Making of 'Twins'

First up some of my favourite images from my latest work for Willian O'Brien Jr.. As usual you can click through to see the full set on flickr.


As with the Allandale House, the landscape mostly came from my imagination, with this as a starting point:


We first tried out an autumnal scene with lots of browns/greens contrasted with white stucco clad houses, but I was especially keen to try a snowy scene (winter was still on its way at the time!). After modeling the house in sketchup, I placed it and a rough terrain also made in sketchup into a new 3dsmax scene and started creating a snowy landscape. This was done using the snowflow plugin to make snow cover over the whole terrain object and then the snowplug tool to remove snow from where it shouldn't be. This is how the terrain plus snow looks in the viewport:


The snow material came from a video on new vray 2.0 features and is a blend of a vraysss2 material and a vraycarpaint material. This results in a subtle SSS effect and also nice snowy sparkles from the carpaint material. Admittedly you never appreciate the complexity on my finished renders, but it does look nice up close! Snow material set up: 

Next up was to source and/or create snow covered trees. Click the image below for a slideshow of all the trees and bushes used in the scene (11 total), I always think its amazing how few unique trees you need to create a believable forest:

In hindsight I should probably have added some more pine trees, on some of the views you can see repetition in the tall scots pines.

I ended up buying a winter tree pack from which I thoroughly recommend, the ash and birch trees are beautiful. The fir trees are from evermotion and I added snow to them using snowflow. That process was a real headache. My advice would be to detach a branch and test settings on it first. Start with low mesh settings and gradually add to the particle count until it looks OK. The pine trees are from "HQ plants 2" by and I added snow to them myself.

typical snowflow settings (scene units are mm)

I used forest by itoosoft to scatter the trees. There ended up being just 3 forest objects; one for the tall pines and firs, one for the birch and ash trees that make up the edge of the forest, and one for the snow covered planted area between the houses.

On the screengrab above, you can see the splines that are used to define different areas, and also to thin out the forest at its edges. Also evident is the clustering of plants which is a great feature in forest, it really helps make the forest look more natural and is very quick to experiment with too.


As always my favourite part of the project was the lighting. I knew I wanted to go for another subtle diffuse light set up, so experimented with some suitable HDR skies from my shop. The ones I tried were 1008, 0902 and 0743 but ended up going for 1008 again (as Allandale house) as having even a slight amount of warmth from the sun didnt look right.

I used vrayenvfog with a mesh as a gizmo to keep the fog away from the actual houses (didn't want fog inside!) and a fog distance of 450 metres. No maps controlling density, colour or emission. The fog is set to scatter GI as it looked nicer and there wasnt much difference in render time. If I had gone for a darker time of day, having the interior lights interact with the fog outside the windows would have been really interesting, maybe next time!

Colour balance was very important in this scene, and was something I experimented with right up to the final renders. Initially I had a very neutral colour balance, with slightly warm interior lights, but eventually I grew to like the blueish tint more and more. Being able to change kelvin values on lights and on the camera makes this process very intuitive in vray. I appreciate being able to think about these things in photographic terms rather than tweaking rgb values. I set the vrayphysicalcamera white balance to 4200K which gave a nice blue tint, then I had to push the interior lighting down to 3100K so that they still looked warm.

Vray Light Lister: I have some fill lights which I set to have no effect on speculars or reflections to speed up renders times slightly. The main dome light (1008) had the subdivs increased to 16 from 8 as it seemed to give more accurate shadows, but above 16 didnt seem to make much difference (it will be very scene dependent but is worth playing with the dome light subdivs to see how it affects noise).

Camera settings.


The houses are left intentionally stark and bereft of home comforts in order to highlight the abstract nature of the volumes and the views out to the surrounding landscape. The few objects were chosen to try and give a timeless quality and because I thought the clean lines worked well with the houses.

I went for:


I used vray lens effects for the bloom and glare, which worked out really well I think. It's best to experiment with the values on interactive mode till you get something you like. Bear in mind that you really need bright light sources if you want seductive looking glare. My interior spotlights had vraylightmaterials applied to them and the float value (right click and hold on the vrayFB to inspect rgb/float values) was often up around 5-20.

Once in Photoshop, I added a slight s-curve to boost the contrast more on all the images. I added some detail to the snow, tracks from people, skiers etc. by copying and pasting from reference images and setting the blending mode to darken.

People often ask about my render settings, so I'll share there here even although there isn't anything remarkable about them. Note that they are optimized for rendering all the foliage quickly, normally I would enable detail enhancement and retrace threshold. As it was the interiors looked OK without DE and retrace threshold.

I am very grateful to my client for his patience and willingness to try new things. Some things I tested didnt end up making it to the final images though! I tried making frost covered windows, and snow cover on the roofs, but they ended up being distracting to the architecture. Its easy to get carried away with small details and forget that the focus of all the images should be the architecture.