Maarten Nauta shared the workflow behind the God's Valley project, explained how the mountains were created in Gaea, and showed the asset creation process.
I am Maarten, a 22-year-old Dutch business student who fell in love with film and CG as a hobby before making my first tutorials and sharing what I know with the Blender community. I started out as a 12-year-old learning to edit videos for my gaming channel (yes, I was that 12-year-old with the PewDiePie dream). After a few years, I picked up After Effects to spice up my content, and not too long after, I downloaded a template file for a cool 3D intro. This template was a .blend file, which was completely foreign to me at the time. After installing Blender 2.76, I spent hours figuring out how to change the text in the template. From there, I played around a bit in Blender 2.7 over the years but had a hard time getting into it. In the meantime, I became a content creator for some companies mostly using all the Adobe software.
Sometime after the release of Blender 2.8, I saw all the hype and decided to jump back on to see what it was like. I kept being inspired by the great work of other artists, most notably Ian Hubert, who made big scenes seem very achievable with his quick and dirty tutorials. From there, I just started creating an occasional project for fun, only diving into the deep end at the beginning of 2022. At the time, I lived in South Korea and needed to make some money but couldn’t officially work there with my student visa. So I got a few online jobs in arch viz and for a cyberpunk-style game trailer (which was never released).
Those two projects really got me hooked, and when I moved back to the Netherlands, I saw Aaron Westwood's “I Am” World Creator 3 Trailer. I was absolutely obsessed with the video and decided to give it a shot myself. For 5 months, I tirelessly worked on various landscape shots, getting better with each one I created. The result is the “CG Landscape Scenes” video on my YouTube. You can see the varying degrees of quality in each shot. From there, I just kept wanting to create more. I do feel like I am growing exponentially as an artist, getting closer and closer to creating the images I see in my head.
The God's Valley Project
God’s Valley is heavily inspired by ‘Lorenzo Lanfranconi’ and my love for the Alps. The monastery and composition take a lot of inspiration from Lorenzo’s “Walk to San Donato” painting. However, I did choose to change the overall look or “biome” as a Geo-Scatter fanatic might call it. I let myself be inspired by the Southern Swiss Alps near the Matterhorn. When I use references, I like to go deep into a certain place. In this case, I used iNaturalist to find out what flora grew in Southern Switzerland. After that, I selected plants and trees which I would download or create and scatter throughout my scene. For the mountains, I modeled them after Alpine peaks in France and Switzerland. To organize all these references, I used PureRef to cluster groups of images.
The monastery assets were modeled before I started working on the scene as the buildings were the main subject and would be needed in the initial blockout. As mentioned above, the composition was led by Lorenzo’s work, but I decided to make an animation where the camera panned to reveal a large valley. After first placing the foreground planes, a human model for size reference, and my mountains from the ‘Classic Mountain Pack’, I started moving objects around for an initial composition. I also animated the camera and made sure the shot looked decent throughout the animation. The mountains were already textured as they came from my pack. This made it very easy to quickly get a good feel for the scene’s style.
When it comes to texturing, I feel like I should still diversify. Currently, I texture everything in Blender as I am super comfortable with the material nodes. However, I do want to try Substance 3D Painter or Quixel Mixer soon. The monastery assets were created inside of Blender and are relatively simple. Mostly just loop cuts, insets, extrudes, and lots of Knife tools. I am absolutely not a professional asset artist. Another part of 3D I want to improve on!
After collecting the references, I started out creating leaf meshes inside of Blender with atlases of needles. After exporting the mesh and baking the textures, I jump into SpeedTree Cinema 9. I first downloaded a spruce trunk/root from Quixel Bridge and imported that as a mesh. Using the Stitch node, I blended the mesh material with the trunk material (make sure they are similar, otherwise the stitch will still be obvious).
From there, I started building out my tree, adding branches and making sure they all had the same curved shape on the bottom and became shorter and grew upwards near the top of the tree. SpeedTree makes this all very easy with their sliders and graphs, but the UI is very cluttered, and you can get lost in an absolute sea of settings when you start out. The needles were made using fronds instead of leaves because the needles on a Norway spruce are more like furry twigs. For extra detail, I added lots of dead branches near the bottom that had lots of little twigs, basically, representing branches that had needles back in the day but shed them all due to lack of sunlight.
The mountains were created in Gaea. I wanted to create a pack of classic Alpine mountains that could be used for a layered scene setup. A lot of landscapes made in Gaea are often huge mountain ranges, but I really wanted to focus on creating individual assets that could then be placed, scaled, and rotated in whatever way you want to get a unique look. The full node setup for those mountains will stay a secret, otherwise, I might give up all my leverage against the competition. But the full texturing process and a free 4k mountain are available on my channel in the “Photoreal 3D Environment Texturing – Blender” video.
In the mountain pack, I include all the maps including a height map, but also 2 LOD .obj files that are optimized meshes. I used the 500K optimized mesh and just imported them into the scene. The mountains have their materials already set up in prepared .blend files, so I just appended those materials and applied them to the mountains. They were ready to go, and I could instantly play around with my composition while getting a more accurate image of what the final scene would turn out to be.
At this point, I had my composition already set up, and I got to work sculpting the foreground ground/cliff objects. After a very simple sculpt I applied textures and added displacement. After that, I appended all the assets I was using to scatter. I almost always use Geo-Scatter's “Manual Scatter” option for foreground/detail elements. I started out near the monastery itself, scattering broadleaf trees followed by conifers, shrubs, rocks, and logs. I masked out areas near the monastery using Bezier curves and didn’t allow the rocks/logs to be on steep slopes.
The ground closer to the camera also included lots of manual scattering, except for the large field of grass which was a simple weight paint. The fences were scattered using the chain tool inside of the manual scatter. You can draw all kinds of shapes and the scattered objects will kinda link into each other properly, perfect for fences. The moss on the rocky wall was a simple biome scatter using the Moss biome. Everything else was manually scattered in 3D Bob Ross style.
I would keep tweaking everything throughout the whole process.
Lighting & Rendering
The whole scene is lit by a single HDRI. I opted to challenge myself with a midday lighting shot, so I took a clear HDRI from Pro-Lighting Skies. I used the free EasyHDRI addon to increase the sun brightness by 1000. That might sound insane but that gave me the correct highlights for a bright daylight shot. I used a Gobo plane to animate some cloud shadows over the whole scene. They are very subtle, but you can see the brightness changing as clouds cover the scene. The atmosphere is a huge cube with a principled volume node as material. A very low density, anisotropy of 0.9, and a very low emission value that emitted a tiny bit of blue into the atmosphere. I also added VDB clouds because I wanted the valley to look a bit more fantastical and mysterious.
In the end, everything was rendered out as a Multilayer Pro-EXR where I split up all the important layers that make up the scene. In After Effects I use ProExtractor to use the EXRs and OpenIO to apply the filmic colorspace to them again. From there, I start extensively grading my scene and comping in imperfections such as grain, glow, and chromatic aberration. The SFX was done in Audition and everything was put together inside of Premiere.
I use an average rig and I often find myself getting very excited with a scene too quickly. I started building out the scene with all these heavy scatter layers and by the time I realized I wanted to make a few changes to my camera animation I had to work with a viewport that ran at 0.65 FPS. Make sure you save iterations but also try to keep your scene optimized throughout the creation process. Otherwise, you’ll have to spend a boring day optimizing your scene at the end.
I also implore everyone to only use 4K textures when you are doing a close-up focus shot. I only used a few 4K textures in my whole scene and I think nobody noticed, so when you are ever in need of VRAM, don’t be scared to go 2K or even 1K. Also, keep track of modifiers, sometimes it's better to apply or delete a modifier. In my case, I deleted the adaptive subdiv modifier in the foreground and scattered small rocks and twigs instead. Be aware of all the memory eaters in your scene and properly evaluate if they make a visual difference worth that amount of memory.
Maarten Nauta, Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie
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