The Marvel Comics super-hero Nova is one of my favorite characters. I’ve done a ton of drawings, and yet I never felt I could do the character justice. This piece originally started as a study to get the helmet right, but I started playing around with it and came up with this final image.
The Blender Setup using Cycles
This was my first project using the Blender Cycles rendering engine, which was new (ish) at the time. I had built it with textures using the old Blender Internal methods, but halfway through I decided to give it a shot using Cycles. I figured it would be a great way to learn, and so it was.
Above is the wireframe view in Blender. Looking at it this way, you can see that the entire scene is geometrically very simple. The hardest part was probably cutting the eyes out of the helmet.
So the helmet itself is the only thing that required a little finess. Aside from that and the contours on the helmet, it’s a boxy, flat image, so the modeling wasn’t very hard. That isn’t where the story ends, though.
As is usually the case, the magic really happens with the texturing and the lighting. Getting one or both of these wrong can make or break your scene. The modeling itself is usually less than half of the project, or at least it is in my case.
In the past, I’ve had tremendous difficulty with convincing metal textures. Usually I would end up faking it somehow, but this time I was determined to do better.
To that end I went searching for help, and came up with this YouTube Cycles Gold Material tutorial. Following this enabled me to make the helmet much more convincing than in my previous attempts (see gallery at the end of the article).
One of the key components of a convincing reflective metal is that you need something to reflect. The video mentions a link for HDRI (high Dynamic range images), but I’ll also include it here along with another site I often use:
- OpenFootage.net – Open source hdri footage
- sIBL Archive – Free HDRI sets for smart Image-Based Lighting
I pretty much followed the tutorial, but if you have any questions, just let me know.
Console Graphics – Just a splash of Daz Studio
For the console graphics, I ended up using a texture from a Daz Studio prop I bought a few years back called Commander. I went spelunking through the included console screen textures and picked out this one:
It looked pretty complex, so I figured it would work out.
In Blender, the console itself is just a plane with the image texture added. At first, I tried giving it an emission texture to show that the console was “glowing”, but even at the lowest levels, the light turned out to be more than I wanted coming up from the bottom.
Instead, I decided to use a Mix shader, which allowed me to combine a Diffuse and a Glass shader to make the console seem a bit glossy. I specifically didn’t use a Glassy shader because it was too reflective. Even though there are ways to mitigate the reflectivity, I decided to just make it easy on myself and go with the Glass shader.
The image itself was added to the Diffuse shader, and the Fac value was set at 0.100 to allow 90% of the Diffuse shader and only 10% of the Glass. This way I my image was very strong, yet still had that glassy, pseudo-reflective look.
I needed the console plane itself to be non-emitting because I wanted to add some glowing paths to the top of it, as seen in the final image. If you check my screenshot (below) you’ll see that those lines are nothing more than simple mesh planes with an Emission texture, extruded across the plane for a sci-fi effect.
If you look on the right of the screenshot in the Blender Materials column, at the bottom under Settings, the Pass Index is set to “1”. This allowed me to single this mesh out in the Compositor to assign a glow and a blur node after the render completed.
The technique is shown in this BlenderGuru Space Corridor tutorial. There’s far more than that in this one, so if you’re only interested in using the Pass Index, you can likely Google more targeted techniques – or if you’re having trouble, let me know and I’ll tell you exactly how it I did it.
Blender Lighting with Cycles and Blender Internal
In the screenshot above you can see the entire setup. It looks a bit sparse, but as I said this piece is much simpler than it looks.
The four planes selected (they have an orange outline around them) are all mesh lights, meaning they have a Cycles “emission” texture assigned to them. All I really cared about at this point was making sure there was brighter light coming from the back and the right of the helmet.
The trick with the Cycles lighting is that I could never get really good “cast” shadows that stretch out from an object. A while back I found a YouTube tutorial explaining how to quickly copy your scene within the same file, set it to render in the Blender Internal renderer, then use the Blender Compositor to combine the output of that into your Cycles render. Unfortunately, I didn’t save it, and I could never find it again (I hate when I do that).
However, the basic principle remained with me. Instead of creating a new scene in the same file, I simply copied the file itself and appended “shadow” to the end of the file name – it’s just easier for me to keep track of everything that way.
In the shadow file, I switched back to the Blender Internal renderer (losing all of my Cycles textures in the process), then assigned the default texture to every object in the scene.
I deleted two of the mesh light planes and just added four Sun lamps in the approximate positions of the mesh lights from the Cycles file. I cranked up the juice on the right-most lamp to about .75 (the others were at about .35) and turned on “Ray Shadow” so the light would cast some decent shadows.
Because there were no textures or any crazy effects, the render was extremely quick. I ended up with this as a result:
So if I would have been able to find the tutorial I lost track of, I would have had this file as a separate scene in my original Blender file, then I could composite this shadow render into the Cycles render directly in Blender. But since I lost it, I was just going to have to composite it myself via Photoshop. That’s fine with me because it’s faster for me to do the majority of the compositing there, anyway.
However, there really wasn’t that much to do in Photoshop. See the raw render below:
As you can see, it’s actually quite close to the final product. All I had to do was bring in my shadow render, place it on top of the main render, set it’s Blend Mode to Overlay, and it was pretty much all done.
As you learn to do more and more in Blender, those Photoshop files get smaller, have fewer and fewer adjustment levels – and fewer layers, to boot. Of course, your Blender Compositor nodes balloon proportionately, but that’s a different tale
Galleries of Shame…
It takes a while to get these things right, and everyone has to work at it. Just to show you some of my missteps I’ll provide some of the settings that just weren’t quite good enough.
Blender Internal – First Metal Tests
These tests were the best I could do using the Blender Internal. Even after reading through the forums, buying books and such…I could never seem to get it quite right…
Blender Internal – Cartoon
The following are rendered in the Cartoon mode. I liked the look of it, even though it failed to convey a convincing reflective metal look:
Blender Cycles – Glass and Glossy
This is when I first started playing around with Cycles. I played with the Glossy and the Glass shaders just to see what it might look like:
Blender Cycles – Glossy with HDRI images
Finally, this is when it all started clicking. In these renders I was just playing around with some HDR images from the sites I listed above. The feel of reflected metal really started working out. It feels like it took forever, but sometimes you just have to keep plugging away until you finally break through.
So that’s it for this one, guys. If you have any questions just let me know in the comments section below and I’ll be sure to answer.
Until next time..!