3D nebula effects and clouds on the cloud…

mutara8A screenshot of the final effect, taking seconds to render on a single machine.

I have been experimenting for some time with different ways to produce computer based nebula effects that can be animated, similar to the practical special effect of the Mutara nebula in Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan:


This was originally achieved by use of a cloud tank, where coloured dyes and other chemicals were immersed in a big glass tank of water, lit from various directions, and then photographed. This effect was used in a number of other 70s/80s films, including Indiana Jones. You can read all about it here, and there are lots of videos like this one that show you how to create your own.

An example of a cloud tank.

In the absence of a large cloud tank, I wanted to look into how to re-create this effect in 3D CGI, where you could build a cloud-like structure you could navigate around – not just a photoshop painting.  Some years ago I looked at Blender’s fledgling volumetric model which showed promise. I tried recreating the tank as a 3D shape, such as a sphere, and then used 3D noise textures to influence the varying density of the cloud inside the sphere.  I then lit it with different coloured lights from various directions and achieved this:

My first attempt.

At that time, you could not increase the detail beyond a certain limit, and the rendering time was quite cumbersome on a single machine (remember in 2009 public distributed computing like Amazon Web Services were still in their infancy).

I revisited the problem a number of years later in 2014.  Blender had developed its Cycles system to include volume rendering, and with their nodes editor I was able to create more effects.  This time I used a more straightforward cube shape and then used 3D noise and colour ramps to control the effects. I also started embedding light sources inside the cube to suggest stars which also produced some better effects.

Here are a selection of an early set of attempts, roughly in chronological order, where I did a lot more close-up shots.  Remember these images are rather raw and have not had any further post-processing. Click for larger versions:

I still found drawbacks to this technique; I had a lot more power to control the effect, but rendering times were still extremely high especially on a single machine.  I was experiencing times of between 1 and 6 hours for a half decent single frame render.

I therefore did one further experiment with this technique using an open source tool called Brenda and ran the process across multiple machines using Amazon Web Services.  This way I could split the work up across multiple machines running simultaneously to reduce the time to render.


This nebula exists in 3D space and could be navigated in and around with a camera. This image was achieved in 40 minutes, using 8 multi-core machines in parallel – if I had ran it on a single work station, it would have taken nearly 6 hours…

I was still very impatient; Therefore I developed a system that can produce very effective results in a matter of seconds, at the sacrifice of being totally navigable – however you could simulate this using various techniques that splits the clouds up onto multiple 3D planes.

The effect was a development of a photoshop tutorial I saw online.  This tutorial used more traditional painting techniques to great effect, and the key was how the artist overlaid different painted clouds over each others using the colour dodge filter.  The most time consuming part was producing the clouds – so I cut that time down by using a noise texture.

I used Cycles in Blender and the node editor to overlay different noise-generated cloud effects on top of each other using the Screen filter, adding this to the world background.  Because I wasn’t using volumetric rendering any more, I could produce good effects in near-realtime on a single workstation.

Here are some high resolution quality images which all took under a minute to render. Click to enlarge:

mutara9 mutara10 mutara11 mutara12 mutara13 mutara14a mutara15 mutara16 mutara8 mutara7 mutara6

The properties can also be animated, and although you can’t quite navigate around them in the same way as using volumetric materials, the rendering time is significantly reduced – the following HD animation took 15 minutes to render on a single machine, so this effect would take even less across multiple machines. Note that the clouds move half-way through:

You can also create different effects other than the pink/purple mutara nebula effect.  You could create an Eagle nebula like effect like this:

eagle1…or a very red nebula like this:

redneb1So in conclusion I spent a great deal of time working out how to do efficient nebula effects on the fly.  If you happen to use any of the techniques developed here…please give me a mention :)

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SOTL Competition 2016: Entry #2

uss_yorktown_mark_kingsnorth_50My second entry was of the U.S.S. Yorktown – an old 3D model very close on concept to the Ascension Class, I pulled her out of mothballs and added some detail.

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SOTL Competition 2016: Entry #1

Along with the winning entry, I also entered a few others – here was the first:

uss_carolina_mark_kingsnorth_50The background was the start of some nebula-like experiments I’ve been doing using Blender’s volumetrics and noise textures, which I’ll post about later.  Here’s a taster of one of the latest effects:



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Ships of the Line 2016: Winning Entry

sotl.2016.insigniaI thought it safe to wait until it was announced elsewhere, but I’m happy to report my entry for the Ships of the Line design contest last year made the winning list for the 2016 calendar.

Along with my winning entry, I also entered some others; I’ll start posting those on the website soon.

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Jupiter Approach and the ships that made it



After the Mars Picture, I have made more use of the modelling tools and compositing in Blender to create the above image.  Because you can’t see all of the models in detail though, here are some individual renders of them:

fighter1 fighter2 fighter3 fighter4For the fighter, I was able to quickly texture by using smart UV unwrapping combined with a layered brick-like texture to get the overall effect (the plane was originally intended only for the background and so didn’t need much detail).  However I was impressed with how it came out so I could do more close-up renders and perhaps re-use it later.

Here is the larger ship, slightly inspired by the Sulaco in Alien:


Note again in Blender I was able to very easily add some aft-boosters using the Emission material.

ship3 ship4Once more I am really enjoying Blender, mainly due to the wealth of tutorials out there, and after the initial learning curve it is incredible easy to model, texture, and composite all within the same application.  Admittedly, the final image had some final colour alterations and highlights added in photoshop, but overall everything was accomplished all in the same program.

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A Mars Odyssey in Blender

mars_odysseyFurthering my work in Blender, I came across some useful tutorials by Dan Brown including how to model panels on smooth surfaces.  I combined this by modelling a planet atmosphere in Blender (a little old, but can be still be done for the latest Blender version) to create a slightly 2001-inspired space scene.

I also recreated my Avalon Station in Blender, very roughly:


I then learned a little more about UV mapping in Blender and to put together a space plane, following this tutorial to get the after burner effect:shuttle_profile1shuttle_profile3


shuttle_profile2This was all done using Blender’s Cycles node based texturer and renderer, which I’m very impressed with…hope you think this is an improvement on my last effort!

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Star fighter & nebula in Blender


During the odd free weekend in the summer I had a play with Blender volumetrics, their Cycles rendering engine, and some modelling.  After an initially steep learning curve, I was very impressed with the general ease of use and speed with … Read the rest of this entry

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Dedication Class Starship mesh available for download

It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally zipped up the mesh and textures for Chris Madden’s Dedication Class. You’ll find it in the Downloads section.

I’m afraid it is only available in 3DS Max 2014 format, as I ran into all sorts of issues converting it into a more exportable .obj format. If anyone has more luck, let me know and I’ll put it up for download.

The mesh is given out with the permission of Chris, so please credit him with the design and me with the mesh if you use it! I’m always interested to hear when others make use of the meshes I put up for download, so let me know if you do.

Once more, apologies to the number of people who contact me with requests where I never have chance to reply. Unfortunately, the work on this blog ends up being a hobby that I have very little time spare to devote to. I have now put up an FAQ that answers some common enquiries.

I have been busy toying with certain effects, however – the above image actually has a 3D panoramic nebula background that was mainly produced with Blender. I am continually chasing a Mutara Nebula type effect in CGI. I have been mainly toying with Blender’s volumetric capability to try various effects…but nothing good yet. The above image doesn’t use volumetrics but does make use of Blender’s impressive node texturing system.

Anyhow, here is a brief slideshow of some development shots of the Dedication Class (it may take a while to load):

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Dedication Class completion

Dedication Class in 3D - final render

After a good deal of time away, I have finally found the chance to put the Dedication Class 3D model to bed. Above is the first proper render, just to make sure the model reflected the concept art. I plan on doing some more original renders soon. I’ll also post the model up for download.

Thank you for all the great comments and emails I’ve had that I haven’t had time to respond to. I hope to rectify this in the coming weeks.

I get many requests for permission to use my models and art for fan sites or related work. I never get chance to respond to all of you. As a general rule, you are all very welcome to use my work as long as my name is mentioned somewhere nearby.

Anyway, back to work…

Filed in Dedication Class, Starships | 10 Comments

Developing Chris Madden’s Enterprise F Concept

Apologies for my absence – as you can see by my previous post I have been happily busy with some news my wife and I had :)

I have also been busy in the background with the development of Chris Madden’s “Dedication class” Enterprise F concept (pictured above) for the Star Trek: Online competition which was held a while back.  I have been posting on the scifi-meshes forum here:


The amount of time I can devote to this is a little sporadic, but I would encourage you to check back there for updates.  I also haven’t forgotten about the fact that the Eaves Class still needs finishing off.

I’ll continue to post anything worthwhile up here.

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