Throughout the years that have passed since the emergence of Computer Graphics, many aspiring artists tried convincingly to recreate the real world through works of applied art, some of which include oil painting, charcoal painting, matte painting, and even the most basic ones like pastel and/or crayon drawings has already made it through the artistic universe of realism. Albeit the fact that recreating the real world is like reinventing the wheel (which some artists might argue with), it is not an easy task to involve yourself into. It takes a lot of practice, perseverance, and personality to make it through. But one lesson I have learned from the art world is to consciously and subconsciously observe the world around you. Pay attention to details. Observe how a plant behaves at different environmental conditions, look how a paper’s texture is changed when wet, or probably observe how water in a river distorts the underlying objects. These are just some of the things that you can observe around you, and there are a million more or even an infinite number of things you can observe in your lifetime.
In the advent of 3D as part of the numerous studies involved in Computer Graphics, a lot of effort has been made into developing tools and applications that emulate real-world environment. It has become an unstated norm that the more realistic looking an image is, the greater the impact it has on viewers. That, in turn, is partly true, but the real essence into creating stunning images is to know how it would look beautiful amidst the criteria that are present. It is not a general requirement that all your images must look hyper realistic, you just have to know and judge how it would look good, after all that’s what CG is all about. And believe it or not, cheating the eye is an essential tool of the trade.
In 3D rendering context, there are a number of ways on how to achieve realism in your scenes, but intuitively, the use of external renderers and advanced raytracers does help a lot in the setup and makes the creation process a bit lighter as compared to manually setting up lights, shaders, etc. But that comes at a rendering time tradeoff. Unfortunately though, I won’t be taking you to the steps on how to setup your scenes for use in external renderers, but instead I’ll walk you through the steps on how to achieve slightly similar effects as to that of externals with the use of the native renderer or the internal renderer as some might call it.
Hopefully in this short article, I can describe to you numerous ways on how to achieve good-looking and realistic images with some nifty tools, workarounds from within Blender and use the Blender Internal Renderer to achieve these effects.
So, let’s all get a cup of tea, a comfortable couch, and hop in!
On a nutshell, what makes an image look real?
Shading, Materials, Shadows, Textures, Transparency, Reflection, Refraction, Highlights, Contrast, Color Balance, DoF, Lens Effects, Geometry (bevels), Subtlety, Environment, Staging, Composite Nodes, Story..
Before Anything Else…
Beyond anything that will be discussed here, nothing beats a properly planned and well-imagined scene. I cannot stress enough how important it is to begin everything with deep and careful planning. Be it just a ball on a table or a flying scaled bear with a head of a tarsier and legs that of a mouse (?), it is very vital to plan beforehand. Believe me, once you’ve planned everything right, you’re almost done with your work (which I didn’t believe then until I did give it a try). And of course, with your touch of artistic flavors, a simple scene could just be the grandest one that history has ever seen.
This article, by any means, does not technically teach you how to model subjects for your scene nor does it detail the concepts behind lighting (which is an article on its own and probably beyond my knowledge) nor does it teach you “the way” to do things but instead it will lead you through a process by which you will be able to understand your scene better and the concepts behind.
I would also be leading you through a series of steps using the same scene we’ve setup from the beginning and hopefully by the end of the day, we could achieve something that comprises what has been discussed here so far.
I have blabbered too much already, haven’t I? Yeah. Ok, on to the real thing.
Before you begin the proceeding steps, it is a must (it really really is) to go grab your copy of Blender over at http://www.blender.org/download/get-blender/. The version I used for this tutorial is 2.49a (which should be the latest one being offered at Blender.org [as of this writing]).
With every historical and memorable piece, it is a vital part of your 3d journey to setup something on your scene. I couldn’t imagine how a 3D artist could pass on a work with a blank animated scene, hyper minimal I might say. To start off, fire up Blender or your favorite 3D App for that matter and get your scene ready with your models, objects, subjects, or whatever you call them, just get them there inside your scene so we could have something to look at for now, won’t we?
On the image below (finally, a graphic one!), you could see a sample scene I’ve setup and a quick render of the said scene.
The first image shows my scene with the model, two spheres, a plane, a lamp, and a camera. The second image shows the rendered version.
You’ll notice that the image looks dull and lifeless, that is because it lacks the proper visual elements necessary for creating a convincing scene. The current setup is all set to default, with the objects having no material data but just the premade ones set by Blender and the light’s settings set as they were by default.
Shading and Materials
To address some issues, we need to identify first what needs to be corrected. The first thing we might want to do is to add some initial materials to the objects we have just so we could clearly distinguish their roles in the scene and to add some life to the somewhat dry set we have here. To do so, select one object at a time and add a material. Let’s first select the main character of the scene (or any subject you wish for that matter) by clicking RMB (Right Mouse Button) on the character object, then under the Buttons Window, select Shading (F5), then click the Material Buttons tab, and click on “Add New” to add a new material to our object.
Adding a New Material
After doing so, more options will show up and this is where the real fun begins.
The only thing we’ll be doing for now is to add some basic color and shading to our objects just so we could deviate from the standard gray default. You’ll notice on the image below that I’ve edited quite a few options. That’s what we only want for now, let’s leave the other settings as they are and we’ll get back to it as soon as we need to.
Character Initial Material Settings
Big Sphere Initial Material Settings
Small sphere Initial Material Settings
Ground Initial Material Settings
If we do a test render now, here’s how it will look like:
Render With Colors
Still not so convincing, but somehow we managed to add a level of variety to our scene as compared to the initial render we’ve made. Looking at the latest render we did, you’ll notice that the character with the two spheres still seem to be floating in space, creating no interaction whatsoever with the ground plane below it. Another thing would be the lack of diffuse color on some parts of the objects, thus creating a pitch black color which, as in this case, doesn’t seem to look good at all since we’re trying to achieve a well-lit, natural environment as much as possible.
A quick and easy solution to this issue would be to enable Ambient Occlusion under the World Settings tab. This will tell Blender to create a fake global illumination effect as though you have added a bunch of lights to create the occlusion. This would be a case similar to adding a dome of spot lights, with each light having a low energy level, creating a subtle AO effect. But for the purposes of this article, we’d be settling for Ambient Occlusion since it is faster to setup and eliminates the additional need for further tweaking.
We access the AO (Ambient Occlusion) menu via the World Buttons tab under Shading (F5) menu then clicking the Amb Occ subtab. Activate Ambient Occlusion then click on Use Falloff and edit the default strength of 1.00 to 0.70, doing so will create further diffusion on darker areas that have been hidden from the occlusion process. Next would be to click Pixel Cache, I don’t know much technically what this does but what I know from experience is this speeds up the occlusion calculation.
Ambient Occlusion Settings
Below, you’ll see the effects of AO as applied to the scene. Notice the subtle diffusion of color and shadows and the interaction of the objects and the plane ground through the occlusion process. So far we’ve only used a single lamp as fill light, but later on we’ll be adding further light sources to create a better effect.
Render with Ambient Occlusion
Whew, we’ve been doing something lately, haven’t we? So far what we did was to create a scene and a render image that will give us a better view of what it’s going to look like. Next stop, we’ll be creating a base light setup to further create shadows and better looking diffusion. Soon we go!