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Environment Design 2010: A Round Up of Top Apps

The pros and cons of working with Vue 9, GeoControl 2 and World Machine 2 to build out worlds in 3D

I have long enjoyed painting and digitally crafting (3D) fantasy landscapes and environments. I started in art school with standard media. Now my approach as an animator is digital matte painting. I often create some elements of my scene in 3ds Max or Modo and render in Vue, from E-on Software. In this look back at 2010′s most important environment design updates, I decided to focus on Vue 9 and on the various applications that extend or improve upon it. Vue embellishes the output from so many other tools that I thought it would be interesting to look at them as a family.

Vue 9 Environment Creation Software: Free – $1,790

I’ve been reviewing Vue for some time now, and 9 is the latest release. Created by E-on Software and used to create environments in films from the Pirates of the Caribbean series to Avatar, it’s available in many versions from the free Pioneer, with its various inexpensive upgrades, to full professional packages with all the bells and whistles. Each version brings a treasure chest of capability. 

In the Vue 9 xStream version ($1,495) you even get plug-ins to embed Vue as a tool in your favorite Professional 3D applications such as 3dsMax, Cinema 4D, Maya and LightWave. It is one of the easiest applications to get started with but can take years to master. The rewards are that it offers groundbreaking tools for creating photorealistic images from flower closeups to grand vistas. The above scene, a recent example made with Vue, was created by Vue developer and artist Dax Pandhi. Note the aging on the rocks and the natural look of the grasses. The latest version of the software features all the sophisticated lighting and atmospheric models you’ll need, a fantastic texture engine, easy access to scripting, and more. Vue was designed for natural scenery creation, and thus doesn’t feature any sophisticated modeling tools. It has only primitives and Boolean operations but it can import objects in many formats to help in composing your scenes and animations.

Version 9 is a major release with interface improvements, dozens of new tools and enhancements to the render engines. On top of all that, you’ll find fascinating new fractal patterns to use in creating unique mathematical under-structures for your terrains and rocks. One of my favorites is the new Rocky Mountain Fractal that I’ve used to create everything from mountain ranges to realistic rock displacements. 

If you are new to 3D design, take note: Vue 9 offers the new user the ability to create hyper-realistic vistas in the first hour with no prior 3D experience. You can select dozens of presets for terrains, vegetation and atmospheres, then do some easy camera work and come up with a professional-looking and unique vista. After a few hours familiarizing yourself with the basic features, you’ll be loading magnificent scenes and modifying them. Within a week you’ll be creating professional, animated scenes that would have been unimaginable for a single person to do, even just three or four years ago. 

Soon you won’t be able to keep yourself from digging deeper and deeper. Vue gives you excellent access to the underlying engines, both through Python scripting and through an intuitive node-based visual programming interface. The deeper stuff includes creating and distributing plants according to your own rules and building textures that automatically distribute different qualities to various parts of your scene, for example, snow on top of mountains, rocks and plants below. You can also distribute tiny plants along cracks in rocks. It all may look daunting, but with the wide range of tutorials from geekatplay.com, you’ll find that a few hours of playing with the node function interface, connecting all sorts of functions together and adjusting their parameters, you’ll become addicted.

The people at Geekatplay show you everything from the basics to really advanced techniques and it’s all free thanks to the generosity of Ami and Vlad Chopine.  I personally want to thank Amy and Vlad, who head up geekatplay.com, and their associates for the very helpful video tutorials and starter packs. This isn’t a commercial, but everything you need to rapidly become a Vue 9 professional is available at their training site.

When I say you can do pro work with Vue 9 I mean it. If you’re in VFX or are on a budget and need to create that establishing shot of a scene or an aerial shot looking down through the clouds, you can do it intuitively and cheaply with Vue 9. If you are a serious 3D artist, and use one of the major applications like 3dsMax, Maya, Cinema 4D, or LightWave, aim for Vue 9 xStream, which will plug-in to your main application and become a completely integrated set of environment tools. Ultimate also includes several lighting models for easy image-based lighting, Vue’s unique terrain oriented materials engine, an insanely good specular atmosphere system, Vue’s object and plant scatter engine, and everything else Vue. I use it with 3ds Max and it works like a dream. 

Of course, you need a pretty powerful desktop with lots of RAM, but if you’re considering Ultimate, you already have that. I’ve been using it with Intel’s Core I7 processor, on a Gigabyte motherboard with fast Seagate Savvio drives. Vue recognizes all 8 CPUs automatically and uses them effectively. The one thing it does not use effectively is my NVIDIA Quadro CX or My ATI Fire Pro GPU cards. The Vue team is working on GPU acceleration to be released in an upcoming new version. That should significantly reduce render times.  As you can imagine, scenes with billions of polygons, many layers of atmosphere and procedural materials takes inordinate computing power and tons of memory.

If Vue is all new to you, start out with the powerful free version, Vue 9 Pioneer. It’s not going to give you the full range of render sizes or many of the sophisticated tools, like scatter and fancy lighting, but it will give you a chance to play with Vue 9 and experiment. From this point on you can get ever more sophisticated versions at appropriately escalating prices.  

What’s Cool
Honestly, there is so much good to say about Vue, I don’t know where to start. The developers listen to users and always include our thoughts in their next release. The tools are remarkably powerful and innovative, the atmospheric and lighting models are cutting edge and yet set up so that anyone can understand and use them. Vue handles billions of polygons with ease and this is necessary much of the time. Almost everything you do gives you immediate visual feedback if you have an adequate GPU in your system. And best of all, final renders always look great.

What’s Missing
In spite of recent render speed improvements, Vue renders slow down massively when you start to use the progressively more realistic lighting and atmosphere models. So much so that I’ve had single complex frames (at 4K resolution) take up to 22 hours to render, even with my 6 gigs of RAM and 8 cores chugging at 100%  The results are spectacular, but this is an area for improvement.  I’m also upgrading to 12 gigs of RAM as my New Year’s gift.

Like so many current number crunching programs, Vue does not take proper advantage of the immensely powerful and little-used number crunching genies living in our massively parallel GPU engines. Mine boasts two terraflops of unused power… a true supercomputer going to waste.

Also if you’re planning to do massive scenes (and you will be), I recommend at least 12 gigs of high speed RAM and a processor with 8 cores.

Now on to some remarkable applications that work extremely well with Vue.

GeoControl2: @ $172

If Vue has a drawback it’s in the area of mountain sculpting tools. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of these tools, but they’re not good enough for me much of the time. You can create perfectly acceptable mountains quite easily in Vue, especially mesas with lots of strata, but if you want to go close-up on a realistically eroded mountain peak, you may be disappointed. To the rescue, there are two other programs that I use with Vue: GeoControl 2 and World Machine 2. 

Both of these programs work by creating or importing and exporting very high resolution 16 bit TIFF or TGA terrain maps in which shades of gray represent the range of altitudes to be created in 3D in Vue. 

This glacier was created in GeoControl2 by its developer, Johannes Rosenberg, aka "Cajomi"

I’ve previously written about GeoControl 2 (GC2), an excellent program capable of creating outstanding multilayer mountains with accurate erosion and drainage channels. I’ll give you just a taste here. Although I can get wonderful, eroded terrains with layer maps of different materials that can be imported into Vue for final render, it takes me a long time to do it. But the software is very deep and powerful, letting me do things like placing springs that will become the headwaters of rivers. You can also create inverse erosion for stark landscapes. GeoControl2 has wonderful sediment flows that I’ve used to create glaciers that are so realistic, you’d think they were an aerial photo of the Athabasca. The very complex math behind GC2 takes a while to calculate the new terrains, but it’s worth it.

What’s Cool
The Great thing about GC2 is that if you take the time to learn it well, you will have the power to create some of the most realistic eroded, glaciated, drainage channeled terrain images imaginable. Think glacier fly-overs: I’ve seen a few so real you would never doubt it. GC2 just creates the terrains. To make them look real, you import them via massive TIFF files. Then, properly imported, set up and rendered in Vue, you get a masterpiece still or fabulous matte for your animation.

What’s Missing
The difficult thing about GC2 is the work interface. It has a steep learning curve. I personally find it non-intuitive, and even though I’ve learned a lot and have built some awesome terrains, I still feel a little uncomfortable working in that interface. If you’ve got the time, however, it’s worth it.

The billions of calculations necessary to replicate millions of years of erosion are all done in the CPU. That can take a long time. I’ve never had to wait more than an hour, though.  Hopefully its developers will take more advantage of GPU number crunching as I’m strongly suggesting for all of these computationally intensive applications.  Again, I want to use  all of my nearly two terraflops across 200 GPU cores, doing the number crunching. That power remains mostly idle.

World Machine 2: $89 – $1,000

Let’s take a look at World Machine 2 (WM2). I like the workflow on WM2 much better than on GeoControl. It’s similar to Vue’s visual function editor where you drag function boxes onto the work plane, click on them to open the parameter adjustment panel and make some adjustments while watching your changes live on a mini-real-time display. You can continue to experiment, connecting up logical choices of processes, filters, generators, inputs and outputs with digital wires, feeding one into the next and creating different terraforming systems. Each time you click on a box, you can see its output in real time on that mini display. It all makes a kind of easy sense to me. The fact that you use a very similar process in Vue to create your terrains makes it all the more intuitive to use in tandem with that software.

At first I found myself creating terrains that didn’t look too natural. The erosion was too regular. It looked nice and at a distance it was convincing, but close up, not so much. My friend Dax Pandhi of Quadspinner, a Vue development company, explained a few of the finer points of WM2. In fact, I was amazed to find that I’d been ignoring whole layers of tools that I’d not yet discovered. These can be used to modify your terraforming operations, randomizing and fractalizing them, and in general making them look very natural and convincing, even close up. Dax has a video tutorial that explains the workflow between Vue and WM2. It’s called Mesa Mastery – Erosion, and it’s available at www.cornucopia3d.com

This is a photorealistic image of Mesa country. The base terrain was created in Vue 9 and then
eroded in World Machine 2 and re-imported to Vue for rendering by Dax Pandhi.
Used with permission.

Because Vue 9 has outstanding and highly sophisticated fractal terrain forming algorithms, I often will create a large terrain there and export it as a 4K Targa file. I import this .tga file into WM2 and then I mess with it by creating terraforming networks of processes to add realistic erosion, river channels, silt flows, and lake bottoms.  I do this by merely dragging the processes I want, like erosion, sculpting and fractal modification of the distribution of effects. Each process has various inputs and outputs for main effects, masking, etc. 

It may sound complicated, but after a bit of experimenting the workflow becomes fairly obvious and in a short time it becomes intuitive. You can create awesome terrains in WM2 from scratch, which I often do. But sometimes importing your Vue work into WM2 and adding believable erosion with fluvial flumes, water channels, and sediment buildup will give you just the touch you need for a totally believable landscape.  Then all you have to do is export back to Vue, texture it and build a cool atmosphere. Next you set up your animation camera like an airplane, complete with automatic banking on turns, and fly over your terrain, catching glimpses down through the clouds as the sun lowers on the horizon. And while you’re looking at your results, think about the hundred grand you just saved on shooting it from a helicopter.

This shot of high mountain early snow brings out the erosion created in World Machine 2 by
Conrad Allan. This one is also rendered in Vue.

I feel that many young filmmakers would benefit from learning how to use these tools to create establishing shots, intros, interesting title sequences, and visual fx components. Even if you don’t see yourself as a 3D digital artist, it’s probably worth a week or two to learn this stuff. And besides, it’s fun.  The cost savings on a tight budget will give you a little headroom for other things less amenable to home-grown digital magic. If you’re good with After Effects, you can render components in Vue for compositing.

Speed Tree Cinema: Licenses Starting at $4,995/Seat

The more advanced versions of Vue come with a remarkably good plant factory built in.  I use it on virtually every terrain I create. It’s flexible and you can create your own plants and textures for use with it.  Overall, a very nice plant design system.  I find it It’s useful for mid-distance and background plants. I can make good foreground plants, but it’s a lot of work making new higher resolution materials and plugging them in the proper places. 

Recently I wanted to create some really cool foreground Trees for my Jungle scene. I’ve always been fascinated by the strangler fig…the massive Ficus trees that grow in tropical jungles with thick trunks festooned with draping vines and twisting multiple trunks. I started doing research on how in hell I would ever be able to build one procedurally rather than having to sculpt the entire thing in Zbrush. 

Through the grapevine I heard that ILM was using something called SpeedTree Cinema from 
Interactive Data Visualization, Inc., to create millions of trees to populate Pandora.   SpeedTree, initially developed for the Game industry, was designed to quickly build realistic easily animated treescapes. 

It’s not for everyone and getting a 30-day free trial is not easy. Although it’s relatively easy to learn, the price can be a bit daunting but it’s not outlandish. Currently, a single seat of SpeedTree Cinema, for offline and animation, is $4,995. For major efforts, you can license it by the project for $14,995, or on a site basis for a year for $39,995. If you’re a small studio, you may well find the price justified as a good investment. In fact, ILM’s matte painter, Richard Bluff, will tell you they never could have produced the massive and exact vegetation of Pandora without it! So for them it would be cheap at a hundred times the price.

As many of you know, I’m a big believer in buying and using the very best equipment and software you can because it saves man hours, which pile up faster than snow in a blizzard. SpeedTree is an example of if you need it…get it.

Here is an example of a very complex Ficus Microcarpa or Chinese Banyan Tree that I crafted in SpeedTree. Using my trusty Wacom Intuos 4, I sculpted in the dozens of strangler and aerial roots.  Then, I posted this image on Face book and asked people to vote on was it real or a 3D model. 

Is it real or is it SpeedTree?

Most people I’ve shown this to, including two Ficus Bonsai experts, have guessed this is a photograph of a real banyan tree. But I actually studied pictures of real Ficus trees and then created the model and textures in SpeedTree, exporting and rendering it in Vue 9. With SpeedTree you can actually use your Wacom tablet to paint strokes that instantly become branches complete with taper, branches, bark and leaves, all automatically. But the same strokes can become ground roots, or areal roots as well. You simply select the tree element you’ll be painting and there you go.  I found it particularly helpful in drawing branches that cling to and bond with the main trunk on this ficus.

Drawing in the many complex stranglers and aerial roots in great detail was not difficult. The stranglers procedurally followed and blended with the main trunk. All I had to do was guide them to look the way I wanted.  I also added entire branch systems by just gesturing them in. The bark, leaves, taper, everything just automatically appeared following my magic Wacom wand. I also adjusted the twist and gnarl of the main trunk using several of the dozens of adjustable parameters available.

But my interest in Speed Tree is just a mere scratch on the surface. This game-savvy application provides an environment for creating massively complex scenes with full animation that can be compiled directly into Unreal Engine format. For anyone involved in developing game assets, I believe SpeedTree would be a bargain. For us individuals who would love to get our hands on it, we’ll have to wait. I keep suggesting that they come out with a limited version that just makes pretty trees…maybe they will listen to me.

What’s Cool
SpeedTree is, IMHO, the best tree builder on the planet. The development team has gone the distance in making every part of tree development as intuitive and fast as possible. The fact that you can draw specific types of trees from scratch using templates to imbue the tree with it’s native characteristics is amazing. There is a massive library of tree templates available for purchase. Geared for professional studios, they’re relatively inexpensive. For the individual, a bit high, but the price is fully justified.

What’s Missing
The licensing is a bit tedious, but necessary to protect these valuable assets. The price is also very high for individuals, but not bad for studios considering that manpower is very expensive in this business. The time saved will pay for itself halfway through the first project.

CityEngine for Vue 9 from Procedural and E-on: $199

This is a very exciting development: CityEngine Vue is a specialized version of one of the most powerful procedural city engines ever built. As I understand it, you get pretty much the full package for as low as $199 at Cornucopia3D.com, E-on’s community site. This is an astounding price because I’ve only seen this tool available to studios at studio pipeline element prices in the thousands. 

CityEngine is, IMHO, an amazingly clever and effective way to create realistic cities in a hurry. In fact, you can build everything from a medieval walled town, to Manhattan, to a sci-fi city of the future. And, you can build it all quickly using rule-based, interactive generation of 3D buildings with automatic placement. All the rules can be modified to your needs. You can hand draw city street maps and feed them into City Engine or have it create a city for your terrain, automatically adjusting for terrain slopes and elevations. Once your city is built you can tweak it with your Wacom pen by dragging streets into different configurations…drawing in additional streets or whatever you want. Instantly the engine will repopulate the street with buildings. You can then tweak the buildings by making changes to their architectural details, sizes, etc.

CityEngine is one of those brilliant applications that works at many levels. A newbie can create a city using provided city elements, in a very short time, just a few clicks in fact. A professional creating a specific city for a major motion picture will have access to the nether realms of the engine including node based visual editing or texted based scripting. The level of control is such that the user can set up the engine to automatically build exactly what is needed, and then export it to Vue.. If the artist is using the Pro-version (virtually identical except with more export options) he can export to just about any professional pipeline. For now I’m just looking at the Vue version.

This specific version of CityEngine only outputs files for Vue. I say bravo. You can then go into Vue and export elements for tweaking in Max or C4D. You can input various elements into CityEngine and convert them to procedural elements for use on buildings. For example, you can create textures in Photoshop or Zbrush. Zbrush 4 is now excellent for sculpting turn of the century architectural embellishments and gargoyls, for example. If they can, in fact, be imported into CityMichine and made procedural; imagine what you’ll be able to create. I’ve even seen an entire castle complete with a small walled city built with CityEngine.  I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I believe you’ll be able to build entire libraries of such architectural nurnies so that each rule based building will be unique. 

I just got a copy of  CityEngine for Vue and it’s impressive. It will take me weeks to learn all the different tools and parameters. In the beginning there is a lot of redundancy in the buildings coming up in my city. But I’ve discovered that I can specify all sorts of embellishments and details and add more buildings to the selection archives. I’ve seen examples done by people with more expertise than I have, and they look amazing. I’m having fun modifying the several city examples that come with City Machine. I don’t have an example of CityMachine output rendered in Vue because my testbed computer needs a RAM upgrade to handle it. I’ll post one once I get it all figured out. 

What’s Cool
The entire application is well thought out and extremely effective in both saving time and helping to create urban areas that would otherwise be too expensive for many projects. The node-based visual editor works again much like the ones in Vue and World Machine 2. The building shape wizard helps you design fully textured and dimensional buildings from photo references relatively quickly.

What’s Missing
Although having many tutorials available is a good thing, there is a weakness with these in particular: in many of them, the teacher talks so fast that I have to go back over the same material again and again. Sometimes he assumes I know things already, that I don’t know. The learning curve is a bit steep when you really get into it. The exported Vue models are generally massive, possibly half a gigabyte. This means you need a lot of RAM and a fast processor to work with sizable city chunks. My 6 gigs was not enough for any but the smallest CityEngine models. Anything larger caused an immediate crash. Both development teams, however, are outstanding guys and any glitches will be worked out. Get over those RAM hurdles and CityEngine is a resource that will save you amazing amounts of time and work.

There are also many websites that provide Vue conversations and share assets from atmospheres to models and materials. Happy New Year and joyous rendering in the coming year.

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