Variety: The Spice of the Galaxy

Experimentation with interstellar clouds & dust within renders.

Impala_test_030a2Meaningful results kicking in.

Though I myself can stare at a cloudless starry night for hours, my renders seem a little tired. I was wanting to break up some of the sheer monotony of employing a singular image for nearly every space render I’ve produced for over a year and half. Instead of my backdrops being empty blackness faintly peppered with dim distant stars (always in the exact same position as every other render), I wanted to work with something that would raise the visual interest as well as adapt to changes in render perspective.

I also really wanted something in-scene to help account for the delicious (in my mind’s eye) violet and lavender hued glows I frequently tend to exploit, so often illuminating my space station and ships, via some completely off camera origin. I sometimes crank those glows up a little more than normal based purely on my mood, but I’ve truly come to favor the idea that Star Station India goes through its own astronomical “seasons of color” based upon the dynamics of the star system in which I have embedded it. Still, without an evident source of illumination ever, it tends to weaken the compositions as a whole.

Part of the glow could come from the nearby planetary bodies I’ve begun to plug into the equation, but some of the overall wash will have to come from further off in space. Perhaps some incandescence arrives by way of a moderate patch of neighboring nebula, possibly a stellar nursery. These glowing gases may only manage to dominate the station’s mise-en-scène for a limited stretch of the orbital year it maintains alongside its planetary anchors. The nebula could be significantly washed out in the parent star’s glow for a considerable chunk of that remaining orbital period.

I already know I can paint some pretty decent cosmic nebula shots in Photoshop or a similarly decent image editing program. And while those backgrounds can be incredibly useful for very specific shots, they are time consuming and even a little limiting when it comes to multiple scenes. I’d really like something that is adaptable to any change in camera angle rather than simply remaining a static backdrop, no matter how grandiose. I think I finally got some good procedural settings to simulate star fields from within the render itself, so now it’s onto the wispy coils of space dust and roiling stellar nurseries I crave.

Impala_test_022aAll awash: Early procedural experiment. Still a tad homogenous, but…

Impala_test_023…purple’s strong presence now has its “reason for being”.

Though it’s far less visually interesting, I wanted to work on this procedural method first (mostly turbulence and fractal noise), since I’m not quite comfortable mapping gigantic inverted spheres with painted space scenes, to have them serve as some all encompassing background (not yet anyway). Given the blandness of the procedural results however, that might be the method I eventually prefer, though I can declare the stars a bit of a success. The few experiments I’ve done with the mapping technique indicate I need to paint a much bigger space scene at MUCH higher definition than I am used to, if I want the textures to appear more natural.

The first time I tried an in-scene background render, I experimented with a nebula I’d painted and previously used in another scene…


I modified its hue towards purple and removed a majority of the star fields distributed throughout (easy enough, the stars being a separate layer in the digital painting). This was the result of that altered background mapped into the scene.

Impala_test_027Initial test of an in-scene background render makes it clear my image is of too low a resolution.

As pleased as I was with the overall composition achieved, as well as the background’s luminosity upon the scene’s main object, the nebula portions were horribly pixelated. From the camera’s perspective, bringing the background into the scene itself (even at great distance) severely narrows the field of view for the background image as a whole. This results in some major magnification of the background’s individual components, essentially zooming in on and revealing artifacts of pixelation. I love impressionism, but the squint and tilt your head approach won’t work for me here.

Impala_test_029a2nd test: Taking a step back. Improvements made, but still much work to do.

Moving the background further away helped with (some of) the pixelation, but often led to noticeable distortions in the larger, more well defined shapes, spoiling any intended illusions: mostly stars that look like eggs and abrupt edge reveals of the image itself. This was a good exercise, but proved my particular choice of mapped background was unacceptable for this purpose.

Impala_test_028aLast of the initial experiments. Gravitational anomalies?


Eventually, I threw together an entirely new background image, quick and dirty by comparison, but at much larger resolution. I was far more pleased with the outcome, though I feel it still needs more subtlety and a bit more vitality from the luminosity settings.

Impala_test_030a2A blend of two renders with an additional post render star.

The image directly above (and top of page) is actually a blend of two separate renders. One version came after I’d adjusted some of the ship’s surface settings and rotated the background’s sphere by a considerable number of degrees. Blended, you can actually see both ends of the same nebula, but here they have the appearance of being discrete clusters of interstellar gas. I also added a nearby star in the post-render processing to account for the principal light source. I hate blatant overuse of lens flare, but I must admit, this star needs… something.

Impala_test_030One of the blended.

Impala_test_030aThe other of the blended.


I’ll keep at this as I learn more, but I’m wanting to shift to something else for a bit. There are loads of other “experiments” below, testing the nebula’s luminosity as well as some ambient occlusion settings on the Impala‘s hull. Some tests shots even included the Ranger class scout.

Impala_test_029Step back- Fail! That abrupt edge-of-image revealed.

Impala_test_030c2Brightening the new nebula’s “exposure” settings.

Impala_test_030c5aAmbient Occlusion experiments: Results? Noticeably darker hull with less glare – “Placebo nacelles” acting as “control group.”

Impala_test_030c7Without it: Brighter hull, too bright.

ranger_refit_121First test with the Ranger class Strider– awkward lighting.

ranger_refit_121bBetter results, and I played with the nebula globe’s orientation. Ship looks a little crisp in comparison though…


~ by starstation on September 13, 2015.

4 Responses to “Variety: The Spice of the Galaxy”

  1. beautiful ships.

    • Thanks. I’ve been sitting on these images for a month while I tried working on this “nebula problem.” Figured I wasn’t any closer to figuring it all out, so I’d post what I’d managed so far. I’m actually amazed at how dynamic a change the most subtle changes can have.

  2. Great stuff. It’s always good to experiment with stuff like this. Even though the vast majority if space probably is mostly plain star backgrounds, adding nebulae is a hot trend in Sci-Fi right now.

    I always liked Lightwave’s procedural backgrounds for making stars and nebulae. I started experimenting with those after a friend who is a professional suggested that I add some stuff like that to my renders. With different settings and multiple layers, you can make some really interesting nebulae. Towards the end of my Lightwave usage, I was using those for my still renders and animations. It was really great for animations with a moving camera because you don’t have to enclose everything in a giant sphere or cube and have a massive tileable map for said sphere or cube. 🙂

    • Thanks.

      Yeah, I was reminded recently how truly pathetic our little, wet, human sacks of vision are when I learned just how huge the Andromeda galaxy would appear in our skies (6 moons wide), if only it were brighter (or if our pathetic eye sacks could collect and register more light). I’d been looking at the fuzzy naked-eye blob for years, but never knew I was only seeing the densest portion of its central core. Certainly explains why the Milky Way tends to be less impressive to my friends and family than I’d have hoped. I’m told most nebula would actually seem less impressive as you got closer to them, simply because they’d appear less dense as their individual components grew wider apart in relation to your field of view. Most of those amazing images we have of glorious glowing space phenoms are primarily due to longer exposure photography. Gotta soak it up to see it. However, I’m also told there are a few exceptions that could give an impressive light show.

      As to the rendering of stars and nebula though, each method does seem to have its advantages and draw backs. Certainly the professionals in the film and game industry nailed it long ago, but as a hobbyist that’s busy most of any free time granted, I’ve got to sneak in my trials when I can. 😉

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