BEWARE LONG POST AHEAD!
Once I got the control panel working with all those fantastic sci-fi looking things popping up here and there, I started defining the rest of the functions for the plane. One thing I had to pay attention first, though, was how to make a convincing background that would show all the changes in a very realistic way. I had been playing around with the HDRI maps, but I really didn’t understand them much, so first thing in the list was to learn a bit more, and do a few tutorials to really understand how to make a convincing background that would provide a PBR render for my tests (and the future):
I learned how to make my own HDRI map using Blender, which gave me a lot of confidence because the background I want for my film is very very specific. I needed to run some tests for the lighting system too, so I needed a proper setting to see how the metal would behave under a blazing desert’s sun and at night. Also, in my previous renders the shadows that were being projected by the HDRI itself were not enough, they looked too soft and disperse, like if it was cloudy, even though the map had a blue sky. So after checking on some tutorials, I figured the way to solve it by linking the strength of the luminosity to the map itself, via a couple of “multiply” and “add” channels. Yada-yada, blah blah. Better show than tell:
I was impressed by the result. The shadows were crisp and nice, it really looked like the plane was under an intense sunlight. This was what I was looking for, minus the overly reflective surface, so it was time to do another update on the specular maps to get to a better finish. But now that light was hitting the fuselage in the correct way, this was gonna be so much easier!
A much more challenging task was, though, that the cockpit metallic material was seemingly bland and muddy. I didn’t want a shiny reflective brand new feeling, but this was just too soft and uninteresting. Little did I know, that just moving things around with the maps would bring down a long spiral of renders, each one more and more perplexing… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Something was odd. The material had similar specular maps to the fuselage, yet it was much more opaque in the renders. When I ran a cockpit shot, it seemed like the whole cabin was under some black hole. Why was this happening?
Maybe there was not enough light inside the cockpit, which would mean the sun was not reaching strongly enough inside. Should I add some inner cockpit lights to solve that problem? I wouldn’t want the whole inside to be a dark mess, but I had not enough information to make an educated guess. So I switched gears and went on to solve another issue.
I didn’t like those lines on the nose, they looked rushed up and like a kid with a marker scribbled on them. They were not angular and straight, so I wanted to redo them.
There. Much better and a nicer result.
Ok. Back to the mystery at hand.
Since my initial conclusion was that the metal in the cockpit was not reflective enough, I did some fixing to the maps, while also improving the detail. I followed a tutorial on how to texture a gun which gave me an idea: Using an occlusion map. An occlusion map is a map of how light usually reaches the object, creating shadows and creases in the panels, unions and holes, and then using that map as a base to work on the textures. It was worth giving a try, so for the rest of the week I had my computer render huge occlusion maps all night long on all the components of the plane, the gun, the inside mechanisms, the cockpit and the fuselage. I got back to my maps and dutifully updated them. When I rendered the cockpit, this happened:
Wow, it looks very nice and metallic, but why is it still so dark??!!
NOW I was sure it wasn’t the material’s fault. The material was actually a lot better. So while I was doing some render tests, I decided to open the canopy. Voilà.
So it was the lights. For some reason, the inside of the cockpit was just too dark once the canopy was closed. I had no idea why, since it was perfectly transparent. But to solve it in the meantime, I added a set of inner lights and constrained them to the chair and cockpit. Time to move on.
I had set some lights to the wing tips and the back of the canopy, so now I would do tests and see what looked realistic. Also, I needed to rig the system so by clicking on the control panel I could control which lights to turn on and off.
I applied another HDRI with more of a hangar feel, and started tweaking and rendering, rendering and tweaking. I added green geos with emission for the formation lights, and started figuring out how to make a stroboscopic light that would blink perpetually, just like in real planes. Also, I tweaked the intensity of the lights to achieve something brighter and easier to notice.
Very happy with the fuselage shader!
The shader was behaving well on the inside, but on the outer shots it seemed a bit too bland. So I tweaked some more…
Beautiful!! And who would’ve thought that using some depth of field would make it even better!
While I was researching how to make the cockpit less dark, I also did an HDRI shot of the cockpit alone. The result blew me away.
This one had almost a photo-realistic feel. I was very pleased with the materials and shaders and how they behaved. I decided that I would make a turntable animation under sunlight and under a roof with the lights on, so I made a circular table and created a desert background that would look good with the HDRI map behind.
Then I finished the rig for the blinking lights and made a proper animation with all this. I attached the camera so it would rotate on the turntable, and after many many hours I came up with this Gif.
Now on to the next challenge: The afterburner effect.
I had absolutely no idea how to do this. But I had to start somewhere, so I typed “fire effect in Blender” on Youtube and after following a couple of videos, I found a way to make one that would render on Cycles. Apparently, to make something like realistic fire and smoke, Cycles does not support it, so you have to create a shader with material behaviour to do that. And since I wasn’t too eager to use particles in my animation, I wanted to try out this other method first.
The technique consists of using a long layer of planes and a material that would behave like an orb of light and transparency, and then simply elongate it to make a flame-like shape. It looked really good, but it had a problem: In order to see it well, you had to add a lot of planes. So the poly count would sky-rocket on this method. Also, it wasn’t perfect on certain angles like this one.
At a profile angle you’re able to tell the planes apart, which ruins the effect. So while this method didn’t need of a particle system, it wasn’t the best one.
My next search was for a material and opacity maps that could look like a flame. I’ve seen this used in games and it’s pretty good: a simple small cone-like cylinder with an opacity map, and that’s it. So I asked around on the Facebook Blender groups and someone came up with this node tree I copied. Thanks, Saul Cruzz!
While it looked OK from the shader perspective, there was something eerily unnatural about it. Also, my rigging sucked because I was assigning the bones to follow the legs to the wrong things. Hilarity ensued.
Ok, so after fixing that little mishap, I continued doing some more renders, and tweaking the shader to look more flamy.
Those lens disc shape things were making it look a lot more fake, so I had to look at it long and hard before erasing them and trying to get the effect somehow else.
Removing them completely would cheapen up the result, so maybe I can create those afterburner ring effects with the material itself?
It now looks MUCH better.
With a slider to change the colour from reds to blues, and a noise value that changed the size constantly, I think this looks good!
There was only one thing left to fix here:
WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THE COCKPIT OMG
First, the material lost all its glossiness all of a sudden. I figured it was the inner lights’ fault. So I took them out and looked about this problem online, until I found that this was, effectively, a transparency problem. The glass was projecting a huge shadow on the cockpit. All I needed to do was to take the property to project a shadow off the object. After I did that, the inside was lit up again.
After I did that, the chair was lighting up correctly. But the material of the frame was still too dark. Did I mess up the texture maps or something?
OK WHAT THE HELL.
There was something seriously wrong with the texture maps of the frame. They were a separate map from the chair, which would explain why it was displaying such a weird black result while the chair was being lit correctly. So I went to the node tree, and started taking off the specular map, the normal map and the ambient occlusion, and then started trying each one to find the culprit. And then I found it: it was the f@$%ing normal map!
For some reason, I had made a bad map somewhere back ago, and it was messing up the way the light bounced on the surface. Once I re-exported it I saw that the reflection changed to look very similar on all the model. It was you all along!!!
I could finally breathe again, certain that I hadn’t gone mad. Now this behaved properly.
Awesome. A few fun renders later, this looks ready for the turntable animation. Will come back when it’s done, and on to the third and final stage of making paintjob versions.
Here’s a wallpaper for you because I can’t seem to stop.