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Create and Animate a Sci-Fi Themed Matte Painting With Photoshop and Nuke

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In television and movies, artists are often asked to create short animated scenes that only appear on the screen for just a moment. In this tutorial, we will show you how to create a sci-fi matte painting portraying a fleet of starships orbiting a planet using Photoshop. We will then show you how to animate that matte painting using an application called Nuke.  Let's get started!


Speed Art Video

This speed art video demonstrates how the Photoshop aspect of this tutorial was done from beginning to end.


Final Animation

This video shows the final result of the Nuke portion of the tutorial.


Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial. Please download them before you begin.


1. Document Setup


Step 1

OK let's get started by making our new document and setting a size for it.


Step 2

Now let's open the base of our image with this render I prepared for you, and bring it over our document on a new layer.



Step 3

Use the scale command to resize the image as shown.



Step 4

And also rotate the image slightly as shown.



Step 5

Next make the background a layer and fill it with black; then go back to the renter layer and use the magic wand to make a selection of the sky.



Step 6

The magic wand excludes some parts as the bright sun here so just use the lasso tool to add to the selection.



Step 7

And also zoom in tighter over the edge to check for other missing sections and add them also.



Step 8

Once you have everything, access the refine edge tool and adjust it as shown here.



Step 9

Then inverse the selection and make a mask for the layer.



Step 10

OK let's continue by selecting the gradient fill tool and select the gradient shown here from the gradient file.



Step 11

Then simply in the background layer drag a gradient for our new sun.



2. Planet and Windows


Step 1

Continue by opening this other image, and copy and paste it on a new layer as shown here.



Step 2

Access the distort command and modify the layer as shown here.



Step 3

Then we need the elliptical selection tool to drag out a huge circle over our image; so you will have to zoom out quite a bit as shown.



Step 4

Right click on the selection to access the Transform Selection command, then scale the selection even more as shown here and position it as shown.



Step 5

Zoom back in and position the selection as shown here, then save the selection.




Step 6

Once we have saved the selection let's do some warping on the planet as shown here.



Step 7

And then load the saved selection.



Step 8

And now simply with that selection active create a mask for the planet layer.



Step 9

OK great, now make a selection of the planet mask and then create a new layer.



Step 10

Then select the gradient tool again and keep the blue gradient we used before.



Step 11

Drag a very big gradient as shown here and then scale it up just slightly bigger than the planet.



Step 12

And now let's apply some Gaussian blur to it as shown here.



Step 13

Set the layer mode to screen and then create a mask for the layer. Grab your brush tool with black and select this soft round tip at a very big size.




Step 14

So mask off as shown here to eliminate the atmosphere from the darker side of the planet.


Step 15

Let's adjust a bit further the look of our planet, so create a levels layer clipped to the planet and adjust it as indicated here.



Step 16

That darkens the whole planet so now we have to mask off the levels layer so it only affects the shaded part. Then we reduce the opacity of the atmosphere layer and we make sure we have its mode set to screen.



Step 17

OK let's move on, create a new clipped layer for the ship render as shown here and then grab the polygonal lasso tool to define the edges of the foreground windows.




Step 18

Then select the bush tool with a light blue color and the brush tip shown here.



Step 19

Paint along the selection to define some random light inside the ships windows.


Step 20

Next, select the eraser with the brush tip shown here and erase slightly as shown over the windows.





Step 21

Repeat the same for the lower level, and that is it you have a good technique to cover the foreground windows on the piece.



3. Surface Texture


Step 1

OK start with a new layer and fill it up with black.




Step 2

Double click on the layer to access the layer style and select this pattern I have repaired for you, plus set the scale to about 59


Step 3

Then just rasterize the layer style so we can modify its shape.


Step 4

Access the distort command and reshape the layer perspective as shown.



Step 5

Then we will go into the vanishing pint filter and setup a grid following the perspective of the ship as shown here.



Step 6

Make a selection where we have content as shown and then drag some duplicates into perspective as shown here by pressing the option key.



Step 7

Then just set the layer mode to overlay.



Step 8

Next we will delete with the polygonal also the section shown here from the texture and make a new layer.




Step 9

On that new layer make a square selection and fill it with black.



Step 10

Then we apply the texture through the layer style with these settings and then rasterize the layer.



Step 11

Then distort the layer into position to replace the deleted section and set the mode to overlay.



Step 12

Then just erase anything that spills out over the original texture.



Step 13

And finally repeat the same steps for this other section to create a new piece of texture.



Step 14

On now let's go back to the original texture layer and grab the clone tool.



Step 15

Check the texture for pieces that are not working correctly and clone over them such as this one here.



Step 16

Check for detail that doesn't fit over the ship hull.



Step 17

Repeat the process once again with a big piece of texture for the far right as shown here. And that is it for this section of the tutorial.





4. Windows


Step 1

Let's start working the rest of our windows; so with the polygonal lasso start defining the shape over the windows as shown here.



Step 2

Then select this brush here and as we did before let's paint some detail illumination inside.



Step 3

Increase the size a bit and paint over the other windows we have selected, and also as previously erase a bit off them.



Step 4

Then select this brush tip here and increase the spacing a bit on the brush palette.



Step 5

With this brush we can start painting the windows that are further back without the need to select them first.


Step 6

Then reduce the opacity of the layer a bit and then select the eraser with the brush tip shown here, and with it erase a bit of the windows as indicated.






Step 7

Now continue with the other buildings but reduce the size accordingly depending on how further back they are.



Step 8

We have to cover all the windows with this technique all the way back as shown here to complete this step.



5. Structural Glows and Lights


Step 1

OK continuing with the polygonal lasso tool let's start defining this area here as shown.



Step 2

Now select this gradient from the gradients file and define a linear gradient as shown.



Step 3

To add to the gradient let's pick up our brush tool with a nice soft tip and a bright blue color.



Step 4

Then just stroke some a bit to suggest reflected light on the walls around the main light.



Step 5

Then select the eraser and set the brush tip size to about 73px with the same soft tip.



Step 6

Then just erase a bit to delineate the glow a bit.


Step 7

With the same technique add several glows over the ship as shown here.



Step 8

Now let's create a new layer on top and grab the gradient tool, this time with a soft white to blue gradient and make sure its circular.




Step 9

Drag a single gradient as shown here and then duplicate it several times arranged in a linear horizontal formation.



Step 10

Select all the duplicated layers and arrange them as shown with the top bar controls.




Step 11

This quickly spaces all of them and aligns them perfectly; so now merge all the layers.



Step 12

Access the distort command and change the position of the lights as shown.



Step 13

Adjust from the top handle to eliminate the distortion.


Step 14

Then select this brush at about 125px and add some star shine to the lights as indicated here.




Step 15

Then with the lasso technique let's add some glow over the walls next to the lights.



Step 16

Make a group of the lights and the glow and then duplicate the group.



Step 17

Drag the new group on to the next section, scale it down a bit and Create a group mask for it.



Step 18

Mask off leaving only whats indicated in the red circle. And then create a new group.



Step 19

Drag this new group further back and scale it down accordingly.


Step 20

For the rest just grab this brush, adjust the spacing in the brush palette a bit and paint in the rest of the lights to finalize this section of the tutorial.





6. Sun


Step 1

Now bring in this image here and make a selection of the flare using the alpha channel.



Step 2

Bring it over on to a new layer and scale it plus rotate it as shown here.


Step 3

Go back to the levels layer in our planet and adjust the levels as shown here.



Step 4

Edit the mask a bit as shown here.



Step 5

Add a hue saturation layer and adjust it as shown here; then duplicate the atmosphere layer.



Step 6

On the duplicate create another hue saturation layer and adjust it as shown. And that is it for this quick section.




7. Ships


Step 1

Let's start with the big ship image and again using the alpha channel quickly select it.



Step 2

Scale the ship a little bit; then make a duplicate and scale it way smaller. Finally make a third duplicate and position it as shown.




Step 3

Open up the small ship and repeat the process, select it with the alpha, bring it in on a new layer and scale it down as shown. And distort it a bit to change the perspective.




Step 4

Make a new layer clipped to the big ship layer and select the brush tip shown here.



Step 5

Select a bright blue and start painting lights over the ship.




Step 6

Now create a new layer on top and grab the gradient tool with this gradient.




Step 7

Make sure the gradient tool is set for circular layout and drag a gradient as indicated. Then use the distort tool to adjust the shape as shown here.



Step 8

Make a duplicate of the glow layer and apply a blur as shown here.



Step 9

Then duplicate the layer a couple of more times, and position those as shown.



Step 10

Grab the three layers and distort them a bit as shown.



Step 11

Apply the motion blur again and set the layer mode to pin light.




Step 12

Create a new layer on top of the big ship and select the polygonal lasso again.



Step 13

Define a selection as shown and select the gradient tool as indicated here.




Step 14

Drag a couple of gradients as shown here and repeat the same for the left section.



Step 15

Create one more layer as shown here and use the lasso tool again to define a selection as shown.



Step 16

Fill the selection with black and then transform the selection as shown here.




Step 17

Go with even one more layer and the gradient tool again.




Step 18

Make a selection of the layer shown here and drag three gradient as shown here.



Step 19

Then one more layer as shown here and select the paintbrush with a medium gray sample.




Step 20

Then with a small brush paint as shown here.


Step 21

Then go back to the paintbrush with a soft round tip at about 117px



Step 22

Paint in a bit of glow as shown and set the layer opacity to 63%



Step 23

Now let's do one more layer and again using the polygonal lasso let's define several selections as shown here.




Step 24

Change the gradient to this one shown here.



Step 25

Then drag gradients on each of the selections.


Step 26

Then select the eraser tool and the brush tip shown.



Step 27

Now erase a bit off the edges as indicated here.





9. Planet Lights


Step 1

Open up this image here


Step 2

Adjust the levels on the image as shown here.



Step 3

Make a selection of an area you like and bring it over on to a new layer clipped to the planet.



Step 4

Distort the image to change its perspective as shown here and then set the layer mode to screen.



Step 5

Use the clone tool to fill over the land area as shown.




Step 6

Now select the eraser tool and erase where there are lights over the ocean.




Step 7

Then also erase a bit off the area where there is still sunlight present. And that is it we have lights over the planet.




10. Dirt and Color Adjustments


Step 1

Add a layer clipped to the main ship layer and find this brush shown here.



Step 2

Enable pen pressure for transfer and paint in some dirt and rust as shown.




Step 3

And since we are doing this let's do the same for the small shuttle.



Step 4

Let's continue work on the shuttle with a new layer, and grab the brush shown here.



Step 5

Paint in some nice lights as shown here.


Step 6

Add a curves layer at the level shown here and adjust the settings as indicated.



Step 7

Then just mask off the center with a very big soft brush to avoid this layer affecting the sun.



Step 8

Next add a hue saturation layer and adjust it as shown here.



Step 9

Mask it of the center once again and then create a new layer as indicated here.



Step 10

Then grab a bright blue color for your brush and then select the brush tip shown here.



Step 11

Paint in some misty clouds as shown and set the layer mode to hard light.



Step 12

And next apply some Gaussian blur.



Step 13

Set this layer mode to pin light, and we have finalized another section.



11. Stars


Step 1

OK let's start by selecting this brush and this brush tip, then adjust the spacing as shown here.




Step 2

Adjust the scattering as shown and select this blue color.



Step 3

Set the size for the brush and start painting stars in a new layer.



Step 4

Increase the brush size a bit and paint some more stars.



Step 5

Duplicate the layer three times and merge them into one, next create a layer mask



Step 6

And with a big soft brush mask off some of the stars as shown here.



Step 7

Then drag the layer down as shown here, and add a levels layer adjusted as shown.




Step 8

And that is it we have all of our Photoshop work finished and ready to be animated.



Final Image




12. Nuke Setup

Now that we have created our matte painting, we will now animate it using an application called Nuke. If you don't want to animate your matte painting, you can stop here.


Step 1

OK time to fire up Nuke; then go to the layers zip file and extract the contents. These are just all the layers of the Photoshop document saved separately as transparent tiff files, to quickly and easily setup a nuke scene. So select them all and just drag them on to nuke as shown.



Step 2

Yow will get small thumbnails in nuke for each of the layers we bring in, and by default you get a viewer node.


Step 3

Now with your cursor over the section where we have all the layers hit the TAB key and you get a small typing box where you can start typing what you need; in this case we need a Scene node, so start typing and once you see scene you can click on it or use the arrows keys and then enter to get the node as shown here.



Step 4

Do the same to get a Camera Node.



Step 5

Then get in a card.



Step 6

Then we will need a scan-line renderer.



Step 7

You can see all of these nodes are red which is an identifier for 3d scene. You don't need all of these if you are working in 2d. OK let's start connecting our nodes; from the scan-line renderer grab the arrow that indicates cam, and drag it to the camera to connect it. Then the obj/scn arrow goes to the scene node.



Step 8

Then we will need an extra node called project 3D, and we will connect this one to the card.



Step 9

Then we connect the card to the scene, and then make a copy of the camera node; and connect it to the project 3D node.



Step 10

Now let's select the layer that would go further back in z space, which is the black layer with the base glow on it, and connect it to the project 3d node.



Step 11

Now this is the basic setup for each one of the layers in our scene, so go ahead select those three nodes and copy them for the rest of the layers.



Step 12

Paste them and connect the next card.



Step 13

Then do exactly the same for all of the layers, just zoom in to the thumbnail to check what the layer is and arrange them progressively from back to front in z space. And we have the base for our scene ready to go.



13. Arrange the 3D Scene


Step 1

OK let's setup the size of our scene, so press the S key to get the project settings and find the size format that is automatically added to the bottom of the drop down list that matches the layers size.



Step 2

Then with your cursor on the viewer if you press the tab key you will get the 3d view.


Step 3

So now that we can see the 3d scene which you can rotate pan and everything you expect from a 3d view; go ahead and select the first card for the back, and then you can see in the viewer you get 3d handles to move the card.



Step 4

Then move that card in Z space way back as shown.


Step 5

Go to the next card and do the same, paying attention where the layer should sit on 3d space, this time is the foreground so it should stay close to the camera.



Step 6

At this point its a good idea to create a new viewer, so you have one viewer in 3d mode and the other in 3d at all times to check how your image looks when you move the cards.



Step 7

However you rotate and adjust the viewer in 3d wont affect the 3d view of the other.



Step 8

Once you are sure you have the foreground card in correct z space you can rotate the card for further perspective by pressing the command key you will get the rotation handles to set it up as shown here.



Step 9

And you can continue moving the other layers beyond that of the foreground as shown here.



Step 10

Keep arranging all of the layers as shown here and check the 2d viewer to see if everything its OK.




14. Position


Step 1

Now for the lights and other layers that sit on top of the foreground we have to copy the values to get the same rotation and position so there is no difference between them when we move the camera. Copy the values or the card node itself and paste them on to the other layers that are part of the foreground ship surface, and maybe drag all those nodes to a separate position so we know where this group is at all times.



Step 2

I grouped this foreground nodes on the left as shown here and do the same for the notes that relate to the small shuttle and big ships keeping the lights and other layers in the same position as groups.



Step 3

Now for some sections like the small ship engine glow we need to slightly set the layer just a fraction in front of the base ship layer to avoid flickering or other issues.



Step 4 >

So check the base layer position that is at -01221 and set the other layers for the engine glow and lights at -0.1222




Step 5

OK now we have the three nodes for the shuttle setup and positioned separately, And the other parts of the scene also setup.



15. Noise


Step 1

You will notice that I added some animation for the noise node and a couple of more nodes attached to it.




Step 2

One its a merge node that mixes the noise with the card set at overlay which is quite similar to what a Photoshop layer does, plus a motion blur to add to the look of movement.



Step 3

Now I connected the nodes to the engine layer as shown and then copied the noise node.



Step 4

I will paste the node in a few other places to reuse it in other sections such as the lights for the foreground just changing the size a bit for some differences.



Step 5

Duplicate the setup once again for the lights with another merge node set at overlay.



Step 6

And once again for the third lights layer for the foreground.



Step 7

Let's copy the setup once again to use it on the sun layer, yet this time we will modify the size of the noise to about 500.



Step 8

If you see the output of the noise directly by pressing 2 you will see the difference in size. So now add a blur node to make this noise a bit more soft.



Step 9

Set the blur size to 300 and then add a transform node just below the sun layer.



Step 10

We will animate the rotation for the sun layer just a bit so find the animation curve icon all the way to the right as shown here and make sure you are on the first frame of the animation, and then set a key.



Step 11

Now go to the last key, set a rotation of - 11 and set another key



Step 12

We will also animate the scale so go to the first frame and set a key frame at one; then go to frame 37 set another key frame and set it at 1.11.



Step 13

Then go to the last frame and set the key frame at 1.17




Step 14

Then after all this adjustments I can notice that our lights are not showing over the foreground so let's fix this.


Step 15

So let's take note of the position of the foreground big ship and check the position of the other layers that are part of this.



Step 16

So simply change the position by a small fraction to get all the other glows and lights slightly in front of the base, from the original position change them to -0.350; and presto we have fixed the lights to appear on front.





16. Camera Animation


Step 1

OK we have everything in place so now we can animate the 3d camera traveling through our image.


Step 2

Select the camera and be sure you are in the first frame, then add key frames to all settings as shown here.



Step 3

Then go back to the 3d viewer and on the last frame move the camera a bit forward and also add a bit of rotation; key frames are automatically added at the last frame. Click play on the viewer to see a preview of the animation and adjust it until you are happy and be sure you are not showing any edges.



Step 4

Once we have the camera we like we can safely add some rotation to other elements on the scene for added parallax effect, so first off rotate the planet a bit as shown. And maybe the same to the big ship on the left. Simple enough we have our scene all setup and ready.




17. Render and Apply Effects


Step 1

OK time to bring in the write node and render our scene, so create the write node and connect it as shown here. Then go to the right and click on the folder icon.



Step 2

Create a new folder and let's use the dpx format to render the scene.



Step 3

Click on render, make sure you have these settings and then click OK, you will get the scene written to disk from 40 minutes to more than an hour depending on your machine.



Step 4

Once the render its finished drag the render folder in and nuke will instantly id a sequence that you can view, make sure you have your scene rendered correctly and then drop in a volume rays node connected to the render.



Step 5

Once you have the volume rays node you can move the volume position on the viewer so the source of the rays are set on top the sun.



Step 6

Be sure you match these settings on the node and most important click on the add on top box so we see the scene behind. Then we follow with a color correct node.



Step 7

Adjust the gamma as shown here and then proceed with a crop node.



Step 8

Adjust the crop node directly on the screen to get rid of the black letterbox areas.


Step 9

Now let's go back to the volume rays and let's animate the center position a bit so the rays move. Go to the first frame and set a key there with the current position as shown. And then at the last frame change the position as shown.




Step 10

OK now let's create a roto node attached to the mask of the color correct, and drag a big ellipse as shown here.



Step 11

Then add a blur node below the roto and set the blur to a very big size.



Step 12

After the blur node drop down an invert node to get a nice vignette, then just adjust the roto as you like to avoid hiding the planet and ship lights too much.



Step 13

Then create a new write node and render the final scene on a new folder. And that is it we have successfully animated our creation in nuke without the need of a 3d sequence in 3d space.


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