Fanboy Friday: Tricks With Light

Did you ever come across a screenshot from flight simulator that made you just stop and gape? One that, at first glance, looked like a photograph instead of a computer-based sim? I had one of those moments this week, and it got me thinking about what makes some simulated objects appear more or less “real” than others. Hint: it’s all in the lighting.

Two add-on previews got me thinking about lighting; Fly Tampa’s new Caribbean airports project, and Classics Hangar’s FW-190. The two products couldn’t be more different in terms of subject matter, execution, or overall feel. What they share is a nuanced and detailed approach in representing how light interacts with objects, and how manipulating shadows and highlights can lend those objects weight and volume.

Modeling Light, Not Just Objects

At right is the shot that first intrigued me. It’s not the fanciest model I’ve ever seen, nor is it a particularly daring composition.  What it does have is an excellent balance between light and shadow. The metal of the roofs is just shiny enough, bright but not overdone, and stands out in stark contrast with the even green of the jungle behind it. Looking below the roof line, you can see the shadows cast by the deep eaves onto the walls below. There’s a bit of reflection in the windows, but it’s subtle.

Then there’s this shot – another terminal at another airport in this package. Again, nothing dramatic, but look at how the shadows under those thatched peaks gives the recessed areas such depth. The thatch work isn’t shiny, so there’s not much contrast between the lights and darks, unlike the red roof nearby. In both shots, the overall contrast is low, which simulates the hazy, moisture-laden air of the tropics. You can almost hear the mosquitos buzzing and the brightly-colored birds twittering.

I’ve seen a lot of technically very proficient models not look half as real and alive as the ones in these two shots. Often times, a modeler will be so obsessed with making sure their textures are tack-sharp that they opt to repeat a small, detailed texture across a broad surface. Inevitably, the effect is less realistic, rather than more, because the human eye is so highly attuned to picking up patterns. All it takes is a whiff of perceived repetition, and all the visual trickery you’re striving for goes up in smoke.

Neither of the two FlyTampa screenshots depict overly sharp textures. Instead, they use their slight softness to good effect, by replacing repetition with natural variation. Look at the corrugated metal roofs in the first shot. Yes, technically, the surface is made up of repeating lines that form a pattern. But look closer… the metal has stains and streaks, random slight shadows and raised spots, none of which follow a pattern. It’s the little things that are barely noticable at first glance that give those buildings that extra presence.

Hand-Drawn or Photos?

In a very different vein, there are these preview pics of Classics Hangar’s upcoming Focke-Wulf FW190 (Late Variants) release. The more I see of this project, the more it blows me away. Nick Churchill has been churning out preview pics, and these shots are from the collection of shots on his forum.

Have a look at the dashboard to the right. If your first instinct is that it uses photographic textures, you could certainly be forgiven. This is a masterful example of a technique called “baking in” the shadows, in which the 3D modeling software analyzes the model’s geometry and factors in how light would bounce around the space. My favorite part of this shot? The ever-so-subtle shadows beneath the gauge bezels. That’s not FS lighting, my friends, that’s pure rendered shadowing, quite possibly heavily tweaked by the devs as well. Look at the shadow under the gyro compass to the right. It’s darker, deeper, and less distinct than those of its counterparts to the left, in keeping with the fact that the gauge itself stands out from the panel more. This is a perfect example of how shadows complement the gauges, increasing the sense of substance.

Here’s a close-up shot of the gauge faces. Notice the way the shadowing on the inner disc of the turn indicator suggests not only the slight backset to that part of the gauge, but that it’s a curved surface as well. Lean in a little closer, and you see something else – the needles in the gauges are casting shadows! Think about it. Not only have they modeled the shadow, but they’ve tied it to the needle movement, which means it’s not part of the gauge face, but a separately-moving item all its own. I’m not sure whether it’s done purely in the textures or with bump mapping, but even the stamped inscriptions on the gauge faces are there.

What these shots prove is that hand-drawn textures can actually trump photos in terms of perceived realism. Yes, it takes a great deal of skill and patience to work at this level, but the results are nothing short of phenomenal.

So the next time you’re thinking to yourself how much a particular add-on appeals to you, stop to consider how much the lighting has to do with it. Reflected light is the way we humans see things, so mimicking the play of that light across a surface is something that 3D modelers have to give a lot of thought to. How they handle it is what makes the difference between a good product and a great one.

Happy flying!

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