Welcome to Gate54

Artist Neil Maccormack brings fantastic, futuristic worlds to life with LightWave

Posted: Wed 19 Dec 2012

Great artists are often heralded for their distinctive, signature styles and Artist Neil Maccormack is no exception. His medium is a 3D canvas on which he creates visually expansive, futuristic, sci-fi worlds and fantastical moments.

Maccormack brings his visually rich imagination to life with the help of LightWave 3D, which allows him to work much like a fine artist. But instead of applying paint to a canvas, he builds rich 3D images in layers—starting with a background then adding foreground layers and elementsmuch like an artist paints a watercolor.

While the images are created on a 2D electronic canvas, their rich detail and illusion of depth is captivating. To achieve this visual sensation, his workflow synthesizes the 2D paint tools of Adobe PhotoShop with LightWave 3D modeling, lighting, and rendering.

Limitless creativity

“My biggest challenges are not technical. The real challenge is coming up with fresh, original ideas for visually riveting settings, characters, and environments I want to create,” Maccormack said. “I draw inspiration from everywhere—interesting architecture, mechanical objects, industrial design, movies, even other 2D/3D artists.”

The product of his imagination finds its way into the marketplace as CG wallpaper, posters, and 3D artwork that he sells via a variety of online outlets and galleries. But a significant portion of his work is producing custom 3D still images for advertising, videogames, publishing, or other commercial clients.

For commissioned work, the challenge is to understand exactly what the clients want and need before he begins. “Since this is a very detail oriented process, I’ve learned to have the client write a brief description of what they’re looking for to avoid confusion,” Maccormack said.

“Once I have a clear vision of what I want to create, LightWave allows me to transform what’s in my head onto the screen with ease,” he added. “Its powerful modules, fast rendering, and timesaving tools really support my productivity.”

Working from his home-based studio in Geneva, Switzerland, Maccormack is far from the 3D animation boutiques of Hollywood, New York, and London. And his facility is surprisingly minimal, just a garden-variety computer, widescreen monitor, and media storage. But this modest gear easily runs the latest, most advanced version of Lightwave 3D—version 11—and promotes a workflow that Maccormack has refined to be as smooth and streamlined as can be.

The making of Gate54

Gate 54, which is a futuristic spaceport landscape from his personal collection (see Image 1), is a good example of Maccormack’s unique, recognizable style and the way he integrates complex 2D/3D elements and layers. He provided a series of .jpg frames at incremental stages of the process to explain the techniques and workflow he typically employs.

Image 1. Gate54 is a futuristic spaceport landscape from Maccormack's personal collection.

Image 2 shows a background painting he completed in PhotoShop, which he then brought into LightWave to use as the 3D scene’s backdrop. “Using LightWave’s Layout module, I then created my scene based around this image. The first step was to match the camera angle, size, and position to that of the background plate by adding the image as the background in the composition tab in LightWave,” Maccormack explained.

Image 2. A background painting completed in Photoshop.

In Layout, he further refined the composition and camera angles and added textures, surfaces, reflections, and particle effects (like fog). Image 3 shows how he set the camera to the same resolution and matched the camera angle and placement to that of the backdrop. “Using the grid to match perspective means that any elements you add later on will also automatically be at the correct scale and position without having to move the camera,” Maccormack said.

Image 3. Details the camera set up and matching it to the backdrop.

“Once you have your camera matched, it’s a good idea to add your ground plane. In this case, it’s a simple square plane set on the ground with the surface set to front-project the background image as its texture,” he added. “This enables it to integrate into the scene and catch the shadows.”

Fine-tuning hyper-reality

The next step was to match the lighting of the background to the lighting in the 3D scene. He did this by adding the background image as a HDRI source in the “image world environment” tab, which enabled volumetrics as well as the setting of the background color. He then chose a realistic distance to set the fog based on the scale of the image. “In this case,” he said, “I judged the horizon or fog line to be around 1-km away.”

To enable radiosity, he used the light source he set-up in LightWave’s image world environment. “This diffused the light so that it bounced around the scene lighting all the 3D elements the way the scene is lit,” he added. “Finally, I added a light source in the scene (Area Light) and positioned this to match the light source in the background. I tweaked the strength and color of the light until I was happy with the result.” At this point (see Image 4), having a test object in the scene enabled him to match shadow strength and light direction.

Image 4. A test object in the scene enabled him to match shadow strength and light direction.

He then added in his 3D elements. Many of these 3D elements—such as spacecraft, buildings, and people—were previously created from scratch in LightWave’s 3D Modeler module and brought into the scene, but a few were cloned from similar objects to save time. The only new element done at this stage was the barrier itself, which he created using relatively low-res geometry to save time.

“For me, the more rewarding side of creating an image is always trying to create a mood and invoke a feeling rather than the complex modeling side or other technical elements of the project,” Maccormack said. Images 5 and 6 show the wireframe layout of the elements, exhibit the basic texturing of the elements. At this stage, Maccormack set the specular and diffuse levels, and added some basic metal images as a cubic mapping onto some of the larger elements.

Images 5 and 6. Wireframe layout and basic textures of the elements.

“The final stage of the process is a matter of rendering, tweaking, rendering, and tweaking repeatedly until I am finally happy with the image,” Maccormack said. “I’m looking for something I’m content to take back into PhotoShop where I can paint other elements into the scene, add textures, and color correct.”

Image 7 is the final layout render. It shows how he added extra point lights into the scene to light different elements such as the screens and ships to add some additional contrast to the scene. And Image 8 shows the final image in PhotoShop with the extra layers and elements added to complete the image.

Image 7. Final layout render.

Image 8. The final image in PhotoShop with the extra layers and elements added to complete the image.

Illuminating virtual worlds

“The key to the photorealistic quality of my art stems from my strategic use of lighting, reflections, and shadows. While my use of lighting effects is extremely ambitious, I can do 100-percent of it within LightWave. This includes light shining on scenes and objects as well as radiosity, the way light bounces off surfaces and interacts with everything else in the scene,” Maccormack said. “This program has an incredibly powerful renderer that captures very complex, multilayered 3D images down to the most miniscule detail.”

Since rendering is a resource intensive process, Maccormack always begins with a test render of a small section of the 3D painting to ensure that its attributes are to his liking. If he wants to make any changes, such as adjusting the camera angle or tweaking the lighting, he can go back and zero in on just those specific changes without re-doing the whole section or project.

“LightWave 11 has greatly improved my ability to show the client something at a higher rez or in greater detail in a relatively short timeframe. With the improvements to its Render Engine and using VPR [Viewport Preview Renderer], I can now get instant feedback to any tweaks I’ve made to the lighting, textures, or other enhancements,” Maccormack explained. “Having this realtime feedback without having to re-render the entire image saves me a bundle of time and allows me to focus in on honing the image before the final render.”

The ability to maintain a consistent look to visual elements, such as color treatments, layers, lights, and textures—as the image moves back and forth between PhotoShop and LightWave—is also especially advantageous.

When he’s happy with everything in the scene, he then renders the entire image in a very high resolution. As a final step, the composite typically goes back into PhotoShop for finishing touches to give the entire piece a cohesive, polished look.

“I’m so familiar with the tools and production workflow within LightWave that I’m never struggling to realize my vision,” Maccormack said. “It’s very second nature to me now and I have complete creative freedom.”