, by Olivier Beaugrand

Guiding Light: Creating Photorealistic Nature

Olivier Beaugrand discusses his approach to creating photorealistic scenes of nature, and how light and shadow can help bring life to a scene.

  • Interview

I originally trained as a biologist, rather than as an artist. I studied biology for 5 years, but I was never so interested in laboratory work; I prefer to be out in nature. After my studies in biology, I switched across to advertising school, and learned how to use Photoshop and Illustrator. I mostly trained in 3D on my own, using Maya as my main software. I soon started working in 3D on advertising and audiovisual projects, like the credits and motion graphics for TV shows. Until the end of last year I worked in the internal studio of the French bank BNP Paribas. More recently, I’ve moved to the south of France, and begun working at Sophia Antipolis.

The Great Spotted Woodpecker

The great spotted woodpecker was a personal project; originally, I wanted to do a 3D project that would allow me to learn new techniques. I chose to focus on animals because it was a subject that seemed complex to me, and it’s an area that is quite rarely raised in 3D. Birds seemed even more difficult to create than mammals – there aren’t a lot of resources online that talk about creating birds or feathers. I wanted to see if I was able to create realistic plumage.

Another of my motivations was simply that I really love nature, and the work of wildlife photographers.

I always start with a lot of references. If I’m working on an image of a bird, I’ll find maybe 40 or 50 images of a bird I like. At the start of the project, I tend to stay very close to a reference image – but I find that, at a certain point, it’s always necessary to detach yourself from that reference, to create something that’s more personal.

The woodpecker wasn’t the first bird I’d created; I’d previously created a scene with a sparrow. The sparrow scene ultimately came together very quickly – I was happy with the composition very early on; that saved me a lot of time. In retrospect, there are a few points that I might change, if I were to approach this image again – the section underneath the sparrow is just a little dark; I might add a touch more lighting there. And the branch in the foreground is hiding the fact that sparrow isn’t holding on to its own branch so well. But overall, the whole image came together in just a few hours. Sometimes it’s just a matter of small details and adjustments clicking into place, to make the whole image work.

The woodpecker would take me much longer. I created this image sometime after I’d created the sparrow. That meant that, to model this image, I was able to reuse and adapt the model I’d previously created.


The feathers took a really long time on the woodpecker. They aren’t really feathers – I find that, for small birds, it’s more effective to assume you’re dealing with fur, rather than feathers. My process here was very simple; I simply selected the polygons on which I wanted to add plumage and then I applied Cinema 4D’s Hair Tools effect. I used the Clump tool to create clumps of hair; like this, they looked more like feathers. This sprouts out right from the body of the woodpecker, right down to the millimeter. It took me a few hours to get that level of precision.

I then used C4D’s various tools, such as Brush, to sculpt the plumage. I spent a long time brushing the plumage – you just need to do stroke after stroke with the brush, until you reach a result that you’re reasonably happy with.

To have a better level of realism, the plumage shouldn’t lie too flat against the geometry. It is always better to have some fine feathers sticking out here and there.

On the left, the sparrow image with feathers relatively flat against the model. On the right, small hairs have been added, sticking out irregularly.

With the woodpecker, I made many, many small adjustments to the plumage – I changed a lot of things like the number of hairs, the thickness of the hairs, things like that. Every so often I’d do some test renders, and then consider whether I needed to make more changes.

Various adjustments to hair settings (below).

Feather test renders.

It’s a long process, but I usually manage to reach a point where I’m fairly satisfied with an image. I’m never entirely happy with it – but at a certain point you need to recognize where you can draw a line under a project, and say that it’s finished. This is especially true for personal projects, I find, where you don’t have a strict deadline. With the woodpecker image, I even considered adding small insects to the tree, and other tiny details like that. It takes some discipline to recognize when enough is enough; like this, you can move onto new challenges.

A touch of moss

I bought the scan of the tree trunk on the site Aixterior. They have really high-quality scans, with an enormous amount of detail. I did, however, desaturate the colors of the trunk, so that it fitted better with the rest of the image.

The addition of the moss was a little bit complicated. I created about ten moss textures in Designer, and used the results the seemed to fit the image best. I used the Substance integration in Cinema 4D for this; I find this a very easy way of working with these two apps in combination.

Then I just cloned polygons with these textures on the tree. I used a random effector to randomly change the size, position, and rotation of the moss. For a more realistic render, I used Octane’s Transmission parameter (‘translucence,’ in other programs) which allows some light to pass through the texture.

Moss node tree, in Octane.

I’ll add that I use Octane an enormous amount in my personal projects. It’s a fast and easy-to-use rendering engine that lets me focus on the final render, rather than on technical elements. For those who want to know a little more about the integration of Substance textures in Octane, I personally found this guide, on Otoy, very helpful.

Lighting the woodpecker

Much of the lighting in this scene comes from an HDRI of a woodland scene. In addition to this, I used a few other lights, mostly placed behind the bird, to bring out the plumage. I also added a little light to create a reflection in the bird’s eye. I find this really helps bring the bird to life. Finally, I used a light to illuminate the moss on the tree.

Left: lighting from the HDRI only. Right: lighting from the HDRI, with extra lights.

It was around this point that I spent a crazy amount of time making small adjustments to the scene. Notably, I found that, with the desaturated tree bark very visible, the image seemed quite sad and lifeless. And so I added the leaves in the foreground; this was just a small detail added at a very late stage, but it played a big part in helping the image to come together. Apart from that, I made lots and lots of tiny, last-minute changes – I changed the plants in the background, I tweaked the lights and the HDRI, things like that. I think the final adjustment I made was a lighting change; I hit upon a result I liked, and left it at that.

The whole project took me about a week, in total – and I spent the last two or three days of that week making and testing out these small changes. A lot of the time I spend on my artwork involves finding the right small changes so that the overall image clicks into place. That’s just how I work.

The Importance of Light and Shadow – Miss Sudoku

If finding the necessary small details for a scene is one important element of my working process, another element is using lighting, and shadows, to create something remarkable. Creating images with strong, interesting shadows is kind of my thing.

In this area, I’m inspired by Jesus Suarez and Johannes Lindqvist, amongst others – the strong contrasts between light and shadow in some of their artwork is phenomenal. Seeing this work has motivated me to dive into experimentation with such areas myself.

In September 2020 I was one of 49 artists selected for the Miss Sudoku project, organized by the Dink and MotionPunk. All of the artists were given creative freedom to create a square image within the specified color range assigned to them. In my case, I created a still life, mainly to allow me to study the lighting of this type of scene.

The scene is very simple; it’s just a room with a small opening, allowing sunlight to enter.

The Falling Blocks Scene

My falling blocks image is a really interesting one, I think. In its approach to lighting, it’s closer to the Miss Sudoku image than the birds. But, even though it’s an indoor scene, featuring manufactured objects, I found that adding a touch of nature added a lot of life to the scene overall.

Some background: this was a professional project, created while I was working for the French bank BNP Paribas. The bank originally asked a few copywriters and myself to work on new concepts for an image on loan consolidation. We were instructed to come up with an idea that wouldn’t in any way encourage overspending, but would instead focus on useful consumerism. And the message had to be positive. This was one of several concepts we produced; for this one, we thought about the moments that are important in a life, such as studies, moving to a new home, marriage, or the birth of a child.

One of the first slogans from the copywriters was, ‘Our loans fit every situation.’ For some time we’d been trying to come up with an idea that was related to video games, and so we immediately thought of a popular falling block game, whose concept of things fitting together seems well suited to the notion of loan consolidation.

By mixing these elements, we came up with this image. This concept wasn’t the one that was ultimately validated by BNP Paribas – they ultimately opted for a different idea we proposed. Still, I think it’s visually really interesting.

I started off by modeling the various objects in the scene. Modeling the scene was fairly straightforward, as most of the objects are cubic. For the texturing I used Octane and Substance 3D Designer, as I often do. Most of the textures in this scene are pretty basic. I spent most of my time on the textures for the wall and the fabrics, but even these weren’t so complex, technically speaking. Conversely, it took me quite a long time to find colors that worked well together.

Originally there were many, many more objects, and everything was a lot more detailed and realistic, with lots of textures and stickers, objects within objects, things like that. In the end, however, the image was just too cluttered. If you have a high level of detail on an individual object, that can work well – but here, with lots of detail on lots of objects, it was just too much. It was difficult to recognize the original concept of the falling block game, and the image lost a lot of its overall sense.

So I decided to simplify, taking out all the elements that were unnecessary, and using a palette of strong primary colors. Like this, I think the overall message comes across much more clearly.

For this project, I took a different approach to the lighting I used with the images of birds. Rather than an HDRI, here I used Octane’s Daylight, which simulates the illumination of the sun. I directed this light so that the shadow from the window and the curtain would fall on the back wall.

This worked well, I feel – but to really add that extra nuance of detail I placed a tree silhouette between my light source and the window; this adds more detail to the shadow cast on the wall, and really brings an element of life to the scene, I find.

This is my principal light source for this scene, though I also placed a few other lights here and there, to emphasize various objects.

I really love adding in natural daylight, like you see here. And while I didn’t use an HDRI for the falling blocks scene, I love playing around with those too – I think they can create fascinating shadows.

Meet Olivier Beaugrand

Having originally trained as a biologist, Olivier switched careers, and entered advertising. A primarily self-taught 3D artist, Olivier has worked on a range of advertising and audiovisual projects, notably within the internal studio for the French bank BNP Paribas. He currently works for the technology hub Sophia Antipolis.

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