More Clock Tower Courtyard

After creating the major building blocks of the clock tower courtyard, it was just a matter of carefully putting them all together. Here’s a first render with the modeling all finished:

This, of course, is the courtyard in relatively pristine condition, but it’s supposed to be rather run-down and overgrown. As with the fountain, I used Boolean modifiers to knock out chunks of the appropriate walls and arches. The great thing about this method of destruction is it’s…well, non-destructive. Everything is still there – it’s just hidden.

As I added some different ground textures, I also started layering in vegetation – a first for this project. Blender’s hair simulation allowed me to grow pretty satisfactory grass along the courtyard. I weight-painted the distribution so so it would clump around the fountain, walls, and columns. This clumping does vary between films and between sets/miniatures; I aimed to split the difference in a way that felt natural. (I haven’t worked much with particle systems…imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that my render times barely took a hit!)

It’ll need more work, but it’s more grass than I had before!

Finishing the Ruined Fountain

Okay, time to wrap up the fountain in the clock tower courtyard from Prisoner of Azkaban!

First up – finishing the statues. I believe the original Mexican symbology has the golden eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, but the base of this statue appears to be a nondescript rock, and that’s what I’ve modeled it after. It was fun to glob that together with Blender’s “clay strips” sculpting brush; I also rigged and posed the eagle’s mouth and claws to hold the rattlesnake, whose body started as a squiggly Bezier curve with a circular cross-section. I enjoyed trying to match the sinuous, energetic gesture of the original.

The snake’s head was sculpted separately with its jaws already fully open…no need to worry about rigging and posing this fella. Good reference is scant for the head; as with the eagle, I relied on photos of real animals to help me fill in the gaps, but it was surprisingly hard to get a good “likeness.” Oh well…at least I planned out the retopology a little better than with the eagle. That enabled me to graft the head onto the body and bake a normal map from the head sculpt. He still looks kinda funky without fangs, but they appear to have been weathered away in the film.

With that, the only things remaining were integration with the main model and damage/erosion! Not too shabby-looking, right?

Integrating this into the main model ended up being very easy. There are four statues: one at each corner of the fountain. As I placed these, I spotted some angles and proportions that were a little off, but I suppose that’s the downside to working on the statue in its own file. Oh well. The complete fountain still looks pretty cool!

I suppose it’s a little misleading to describe the fountain as “complete” when it didn’t actually have…you know…a fountain…so let’s run some fluid simulation!

Not great, but it’ll do, especially because we won’t normally be this close.

The last step with this fountain was to destroy it a little. There are big chunks of it that have crumbled away. After creating some jagged meshes to cut these away with Boolean modifiers, I arrived (after over 2 weeks of on-and-off work) at the complete fountain!

Now it just needs a courtyard to surround it!

Baking the Bird

When we last visited the statue of a certain golden eagle gobbling up a certain rattlesnake from a certain courtyard in the third Harry Potter film, I’d created a base mesh for the initial sculpt in a separate file…

…but I’d temporarily given up when the flight feathers proved more challenging than I’d expected. Although I didn’t share this last time, I’d actually gotten the head off to a decent start, especially for an artist who doesn’t do much sculpting:

But those dang wings were confounding me. Sculpting them was giving results that were messy and uneven, so I decided to try modeling each feather as its own mesh. This seemed more promising, but I still couldn’t get the feathers to “flow” nicely. They have a lovely sweeping three-dimensional curve to them in the film and I wanted to capture that.

After taking a few days off to stew over this frustrating problem, the right method became apparent. I created four different feather shapes/rotations/positions (absolute shape keys, for my fellow Blenderheads) and allowed Blender to…well, blend between them. After playing with them for a while, I finally arrived at a result I could feel good about:

I’m sure there’s an ornithologist somewhere out there having a heart attack over the anatomical tomfoolery on display here, but whatevs. At a certain point, I have to remind myself that this statue is just a tiny part of a much larger just-for-fun model – and only certain versions thereof, at that. It’s not lost on me that I’m putting more effort into this statue than is really necessary for the purposes of this project, but I view it as an opportunity to learn and practice organic modeling skills that I’ve tended to neglect.

Anyway, I began creating some basic materials and threw in a background HDRI for lighting. The same shape key technique worked for the tail feathers…

…but not for the finer, more textural plumage on the body. So I used Materialize (another piece of freeware) to help me create a textured sculpting brush from photography of real eagle feathers. Back in Blender, I used this brush to directionally “paint” three-dimensional feathers along the body. This gave me a great base texture; I reshaped parts of it by hand to create more convincing layers of feathers. Should be good enough, considering that this will mostly be seen from further distances.

I thought the legs and feet were going to be hard, but they actually turned out to be a lot of fun:

This brought the sculpt of the golden eagle to a state of completion! But at this point, this was all still real geometry – millions of tiny flat triangles connected together to form a complex, bumpy surface that slowed my computer down quite a bit. That’s where normal maps come in. I retopologized the statue into a nice, simple, clean mesh*…

…and then I baked all the details from the original sculpt into a normal map, an image that simulates the shading of the original detailed sculpt on the new simplified mesh. The result looks virtually identical, but the simplified model is waaaaaay less sluggish in terms of software performance, render times, and animatibility. (Shut up, I’ve decided it’s a word now.)

Next steps: creating the rattlesnake, posing the eagle to hold it, integrating the whole statue into the main model, and damaging the fountain to match its dilapidated state in the film. But I’ll save all that for another post. In the meantime, I’m just glad I decided to spend the extra time on this. Confession: I’d never actually done a full-on organic model like this, start to finish, from base mesh to sculpting to retopo and normal baking. It’s really boosted my confidence!

On a more serious note, I’m sure the recent months, weeks, and days have been very difficult for a lot of you. Sending lots of love, with the hopes that we will live to see – and create – a better tomorrow together.

* I’m not an expert in topology and edge flow…if you are, I very much welcome your critique! I’m sure I overcomplicated parts of this mesh, and there were a couple of hidden areas where I decided to just cut my losses and learn from my mistakes next time. The wings feature some staggeringly bad topology – spiral loops, super-squashed quads, and even a lone triangle – but I didn’t care much because these are almost entirely hidden by the feathers. They don’t even have any detail sculpted on them.

The Ruined Fountain Strikes Back

Let’s continue building the ruined fountain from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban! I developed a hankering for some texturing, so I created this new material for the fountain. I used the same basic procedural texturing principles in Blender’s Cycles render engine that I used for the castle’s main materials – lots of strategic layering of Noise and Musgrave nodes at varying scales, mainly. The trick is to get this one to work a little better for intricate objects seen at a closer distance while retaining enough low-frequency detail to still look interesting when seen from further away. I think we’ve got a decent start:

I may even end up using this for the surrounding courtyard; it was designed/built at the same time in real life, and probably “in universe” as well. We’ll see how well that works once we get there.

In the meantime, gotta build some columns for this pediment to sit on. This is where I start having to rely more on photogrammetry (and photo reference) for dimensions, so the precision does go down a bit. Should still be quite close, though.

As I described previously, this is the intact fountain, prior to the damage we see in the film. I’ll be matching the damage in my model, but first comes the finishing touch on the fountain structure: the statues! I recently learned that these are an homage to Alfonso Cuarón’s heritage; the image of a golden eagle devouring a rattlesnake is important in Mexican culture. I’ll try to do right by that symbology!

First I studied a bunch of images of the statues as well as photos of real golden eagles and sketched out extremely rough orthographic views in Photoshop. I dropped these into Blender and created a base mesh – just a very rough shape upon which to start sculpting.

The actual eagle statue is frozen in motion, twisting as it grabs the rattlesnake. But sculpting these things is much easier if you start with a symmetrical pose, so that’s what I’m going for here. Then I’ll actually use animation techniques to give it a dynamic, asymmetrical pose.

Or at least, I will once I stop being a whiny baby and get back to work on this bird. For now, I’m fed up with trying to get the feathers right, so I’ve temporarily retreated to my comfort zone to make more buildings.