Dive into These 5 Tips for Creating Realistic Oceans
Computer generated oceans can be seen in just about every major blockbuster today. A great example of this is in the movie Life of Pi, where just about the entire movie took place on a CG ocean. Significant time and attention to detail went into creating that sea so it looked realistic and matched the weather changes. While your project may not call for an ocean of that detail, you still don't want your render or animation to suffer because of lackluster water.
Most 3D applications have some type of ocean shader that's great for quickly dropping down an ocean into your scene. Using this ocean effect will provide a decent looking sea but it will most likely produce unrealistic results when rendered. In order to get the proper detail you want, there are some key attributes you can adjust to achieve the right look for your ocean. This article will cover five tips for creating oceans in Maya, but the same process can be applied to most other 3D applications.
Know Your Ocean
The first thing you should be thinking about before you start adjusting your ocean shader is, what type of ocean do you need to create? As is the case whenever you're creating a shading network, knowing what your end result is expected to look like is the first thing you should think about. Is this actually an ocean or is it just a large body of water? Is this going to be for an animated sequence? Where is it taking place and what are the weather conditions? Is this going to be an animation of a boat getting tossed around on a stormy sea or is this for a still render?
While getting your ocean to look right will no doubt require plenty of tweaking, these questions will help you to decide what type of adjustments you need to make early on so you have an actual plan of attack instead of unnecessarily tweaking and testing over and over. This will also help you decide the color and the clarity of your water. For example, if this is in a more tropical climate, the water may be crystal clear and very calm to where there is hardly any wake.
As with most other 3D tasks a plan of attack may seem like it takes longer, but it ends up saving time in the long run. And of course, always gather plenty of reference for your ocean.
Adjust the Wave Height
In order to get the proper waves to fit your scene, you can adjust the wave height attribute. If it were a stormy sea, the wave length might be very short and choppy, whereas a calmer, open sea would have a much longer wave length. Having the proper wave height is important for creating a more realistic ocean that will match your scene. You can also adjust the height of shorter and longer waves. For instance, you can make the short waves very tall, and have the longer waves shorter.
You can also use Wave Peaking to increase or decrease the sharpness of your waves. In the image above you can see by decreasing the peaking value, it will round out your entire wave. If you have a high peaking value, it will quickly make your ocean look more like crumpled up paper.
Play around with these settings to achieve the wave height to best suit your needs.
Adding Wave Turbulence
Tweaking the turbulence is great for breaking up wave patterns and adding a bit more randomness to them. By default the waves will travel in a very linear path, which isn't very appealing. Upping the turbulence also helps to make the wave system more chaotic and random, which is good for a stormy sea. This turbulence is especially important if your ocean is going to be used in an animated sequence.
To give a better example of the Wave Turbulence in action, you can see in the image above that the values are set to zero, meaning there is no turbulence added to the ocean. The waves are all forming in very similar patterns across ocean shader.
In this example the turbulence has been increased to about .1, breaking up the wave pattern. You can also use the graph to add more control points to adjust the turbulence for shorter and longer waves. Take note that adjusting this turbulence value even slightly will go a long way.
Use Foam for Added Realism
Controlling the foam attributes for your ocean shader can help to increase the realism for your final render. Utilizing the foam attribute will simulate the frothing and bubbling that often occurs in a real ocean. Foam is created when two waves splash together resulting in the bubbly and foaming substance you expect to see. Using foam is especially important if you have heavy waves and high turbulence that, in the real world, will cause more foaming and frothing at the break of the waves. Even in a calmer sea there will be a small amount of foaming occurring.
In order to adjust the amount of foam for your ocean you can use the Foam Emission attribute as seen in the image above to increase or decrease the amount of foam that is being generated. Keep in mind that this foam is not a dynamic object but simply a texture that is being applied to the ocean shader.
You might notice that the foam is occurring at the tops of the waves. That's because the Foam Threshold is set to the default value, which means the foam will appear at the peak of your waves. If you want more foam you can increase the Foam Threshold, which will cause the foam to appear over more of the ocean. Generally you will want to keep the Foam Threshold near the default value since this is closer to what you would see in a real ocean.
Adjust the Material Attributes
By default the material attribute for your ocean shader will be a relatively dark blue color with no real specularity, transparency or reflectivity happening. Constantly refer back to your reference material because, in order to get your ocean more realistic, you need to go in and fine-tune these attributes until you can match the look you want. For example, to brighten up your ocean you can use the Incandescent attribute to basically emit light from the water. You can also use the Ambient Color to brighten up the material color.
These tips will help to quickly get your ocean looking more realistic but there are countless other attributes that can be adjusted. Make sure you're looking at all of them in order to get a more realistic looking ocean. To learn more about ocean shaders, check out Getting Started with Oceans in Maya tutorial, and discover new simulations and effects you can create with other 3D dynamics tutorials.