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Create a Walking City With Photoshop

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Read Time: 24 min
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What You'll Be Creating

Taking your own photos and combining them into an entirely new composition can be quite satisfying. In this tutorial we will show you how to create a walking city using a combination of photos that were taken exclusively for this project, as well as a few stock photos. The result will be reminiscent of a Star Wars walker. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

The following stock assets were used during the production of this tutorial. Additional photography can be downloaded with the source files for this tutorial.

Before We Begin

This creature is constructed from photos of various parts of the city of Hamburg in Germany. Wherever at all humanly possible I prefer to  shoot my own stock, but if you like you can search through websites like stock xchng.com or istockphoto.com. I recommend not using Google image search as these are almost always copyrighted and without express permission you are not allowed to use the images.

Feel free to use the stock provided, but if you are going to shoot your own stock, I recommend a few things. First, that you make sure you get the whole of your subject in the shot, which in this case will likely be a building. This gives you more options later on. Second, that the subject of the photo is sharp and in focus for obvious reasons. Lastly its always preferable if you can take the photos in overcast weather or as the sun is rising or setting - this creates soft light and makes later stages of the project much, much easier if you need to change the direction of the lighting.

A heads up: This tutorial will not be for the faint of heart, or those just starting in Photoshop. I will be going over and explaining all of the various techniques involved in creating our city monster, but due to the repetitive nature of certain steps, I won't be doing so in complete detail.

Step 1

First up you are going to need the various parts that make up our monster. I like to cut out lots of bits and pieces first to allow for maximum creativity in the later stages so you can play with different options.

Start by going file > new (Ctrl/Command + N) and making a file called Hamburg pieces, how big you make it will depend on what resolution the files coming out of your camera are, in my case I have gone 5000x5000 pixels. This will be your container where you keep all the cutout pieces so you can keep them saved to a single file. This helps you stay organized and keeps the file size of your main image down in the later stages. If you have a slower computer this is especially important.

Step 2

Cutting out images of buildings typically involves one or both of two tools - color selection and the pen tool. Use color selection for picking out skies. In this instance, go to the Select menu and choose Color Range. When the dialogue box appears, make sure Quick mask is selected in the 'Selection Preview' box and click the eyedropper on the sky. Slide the 'Fuzziness' left or right until only the sky is selected, then hit Ok or press enter. In this case, a tolerance of 45 worked well for me.

Step 3

You should now be left with a selection trail around the outside of the building. Double click on the background layer to unlock it and then, while holding down the Alt key, press the 'create layer mask' button at the bottom of the layers palette. If you can't see the layers palette, press F7 or you can find it about half way down the "Window" menu at the top of the screen.  You should have something like this:

Step 4

That one was pretty easy, but not all the pieces we are going to need are going to be that easy to cut out, like for instance this one:

Grab the pen tool (shortcut P), and make a path around the outside edge of the building. This should be fairly straight forward as the building has lots of straight edges and sharp corners (well get to making curved lines later). Try to stay as close to the edge of the building as possible. Once you're done, with the pen tool still selected, right-click so a menu pops up and choose "make selection". Now you can right click on the layer mask button like before, or alternatively hit Crtl/Command + J to copy your selection to a new layer. When you turn off the background layer, you should have something like this:

Step 5

See that annoying street light that found its way into our shot? We don't want it. If you have CS5, you can use the following method. Grab the pen tool again (P) and trace around street light. If you don't yet know how to use the pen tool I strongly recommend that you take the time to do so, it is an excellent tool for making complicated and clean selections where other methods won't work - it's always my fallback.

Now, as you work your way around the light, you'll need to make a curve - click and drag as you make the new point, the longer you drag, the wider the curve. You want to keep the selection fairly close to the light so that the next step works well. When you have worked your way back around to the start, right-click and make a new selection just like last time.

Time for magic. Go edit > fill or Ctrl/Command + F5 and choose "Content-Aware" for the fill type, normal for the blend mode at 100% Opacity (this should be the default).

Content aware fill is great for removing obstructions from buildings. It works particularly well for images where there are patterns, which will occur on some level for most buildings and architectural elements.
If you don't have CS5, you could alternately use the Clone stamp or spot healing tool, depending on your situation.

Step 6

Rinse and repeat. With these basic skills you should be able to cut out most pieces that you need to start 'building' your creature. I like to have at least 20 or so pieces before I move on to this next stage.

Now the real fun begins. Make a new document, call it "construction" or something similar. The size of the document is up to your discretion, depending on what your computer can handle, keeping in mind this could potentially become a very large file. I normally go 5000+ pixels in each dimension to allow for large scale printing.

Step 7

Next up, you either need to plan your image if you have a clear idea of what it is exactly that you want to make, or you can begin playing around with what you have cut out already and see what you can make.  In this case though, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to make - I knew from the start I wanted to create the city in a form vaguely something like the AT-AT walkers from Star Wars.

If you are going to make something that looks 'real' and contains perspective, it is important to establish the kind of perspective you want early. I like to use the pen tool t create paths that give me guides. Here I have used two point perspective - that is, it contains two distinct points where objects fade into the distance.

It's also a good idea to establish where your horizon is too - in this case I have used a guide. To create guides, hit Ctrl/Command +R to bring up rulers, then click and drag the cursor out of the guide. Dragging out of the top guide creates horizontal guides, dragging out of the left, vertical.  

Step 8

 I like to start by placing 'core elements' that I can build everything else around. Here I have started with some shipping containers that will form the back or spine of my creature.

Not everything you cut out is going to fit in these perspective guides you have laid out, so you will need to bend it. The containers I am starting with are a good example. Cut around each major face with the pen tool, make a selection as we did back in step 4 and hit Ctrl/Command + J to copy your selection to a new layer.

Next we need the transform tool, you'll find it in edit > transform, or better yet hit ctrl/Command + T with one of the new layers selected and you should get this box around it:

Surprisingly enough, we won't be choosing "perspective" here, go distort instead. Distort can do everything perspective can, and then some, perspective simply has more restrictions and is ideal for some circumstances, but not this one.

Grab the corners of the transform box and move them around in such a way that they line up with your perspective guides. You may need to deselect your guides so that the transform tool doesn't try to grab your path instead. One way around this is to make a new blank layer and right-click with the pen tool and choose 'stroke path', choosing either the pencil or brush at a small size so that the guides are reproduced on a separate layer.

The result should look something like this:

It's also a very good idea to name your layers as you go. These creations can get very complicated with hundreds, even thousands of layers and it can be easy to lose track of content in the mess if you are not careful.

Another useful tool, especially for rounder or more organic pieces of your creation is the warp function of the transform tool. With your target selected, hit Ctrl/Command + T, right click inside the box and choose warp.

There is quite a bit of versatility with this pretty intuitive tool - drag the corners, the handles attached to them or even simply push the mesh itself until you have the shape you need. In this case I have used it to lower the viewing angle of this smoke stack.

Step 9

Use these techniques to keep building up your form, working first with more 'structural' elements that hold your creation together, then start adding the more interesting little details later. Don't be afraid to play around or experiment - in my opinion that's the best part of the whole process. Here I've placed the containers, some girders and the cog for my front leg to build around.

Step 10

Start building limbs - for me these are by far the hardest part if you are trying to maintain a strong sense of perspective. Get creative - keep in mind you don't have to use the whole building. In this case I picked out the mid section of a tower for the basis of my head. Engineered elements like bridges or vehicles like trains and buses are also useful for limbs as they usually look ok when placed at odd angle (i.e. up-side-down).

Legs can be difficult as they are perhaps the hardest to make look right. Keep in mind that they are made up of certain key sections - the joints, the foot and parts in between. I start by placing the main straight sections, then finding material for the joints and feet later.

Step 11

Once you have your core pieces and structure established, you can start to flesh out your creation. I went with using more buildings from around Hamburg. Remember as well that things don't necessarily need to be the right way up - in this case I had them hanging up-side-down for the underside of my creature.

Sometimes it can also help to have a few parts that are deliberately out of sync in terms of perspective, giving the creature a more organic feel.

Step 12

Building the remaining legs can be difficult - I found it very useful to place more perspective guides to help me place the feet and then work from there. Keeping in mind here the hind leg was supposed to be further out than the front leg and that the front leg was in the air.

Step 13

With the bulk of your creation now in place, start thinking about smaller details. Street lights, street signs, machinery, smoke stacks and docking cranes are some of the ones I used.

For me the head was the most complicated part of the creature. To create the details "inside" the head, I had two versions of the tower piece we saw before - the top layer included all the details that would be in front of the "brain" and masked off sections that would be hidden by the bits inside. The lower layer was the basic version of the tower. In between was an image of a boiler tower from a refinery that I had found and used to add more details.

Here is how mine was looking with the creature placed together:

At this point it's a good idea to place all the layers for your creation in one group if you haven't already. I've called it "Construction".

Step 14

Now we need to give our creature a location! As Hamburg was pretty much frozen in the middle of winter when I visited I opted for an icy scene. I made my background by starting with this shot a frozen lake in the middle of Hamburg:

And this image of a frosty sunrise (this one I just picked for it's sky):

Use the marquee tool (shortcut M) to grab the relevant sections of each shot, in this case the frozen water of the first image and the sky of the section. Then place them behind our monster.

Here I also composed the image with the monster slightly to the right, to help give the sense that the machine was coming from somewhere and still moving. Make sure these new photos in their own group behind your creation. Call this group "scene" or something similar.

Step 15

There are a few things we need to do here, lets start with some simple color adjustments for the Ice and the Sky.
Start with creating a hue/saturation adjustment layer (found at the bottom of the layers palette) and placing it aboveboth layers, and make the saturation -70. Grab a large black brush and mask out some of this layer - key areas that shouldn't be desaturated are those close to the 'camera', the sun and the sky. See below for an example:

Step 16

Lets add some fog and mist. Create a new layer in your "scene" group called fog, making sure it is at the top of the group. Grab a large brush with the settings I've chosen below and paint across the section in between the two background shots at 100% opacity. Then lower the opacity to about 20% and add more fog to the more distant areas of the icy sections.    

Step 17

We want the creature to look like its moving, so to do that we're going to make a trail in the ice behind it. We're going to hide the creature temporarily, so hit the switch next to the construction group. Duplicte your ice layer, set the opacity of the layer to 50% and hit Crtl/Command + T for the transform tool. You should have this:

Right click inside the transform box and choose "flip horizontal". What we want is to pick out that trail of ice in the distance. So move the box and scale it as needed until you have something like this:

Once you have the layer in place, hit enter and return the layer to 100% opacity. While holding down the "Alt" key, hit the "Add layer mask" button at the bottom of the layers palette and new ice layer should disappear as the new layer mask should be completely black, hiding it.

Select the layer mask (the black box), grab a large brush, maybe 600 pixels wide at 0% hardness with the color set to white. Now draw water section of the layer back in:

If you like you can repeat this process to increase the distance that the trail goes behind our creature, perhaps scaling it down this time. When you are done, switch the "Construction" group back on.

Step 18

Next we are going to make some holes in ice where the creature is stomping through. Go right to the bottom of the layer stack and click on your background layer. Click on the "Create new fill or adjustment layer" button and choose "Solid color" right at the top.

Click the eyedropper tool somewhere in the water to make this solid layer the same color and hit enter.

Using either the lasso or pen tool, make a fairly roughly selection around the feet of our monster that looks something like this:

While holding down the alt key, hit the "add layer mask" button to get this:

You don't need to get too fussy here, these edges will be nearly invisible once we are finished.

Step 19

Next we are going to hide parts of our monster where the legs will be under water.

Select the "Construction" group and hit the "Add layer mask" button again.

Again with a fairly large soft brush, this time black, hide the base of the feet where they come into contact with the water. Again you don't need to be toooo precise as this will be largely hidden by later stages.

Step 20

Alright, things are taking shape. Now it is time to light up our creature.

Open up the actions palette. Things are going to get a bit repetitive here so we are going to use actions to make things a bit more efficient and save us some time.

Open up your construction group and select a piece of your construction, it doesn't really matter which. At the bottom of the actions palette, hit the "Record new action" button and give it a name, I'm calling it lighting.

Now we need to create some new Layers:

  • A hue/saturation adjustment layer, found in the "Create new fill or adjustment layer" menu found at the bottom of the Layers palette.
  • A curves adjustment layer
  • Create a new layer, call it "soft light" or some thing similar and set the blending mode to Overlay
  • Create another new layer, call it "Highlights/Shadows" and leave the blending mode on normal.

Lastly you will need to clip all these new layers onto the base layer by holding down Alt and clicking on the line between the layers. An arrow point down should appear.

When you have finished hit the stop button on the action palette. The end result is below.

Be very careful when recording actions - everything you do will become part of the action, so it may take a few attempts to get right.

Step 21

Now that you have your action set up we can get to work. We are going to work on the individual components of our creature and give them a coherent light source, add shadows and so on. When you want to work on a particular element, select its layer and press the play button in the Actions palette with your action selected and your layers should appear if you have set up the actions appropriately.

Each of the layers has a particular function - the adjustment layers will be used for contrast and saturation.

For me, in most cases the shots will be fairly dull as I took my photos in overcast weather so I have given the layer a bump in contrast. Keep in mind that the further something is away from the camera the less saturated the colors are going to be.

Step 22

The next layer is the soft light layer. As the name suggests we will use this for softer shadows and reflected light. Remember this layer should be set to Overlay.

Use the eyedropper tool (shortcut "I") and pick a color close to the light source (ie the sun), the value I used is fff6c4. Your background color should be black

With a brush set to a size of about 80 pixels with a hardness of 0% and an opacity of 25% start painting on the image. Add light where it should hit the building and hit "X" to switch to black and add shadows. Don't be afraid of changing the size of your brush or the opacity as needed.

Step 23

The last thing to consider is highlights and shadows. That is, areas where light reflections are at their strongest and fullest - either where sunlight directly hits the object or it receives very little light.

Continuing with same yellow and black, but this time with a smaller brush roughly 25 pixels in size, paint yellow on areas of direct sunlight and add black where and if you need it. In this example the strongest light is going to be down the left side and the darkest areas on the surfaces opposite the sun.

Step 24

Rinse and repeat. Using this technique, work your way around the image until you have added light and/or shadow to each part. Here are a few things that are worth remembering when lighting the image.

Ice is an excellent reflector of light, so areas you might think are going to be completely dark on the underside may not necessarily be so. Remember to change the color of your light to white or a very pale blue though.

Consider how light falls on objects - here light will hit the top of this Tower, but not the lower sections because of the shipping containers behind it. This helps add depth and realism to your image.

Remember as well that glass is highly reflective.

Here is how mine looked once I had finished lighting it. I have gone a little overboard with the shadows in some the lower sections for reasons we will see shortly.

Step 25

On the home straight now, time to add some spit and polish that will sit on top of the creature and bring the whole image together.

Make a new group above the "Construction" group and call it "Effects" or something similar. Create a new layer, call it "fog" reset your colors by pressing "D". Now, go to the Filter menu and choose Render > Clouds to fill the screen with the clouds effect.

Change the blending mode from Normal to Screen and hit Crtl/Command + T. Right click and choose distort and move the corners of the box until you have something like this:

Now add a layer mask and mask out the top half of the image with a large brush until you get something like this:

Finally, drop the opacity of the layer to about 75%.

Step 26

Next up, I grabbed this stock image from iStock:

Using the marquee tool (M), grab a large section of the image with the falling snow and hit Crtl/Command + J. Go to the image menu and select Adjustments > Curves and apply the curves as show above. Copy and paste the result the "effects" group of our main image.

Back in our main image, use the move tool (V) to position the newly acquired snowflakes over the legs of the creature and change the name to "snow" or something similar. Change blending mode to screen. Then add a layer mask and mask out the sharp edges with a large black brush.

Repeat this process a couple of times to taste - I made sure I covered the legs to give the impression of ice being lifted off the ground or snow falling off the creature.

Step 27

The next thing we want to do is add some impact to the foot that is falling.

To get started, I grabbed this free stock shot from stock Xchange and inverted the colors by hitting Ctrl/Command + I.

Bring it over to our main image and change the blending mode to "Screen", then position and scale it so it is sitting over the foot.

Then add a Hue/saturation adjustment layer, with colorize checked at a Hue of 179 and a Saturation of 17. Lastly you may want to grab a soft brush and mask off that hard bottom edge. This image should help add the effect of mist or steam rising with the foot impacting on the ice.

Step 28

Obviously some water is going to be thrown up by the foot too, so we'll add that next. I grabbed this stock shot from iStock:

Much the same as we did with the steam, cut out the part you want with the pen or lasso tool and place it in your main document.

Again position and scale the splash around the foot, change the blending mode to Multiply this time and add a Black and White adjustment layer. Here I've dropped the opacity of the adjustment layer to about 50% to bring some of the blue back. Black and white adjustments can be very effective in tandem with the Screen and Multiply blending modes for things such as this.

Again hide any unsightly edges with a mask. Lastly, go Filter > Blur > Motion Blur and add a blur in the direction the water should be moving. Here I have gone for a Distance of 11 and Angle of 66 degrees.

Repeat this technique a few more times until you have something like this. I also added some smaller splashes to the other feet.

Step 29

Now, we've got a good base, but it's time to added the real impact with some ice shards.

Select the Iced layer we were working on earlier, and use the pen or lasso tools to select some chunks of ice. Hit Crtl/Command +J to copy it to its own layer. Once you have about 4 or five shards move them to the "effects" group, beneath our fog, but above the splashes and steam. Give the shards their own sub group too.

Hit Ctrl/Command + T and move and transform the ice shards around the foot so that they look like they are flying up. Vary the size of your shards, duplicate and rearrange your shards to fill out the effect.

Now go through and add motion blur, this time I've gone for a much stronger blur, around 100 pixels for the Distance.

Lastly, add a hue saturation layer with colorize checked to add some light blue back.

Step 30

Almost there. We want to add some splash so that the other legs look like they are interacting with the water.

Beneath our "Construction" group, create a new group called "Effects Behind" or something similar. This is where any effects that sit behind the creature will go. Make a new layer and call it "Ripples". Grab the marquee tool and make a square selection by holding down shift and then dragging.

Now go Filter > Render > Clouds to fill it with clouds. Follow this up with Filter > Distort > Zigzag. Set the style to Pond Ripples, the amount to 100 and the ridges to about 7 or 8.

Hit Crtl/Command + T once it's rendered, right click and choose distort, then bend it until you have something like this:

Change the blending mode to Overlay, drop the layer's opacity to 65% and hide the edges with a mask.

Then repeat with the other hind leg, note that the perspective is going to be significantly different.

Step 31

Add some final details like this smoke plume which I cut out with a simple color selection. These make the final piece come to life that much more. In this case the trail of smoke also helps suggest that the creature is moving forward.

Step 32

Last but not least, I added a simple vignette. Take the circular marquee with a feather of 250 pixels and fill the page, then hit Ctrl/Command + Shift + I to invert the selection.

Making sure that your foreground color is black, make a new color fill layer and change the blending mode to overlay. Drop the opacity to about 35-40%:

Final Image

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