The Dreamy lighting of the desert

Naturalism in CGI

6 min

July 17, 2023

Operation: Deli Platter

A shot from Operation: Deli Platter. A desert in the night.
Still from Operation: Deli Platter rendered in Cinema 4D and Chaos Corona.

Pillow Shots

When watching films I have always been obsessed with cut-aways.
B-roll, pillow-shots, establishing shots without much to establish.

I experience them as a break. A section on the film’s timeline dedicated to taking it all in and catching a breath from the story. And I love them!

A thought from the book Beauty by Roger Scruton stuck with me.

Scruton argues that the importance of beauty and its transcendental nature can be found in anything that’s real.
For example, nature can be appreciated as beauty pure by itself.

The organic shapes and colours of nature carry enough wonder to be considered beauty by itself.

How I made this render

First things first, we need a high-definition desert.

I’ve been using Waleed Nabeel’s Desert models. For the purpose of small scale 3D-renders they provide enough detail to look believable.

3D Desert Dunes by Waleed Nabeel available on Artstation!

The asset above is the one I’ve used for the renders below:

A shot from Operation: Deli Platter. A desert in the night.

A shot from Operation: Deli Platter. Z-depth pass of the shot.
The Z-Depth pass was the main pass used in compositing additional dust layers.

Positioning the camera was a matter of storytelling. In Operation: Deli Platter UN-soldiers have landed in the desert.

A shot from Operation: Deli Platter. UN soldiers in the desert.

A shot from Operation: Deli Platter. UN soldiers in the desert.

A shot from Operation: Deli Platter. UN soldiers in the desert.
Stills from an earlier scene in Operation: Deli Platter. The UN has landed in the desert and is ready to investigate.

The story is mainly shot on a 50mm lens.
Deciding what lenses you will be using is an effective time-saver that connects the narrative visually.

Having dynamic lines in the frames, especially diagonals, is also a key part of Deli Platter’s visual language. For that reason, the camera is placed to follow the curve of the dunes.

A shot from Operation: Deli Platter. UN soldiers in the desert.
Still from Operation: Deli Platter rendered in Cinema 4D with Chaos Corona.

Let’s talk lighting!

I knew I wanted something dreamy.
And I knew I should listen to Roger Scruton.

For that reason I broke down the lighting into having two objectives.

  • The Keylight should be there to emphasise the curves of the dunes
  • The fill light should be there to feel surreal and emphasise depth

Simple enough right?

The Keylight

The left side of the dune felt more appealing to me at first. I’m sure the lighting could’ve looked good from the right as well, but the shape-language reads left-to-right to me :)

To not break the night-time illusion I opted for a soft light-source.
This could be a military spotlight or any other source of artificial lighting.

Behind The Scenes of Operation: Deli Platter, inside cinema 4d and corona renderer.
Large Area light (circle) with 70% directionality, 7500K and intensity of 100.

The Fill

Now onto the surreal. The effect was quite easily achieved with a variety of Area lights pointing down.

The idea was having pockets of ethereal light illuminating the distance.

This was easily achieved with a Cloner and a Random Effector.
As long as your lights are high up in the sky, they will cast volumetric light-streaks. With a bit of Scale, Rotation and Position randomisation you can achieve a pretty beautiful effect.

Cloner with 50 Area lights (circle) with 40% directionality, 7500K and intensity of 50.

Finally, I used a Global Volume in Chaos Corona with a soft density by setting the Distance to 500cm. And that’s it!

Once this set-up is completed it can be used for any shot in that scene.
This next shot for example used the dark side of the dunes to create a backlit effect. There is a little bit of spill from the lights that provides the detail in the darks.

Shot from Operation: Deli Platter. UN Soldiers in the night in the desert.
Still from Operation: Deli Platter rendered in Cinema 4D and Chaos Corona.

The stars were made with our Organic Starfields pack that includes 32-bit (high-dynamic range) star maps extracted from real NASA stars.

Star System, VFX and compositing tool by Blauw Films.

Star System, VFX and compositing tool by Blauw Films. 32-bit high dynamic range stars.
32-Bit .exr files provide the right exposure for compositing.
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