Creating a photo-real cityscape animation

The goal of this project was to create a full photo-real 3D environment with a big epic fly-through camera shots of an old fantastical city. We designed the whole project, from camera moves to city structures and streets to grand palaces and rivers bustling with boat traffic. We modelled the city in great detail, right down to street vendors, and populated it with the people that live there.

We wanted to push the limits and create a full 3D environment shot that would be believable and as close to photo-real as possible – something that you would expect to see in a feature film. That meant a lot of research and planning: we studied aerial shots, scoured our favourite movies and tonnes of photos to really understand what made these cities believable. We really enjoyed creating this new world with all its details and the subtle elements that make flythrough shots believable.

01 Concepting

We gathered references for hero assets like the grand palace to find the shapes and a strong silhouette to help with the design process. We also did colour studies to explore the lighting and mood that we wanted to convey in the shot.

02 Props modelling

We wanted to create our assets in a way that could allow us to reuse and repurpose them to create new buildings. So we created lots of street level props and building features that we could reuse to create variety in buildings and streets.

03 Building modelling and variation

Once we had a good amount of props and building features, we used them to dress our buildings. We knew that we had to populate the scene with a lot of geometry, so we kept our geo as light as possible so we didn’t overload on polys. We modelled 10 buildings and varied the textures and building features to create a larger library of structures to use throughout the scene.

04 The grand palace

The grand palace was created based on our concept art. We repurposed a lot of the buildings features and props to dress the larger modelled shapes of the palace. This saved us time and added a level of detail and scale that was needed to create such an impressive structure.

05 River traffic

The boats and ships were modelled using the same approach we took to the buildings. We modelled props and features for the ships that we could repurpose to create new units, as they would be iterated a lot to populate the water. We varied the textures as well to increase the variety in colour and design.

06 The statue of Ganesh

To sculpt the Ganesh statue we started by modelling a simple base mesh in 3ds Max. Once imported into ZBrush, we posed it and added the detail. It didn’t need to be too detailed, so we used UV Unwrap in ZBrush to layout the UVs and apply a texture.

07 Water

The water was a simple V-Ray shader mixed with a ground shader; a black and white matte was used to blend the two together. We made sure that the V-Ray shader had sufficient reflection and appropriate colour to sell the appearance of water.

08 People, flags and birds

To create more motion and realism, we needed to have people populating the streets. We did a simple rig on a basic human model and created a basic walk cycle. We could get away with shortcuts here because we were using motion blur and a moving camera. Flags were simulated in 3ds Max, and birds were animated with a simple rig for flapping.

09 Scene assembly

This was one of the most tedious steps: we were working towards a tight deadline and didn’t have time to experiment with new software. To have full control of the layout, we decided to place by hand all the elements in the shot. Once we had the main areas locked, we just instanced those sections and rotated them around to get some variety. We used the same approach for people, shops and trees.

10 Lighting

The scene is lit using a V-Ray area light with overshoot on to simulate the sun and an HDRI map for the environment. Our main concern while placing the light was to get a clear read of the shapes in the grand palace.

11 Matte painting

We painted the sky and the far mountains in Photoshop, and then camera-mapped it back on a card in 3ds Max.

12 Render passes and compositing

We rendered a beauty pass with V-Ray fog, a key light pass, a Z-depth Pass and a material ID Pass to use as a selection for the different parts. In Nuke, we used those passes to push back the elements in the distance, warm up the sunlight and colour-correct the scene.

13 Creating the camera

We researched a lot of films that we thought had a camera move evoking the same epic landscape feel that we were looking for. We studied the motion, speed and framing that conveyed that feeling to the audience, and tried to communicate the same principles into our shot.

We wanted the camera to show the grandeur of our location and the vast landscape of buildings, so we placed towers in such a way that the camera could pass them to reinforce the splendour of the scene. At the same time we also positioned specific elements in the shot, to frame and lead the viewer’s eye to the hero palace along the camera’s path and create a stronger composition. To do so, we had to pre-visualise a few different camera moves to get the feel and timing just right.

Fabio Zungrone recently joined the cinematics team at Blizzard Entertainment. Recent projects include Diablo III, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria and World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

Anthony Eftekhari is a matte painter and concept artist with more than six years’ experience working on films, TV and video games. He currently works for the cinematics team at Blizzard Entertainment

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