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Advanced Photoshop Tutorial - The Refinery
Here is a new Photoshop tutorial from PSD Magazine: The Refinery by Benoit Ladouceur. (Download the December 2010 issue of PSD Photoshop Magazine and use the source files.) For this tutorial I decided to go for the other side of my artistic life and cover some of the techniques I use in my special FX work as a digital matte painter. Matte painting is very similar to illustration, the main difference is that you usually spend 50% more time building the feeling of realism instead of letting your imagination run wild.
This realism quest is very long, tedious and very energy consuming. In order to speed up the process I usually use a more organized approach that includes a lot of 3D elements. On top of accelerating the perspective and layout, 3D is also a life saver when you have retakes on a tight production deadline... you just rerender a few 3D layers and update your Photoshop files instead of starting again from scratch.
01. 3D layers
Based on a small thumbnail I drew on a piece of paper, I sat down in front of XSI and modeled the basic volumes of the refinery I wanted to do. Once I had the model done, the 3D package permitted me to quickly evaluate different camera angle and layouts without redrawing everything. Once I had and angle I liked, I did a quick light setup and rendered a few passes. Here are a few of the 3D passes I made and what they are used for:
RGB: This pass contains only the color values of the objects without any light influence. I use it as a base for all the painting. Changes to this layer will later on affect the textures and details of the image.
Key: A black and white pass which outputs only the area shown by the scene's key light. I use it as a layer mask to add my light source to the image
Fill: A black and white pass which outputs the areas revealed by my scene's fill light
Ambient: An even colored pass that represents the scene's overall lighting
Depth: A pass that renders out the depth values of the set (similar to atmospheric perspective). It's a black and white output so I use it as a mask to alter the images level and create depth.
Occlusion: Another black and white pass that illustrates all the contact shadow areas of the image.
02. Starting point
I started by loading the RGB pass in Photoshop. I usually start with this pass since it contains all the shape information. On this stage it doesn't look good yet.
03. Stacking layers
With the RGB layer as a base I quickly load up some other passes over it. I use the Ambient pass as an overlay. The result is that it gives my objects more volume and it tints the color values to blueish tones. On top of it, I add the occlusion pass in Multiply to keep only the dark values. This gives me my contact shadows and greatly helps merging all the objects together. The objects are now better defined without having a precise light direction. The scene also seriously lack mood.
04. Creating mood
The best way I have to create mood quickly in a matte is to start working early on on the sky. I scrounged through my references folders and came up with interesting sky elements that I pieced up together. Once satisfied I placed them in behind the refineries. The sky, being the source of a lot of fill and bounce light is going to have huge impact on the composition... I'm starting to see I'll have a lot of light blues to add to my shadows.
05. Depth and lighting
In order to lighten the image a bit and to start blending the elements together, I use the depth pass as a level layer mask and tweak the settings to create atmospheric perspective. I also use the keylight pass to introduce a light direction to the background elements.
06. Directing the eye
Since the viewer's eye still has no defined area of focus, I decide to darken the foreground a little and paint in more light in the middle area to help our eye dive in the composition.
07. More depth
The image at this point is still missing some depth. I decide to cut and paste refinery elements behind the main buildings to give the impression that the refineries spread out further in the distance. This trick works very well, you just have to make sure to tweak the added elements so that they fit the atmospheric perspective you have established earlier on.
One of the main requests I usually get working in film or tv is :" Make it more dramatic!". After a short pause from the image, I came back thinking the background was way too nice and gentle looking for a sci-fi refinery. Using Gradient, Curve adjustment layers and the Airbrush tool, I made the mood a lot darker. The dark background now helps to bring out the tower to the right a lot better and makes for an interesting base for later light play. Our eyes still drift a bit too much to the upper left corner but this will be fixed when we add more lighting and detail work.
To help with the impression of scale, I added more haze and atmospheric perspective, being careful that the colors I pick fit with my choice of sky and light source. Since my light source comes in from the left, I made sure the haze was just a bit stronger from left to right. This helps us define light direction at the same time as depth.
10. Texture and details
At this point, being satisfied with the mood, I started the longest part of the work... texturing and painting the elements to push them further then my original RGB pass. This is very important since it's at this point that I start to breakup the edges of the sharp 3D objects. It's also here that I start adding all the interesting little details and elements that give the image more life. Most of this is done with overlayed textures on the RGB pass or simply with a paintbrush. Although this takes up only one step... in the end it took over half of the time spent on this image.
More lighting work is done at this point to help emphasize the different elements. The FG is brought to life with the help of the fill light pass and an Airbrush tool. By simply bringing the values up to brighter intensity the foreground is now well anchored in the same color range as the rest of the scene.
This is actually my favorite step... adding all the fun little story telling and life giving elements. I did a once over the image adding highlights, light "pings", leaking metal, dirt, glowing lights, etc. A good trick for industrial matte work is that glowing lights and light windows add tons of life quickly and easily to an image.
13. Color corrections
At the end of a piece, I usually add a last color correction layer to even out all my colors and prevent uneven colors in my layers when my matte paintings are sent to compositing.
14. Final image
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