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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 lynda.com for learning any kind of software.

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