Category Archives: 3D Modeling

How to Model Plants in 3DS Max

As part of a 3D scene I am currently working on, I wanted to add some plants.  Modeling plants in 3D is an interesting proposition. Obviously, trying to individually model every leaf would be an impossible task, and would make the model far too complex and difficult to render. But just inserting a flat “plant” shape wouldn’t have realistic volume and lighting. Fortunately, there is a way to rapidly model plants and achieve a great degree of realism.  Let’s see how this works.

Modeling the Tree Trunk

How to model a 3D tree trunk

I wanted to insert a palm tree into the scene, so let’s start with the trunk.  I began with a simple cylinder shape. then edited the shape to create the cluster of trimmed stalks that you usually see at the top of a pruned palm tree.  But tree trunks are not often straight and symmetrical, so I added a bit of a bend modifier to tilt it to one side, and then a noise modifier to give it a bit of irregularity.

Adding Texture to the Trunk

Applying material to 3D plant model

The next step is to add a realistic material to the trunk. I created the material in Photoshop based on photographs of real palm trees. The bottom part is the bark material, and the upper part is the image of chopped-off palm frond stalks. I added a bump map to the material to give it the appearance of having a raised texture. Then I applied the material to the trunk model. I then placed the trunk in a scene – a bed of mulch and a wall in the background. So far, so good. Now for the palm fronds.

Creating the Palm Frond

Creating a palm frond in 3D

The first step in modeling  a leaf – in the case, a palm frond – is to make a flat plane shape, the size and proportions of the future leaf. Then get the palm frond texture. This is just a photograph of a palm frond. It has to be clearly set against a white background so that you can pull a clean outline shape for the next step. The palm frond image is then placed on the flat plane shape. (Note to 3DS Max users – be sure to click “double-sided” in your material parameters.)

Creating and Applying an Opacity Map

Putting an opacity map on a leaf shape

The next step is to create an opacity map. This tells the 3D program which areas of the image you want to appear as transparent. Anything black in the image will be invisible, while the white areas will be visible. Using the image of the palm frond from the last step, the clean white outline is converted to a black silhouette in Photoshop. When the opacity map is applied to the plane, you get just the palm frond shape. You can see that even the shadow is now just the palm frond shape. (Note to 3DS Max users – be sure to select “Area Shadows” in your light.)

Giving the Palm Frond Shape

How to shape a leaf in 3DS Max

So far. all we have is a flat palm frond – not very convincing. So let’s give the leaf some shape. The first step is to divide the plane in half and then fold it slightly, like a book. This gives the frond it’s divided, symmetrical shape. Next, apply a bend modifier to give the leaf a natural, three dimensional curve. And there you see the result – a palm frond that “reads” in 3D.

Adding Leaves to the Trunk

How to add leaves in 3D

Position the finished palm frond at the top of the palm tree trunk, so that it is curving naturally downward. The next step is to make a number of copies of the palm frond, changing their position, rotation, and bend to create a realistic cluster of palm fronds at the top of the trunk.

The Finished Model

Completed 3DS Max palm tree model

And there is the finished model. You can see it sits well in the scene, looks fully three-dimensional, lights well, and creates realistic shadows. To complete the scene, I’ve added ferns at the base, created using the same steps as above. With the ferns, there is no trunk, but the fronds are clustered around a center.  As a note, I haven’t gone deeply into describing the 3DS Max interface here, but all of the techniques described here are covered in basic manuals and tutorials. I highly recommend the tutorials at for learning any kind of software.

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Making a Waterfall in 3DS Max

I like to set myself up with a problem or challenge when I’m learning something. For a 3D scene I’m currently working on I wanted to add a waterfall. Sounds simple, but I wanted it to be animated, to really look like water was moving through a channel, over the edge, and then plunging down.

Most of the online tutorials I found approached it from the viewpoint of looking up at the waterfall, so you never had to see the water flowing up to the edge and over, all you saw was the falling spray. The falling spray is pretty easy to animate using a particle system. You just set the particle system up to spray out particles like a fire hose and put one or more at the top of the waterfall. Great. But I wanted to see the water actually flowing up to the lip and over.

Creating a water texture in 3DS Max is pretty simple. You just create a material, make it mostly transparent, and give it reflection and refraction maps. Then you apply it to an object in your scene, like the surface of a pool. You can then apply a noise modifier to the object, and animate the noise. Presto, realistic rippling water.

But the water doesn’t flow anywhere. It doesn’t move. So I started trying to figure out how to make that water look like it was moving. I figured out that the best way would be to apply a noise modifier to the bump map of the water texture, then figure out how to make the texture move across the object. A bump map, which I talked about here is basically a way to add the appearance of roughness or texture to a material. So I added a “turbulence” noise modifier as a bump map to the water material. I even animated the turbulence so it swirled around. Looked good, but it still didn’t move or flow.

Then I thought of a solution. The key is, in 3DS Max, you can add a film as a material texture. Say you have a TV screen in your scene. You can insert a film playing on the TV screen as a texture. That way, when you animate the scene, it looks like there is a film playing on the TV screen. Well, I thought, why can’t I create a film of a flowing noise texture, and then insert that film as the bump map texture.

How the bump map texture was filmed

How the filmed texture was made: The turbulence texture was applied to a long strip, which was then run under a camera and rendered.

Creating the film was straightforward. I created a plane in the shape of a long strip, and applied an animated turbulence to it. Then I placed a camera over the strip, pointed down, and moved the strip under it. Then I rendered the scene as a video. Voila, a flowing turbulence texture, seen here:

I then took this video and inserted it as the bump map texture on the water material. It worked like a charm. The water flows along a channel with a natural-looking turbulence.

The waterfall object

The waterfall object with the water material applied to it.

I then made a waterfall-shaped object (left) and applied the water texture to it.

And there it was, the water appears to flow along the channel and over the edge. I adjusted the size of the material mapping so it was taller than it was wide, so the water movement appeared to travel faster as it plunged over the edge.

I then added the particle systems at the edge to make the sprays of drops as the water goes over the edge. And there you have a pretty good waterfall! Still needs a bit of tweaking, but the essentials are there. Now to the rest of the scene.

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