-surface scattering, which can add a lot to a scene...



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Here's a quick few stages on how to build a simple leaf...




1. Start with plane, 4 x 2. Make editable, delete one half, place under symmetry.

2. Points mode, move points into general leaf shape.

3. Extrude (ctrl-drag) out the thin poly at the base a few times to make the stem. Pull border points of the leaf forward a little to get the center groove. Select all polys and add a little thickness with extrude (use caps). (We need thickness to make the leaf respond to light properly)

4. Pop the symmetry in a group null, then add a bend deformer to it as well, rotate until it is on the correct axis then use to bend the leaf something like shown. That group goes under L2 SDS to get the nice smooth result on the right there...


Next steps would be cloning a few of those into radial arrays and using random effectors on scale and rotation until we have a decent randomised complete plant that we can texture, and then collapse down into a single model when done...



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Hey @Cerbera


Thanks so much for taking the time to put that together and breaking down the process.

To be honest, this actually sounds quite difficult. I would have no idea how to even begin to model a fern leaf. I'm definitely keen to learn though.


Where you mention to model with "polygons, using symmetry and bend deformers / cloning where you can, and group displacement in world mode, so that each leaf gets crumpled differently even if it's the same model.."   This is a process I'm not sure of.


The god rays and the water caustics definitely sounds good!


It would be greatly appreciated if you could show how to model the fern ect... I'm def more of a visual learner.

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Yep I can show you how to model a fern. Give me half an hour, or so...



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You're welcome. I'm out gigging all night shortly, so will have to show you the rest tomorrow, but here's the first 7 stages of a high-ish poly 'hero' fern...


1. Get a suitable reference image of a fern off google and load into top viewport. I went with this one. Line up a plane over the bit shown with its Z axis pointing down that frond.




Let's get a zoom in of that...




2. Above I have given my plane object  8 or so segments down its length, and 2 across. Then I have applied a taper deformer as a child to generally match the form of that frond.


3. At this point you can 'Current state to object that, then delete it to collapse to an editable mesh for further modelling. That further modelling involves edge mode, and selecting edges (or pairs of edges to ctrl+drag out to make the little leaf edge bits like so...




I used poly pen to quickly do this in Top view. You just need a general approximation of the shapes - don't spend too much time fussing over detail, this is a very small part of a much larger thing... anyway, back to the plot, if we put this object under Level 1 or 2 Subdivision Surface Object we get a curvier result like below...



Next we need some copies of that, and so we need a cloner... we will use that just to get some rough copies with some scale variation, then make it editable, and move the individual leaves so that they match the reference.... (Note: clone the model NOT the SDS - Later we will apply the SDS to the whole group so we only need one of them).




4. Put the frond  model under a cloner, and adjust the position values so you have a line of them iterating vaguely as above. I then used a step effector and a random effector to add variation to the scale of the clones. I don't care about actual leaf position because we'll be moving them individually later to match the reference. Note: above I also put my cloner under symmetry, to check how it looked, but we don't actually need that - we'll be manually copying one side to the other in a bit...


5. When you're happy with the scale and rotation variation you've added you can make the cloner editable (C) select all the leaves, and use Axis center to move their axis to their bases. Then you can move and scale and rotate the leaves for one side of the frond so they match the ref pic like so...




At this point I made an 'end section' as well, just out of simple polygons again and lined it up with my existing leaves.


6. Next step is collapse all those to a single model (select them all then Connect Objects & Delete), and mirror across to the other side. I used the Mirror Tool for this. Look that up on youtube as it's not so intuitive unless you know how). then I had a group I could offset and position to make the other side of the frond. At this point you may want to spend some time scaling and rotating individual poly islands within that mirrored side to get more variation, but I'm on a time one so I didn't here. If you do, just go into poly mode, and double click to select all the polys in one leaf.


At this point I selected all my polys and checked that my Normals were correct (they should all be orange facing up). If not use align / reverse Normals to fix.


Lastly for this bit I selected both models and CO&D'd them together into one.




7. Now we just need to make the stem which I did with  an 8 segment n-side profile and a simple path spline in a sweep, using sweep scaling to make it thinner at one end.. I also put my leaves mesh under a cloth SDS to add no subdivision but a tiny amount of thickness. With the cloth under regular SDS that looks like above...


Lastly we need some variation in all this - currently it has been easier to build everything flat, but now we need to curl stuff up a bit.


For this I got a displacer (deformer), which I made a child of the leaf. That got a (standard perlin) noise loaded into the shader / image field, and strength was set to very low so we got just gentle undulation. You may have to adjust the scale of the noise too, so experiment until you find the right settings. What we do need to make sure of is that the noise space is set to 'World' (noise settings). That way it will be different for every leaf later on in the model.


One problem you'll notice is that the displacement lifts the base of the leaves away from the stem. That is where you could add a box field into the falloff of the displacer to stop that happening.



Finally (for this bit), you should have something that looks a bit like this, and we have our sub leaves ready to be cloned about into the bigger main leaf...




Edited by Cerbera
added info... pls refresh page

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A quick word about texturing. Make sure you keep different save files for the various stages of this, as it makes sense to do the texturing as we build the main leaf. I'll be back at some point to show you that, but the key is to texture each part BEFORE you collapse it down with others. So in the case of this, you want to texture the first leaf before it goes in the cloner... This could be as simple as a mirrored gradient or you could properly UV map a photo or prepared graphic to it if you really are going for realism...



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A massive thanks for the instructions here @Cerbera!


With the texture, I'm definitely looking to go for realism. How do I prepare this? 

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2 hours ago, Paul Milinski said:

How do I prepare this? 


That's quite a broad question 😉 At the simplest level ferns are quite easy to texture because they are fairly uniform green, and presumably we're not going close enough to actually see the cells / veins in the leaves. If that is the case we only need color, luminance (for SSS) and reflectance channels in our material to get a decent base.


But what makes 'hero' ferns tricky specifically is what happens to those leaves as they die - they go brown and crinkly at the edges, and that works its way inwards over time until eventually there are holes everywhere and it all goes brown, curls up and dies off. A realistic scene will have to include some of that on hero plants, and that's why we need UV mapping (unless we do it with vertex maps instead). How good are you at UVs ? I ask because it's way too huge a subject to have to teach in any single forum post ! To go over that step by step for someone who hasn't done it before would require an hour on 2 Skype (which would be a chargeable event I'm afraid, but do PM me if you'd like to do it).


The overview looks something like this.

  • Using the clone and distribute methods from the posts above I would go on to complete my hero leaf. I haven't had much time to spend on this, so mine looks a bit rushed and sh*** but it does show the sort of stage you need to get to before you UV (or vertex) map your hero leaves. This is a very much 'non-hero' texture but even that would work for background plants...






As you can hopefully see, this is one complete frond made up of 27 instances of the model we made above (the tip is another copy but rotated so it's facing down Z) with a new stem, the displacement happening in world space so it is different across every leaf and 3 large bend deformers added to tweak the general shape and hang of the frond and new stem..

  • Next step would be to get an editable copy of that combined into a single mesh, but without the bend deformers applied (easier to UV map without them).
  • Then you would Unwrap this single frond onto a single UV canvas, (probably using frontal projection from a top view initially and using overlapping UVs so that you didn't have to texture the reverse sides as well). 
  • Once you have UVs you are happy with you can output a PSD with a UV mesh layer to use as a guide, and then move into Photoshop to start making your texture.
  • We actually need to make 5 or 6 different texture maps that all use the same UVs, so that our leaves don't look identical when there's a whole bunch of them. We only need colour maps though, so no need to worry about making bump and specular versions as well, which does save a lot of time.
  • I would make a base layer which is the main leaf colour, and then a series of damage layers over the top, which we could switch in and out to make the various maps you need.
  • When you have your maps, now it's time to head back to Cinema, and duplicate your hero frond as many times as you have texture maps, then make a material for each and assign those, using UV mapping as the mapping type, so it uses the maps you have made.
  • Now you can do what you like with those fronds - clone them, bunch them, deform them, scale and rotate them; whatever you need to do to build a decent plant out of them !

So, as you can see, it's quite an elaborate process for hero plants, and you will of course need to do that for the other hero plants in your scene too. The background ones are a good deal easier - I would do those procedurally with layered noises, and gradients.


Hopefully that's some help...



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