Making Of Artists Retreat

The competition was run by Evermotion, a very well known forum for CG artists around the world. 

The competition was split into two categories: interior and exterior.  The theme was to create a realistic visualisation of a space that inspires you which I found very open.  I decided to go with the exterior option to challenge my current skill set.

I used the Shell House located in the woods of Karuizawa in Kitasaku, Nagano by Kotaro Ide, ARTechnic Architects as a starting reference. I added a small Zen garden and made some changes to the layout and I also refined the architecture to fit my style. 

For full set of images see post below

My intention was not to make a replica of the shell house but to reinterpret based on my taste.  I kept the main architectural elements like the two main volumes, the courtyard and of course the forest aspect. 

I used 3dsmax2011 with VRay 2.0. I used Zbrush for the sand and rocks and I used GrowFX and Forest Pro for the trees. All post was done in Photoshop and AE. I used no 3rd party models but I did use textures from CG-Source and Arroway.


Shell Shape of the house

For the main shell of the house I used an extruded ellipse with a shell modifier applied to it.  When I was happy with the basic elliptical shape I used an FFD box to deform it to get the right curves in the courtyard area.  I left it like this for quite a while when I was working on the project as I was tweaking it here and there while building the courtyard area.  When I knew I wasn't going to change the shape any more I collapsed and added the extra detail like the negative detail for the glass line and the skylight.

I understand most readers may already know how to do this in some shape or form but the question was raised during the competition so I thought I would share here as well.

Zen Garden Sand/Rocks - Zbrush

There is a well known tutorial done by Sascha Henrichs on creating a non-destructive rock found at www.saschahenrichs.com in the tutorials section.  I won't go into detail but it is definitely worth checking out.  You can get some pretty amazing results just using standard 3dsmax procedural maps.

I simply followed this tutorial until I got the basic shape of the rocks I was after.  At this point I was using the VRay Displacement modifier to get some extra detail in the rock but I wasn't really that happy with it and I was struggling to get a decent material working with procedural mapping.  So I decided to unwrap the rock and take it into Zbrush to roughen it up a bit (not too much because the rocks I was using as reference looked old and weathered so I guess they had somewhat smoothened over time).  All I really did was add noise to a high poly mesh in ZBrush.

My unwrapping skills for this type of object leave a lot to be desired.  Because the rock was derived from a box I unwrapped it before the other modifiers were applied in the modifier stack.  This was good enough for me as each face of the rock had lots of detail in the diffuse map. I also was able to mask the edges were the map didn't match by exporting a displacement map for each rock from ZBrush after I added the detail (I will go in to more detail about this in the materials section).

The Zen sand was a plane exported from max to Zbrush.  I then subdivided it many times and using a simple alpha I created in Photoshop I traced around some low poly placeholders for the rocks.  I used a tablet to do this - seemed a lot easier than using a mouse.

Planting - GrowFX/Forest Pro

All my trees were created using Exlevel GrowFX.  It is a brilliant plug-in for 3dsmax.  It takes a little time to get your head around but Exlevel has some great tutorials on their website which is more than enough to get you going modelling your own trees.

I made 3 different types of trees and then had a few variations of each (which is very easy to do using GrowFX).  All up I had 6 different trees and 3 different bushes.  All the background trees were placed using Itoo software's Forest Pro (another brilliant plug-in) which basically creates a forest or scatters any object you want within a spline (It does many other things too).

Forest Pro was also used to scatter the grass.  All up I used 5 separate forests to do the planting.  The reason for having multiple forests is that you have more control on how the planting will work in your scene.  It is also easier to optimize the scene for rendering from different viewpoints.  Here is the break down in my scene:

2x forests for the surrounding forest
 - one for the large bulk of trees
 - one for some smaller bushes which covered a smaller area.

3x forests for the grass
 - one for the grass outside the main garden which included short grass, flowers and clovers
 - one for the long grass outside the main garden along the fence line.
 - one for the grass surrounding the Zen garden containing only the short grass and clovers.

Below is a screenshot of the different objects I used in my grass forests.

I have used default settings for most of the forests only changing the density, falloff to edges, colour using the forest material and transformers (scale, rotation).

I think the trick to getting the trees and planting to fit well in your scene is scale.  Especially the scale of leaves.  I know trees come with a huge range of leaf sizes but this is important to get right.  I have seen many amazing renders where everything was perfect except for the scale of the trees and the leaves.  There might be a tendency to over scale the leaves on a tree to keep the polycount low.  I feel this ruins renders even with the best models, shaders and light setup.

Decking - CG Source Floor generator

I don't think it news that the floor generator plug-in by CG-Source is excellent for doing floors . So needless to say it’s what I used to do the decking.  I also used floor board materials I purchased from CG-Source a while ago.  The amazing thing is that there are 60 different floor boards so it is very difficult to see tiling!



The rocks material was probably the material I spent the most time on –

I have started with a Top/Bottom shader.  One for the main rock and one for the rock mixed with a moss using the blend shader.  I have mixed a lot of different noises to get some variation in the moss.

I mentioned earlier in the section on modeling the rocks where I used an exported displacement map from ZBrush.  The displacement map highlighted the main edges on the rocks.  I then overlaid this over my rock map in Photoshop and applied this map in the diffuse slot.  So this means each of the 7 rocks has a unique diffuse map.  This saved having to paint a complex texture for each rock.

I think I achieved a reasonable result however, I would have done the moss with geometry if I had a more powerful machine or more time to optimize my scene (the latter probably being a more reasonable solution).


The concrete material was originally a Arroway texture I colour corrected in Photoshop.

Vray Dirt Settings:
You can see in the image above in the VRay dirt parameters I have invert normal selected which changes the direction of the tracing of rays.  With invert normal selected the rays are traced inside the surface rather than outside by default.  There is also a noise used in the radius slot to break this effect up a little so it is not uniform. 

I used this effect to create a slightly greenish edge to the concrete as can be seen below in the crop.


The material I set up for all the planting was very simple.  It was as you can see above just a VRay2sidedMtl with a standard VRayMtl that contains a diffuse and a bump map.  I created about 9 colour variations of the leaves which were used on various trees and on the scattered leaves on the ground.  The translucency colour in the VRay2sidedMtl is set to 160, sat. 0.  Due to the way I constructed the trees using Exlevel GrowFX the leaves also needed a opacity map.

I kept the maps for the planting simple because I knew I was always going to be a fair distance away from the trees and grass.

*note: the forest material 3 map you can see in the material node image above is a shader you can apply when wanting to use a hue variation parameter within the Forest Pro settings - very handy for creating a little more realism when it comes to nature.


My render settings are fairly straight forward.  I used Irradiance map + Light Cache.  Setting the right rendering parameters is probably my weakest point and I am still doing a lot of learning about these settings in VRay to achieve better results.

I can only mention my settings for the purpose of this Making-of.  I definitely wouldn’t take these as gospel but more as a starting point.


Something worth noting is in my process throughout this project and any others I do I use the VRay physical camera.  I tend to set the camera up slightly under exposed.  I then save the raw render at 32bit and increase the exposure in Photoshop.
All the post work for was done in Photoshop with the exception of the DOF which was done in After Effects using Fruschluft’s Lenscare.

Below is a breakdown of the different adjustments I did in Photoshop for the dusk render.  Each adjustment is simply a adjustment layer added over the top of the raw render.  I work this way because I find I go backward and forward between the different adjustments and do small tweaks here and there until I am happy.

Below is a screenshot of  my layer structure in Photoshop for the main daylight render. I like to keep every variation I do so I know how to recreate it again if needed.  I left the "autocolour" layer highlighted so you could see it was on 50% opacity.  I usually as in this case duplicate all the layers including the adjustment layers and merge them to one and apply an Auto Colour adjustment.  Sometimes this looks good and sometimes it doesn't but I usually turn down the opacity so it blends with the adjustments I have already made. 

In the case of the main daylight render I added a volume light effect in Photoshop simply by painting some diagonal brush strokes from the trees down and then blurring them in opposite directions along the painted length.

image attached with volume light effect at 100%

I reduced the opacity of the volume effect to 40%.  Adding this layer brightened up parts of the image more than I liked so I have added some extra adjustment layers that are masked in certain areas to bring the image back to the point I was happy with it.

I have also added a glow by selecting the brightest parts of the render adding it to a new layer (when doing this it is a good idea to turn the layer fill down to zero so you don't have a double up of pixels if using a different blending mode).  I then add an "outer glow" layer effect with a pale blue tint.  I have also taken the opacity of this effect down to 40%.  This effect adds some glare from the sky.

These adjustments vary depending on the raw render but I almost always do these same adjustments. 

I hope you have found this making of helpful.  I obviously haven't touched on everything but I think I have mentioned everything I felt bought my renders alive.