Location and large-scale set design, a novice’s journey.

I have several ideas on various burners going at any moment.  While it’s great to have several ideas you find worthy enough to have your attention on, it makes organizing all of them a task that makes herding cats a promising enterprise.
To digress, though, I have been envisioning the kernel of a story that has just recently begun to take shape.  What has really developed most recently,  was the location and the ‘look’ of the setting where I intend to set the story.  It came about relatively quickly, with the elements and how they’d be expressed falling into place.

It’s a sprawling, wide-open setting, inspired by visits of my own to the desert southwestern states, but amped-up on steroids.  Since I have the software, I can conceptualize my ideas in virtual, three dimensional space.  The scale of the setting however, is the largest I’ve ever attempted.   A setting that spans literally tens of miles is a far cry from a small room, and while I’m well aware that I could simply scale the model down, I will always wonder in the back of my head whether or not my virtual camera would be capturing the image as it would be if it actually existed in the real world.  Philosophically, the difference may be moot to some artists.  It’s a fantasy setting so why not design it however you want it to, scale included?   The CGI world is entirely of your creation so control all the aspects you can, right?

But instead, I’ve chosen to use literal scaling as a willingly accepted artistic restraint.  It will impose certain restrictions upon me, but it will simultaneously remove a variable that my mind might otherwise continually have to revisit by wondering what something should look like vs. what it will look like because I’ve set a principle as a constant from the outset.  Something that sounds restrictive, is liberating.  I can still use real-world points of reference, without having to go to absurdly literal.  Google and wikipedia are ready sources of proportion and scale for real-life features, so I can ballpark things without having to fuss over how “right” they should or shouldn’t look.  If things need to be adjusted and fine-tuned later, they can be, like scaling individual elements for compositional purposes.

The main feature of the scene is a massive desert mesa, 23 miles long and 17 miles wide, with a secondary, a smaller but further elevated plateau will play host to a large metropolis while the larger and lower plateau is more agricultural in nature.  All of this is surrounded by dry,  desert landscape.  Like an island in a dry ocean.  Can’t help but to notice, real life geological features like Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) in Australia come to mind as well.  That kind of feature, known as an inselberg, combined with a traditional mesa, with a scale closer to those of features found on the ocean bottom (which can be much more massive in scale) probably describes it best.  And having that in mind will help later on, as real pictures of Ularu and surrounding features, as well as some others of say, Monument Valley, will help inform artistic choices made later on.

I started with the mesa itself, using a reference from google maps and satellite images, I came up with a general shape, modified it slightly for my own purposes, and modeled it roughly using some of the techniques outlined in previous entries.  I added two more basic elements to the setting:  to help start giving a sense of scale, I designed one building as a centerpiece for the metropolis (which itself is about a 1.5x the height of the current world-record setting Burj-Khalifa – that’s the one featured in last year’s Mission Impossible film), and then I added a surface cut from a sphere with the mean radius of the Earth itself, and cut it down.  At these scales, the curvature of the Earth might actually play a role, and it took little or no extra time to find out how to specify that detail.
Here’s the result, visually:


That tiny gray speck on the upper mesa?  That’s the Burj-Khalifa sized structure.  The rendering camera (the equivalent of a standard 35mm) had to be placed a staggering 30 miles away from the subject to fit it in the frame.  That’s the scale.
Rendering at this scale posed a few issues.  I chose to use raytraced shadowing, but kept the simplicity of a spotlight-lighting by placing it at a great distance away, simulating directional lighting.  Other than that, I changed up the camera’s clipping planes, putting the near clipping plane at 5 units and extending (by necessity) the far clipping plane to an absurdly large number, to make sure that these features which are at great distances away, will still show up in the render.  Finally, and most important for quality, under ray-tracing in the render settings, I bumped up the Trace Bias to 250 to eliminate rendering artifacts which showed up on the mesa object.  Of particular note, for this project I am using Renderman for Maya as my renderer of choice.  Settings for this feature may vary when using raytracing for another renderer, such as MentalRay, for example.

I’ll add some more features in the next entry to help develop scale and depth, but for now, I’ll simply change the tint of the primary light to better reflect a sunset, and lower the angle a little more as well:


And that’s where I’ll leave it for this week.  In future weeks, we’ll hopefully continue to see how the decisions I’ve made here, impact future ones down the line.


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