Dax Pandhi is a CG environment specialist and co-founder of QuadSpinner. He has contributed to a variety of AAA titles for film and games, including the critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. He is also a teacher and author with 18 years of experience in CGI. Read more ...

Battling a 5000 pixel nightmare

THIS is an image commissioned by the good people at 3D World Magazine in the UK. I love working with them – they’re actually nice people, something you know is hard to find in this line of work. When you have good creative partners it will be fun, easy, and quick.




The actual creation process was fun, easy, and relatively quick. I’d make a 3D sketch, they’d say “That looks great! Now let’s add some color to it.” Then I’d go add a few thousand instances of a custom-made lavender plant. “That looks great! Let’s add an animal – like a deer or something.” I add a fish, because deer can’t swim well. Like I said: fun!


The rendering, however, did a number on all of us. Even with the help of my friend, Conrad Allan, who shall remain nameless, lending his homegrown render farm’s powers.


The ingredients for the almost-disaster:

tick A multi-billion polygon scene with literally millions of instances of grass, flowers, weeds, and rocks. So many rocks.

tick Vue 9’s refusal to properly open or render the base scene which was created in Vue 8.5.

tick Intense Global Radiosity based lighting model running amok on an Xfrog plant model that had more polygons than I should allow.

tick A custom, higher definition version of ShimmerWind that had all performance boosts bypassed for the sake of added realism.

tick A deadline running at me like a freight train.

tick-red A chain of storm supercells running up and down Brisbane (pre-flood, over a month ago) where the render farm is.


Center-left detail of the full resolution render.


Obviously, since you can see this image (in extremely high resolution, thank you) in the magazine you know this turned out well. But it almost didn’t. Since there were some color tweaks needed that were best done in post-production, we needed a multi-pass render for this bazillion pixel A4 size render. This meant that my meager 100+ hour render jumped up 3 times. This is no small task since I’m running a Core i7 980 Extreme processor with 12 CPUs and 16GB of DDR3 RAM. smiley-cool


Sending it up to the render farm didn’t make things easier or faster. The storms were interrupting the power and the render wasn’t able to progress smoothly. I spent 3 days trying to decide between keeping my faith in the storm-infested render process or finding another solution or performing seppuku in front of the editors. smiley-cry


Did you notice the little fish?

The render came out in 3 parts which had to be unevenly stitched together in PhotoPaint later. That meant no Z-Depth, no alpha masks, and possibly a very angry editor (okay, he’s a VERY nice guy… but maybe that’s because I haven’t pissed him off yet, and I didn’t want to find out if it was possible to make him angry). In any case, I was without alpha masks – the bare minimum I needed to make some color correction tweaks in post production.


robot-off While forcing myself to calm down, I realized that C3PO is the same as Data with the emotion chip (sans golden coverings). I also realized that a mask is a mask. The only requirement for it is shape. The material doesn’t matter. So I quickly opened up the final version of the scene, saved it as a different file with Standard lighting, which is the same as no lighting IMHO. Then all materials were nulled (right-click material, reset material). The full sized gazillion pixel render took less than 20 minutes. Looked absolutely ridiculous, but it wasn’t the render I needed – just the object masks. With the Ride of the Valkyries playing in my mind, I opened PhotoPaint, made the final color changes and sent off a beautiful 300dpi render to be fitted for print.


The Gods of Irony sent a hammer my way as the next morning, I was informed that the elements of the render weren’t gelling as well with the cover text as it should have. So they went with the image from my article inside that they already had in the can for a couple of months. To prevent me from committing suicide, they kindly moved the image into the inside page entitled ‘Cover Artist’ with a brief little Q&A with yours truly.


I vowed never to use multi-pass again. (Failed. I have a multi-pass render running right now and is threatening to take all night).


Test renders:


The groundcover was the most important and detailed aspect of the scene, garnering more than 9 billion polygons.


So, the moral of the story is… I don’t know… do your work well and get paid? Or how about: get a faster multi-pass render for just masks by nulling the atmosphere and materials. Remember – leaf materials can’t be nulled – you have to null the color and bump, but keep the transparency/alpha maps alive. You don’t need anything beyond Final quality, so don’t bother with texture antialiasing.


Anyways, in the end, everyone was happy. Conrad moved on to bigger, better, actually paying work. The 3D World staff heaved a sigh of relief and moved on to their next issue. As for me… I now stand on the corner of 8th and Olive in Seattle, with a big cardboard sign hanging over my chest which says “Use multi-pass on big renders and the end is here.”user-thief


The final, full quality image can be seen on the cover artist page in 3D World Magazine issue #139.

3D World January Issue

The latest issue of 3D World magazine is available, in which you can find my tutorial on the Costa Rican Shores image for Vue.


The tutorial shows how to create this in less than an hour. It really is that easy.

Along with the article, the inside cover also features an image I made exclusively for them (see my next post for more), as well as a 4 page article full of tips and tricks for Vue 8 Frontier – but you can use the same things in Vue 8.5, 9.0 (all versions).