The Deep Time project involves creating a series of scenes that demonstrate what certain landscapes would have looked like millions of years ago. The Heredfordshire & Worcestershire Earth Heritage Trust intend to use them to educate users of the geological history of the areas involved.
The first brief that we tackled was the Malverns Complex scene. Around 680 million years ago, the landscape would have been a snow covered volcano chain, with no fauna or flora to speak of. The only respite from this desolate wasteland was an ice sea to the north.
Our clients provided us with an extensive document outlining what they wished to see included in the scene. For ease of reference, I assembled the images included in the document into a handy moodboard for the rest of the team to use. This allowed for ease of access to the information necessary to create the desired end product.
Following this, I proceeded to research further into the desired aesthetic. I gathered videos and photographs of erupting volcanoes to use as reference for the required particle systems, lighting, and so forth. I also read into the dynamics of such events to pinpoint what additional elements were required beyond the typical billowing cloud of smoke. This further extended to study the appearance of frozen seas and snow fields, as they as important to the finished product as the volcanoes were.
As my colleague set about modelling the environment, I began work on the particle systems. Through my research, I had discovered that volcanoes throw out debris at high velocities, and so I began by modelling three variations of rocks for Unity’s Shuriken system to spit out. I then textured the models in Substance Painter 2 to appear as if they had just emerged from the fiery depths of the Earth with the use of emission maps to make specific parts of the texture glow.
In Unity 5.5 beta, I had three particle systems throw out each of the different meshes with their respective textures. To have the debris create an arc, I tweaked the initial velocity and gravitational strength. As well as this, I made use of the beta’s particle tail feature to create a hot trail that follows each bomb through the air to emphasis its path.
The next step was to create the smoke that billows from the volcano’s mouth. Again, it was achieved through three separate particle systems; two smaller ones were used to create the orange-y smoke that would sit inside the volcano, whilst a single larger column made up the main body of the smoke. This latter system is affected by a windzone to create the mushrooming effect.
The third type of particle system was created to mimic pryoclastic flow. This is when hot lava escaping the volcano causes the surrounding snow to melt so fast that it evaporates. This was achieved using an edited version of the smoke system, with a different shader, and then set it to collide with the terrain to allow it to flow down the side of the volcano.
The fourth particle system is the snow flurry. My colleague suggested that we have snow being blown around to make the scene a little more dynamic, so I created a system that could be positioned on the top of peaks to create this effect. It is made up of very small, default particles followed by a white bolt shaped trail to create the appearance of streaming snow.
And, in context…
In addition to the particle systems, I also created lava pools to further populate the scene. They’re a moving texture – programmed by my colleague – with a particle system to create the impression of steam gently rising from the surface.
Once the particle systems were completed, I set about modelling inactive volcanoes to further populate the chain using Unity’s terrain tools, and placing particles in the appropriate places. In addition to the smoke systems, the volcanoes also contain orange point lights to emulate the glow of lava.
Whilst the scene still requires some tweaking, it is very close to completion. I am going to optimize it by culling particle systems when they are a certain distance from the camera, and further adjusting the volcanoes lights. I have learnt a lot about Unity’s particle system, the way the engine handles textures, and using Substance Painter 2 to create highly detailed textures.