Project Highlight: Battlefield Animation by Artist Zak Katara

At FUSE, we’re always working on something new. Whether it’s playing around with new programs, trying out techniques, or just working through a cool idea. That’s what we’re focusing on this week with artist Zak Katara’s nature-inspired battlefield animation. He created and rendered the entire animation in Blender using an amazing new add-on.

In this post, Zak walks us through his inspiration, the animation process, and explains why he loves Blender so much.

Battlefield Animation Inspiration

Scenes with natural elements like this can be challenging. There’s so much detail that it’s not always easy to get it right. Like those carefully crafted individual grass blades or random dirt patterns. But for Zak, that’s what makes these nature scenes so appealing. It’s some of the hardest work to get right. And he’s always looking for a new challenge.

This project began with a new Blender add-on called Graswald. It’s an asset pack with tons of high-level natural assets, like plants, weeds, and moss. Artists can use Graswald with Blender’s native particle system to scatter elements (like twigs) on the ground, and then paint density maps directly onto their 3D model. The makers of Graswald also released an FBX version for non-Blender users.

After downloading Graswald, Zak immediately jumped right into seeing how far he could push it. How many plants could he fit into a scene? How realistic could they get? His goal was to build a scene with as many realistic natural elements as possible. But to create an animation, he’d first need to construct a story.

“I needed to make something that has a story. You can’t just scatter plants around and call it a day,” He says. “That wouldn’t be doing anything creative on my part.”

Given the vivid details in these assets, the add-on works best on a micro scale. With that in mind, he went straight to the idea of showing old, abandoned toys in a backyard.

3D models of photorealistic plants and army men

Building the Scene

In its first iteration, the animation’s focal point was a small red car. But that wasn’t quite interesting enough. He wanted to bring more into the scene.

When Creative Director Josh suggested arranging toy figures instead, right away Zak’s mind went to army men, something out of so many people’s childhood. He could use these figures to draw viewers’ eyes around the scene as they follow the army men’s weapons and direction.

Side by side comparison image of army men on the ground surrounded by plants rendered and without texture

You’re probably used to a more traditional toy army men color. But Zak went a different route with this animation, instead choosing opposing colors for the figures: “Compositionally, I’ve always liked using use these colors. Red versus blue contrasts well.”

Besides, they couldn’t stay green. He tested it out, but the army men got lost in the grass. That’s great for real-life camouflage needs but not so much for an animation project.

Next, he worked on the camera movement. Senior rendering specialist Levi suggested making it cinematic. In movies, that’s a classic shot: two heroes at the center, battling it out as the camera dramatically pans the scene.

Though Redshift is FUSE’s preferred renderer, Zak used Cycles to render his battlefield animation. Cycles rendering engine is similar in a lot of ways to Redshift, and it rendered the scene just as fast.

Adding in the Final Element of Realism

The biggest challenge in building this scene was bringing the plants to life. To make the scene more believable and realistic, they needed to be moving subtly as if affected by the wind.

Without this final bit of realism, the scene would look artificial. In other words, he’d have a beautiful cinematic animation … against a fake-looking backdrop.

So, what did he do?

To tackle this challenge, Zak used Blender’s native particle system. It’s remarkably similar to X-Particles, but with a bit more control over how different simulations affect objects. To get the right effect, Zak used what is technically a hair distribution simulator. He swapped out the hair particles for natural elements and achieved this subtle plant movement.

Why Blender?

As we mentioned before, Zak used Blender to create and render this entire battlefield animation. Though Zak loves the program, nobody else at FUSE really uses it. It’s more complex than Cinema 4D, so transitioning between the two isn’t always easy. So why did he use it?

Blender is a free, open-source software. Anybody can download it for free, which is one of the reasons Zak learned 3D design with the program. It has a massive user base and tons of support. There’s always a Blender market where artists can sell 3D assets and plugins – like Graswald or HardOps for Blender, a hard surface modeling tool.

But besides the plugin, there’s another reason Zak used Blender for the battlefield animation.

“Distributing objects randomly to create that natural look is difficult in Cinema 4D without a couple of plugins. I think Blender is much easier for distributing things like these natural elements.”

Though Blender isn’t recognized as an industry standard tool, it’s getting there.

Blue and red army men toys in battle on dirt ground surrounded by grass and plants

For our studio, this is the first animation we’ve included on our demo reel that was made entirely in Blender with Cycles 4D. You can check out our full demo reel here.