How To Do A Great Storytelling Render In 3Delight

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SickleYield's avatar
Not everyone agreed with what I said in the How To Do A Quality Female Pinup journal, but I DID have a major spike in my page traffic the day it went up, so clearly a lot of people read it.  Let's do another one!

Today I'm going to talk about a challenging subject for any render engine, although my focus is 3Delight - the storytelling render.  More than just a single character looking cool or sexy, this type of scene is meant to suggest a captured moment in time, an instant in the lives of its characters and universe.  Above all, it suggests that those characters and that universe have a life beyond this image.

I've done a small number of these that I was happy with in my career as a DAZ Published Artist; but I'm not going to brag on my own work today.  No, today I'm going to use the example of a render called A Song Against the Dark by storypilot.  Any render I dissect in a journal will only be used with the artist's permission, both with this and valzheimer's render from the other entry. 

My focus here is on 3Delight and its pluses and minuses, because that's my area of interest and greatest experience.  All of this is completely my own subjective opinion.  You have every right to disagree, and in fact I may learn something interesting from your comments.

So with that out of the way, here's what this render does right:

1.  Posing and setup is thorough and realistic.  Characters' feet sit solidly on the ground, where relevant; their bodies are solidly in contact with surfaces.  Hair moves basically as hair should.  I don't think a lot of people realize just how much the dull work of tweaking the poses of characters, clothing and hair makes or breaks a render.  There's a difference between using coherent stylization and completely breaking the viewer's suspension of disbelief with hovering toes or stiff-looking hair.  (The man in the red tunic has some slight clipping on his thigh, but it took me a long time to notice that.)  Your purchasing choices affect this, too - if you buy hairs that just can't handle the poses you want to do, your renders will suffer for it.

2.  Composition.  The camera is tilted just enough to help the eye travel from left to right across the figures - and look at how the arrangement of figures themselves lures the eye along the line from bottom to top, left to right.  We're meant to notice the bard as well as the dancer.  The placement of that background figure makes it almost impossible to notice on first look - it's there to reward continued scrutiny of the image.  The camera's slight distortion in the foreground adds an additional sense of dynamic movement to the elf doing her seated dance on the bar.

3.  Clutter.  The scene is cluttered, but not at random.  Objects are placed so that they enhance the story - the litter of mugs around the drunk at the bar says he's been here for some time, probably why he's passed out face-down.  The elf's cutlass lies forgotten on a bar stool, telling us how absorbed she is in what she's doing - she's forgotten everything, including this obviously well-used weapon that she must carry everywhere.  The stacks of crates and barrels make this tavern look like a place that's constantly in use.  When you want to set up a larger scene like this, you have to ask yourself: what would I expect to see in a place like this?  How much? Where?  How do I make that work with and not against my planned composition?  How can I tell more small stories within my larger story?

4.  Costumes tell their own stories.  The characters' clothes and hair aren't random either.  The lady on the far left has not only the scantiest but the most colorful outfit, and by that and the fact that she's fondling the thigh of the man to her left we can guess she may be a lady of the evening looking to ply her trade.  The dancing elf may be showing some skin, but her clothes are plain brown leather, and her tattoos look bold and aggressive - with that plus her forgotten cutlass we can guess that she's a warrior.  And I could go on.  Every character in this scene has something to tell us about themselves just by the way the artist has arranged their appearance.

5.Lighting and postwork work together.  It's very difficult, nearly impossible, to get good-looking fire and smoke effects in the render itself in DAZ Studio (there are one or two products that can help, but they are very resource-intensive). So while I don't know what storypilot has done in Pixelmator, I would guess that the fire and smoke is a lot of it.  That being the case, there's a lot of forethought here in the position of lights where fire would later be put - from the torches, on the wall by the bigger fire pit, the orange glow cast on the dancer's face.  This is all very deliberate and contributes further to the scene's atmosphere of a warm tavern on a dark night.

Overall this scene shows tremendous attention to a lot of details, and that really adds up.  Hopefully this analysis is helpful to you as you compose your own renders with your own stories to tell.  If you're new to 3Delight and DAZ Studio, feel free to contact me with questions as well; I don't claim to be the best, but I can certainly help you get started.
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tora-no-shi1369's avatar
Thanks a lot. Yet another great set of information For both newbies, and those who have been at it a while . I know some who need to remember this. They seem to have forgotten that there is always something to learn.
SickleYield's avatar
For me, too.  I always try to learn as much as I can. :)
storypilot's avatar
I feel quite special to have my picture discussed, thank you Sickle for featuring it. Also, your right-on-the-money deductions of the various characters roles in it made me grin, I'm happily surprised those actually came across as intended! Great write-up, I think you are absolutely right with the concerns you identify that are especially important to pictures that are trying to convey a story. 

Side note: You are right about the fire and smoke. The other big thing Pixelmator is for is compositing. This is getting into the nitty-gritty, but I could not render a scene this complicated in one go. The main set stayed put and was rendered in each pass, but the figures were turned on and off, so I wouldn't overload my computer. They were rendered generally in pairs, and I would spot render the various areas, layer them all, and mask out any problematic edge areas, to make sure everything overlapped properly and shadows went where they should, etc. :) 
SickleYield's avatar
Thank for that additional information!  That makes a lot of sense. :)
katfeete's avatar
Ah yes, my favorite kind of render. Though I'm still not very good at 'em. Good thing they let me have these word bubbles... ;)

As with a prose story, a storytelling render has four main elements -- setting, character, plot, style -- any of which may be dominant, but all of which need to be present. It's getting them all in there that's the trick. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but even short story writers prefer a solid 3-5k to get all that across. "Plot" is particularly tricky, because you don't have a sequence, you have an image, and somehow you need to encompass enough of the scenario in that single frozen moment to scratch the story itch. What you choose to show, representative imagery, envoking a sense of familiarity or dissonance -- yeah, I could go on about this all night, I'll stop....

You've pretty much hit the nail on the head with poses though. Nothing throws people out of a render more than plastic or unnatural poses. Hair is great both for realism and for adding lines of motion. I've had good luck with dangling earrings as well, because even if they're simple props you can generally fiddle the rotation and get a decent representation of movement.

I also like to try and direct the viewer's eye, getting specific details I really want them to notice (or even notice in a specific sequence, if I'm really ambitious) to pop. Composition choices and lines of sight are a powerful tool for this and one I am godawful at. Lighting is also fabulous -- backlighting, godrays, good shadow -- and the AA Lights are a godsend for this, because you can set them up to only light one or two things in the scene. You can't overuse it or it ends up looking odd, but it is a fabulous tool for getting some pop in specific elements. Depth of field and camera angles are also massively underused IMO...

Okay, yeah, I wasn't kidding when I said I could go on about this all night. :) Thank you for the post. It's a hobbyhorse of mind and I love reading, and learning, and basically just having other people willing to go for a ride on it with me. 
mustakettu85's avatar
Thanks a lot for showcasing this work! It's indeed a rare gem.

I'd also like to add that it may possible to get more out of a hair model than it was designed for, by using deformers. Especially now that their fields can be weight-painted - then you can select polygons you don't want to be affected by the field, lock them and then paint the field with much more precision and less hassle than trying to squeeze a spherical field "just so".
SickleYield's avatar
Now, that I've never tried to do - is it easier than morphing?  It does sound like a powerful additional option.
mustakettu85's avatar
I'd say it depends - well-done morphs may be easier for general posing (once you learn what exactly each weirdly-named slider out of a hundred does LOL), but for finer control, deformers win IMO. But it may take practice.

I've used deformers since the days of DS3 a lot, for instance, here, to make Melody Hair to flow nicely behind Trance's ears (and the character morph itself uses a lot of deformers on top of V4 morphs++, too - DS3 only had spherical deformers, so they had to be used in a manner similar to pointilist painting, many many small ones to finetune the shape; weight-mapped deformers are much better in this regard):
Return of the Champions by mustakettu85
Arlesienne's avatar
You must have been really good at reviewing artworks - I love your interpretation.
SickleYield's avatar
Hehe, no, an actual art student would laugh at me, but thanks.
Arlesienne's avatar
Well, at least from liberal arts point of view, certainly not. I know what I am saying.
I-Am-Madbat's avatar
Yup, great points overall. As far as my stuff goes, I tend to eyeball a lot of it and let the thing fall together as it wants to. I rarely tackle a scene with a definite goal in mind, my brain prefers to go skittering off in random directions...kinda like tipping over a box full of kittens.
As far as lights go, I almost always have my scene layout at least roughed out and camera placed first before I get to lights. After that, I get to details, like posture and expression, then do a tuning process till it 'feels' right. Mostly I intuition my way through. Very rarely do I build a scene with a definite planned out goal in mind, they usually wind up building themselves. For some of my characters, I do have a definite story for them, who they are, what they're all about, but I rarely render that out. Elké (The lion headed one) and that type/species fall into that category. There is a backstory, complete with religion, politics, culture, and current events, but usually, I pop her in a render 'cause boredom. 
SickleYield's avatar
And when you're doing it as a hobby, there's really nothing wrong with that - and intuition probably plays a role for every artist at some point.  It's more that I've found that the more deliberate I am, the better my renders end up being, so I really want to look closely at images like this one to see what makes it good.
DrowElfMorwen's avatar
Thanks for the journal! Useful tips to keep in mind!
sohighlydubious's avatar
That was a great read. I certainly feel I still fall over in terms of attention to detail, so it's something I try to work on as best I can. (Almost all of my renders have at least one element of "Oh crap. Didn't see that on the test render.")
SickleYield's avatar
It happens to us all.  Heck, it happened in this render with that thigh clipping, probably.
storypilot's avatar
It is true. In this case, the sad thing about that thigh clipping is that I DID see it in the test render, I made a note of it, and then I forgot to fix it, which amounts to the same thing. There's yet another thing, though, that I keep looking at in this pic after I posted it that bugs me, but I'm not going to mention what it is :)
Childe-Of-Fyre's avatar
This is a wonderfully written piece, Sickle. I actually really love it when you write pieces like this. They are always informative (again, thinking back to the Sub-D tutorial, among other things here!), and I have learned quite a few different things from them. And I certainly do not dispute ANY of your points - you make very valid ones here, and they are among the many principles I try for when composing such a scene (and the bulk of my renders are story renders). If I might add three more things...

1- Composition TIME.
As in the real time hours it takes. These types of renders do NOT build up in minutes, or even a couple of hours. Sometimes, these can take days of composition before they are properly ready for rendering! One of my recent story images took me about three days of just straight up composition/scene building, another full day to get the lights right, and just about another day or so searching far and wide for a few things that I needed in the composition. That time involved is.. adding things in, positioning, adding more, positioning... removing things that I decided along the way did not need to be there or would not be visible in the final render, or added nothing to the overall message being portrayed, tweaking textures, clothing, items... lighting alone took me about a day to sort out, and that was after the three days worth of scene building. These sorts of images take TIME. Depending on the scene, it can take me sometimes a full week of working on the composition before I even hit the stage of messing with lights or shadows or atmospheric effects. These images are not built, lit, and rendered in a single day. At least, they aren't for me. Another of my story renders took me just over a week simply to finish scene building, because I had to stop work on it and go render other images to use strictly as background/prop fodder for the main image.

2- Facial expressions!
I love the fact that in the image you linked above in your writing, the characters do NOT have that blank-CGI stare. Yes, in storytelling, there are times where such a blank stare is appropriate, but they are very few and far between. I have seen so many images that are otherwise wonderful, except that the characters were not posed in the face. Each character needs to come alive in a story render, and that means facial expressions as well as their body language. No two people exhibit the same emotional response to stimuli, and their facial expressions should demonstrate that fact. Storypilot did a wonderful job of giving each character their own personality. Facial expressions are SO important in a story render!!

3- Morphs!
No two people are built the same. With 3D models, they are all the same "out of the box", but that is why we have MORPHS. I treat the base figures as nothing more than a starting template, or an empty canvas waiting for an individual, living thing to form out of it. Each character in a scene, but ESPECIALLY a story scene, needs to look like an individual. Their own person, with their own body shapes, facial features, coloring, etc. A great story render can be ruined by something as simple as not taking the time to use the morph dials and give the figures their own physical build and appearance. Short, tall, fat, thin, muscular, wiry, beanpole, old, young, middle aged, wide faces, narrow faces, square jaws, angular jaws, crooked noses from old breaks, eyes that are not perfectly symmetrical, it ALL adds to bringing the characters alive for a story render. No two people look alike; it should be the same with a story render. 

Story renders are much more involved, at least in my personal experience, than something like portraits or pinups. I know those two types are involved as well, there is a lot to consider when doing them also, but the composition of a story render in my experience, requires so much more of asking yourself questions about what you're portraying, and a lot more playing around insofar as adding things into the scene dressing, removing them, often times re-texturing items to suit, etc. They take more time to put together, but I always feel much more satisfied with a story render than I do with a portrait or pinup type of render.

Maybe that's the writer side of me talking, but I just like my images to have more meat to them. Yes, they take a while longer, and a lot more thought, and some very different thought processes go into them than some other types of images. I have spoken with some folks in the past who get frustrated very quickly when a render doesn't mesh up and get composited quickly. If someone is the type of artist who needs to put out images quickly... then I would not recommend to them to do story images, that's for sure!

When a story render is done well, though... it's SUCH a satisfying piece of artwork to view. I find myself going back repeatedly to such images just to study it again. A good story render will have the viewer finding new things over and over each time they look at it. :D
SickleYield's avatar
Those are good points!  And they do make a huge difference to this render.
Toyen-Art's avatar
Great analysis! I must try a render like this sometime. I think I´d really enjoy making it : )
SickleYield's avatar
I'll look forward to seeing what you come up with. :)
SimonJM's avatar
Some very good, salient points!
One think I might add is a combination of posing/positioning within the scene, camera placement and framing and lighting to ensure a decent set of shadows.
SickleYield's avatar
My experience is that shadows are mostly a function of your lighting placement and settings.  The only time the camera and framing even affect that is if you've got a light at exactly the camera's position for some reason (that's not going to have shadows look right).
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