Catching Rays: Finishing the Landscape

Now we can turn our attention to the landscape itself. The look I have in mind is photorealistic but with a sort of hyper-real edge. We’ll be attentive to realism and detail during scene construction and rendering, and add the “edge” during post-processing – more saturated colors, higher contrast. It is an illustration, after all, and I want readers to be aware of that.

When we last left our landscape, it was a basic Terragen heightfield with a leveled area for the observatory.

Leveled HAWC Site
New low-resolution rendering with the observatory site leveled and ready for construction.

Additional color nodes give the landscape a bedrock surface, and  displacments are added to increase detail on ridgelines and on the surface of the lava flow in the center of the frame.

Landscape Base
The original heightfield with bedrock shading and additional displacements. More detail has been added to the lava field in the center of the frame to simulate its broken surface.

Now a light dusting of sand and soil, something appropriate for the extreme altitude and cool, dry environment . . .

Dirt and Sand Layer
The landscape with a thin layer of dry soil and sand applied to the lower, more level elevations.

. . . and then a layer of scrub, grass, and small rocks.

Grass and Scrub
Now, a layer of scrub and grass has been added to the lower altitudes. A mask keeps the leveled observatory area clear of grass.

The date I’ve selected for the rendering is May 1, mid-spring, so we need to provide a snowcap for the volcano.

It’s early May, so there will still be an extensive snowcap on top of Pico de Orizaba.

This area of Mexico is home to several species of trees, including the Mexican White Pine. A search of my plant library and online, unfortunately, yields no commercial 3D models of this nor any other native species. A generic North American white pine will have to do. (The trees will be placed in the mid- to far distance, so that should be fine.)

Tree densities are controlled with a grayscale mask painted in Photoshop. White represents areas of maximum density, and black represents no trees at all. Areas of gray represent all the possibilities in between. So, for example, 50 percent gray means half the maximum density. Most things in Terragen can be controlled with masks; the technique gives you a surprising amount of control. (The size and shape of the level observatory area is also defined with a mask.) Here is the tree mask . . .

Tree Population Mask
Mask used to distribute tree populations in the scene. White areas are maximum density; black means no trees. The mask includes areas not shown in the camera view.

. . . and here is the landscape with the tree populations in place.

Conifer trees grow around the edges of the lava field, especially the southern rim.

And, finally, a layer of altocumulus clouds completes the landscape for now. I’m not sure whether I will keep these – I suspect that they will interfere with the text that will be placed on the illustration, but we’ll see. It will be easy enough to change later.

Landscape with Clouds
A low layer of altocumulus is placed around the mountain peak, just to get a sense of how the scene will look with clouds.

Time to turn our attention to the observatory itself.