Sunday, 1 December 2013

Red leaves, swaying in an alien breeze...

Readers who have followed my series of posts on alien plants and photosynthesis (here, here and here) will know that I have no objection against plants on other world not being green, so that is why there is  'red' in the title of this post. But this post will not be about photosynthesis, as I think that theme has been dealt with sufficiently. The next theme on plants will probably be about biomechanics, but I have not started that one yet.

This post is about portraying alien plants. Obviously it is possible to do a painting, and that is fine, but it is also a lot of work. Can't computers do part of the work? There are not that many software choices available to populate a landscape with alien plants. The one I have been using over the years is Vue by E-on software. Vue is difficult to handle, in part because there are many options that are not all well-explained in the manual, but also because the software can be very unforgiving depending the hardware you are using. In other words, it may crash. It is the kind of programme that you can easily develop a love/hate relationship with.

It has an ecosystem feature, in which you choose plants or objects, adjust their rations and relative sizes, and when you then press 'populate' the programme does just that. It can even take matters such as height or slope of a landscape into account, placing some species there and others not. The problem in designing alien forests was that Vue's innate plant designer was inadequate: it let you design variations of Earth plants, but made it impossible to design something more interesting from scratch. For that I used XFrog 3.5, a programme that allows the user to come up with intricate new shapes. The XFrog plants could be imported into Vue, and did allow worlds to be populated with alien plants. Some examples of my earlier efforts are here for Epona and here and here for Furahan swamps.

However, there was one disadvantage: Vue's own plants could sway in an imaginary wind, but the imported XFrog plants were static objects. For static images that is obviously not a problem, but for animations a forest in which no leaf moves is just odd. I have stopped doing Vue animations for that reason.

Recently, E-on introduced a new programme: The Plant Factory (TPF), which does let the user design plants from scratch, with the promise of having the result sway the wind. That was attractive, so I decided to try it, even though the user forum made it clear that this is a typical E-on product: it can do amazing things but often in a roundabout or unexpected manner, and sometimes it simply does not deliver. TPF has no manual whatsoever, so anyone wishing to use it should treat it as a voyage of exploration rather than as a productivity tool. There is a 'personal learning' version, so everyone can test it without spending (rather a lot of) money on it.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
 I first tried whether I could make it design oddly shaped plants, and here is one of first attempts. I tried to obtain a results resembling an earlier XFrog design, and that went reasonably well, as you can see above. As you can see, this tree has its major branches growing from a central trunk as do Earth trees. Its branches curve through the air to reach the ground, where they may take root, providing water and nourishment or simply offer structural support. The proportions are not right yet, it is a start.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
The image above shows a hillside populated with two species of simple plants, home made in TPF. The scene was intended to experiment with wind animation. The first result was disappointing in that there was hardly any movement. There are lots of sliders controlling wind, which I had left at their original settings. Apparently those are meant for an unnaturally calm day. Very well, let's turn the wind setting up to 100%. That did not do too much either. I remembered an earlier surprise in Vue, dealing with lens blurring; there too a setting of 100% was almost negligible; someone at a forum told me to not to treat 100% as a limit, and so here too I set wind animation to 500%, and now at least the leaves move. Apparently this is more or less a dimensionless unit; just one of those odd Vue quirks.

And here is the result; better, I think! It's not a storm yet, but at least there is movement! The quality of videos on blogger is not very good, so it can look a lot better. Meanwhile, there is still a very large number of options to discover or, given the lack of a manual, to blunder into, so do not expect a to see a marblebill brachiating through a Furahan forest. Not quite yet, anyway.


Petr said...

awesome post! :) Interesting new plants!

Jan said...

Thank for the new post. I wonder if furahan trees could form something more sophisticated, for example

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Petr: thank you

Jan. Interesting: a tower with a broad base in which the forces are carried by a lattice work. You could say that the broad base has the same function as a buttress root, and those are certainly present in Furahan trees.
A lattice is definitely feasible, but you have to think how it is formed. Some Furahan shrubs defend themselves against herbivores by growing hard thorn-studded branches that interlock with one another, making it difficult to avoid thorns. But the connections between the thorns are mechanical only, and they do not share water or metabolites directly. Eponan trees do have lattice trunks, and in their case the openings in the lattice are formed secondarily in an initial cylindrical shape.

Jan said...

Thank you, I did not notice Eponan lattice trunks. I think that forming complex lattice trunk would be complicated, but not unsolvable. They just need to retain some conections between the secondary stems (which started as branches, I suppose) as they grow from the central trunk.

Btw, those holey leaves look great. Is there some explanation for their shape?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Jan: no, there is no good explanation for the holes. Part of an answer may lie in the following: laves cannot be too big or they will be torn in the wind. This is less of a problem when there is little wind, something seen on the floor level of jungles. That seems to be where you see either very large uncut leaves or leaves with indentations. Perhaps the holes and indentations are a halfway solution between many separate small leaves and one large unbroken surface. leaves

Anonymous said...

The tree reminds me of a peanut plant, the way the branches curve down to the ground like the peanut plant's spears do. Now that I think about it, peanut plants look pretty "alien" too!