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TUTORIAL • November 1998

Build Your Own Space Battle

See how it's done using LightWave, 3D Studio MAX, or the software program of your choice.

by Chris Tome


This nebula was created using three simple, squashed spheres, a custom painted texture, and varying levels of transparency.

Star Wars changed my life. After seeing the creative effects works of George Lucas and his team of visionaries at Northern California-based Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), all I could think about was special effects and building spaceships. And I wasn't alone. I can confidently say that more than half of the people I know in the computer graphics (CG) industry are here because of the Star Wars phenomenon. While Star Wars was completely devoid of CG effects prior to the release of the enhanced Special Edition back in 1996, it sparked the visual effects revolution and whetted the appetites of moviegoers around the globe.

The science-fiction genre continues to see tremendous growth both on and off the big screen. 3D designers and animators continue to seek new ways to build spaceships and animate alien environments as they expand their CG skill sets and broaden their creative minds. While I wouldn't recommend filling your demo reel with spaceships, many animators can make a nice living by creating effects for science-fiction TV shows, movies, games, and various other projects.

The focus of this two-part article (Part II can be found here) will cover creating outer space environments and space ships, animating battles, creating effects, applying particles, and so on, to make your space scenes visually compelling and believable. It will be up you to take these concepts and techniques and apply them to your visions as you create your own ultimate space battle.

Let the Pre-production Begin

Before you get started, decide what you want to accomplish in your animation. In a real production environment, there are many pre-production processes that must take place before the visual effects work begins. For this project, we'll assume the space battle is for a television production and follow that production metaphor.

*Create a script. With a script, the director can get an idea of how many CG shots will be needed for the scene. However, bear in mind that this number is usually less than the number that will be produced.

*Make a storyboard. This is a visual cue of the movie based on the script. Storyboard artists work with the director to get a visual sense of framing, camera angles, lighting, and so forth. Other artists design the look and feel of the sets, props, characters, and other elements of the film. The most common ways of storyboarding are on a blank storyboarding sheet or on 3 x 5 index cards, which can be shuffled around to change the storyline as desired.

*Using the designs and storyboards, the effects crews will work with the director and others to determine the best way to achieve each individual shot. They'll decide whether to use CG or practical effects, how to approach each scene, and discuss the most cost-effective way to produce a shot. In an ideal world, the CG effects people will be involved in the live-action shots, which makes creating the visual effects much easier.

*Many times, effects people will create animatics, or moving storyboards, for certain complex shots. These give the director and the effects team a feel for how each shot will look. Animatics are usually very crude models (referred to as stand-in objects) with little or no texturing, but the animation, camera movements, and lighting are usually very accurate. This helps everyone involved remain "on the same page," eliminating miscommunicated ideas or different visions of what the final shots should look like.

*Production begins. In Starship Troopers, for example, it was decided that the spaceships would be created using practical effects and handled by Sony Pictures Imageworks. Tippett Studios would create the bugs using CG, and Kevin Yaegher Productions would take care of the "blood and guts" effects. It's quite common these days to break large productions into separate pieces and have different effects houses working in tandem on a project. Although this can present some problems when combining all of the elements for the final shots, most of these production issues are worked out in the larger studios with the help of production liaisons.

So, what makes good sci-fi and a good space battle? Entire classes have been taught on storytelling and how to best do it. Basically, you need:

*A plot. It's amazing how often writers will focus on the effects and overlook this little necessity. Your story should have a solid opening (to keep your audience interested), strong characters (to keep the viewers captivated), and a coherent and compelling story to tell.

*An antagonist and a protagonist. The audience needs characters they can love and hate. Almost every movie in the sci-fi scene has a good guy/bad guy combination to keep things interesting.

*Believable props, effects, costumes, etc. Don't throw a prop onto the set just because you can. Props need to have a purpose, too, or at least look like they do. Detail for detail's sake usually falls on unbelieving eyes; there must be reasons why things are included in a scene.

*Realistic animation of the spaceships. If you have a battleship moving like a fighter, it won't be believable. Factor in actual physical dimensions, limitations, and so forth before you start to animate, and keep your animation within those parameters.

Also, the more involved the effects people are during the initial stages of the project, the easier it will be to work their ideals into CG magic.

Visualize It

First, focus on the storyboards and sketches. Draw what the ships will look like, which will give you a better sense of scale and how these ships will interact in your scenes.

Next, begin to storyboard. Our battle will take place near a distant listening outpost, so I decided the outpost should be located on a moon orbiting an M-Class planet with a nebula nearby. I included the nebula simply because it adds more to the overall scene, but a fighter ship could escape certain death by flying into the nebula to avoid an alien attack, or something along those lines. Remember this is science fiction; the only rule to consider is–make it believable.

I like to storyboard the old-fashioned way, using paper and pencils. Since we are only doing a couple of shots in a battle scene, I didn't worry about dialog, just camera movements, ship positions, effects, and explosions. My storyboards tend to include descriptions as well as graphics, and arrows to indicate things such as camera, lights, and ship movements.

Stars and Starfields

How do you build a believable space environment? First, start with a starfield. LightWave's one-point polygons (polys) are a particularly useful feature for creating starfields. One-point polys are basically single vertices that, when converted in Modeler, show up in the final rendering as a visible point or, in this case, a star.

Building to scale makes life simpler when merging all of the scene elements for final rendering. That's not to say you should build to the scale of the universe, but your starfield, for example, should be at least hundreds of kilometers in size. Also, building to scale ensures that you won't have to scale objects when you merge scene files, which is a great time saver. Another helpful suggestion is to hide the larger objects in the scene, such as stars and planets, while you are animating. This speeds up the interactivity of your scene when animating ships, asteroids, and so on.

Starfields in LightWave

Creating a basic starfield in LightWave is pretty simple. First, set your grid size to about 10km, then create a huge sphere with a large amount of cross sections, somewhere in the range of 100 segments and 100 sides. After you've created it, hit the "k" key to "kill" all of the polygons, which leaves only points. Under the Tools menu, choose the Jitter button, which randomly moves the points around. Then select Tools Custom and choose the PointsToPolys plug-in. Voilà! Instant starfield. Save the starfield as a LightWave object, load it into Layout, adjust surface properties accordingly, and you're done.

(Note: Modeler already named the surface SPP for you, which stands for Single Point Polys. You'll need to make this starfield quite large, so that the stars won't interfere with your objects but can be seen in the background no matter which way you rotate the camera. I used a grid size of 10km for my starfield example.)


FIGURE 1: Making stars in MAX couldnt be easier.

Starfields in 3D Studio MAX

In 3D Studio MAX (3DS MAX), you can create a starfield several different ways. One method that is fairly popular is to use the StarField option in the Video Post feature. Create a camera, then switch the Perspective view to the Camera view. Go into Render/Video Post and click on Add Scene Event, selecting the camera as the viewpoint. Use the Add Image Filter event, select Starfield from the pulldown, and you can use the settings I used (Figure 1).

There are other ways to do this in 3DS MAX, including using mapping techniques, but I prefer the starfield in Video Post the best. It's quick, easy, and produces nice motion blurred stars with a minimum of effort.

(Note: In Video Post, you have to take a "top down" approach, wherein the last element to be rendered (in this case, the starfield) shows up last in the Video Post dialog box. Each event needs a New Event Sequence, then an Apply Image Filter Effect.)


FIGURE 2: The lens flare interface in 3DS MAX. You can create a variety of effects, but dont overdo it, amateurs usually make that mistake.

Creating starbursts is also very easy in both programs. LightWave has always had excellent lens flare controls, and 3DS MAX 2.0 basically licensed LenzFX from Digimation, so it's included in the application. Experiment with different settings until you achieve the desired result.

I Give You the Planets and Moons

Typically, what separates a planet from a moon is an atmosphere. In your 3D scene, this means that you have two spheres for a planet–one for the surface and one for the atmosphere. (In 3DS MAX, you can apply a Lens Effects Glow to the planet.) A moon is a single sphere. These objects should all be fairly high in polygon count, especially if you plan to get close to them, because polygon edges that show up in final rendering destroy the scene's credibility. In 3DS MAX, a geosphere is the best type of sphere to use.

It's easy to paint a texture map for a planet, but it's unnecessary. There are many public domain maps of planets (including Earth) found at places like maps.jpl.nasa.gov, which are public domain images supplied by the government.

An M-Class planet will probably look very much like Earth, if not in its topography, at least in its color map. Blue oceans and green and brown topography are generally indicative of an M-Class planet. Mapping, of course, is spherical, and thin poles are painted across the top and bottom of the map so that when the spherical map is wrapped around the sphere, the poles will form a circular pattern at the top and the bottom. This is the only case in painting a planet map that you need to worry about–seams in the map and the rest of the topography do not have to "bleed" to the edges for a realistic effect. By using the line tool in Adobe Photoshop or MetaCreation's Painter, you can create a line in a layer to match the edges of the poles on either side, which ensures that the lines of the poles will meet when the map is wrapped to the sphere.

As far as the atmosphere, there are many ways to achieve the desired effect. You could use a bitmap of clouds in the diffuse and transparent maps to create an atmosphere, or apply Fractal Noise to the atmosphere sphere for a procedural surface. This, of course, would still need to be applied to the diffuse (or color) channel and the transparency channel in order to achieve the desired results. Another effect that works quite well is to apply a slight glow to the atmosphere. In the dark recesses of space, the atmosphere of a planet will tend to reflect the light of the star closest to it, which gives the sky a luminous quality. In 3DS MAX, you can use Video Post and the Lens Effects Glow setting on the planet to make it appear as if it has an atmospheric glow to it.

First, right click on the sphere, select Properties, and set the G-Buffer Object Channel to 1. This lets Video Post know where to apply the glow filter. Back in Video Post, add an Image Filter Event, select Lens Effects Glow, and set the Object Channel to 1 in the Setup area.

To make the planet's edges glow, select the Perimeter Alpha button in the Filter section. This makes the planet look as if it has an atmosphere that is semi-luminous in the void of space. Experimenting with the Effects Size and the Color Intensity also helps. Try different settings and previews until you're happy with the results. I have found a setting of 5 to 7 for Effects Size and a Color Intensity of 20 to 30 works well.

Although this is a quick and dirty way of creating a planet and its atmosphere, it still looks quite nice. For added effect, you may want to add a slightly larger sphere around the planet, map it with a seamless cloud texture, and apply the Lens Effects Glow to the atmosphere, which creates an even more convincing effect. Creating special effects in any application is a time-consuming process of trial and error, regardless of the software you are using.

Continued on page 2 >>