Brave new worlds
Most 3D modelling applications are designed to create single objects rather than scenes, and that’s because where a 3D object might contain “only” hundreds or thousands of polygons, a believable 3D scene will contain hundreds of thousands or even millions. This has led to a separate breed of naturalistic modellers that employ dedicated techniques to create realistic landscapes.
I first came across e-on software’s extraordinary range of Vue applications (www.e-onsoftware.com) in 2003 in the shape of Vue d’Esprit 4, and it was a revelation. Generating 3D scenes with the likes of Bryce had always been a complex and idiosyncratic affair, but Vue d’Esprit made it child’s play. Its interface was a model of clarity – four familiar view panes, simple access to tools, commands, and camera- and object-based controls – and at a price so reasonable anyone could play. Over the last four years, e-on has transformed Vue, adding no less than three major new applications and five extensions, but thankfully its core accessibility remains intact.
Nowadays, e-on’s entry-level modeller is called Vue 6 Easel, and is cheaper than ever at $89. It’s also simpler than ever to use thanks to the provision of preset scenes you can open from a visual browser. These are like outdoor theatrical sets you can explore to choose the best camera angle, then fine-tune by, say, changing the light from morning to dusk to get the right effect.
Sadly, the free trial of Vue Easel available from e-on’s website doesn’t include this preset content, so you’re forced to create your scene from scratch, but this just emphasises how simple that is: hit File | New and you’re presented with a visual browser, from which you select an atmosphere such as Spectral Sunshine | Classic Day to get you started. Hit F4 to call up the Atmosphere Editor, from where you can control the size, colour and position of the sun, and add multiple layers of realistic clouds. The Atmosphere Editor is also where you manage the lighting of your scene, using four core models that include Global Illumination as well as the ability to load HDR files for state-of-the-art Image Based Lighting.
Once you’ve built a sky – previewed in the OpenGL-based main camera view and fully rendered in the Camera Control Center thumbnail – you’ll need some ground, so simply click on the Standard Terrain icon and a randomly generated mountainous terrain will be added to your scene. Double-click that and the Terrain Editor appears, in which you can choose different terrain types and use the Brush tool to interactively raise or lower your terrain’s surface, erode or crater it and more. The Rock tool adds randomly generated rocks for local detail.
By default, your terrain will be a plain white-beige colour, but for more realism you must get to grips with Vue’s materials by clicking the Load Material icon on the Object Properties panel. The trial version again lacks most of Easel’s 350 presets, but selecting, say, the Landscapes | Thawing option will instantly bring your snowy landscape to more believable life. Double-clicking the material preview opens the Material Editor, where you’ll see the effect is created as a multilayered mixed material, controlled by a combination of altitude, orientation and even the underlying rock colour. Similar handling of reflectivity and transparency is key to the realism of Vue’s water-based materials, which, via a simple plane added using the Add Water tool, instantly take your scene into new territory.