I made the mountain with World Machine and I applied a very high resolution bump map to add the fine detail. In my lighting setup, I used a simple round plane with a white-grey material applied to it as a sun reflector. I did this in order to soften the contrast between the directly lit surfaces and the other surfaces. I stole this trick from photography. :-)
To make the interaction in my 3ds Max viewport faster I converted the mountain into a Vray Proxy object.
I was inspired by the illustration below and I wanted to make my own version in 3D. I am not entirely sure, but I think this illustration is made by Vgjunk. I find it very interesting how the lights and the colours are done. The streets at the bottom are almost completely red and the roofs at the top are black but there is some purple in it too, which gives it a cool kind of haze.
Illustration by VgJunk
This render took a very long time. To speed up the rendering process I made the white lights on the buildings very weak in the base render pass. This way the lights in the building do not really light up their surroundings and it doesn’t have to be calculated. I added a Vray Self Illumination pass to the render and made the white lights stronger in post production. I made use of the Zdepth render pass to add some purple to the atmosphere.
For the basic shape of this building I drew a large number of simple 2D forms. I made variations and I corrected the forms until I was happy with one form.
What did I do next? I looked for different ways to transform this simple 2D form into a full 3D object. I also added colours and I drew the lines for the windows. One important thing I noticed is that adding colours in the earliest stages of design is crucial for a good end result.
Colours have a strong influence on the composition and the way the different shapes interact with each other. A finished design that looks good in black lines on a white background won’t necessarily look good when you add contrasting colours in a later stage of the design process. I have made this mistake previously and you can lose a lot of time and quality this way.
Don’t forget to set the background colour also to a colour that resembles you final background colour. The way the object interacts with the background colour is as important as the other colour interactions within the building itself. Here I chose a dark grey background because I knew I would make some sort of night scene.
Another mistake I made with this design: I didn’t decide what materials the different colours were going to become. As you can see below I chose a light grey colour for the windows, but I didn’t think about how I would translate this colour to a believable material in the final texturing. So I eventually ended up making these windows much more lighter and contrasting. The end result not too bad, but it is not really the design I was looking for in the first place. The lesson I learned: decide from the beginning what material each colour will become.
Next I made some quick sketches so I would have a rough idea on how I would make the environment in Mudbox. I wanted to create a strong foreground-background relationship. I wanted the rocks on the foreground to be pretty black so they would make the sense of depth stronger and so they would also match the building’s darkness and contrast.
I also applied a technique I have never used before. I drew some thick “edges” around the most important forms and I made them black. In the image underneath I gave these edges a red colour so you can see what I mean. It makes the forms more distinctive and more easy to separate from one another.