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Create atmospheric interior scenes

By Jonathan Guzi
Web: Open Site
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Date Added: 1st June 2015
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Jonathan Guzi reveals techniques to incorporate photos and 3D objects to create an atmospheric action shot of an aircraft interior.

In this tutorial I will show you my process for creating an atmospheric finished interior shot that can be used as a concept for film or games. Starting from a black-and-white thumbnail, I will layer on photo textures from free texture sites such as and my own personal library, and paint in atmospheric effects to create our final mood.

When I first started this image, the only idea I started off with was putting soldiers in some sort of abandoned or ruined environment, and the image developed from there. I will explain the basic steps of how to organize your layers as well as how I approach lighting, color and photo editing techniques. The trick is putting it all together in a way that follows what you originally intended, and not let the photos dictate what your image will look like.

Additionally, I will be using a little bit of 3D for one of the steps, although I would like to stress that for an image like this it isn't really necessary. Hopefully I can also offer a few tips on how to approach your work in general, and ways to work quickly and efficiently.

Reference gathering and initial sketch

Before I start an image like this, I usually gather as much reference as I can before I start anything. Sometimes this can even take hours, but luckily I already have a relatively large library of reference images. It's a good idea to keep your own reference library, as this can save you precious time on an assignment. After finding an image of an abandoned airplane interior that inspires me, I feel like I have enough to begin.

At this point I know that I want to have strong lighting coming in from the windows, so I establish the basic values by painting light in loosely with a Soft brush set to Screen mode, simplifying the image as much as possible. I'm not too worried at all about perspective or details at this point, although I will occasionally paste in part of a photo and desaturate it (a quick shortcut for this is Shift+Ctrl+U), and paint over it.

The value sketch has all the information I need to begin painting, although certain elements such as the soldiers will change

Further exploration

While the image is still grayscale, it's important to try out as many different ideas as you can with the time you have. Here, I thought I might try to add more drama by changing the poses of the soldiers, as well as experiment with some overgrowth and adding a bit more texture. Ultimately, I decide that it isn't too important for me right now to figure out the characters in depth, so I just leave them for now.

I also decide that I don't like having too much overgrowth. I work fast, not caring about my layers at this point. Even though I'm only showing one image for this step, this is probably one of the most important stages, since it's the part where you figure out what your final road map will be. Spend as much time as you need on this step until you're satisfied.

Adding more textures and experimenting with the composition and layout

Beginning to overlay photos

Now it's time to start organizing our layers and incorporating all the photo reference that we've gathered. I merge all the layers I have so far (Ctrl+Shift+E) as this will be my base. I start by literally pasting in parts of photos that I've gathered, to establish the colors and textures.

I'll use the Transform tool (Ctrl+T) on the photos I cut out in order to properly distort and skew them into my current perspective. I group all of these photos into a textures folder so that I know exactly where they are. I always like to label and color code my groups for easy access (you can right click on the group to pick a color for it).

Begin to layer in photo textures on top of the black-and-white sketch

More texturing and perspective check

Establishing your perspective should usually be the first thing you do, but things don't always work out in order. I create a fairly basic one-point perspective, and for the floor I use a brush that creates a grid, which I then skew into perspective.

An important thing to keep in mind in all of your images is camera angle, since this will have a huge influence on your perspective, and if it will look ‘right'. For this shot, we would have to use a wide angle lens to capture that much of an airplane interior. Therefore, things will recede more dramatically in order to capture the full frame of the shot. I also find an image that I like for the windows, so I skew it into perspective, and then duplicate and transform it again so that it covers the entire side of the plane. I do the same process for the door.

Correcting perspective and layering in more photo textures

Correcting values and color

I keep pasting in more photo textures until the black-and-white sketch is completely covered. Throughout the whole process, I'm making small fixes as I go, sometimes changing the values and colors of photos on the fly. I don't really bother with adjustment layers yet, until I have all the textures laid out in one group. Once I'm done, I'll create a new group that I use just for color correcting and mood. I darken the image as it is always easier for me to work from dark to light. I'll also lower the contrast with another Levels adjustment layer. I also try to bring all of my textures into the same color space, making sure that there aren't any glaring inconsistencies. Try to work efficiently with adjustment layers, but don't be afraid to add as many as you need, that's the whole point of working with multiple layers and groups.

Finishing the basic texturing and establishing values and mood

Adding more to the scene

The scene needed some more objects of interest, so after I quickly sketched some shapes on a separate layer I decide to add in these old drums of toxic waste. This is where the 3D comes in, so I take a slight detour into Maya in order to model a basic oil drum and duplicate it into the position I want. I paste the render into a separate group within my textures folder.

I use adjustment layers set as Clipping Masks (Alt+click on the adjustment layer in order to turn it into a Clipping Mask) on top of the drums to fit them into the scene. I also paint in some basic atmosphere in a new folder that I titled Haze.

Adding in 3D elements and texture onto the drums in Overlay

Painting in light

Now comes the fun part – painting in the light beams. I create a new group and paint each beam on a separate layer set to Screen mode. I use a light beam brush that I then transform. I add a Layer mask for each beam and very gently brush it out at the edges. Keep in mind the perspective of your shot as this will affect your light beams as well. The reason we are seeing light beams at all is because we are in a dusty, hazy sort of environment, which is why they are so visible here.

I also keep working the rest of the image at the same time, flipping the canvas and checking my values constantly with a black-and-white adjustment layer. Note that I still haven't put in the characters, which I am sort of avoiding because I'm too focused on the environment.

Painting in the light and more atmospheric effects

Light and atmosphere detailing

Try to get good reference for painting the light beams, and not simply rely on brushes and blending modes. For example, don't forget to paint in the bits of dust and atmosphere that are catching the light from the beams, and try to not paint them in too heavy handed. These effects can be on a separate layer set to Screen mode, since we want them to catch the light, and not obscure it.

For the patches of light on the floor, I create another levels adjustment layer and really amp the light. Then I fill the adjustment layer with black and paint in the light with a white brush. Don't forget to note which edges might catch light, and use a Hard brush to avoid muddiness.

Since we have the toxic waste drums on a separate layer, we can Ctrl+click on the layer in order to make a selection, and easily paint in these highlights.

Painting in more light and atmosphere, controlling edges and adding particles and dust

Adding in the characters

It's actually not a good thing to leave the characters for last, since you want to see what your final image will look like as soon as you can. I decide to only put in two characters in order to not create too much confusion in the shot, and leave it rather ambiguous.

I keep my main character in the foreground in a separate group, and grade him into the scene with Levels and Color adjustments. Since he is being hit with light from behind, he is mostly going to be in silhouette. Instead of painting in a cast shadow, I simply mask out the light that I have from my light layers. For the background character, I place him in between the two respective light beam layers, and then paint in a few highlights.

Grading in characters, adjusting their silhouettes and painting in highlights

More details and adjustments

Once everything is fitting into the scene properly, I paint in some more details on a new layer. I add some dust on the ground at my characters' feet and paint in some more wiring, scratches and miscellaneous details.

I realize that I completely forgot about the background outside of the plane. I use the Magic Wand and Lasso tool to make a selection, and paste a photo of a forest that I took into the selection (Ctrl+Alt+Shift+V), I use the Paint Daubs Filter from the filter gallery and adjust the levels to really blow out the highlights. I move it around inside the selection until I find a position that I'm happy with.

I add a little bit of rim light to my character and paint some color and light on his goggles. I also add some texture details to his gun.

Adding smaller details and more light

Final touches

After I'm done detailing, I copy and merge all layers (Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E) and apply a Smart Sharpen Filter from the filter menu. I find that the Smart Sharpen Filter is a little less jarring than the Unsharp Mask, while still getting the job done. I also add another adjustment layer to tweak the brightness and contrast, masking it out where I don't need it with a Soft airbrush. Lastly, I'll add just a tiny bit more blue into the shadows with another Color Balance adjustment layer.

Finishing touches and more adjustment layers

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