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..::stormy sea motion::..

Effective water motion is one of the most awkward things to master in 3D. So much so that most users tend to resort to a specialist third party plugin such as the excellent RealWave or RealFlow. But if you haven’t got access to any plugins (or money!), fear not. 3ds max can create realistic water motion quite simply on it’s own without any third party plugins. Observing water motion and understanding why it deforms and moves the way it does is the trick to emulating it, as with any subject matter. Sea water, for example, moves in several directions at the same time depending on the strength of the winds, sea bed surface or any external forces, yet the surface texture such as foam or debris hardly moves at all. In fact, the deformation of the sea appears to pass under it.

The initial motion of the sea is the one we will concentrate on first. After creating an initial large plane with relatively high iterations (to view detail in the Viewport – these can be reduced later on and rendered off higher at render time) of say 100x100, adding a simple Noise modifier will suffice to generate the ripple. A relatively low Z-axis deformation coupled with animation with a low frequency will create a slight bobbing of the ocean; turn fractal on and we’ve got a decent surface already.

While this (with materials) is okay for scenes without moving waters, what if we want to add a current or high winds? These types of conditions deform the surface, pushing it in the direction of the wind and deforming the surface further by creating crests. Again, adding a Noise modifier can create this type of motion, but we need to rotate the Gizmo so it is almost at a right-angle to the sea plane. By adding a deformation in the Z-axis, we can see the modifier deforming the wave so it creates peaks and troughs. Turning on the animation option in the modifier and again amending the frequency spinner can add more realistic motion.

Finally, we need to create the effect of the current and strong winds. This can be achieved by simply animating the position of the second Noise modifier’s gizmo along either it’s Z-axis or by moving it relative to the current viewport. And that’s it. Simple water motion.

Again, by observing real-world examples, we notice that the surface texture remains almost motionless. When we have created our water texture, we can lock our texture to the surface by either using UVW mapping (and placing the UVW modifier on top of the stack so it is not effected by the Noise modifiers) or by using Local XYZ mapping. This is the best way for procedurals as it will not result in stretching. Adding a simple Noise or Smoke bump map is effective to creating a sea surface texture, but don’t forget to animate their phases slightly to give the impression of them breaking up and reforming as the sea distorts their form.

Don’t be afraid to use raytraced reflections for the sea’s material; with a stormy texture assigned to a sky object, this can be a more effective texture on your sea than anything else. Try blurring the raytrace map to add extra realism, but don’t forget to exclude the particle systems from the raytrace engine as this can dramatically increase render times, and can also result in artefacts in the resulting render due to one-sided facing particles.

Overall, effective water motion can be created using max’s own toolkit, if the initial task is broken down into individual steps by observing the real thing; the initial motion of the water, the travelling waves, the texturing, lighting, reflections and special effects such as rain and spray. Just take each step at a time and you will see the overall effect building up!

Enlarge Screenshot The initial ripple of the sea surface can be created using a single animated Noise modifier with a low frequency.
Enlarge Screenshot The wave is created by another Noise modifier with the Gizmo animated and set at a sharp angle to distort the wave to create the crest and give it motion.
Enlarge Screenshot Finally, particle effects can be added to the scene to add more realism and the effect of a strong turbulent wind whipping up the waves…
Enlarge Screenshot And the final render. Motion blur has been introduced to blur the rain and brightness and contrast effects added.
Download the Max file! Accompaying max file
View the animation! Resulting render of the max file

Initially published: 3D World magazine, Issue 24, April 2002.

Copyright Pete Draper, April 2002. Reproduction without permission prohibited.