Working on a new piece to premiere in Mexico I spent a lot of time experimenting with creating landscapes and backgrounds. Searching for a way into this exploration I wanted to play with the idea of instancing objects in 3D space, and the illusion of moving and shifting planes in space. This is already a popular visual style, and I was wanted to try my hand at exploring what it might look like to make something like this in TouchDesigner.
I’ve talked about instancing before, and so this challenge seemed like something that would be both fun, and interesting to play with. I also wanted something that mixed material methods – shaded, flat, and wire frame in appearance. Let’s take a look at how we can making something interesting happen using these ideas as a starting point.
Rendering is going to make or break us when thinking about how to set up this project, with that in mind it’s important to remember that a typcially rendering set-up needs something to be rendered (some geometry), a perspective from which to draw the object(s) (a camera), and a light source (a light, we don’t always need a light but as a rule of thumb it’s good to think that we need one). Our Geometry, Light, and Camera are all components, while our render operator is a Texture Operator (TOP). As a point of reference, here’s what a generic rendering set-up looks like:
We can tell our Render TOP to look at multiple Geometry Components, in the same network, or we can nest our active surfaces inside of a single GEO. Much of this depends on what you’re looking to create. The most important thing to consider is that surfaces operators (SOPs) are computed on the CPU unless placed inside of Geometry COMP – placed inside of a Geo they’re computed on the GPU instead. This makes a huge difference in your performance, and as a best practice it’s good to place any rendered geometry inside of a Geo.
Now let’s take a look at what our rendering set-up is going to look like for making our geometric landscape:
Here we can see that we have a similar set-up on the left – a light, a geo, a camera, and a Render TOP. On the right I’ve got the geometry viewer open so we can see a little more about the relationship in the scene of the camera, light, and geometry. We can see that the camera is set above our geometry looking down, we can also see that we have a cone light set-up with a wide angle and a wide delta.
Now that we have a general sense of what we’re making let’s dig-in and make something interesting.
Lets start with an empty network. Lets start by adding a Geo to our network.
To get started we’ll need to dive inside of geo to start making some changes. You can do this by double clicking on the Geo, using the quick key “i” (shortcut for inside), or by scroll wheel zooming into your geo. Inside our Geo we’ll see a torus that has it’s render and display flag set (the small blue and purple circles on the surface operator).
Inside of our geo let’s start by frist deleting the Torus SOP. Next let’s add a Grid SOP. Our grid is going to act the key generative element for us inside of this network – it’s going to give our surface its wire texture, the shading on the surface, and the location of where our spheres get placed. Our Grid is the central piece of what we’re making, and we’ll how in just a bit. Once we’ve added a grid to our network, we need to make a few changes to some its properties. First we want to make sure that it’s set to be a Polygon for Primitive type; we want to make sure that our orientation is set to ZX Plane; finally we want to change the size to 20 x 20.
Next we’ll connect our Gird SOP to a Noise SOP. We’re going to use the Noise SOP to drive some of the shifting locations of the points in our grid. Before we move on, let’s make one quick change, On the Transform page in the Noise SOP’s parameter’s we can see that the translate z parameter is set to change with the second count of our project – me.time.seconds. This is excellent, and it keeps our noise animated over time, but it also means that we’re only working with 600 samples (in a default TouchDesigner network) because me.time.seconds is locked to our timeline. If, instead, we want noise that doesn’t have a hiccup every 10 seconds, we can instead use the call me.time.absSeconds. This uses the absolute number of seconds that TouchDesigner has been running to drive the transformations in the noise SOP. It’s a small change, but makes for a nicer look (at least in my opinion).
Next we’ll add a Material SOP to the our network. Our material SOP is going to allow us to assign a material to our grid. We’ll do this by also adding a Wireframe Material to our network. Before we assign our wireframe to our material we should see something like this:
To assign the wireframe to the material, we’re just going to drag and drop the MAT onto the SOP.
Finally, we’re going to end this string by adding a Null SOP, making sure to turn on the render and display flags.
At this point we’ve made the Wireframe outlined elements of our grid. We’re now going to use the same data stream that we’ve already programmed to help us create a another layer of texture, and to create the locations for our spheres. Let’s start by adding our spheres to the network. To do this we’re going to do some instancing. When we’re instancing we need some location information for where to generate the copies of our source geometry. To get this information we’re going to use a SOP to CHOP to convert our SOP information into CHOP data.
Now before we move on we need to change gears for just a moment. What we’re going to do next is to add another Geo inside of our current Geo – in Russian Nesting Doll Fashion. Why? Well, we’re going to do this in order to take advantage of the Geo’s ability to instance. Why not use the Copy SOP? I love me some Copy SOP action, but in this case the use of instancing is more efficient for this particular activity.
So, let’s add another Geo to our network:
Next we’re going to replace the torus inside of this Geo with a sphere. We’re also going to add a material inside of the geo. Easy, right? I’m going to set my sphere to be pretty small ( 0.09, 0.09, 0.09 ), I’m also going to make sure that I connect my sphere to a Null (in case I want to make any other changes), and then turn on the Null’s display and render flags. Finally I’m going to add a constant Material. When we’re all said and done you should have something like this:
Excellent. Now we we back out of this nested Geo we should see just a single sphere. What?! Well, now we can set the Geo to instance – my favorite part.
Let’s start by taking a look at the parameters of our Geo. Specifically, we want to look at the Instance page. Here we first need to turn on Instancing. Next we’re going to tell our Geo to look at the CHOP called sopto1. Finally we’ll set the TX, TY, and TZ parameters to correspond to the channels called tx, ty, and tz. If this seems like crazy talk, that’s okay – check out the picture below and it should make more sense:
We also want to head to Render Page of the Geo, and set this geo to use the material ./constant1 (this means, use the material inside of this geo called constant1 – ./ is a directory pointer indicating where to look for the thing in question, in this case a constant).
Alright, now we can finally see some of our handy work – you should now see a sphere instanced at each of the vertices of the grid that we’re transforming with noise.
Now let’s kick it up a notch. Now we’re going to add another Geo to our network.
We’re going to treat this Geo slightly differently. Inside let’s add an In SOP and a Phong Material. On our SOP In let’s make sure that the display and render flags are turned on, and for your SOP choose a nice dark color – I’m choosing a deep crimson.
The In SOP allows us to pass in the geometry that we’ve already made, acting as a kind of short-cut for us. When we go back to our Geo we just need to make sure that we’ve set our Render material to be ./phong1 – like with our constant this is the pathway to and the name of the material we want to use.
Alright, now you should have a network that looks something like this:
Now we’re ready to move out of our Geo and get ready to render our scene. Zooming out of our Geo we should see a network that looks something like this:
In order to render our scene we need to revisit what we talked about at the beginning of the post – we need to add a Camera, a Light, and a Render TOP. Let’s go ahead and add these to our network.
What gives?! This doesn’t look right at all. Well, part of what’s happening is that we don’t have our camera and light positioned correctly to render the scene correctly. To make this easier to understand, let’s change up our work space so we can use the geometry viewer (one of my favorite tools). Let’s start by dividing the workspace into two windows. We can do this by using the split work space icon in the menu bar:
I like the vertical split, but you can choose whatever arrangement works for you. When you initially click on this split you’ll see two views of your current network location:
In order to see the geometry viewer we need to change the pane type selection for one of our windows. Clicking on the small drop down triangle will reveal a menu of network views. Let’s select Geometry Viewer from the list.
You should now see your network on one side, and the geometry from our Geo comp on the other side.
Now we’re cooking with gas. Alright, let’s make our lives just a little easier and change the scale of our light and camera to make them easier to see. Click on your light COMP, if your parameters window has disappeared you can bring it back by pressing “p” on your keyboard.” In the scale parameter, let’s turn that up to 10, 10, 10.
Great, now we can see part of the reason that our scene isn’t rendering the way we want it to. Our light is currently set up as a point light that’s positioned at the edge of our geometry. Let’s make some changes to our light’s properties so we get something closer to what we want. Let’s start by changing the location of our light, I’m going to place mine at 0, 10, 0.
Now let’s take a look at the Light page of the parameter’s window. Here I’m going to change my light to a Cone, and alter the cone size, delta, and rolloff. Experiment with different settings here to find something that you like.
Before you get too much experimenting done, however, you’ll probably notice that the cone of our light isn’t pointing towards the surface of our geometry. We can fix this by heading back to the Xform page of the parameters window, and setting the rotation values to -90, 0, 0.
With our light starting to take shape, let’s get our camera in order. Over at our camera, let’s make the same initial change we made to the light and turn the scale up to 10, 10, 10 – this is going to make it much easier for us to find our camera.
With the scale turned up we can see that our camera needs to be translated back, up and rotated downwards so it’s looking at the geometry. After a little bit of adjusting I think I like my camera at:
Boom! Alright, let’s close our geometry viewer and take a closer look at our Render TOP to see what we’ve made.
Nice work. This is a good looking start, and now that you know how it’s made you can start to really have fun – camera placement, light placement, noise amplitude, you name it, go crazy, make something fun or weird, or just silly.