Picture Perfect

We talk to Minecraft artists about the magic of the render

For some people, Minecraft is about survival. For others it’s about building. Some just like to hang out with friends. But for another subset of our varied and talented community, it’s a canvas - a springboard to create beautiful images and animations.

If you’ve looked down the front page of minecraft.net, you’ll have seen their work: they take builds - by themselves or others - and render them in programs outside of Minecraft to produce dazzling images.

“Rendering is like sitting in God’s seat in Minecraft,” says Iskillia, one of the community’s foremost render artists. “From up there, you can do and see everything, without being limited by the fog and overall render distance that the game contains. You are omniscient. It also allows me to play with many different settings such as colours, the lighting and the way it reflects on surfaces. I picture it as me having fun in a big laboratory. And I love it.”

These gorgeous images, along with the picture heading this article, are all renders of Iskillia’s own incredible build, Aman, The Immortal Lands.

This 1500 x 1500 block masterpiece was Iskillia’s application to the prestigious Deep Academy build group. It was successful, obv.

The build took a year and a half to complete - and it’s not hard to see why given the thing's combination of sheer size and attentive detail.

Rendering is a confusing term, because it’s used to mean lots of different things. In its most basic artistic sense it just means creating a 2D image of something in a way that suggests that it has three-dimensions. If I want, I can “render” a picture of a Tom with nothing more than a badly cut piece of potato, some ketchup and a napkin. Minecraft renders things, too - the very process by which the visuals of Minecraft are calculated and put onto your screen is rendering. But when the Minecraft community talk about renders, they usually mean the kind of thing that Iskillia does: exporting a beautiful build from Minecraft, opening it up in a 3D art program, and then essentially photographing it.

But it’s a bit more involved than just clicking a button and snapping a picture! The point of rendering in a 3D art program is that such programs allow you to calculate way fancier visuals than are possible in game - and this takes time. For example, a 3D art program can be used to calculate how every ray of light might bounce around a scene, reflecting off surfaces, scattering across others, refracting as it passes through water and generally doing all the beautiful things light does in reality. Minecraft, like all videogames, takes a few shortcuts.

Here’s developer Thomas “Prof” Guimbretiere to explain:

One of the main constraints of rendering in Minecraft is that we need to be able to display as many images - or “frames” - per second as possible. This doesn’t allow for fancy lights or effects. Rendering software doesn’t have this speed limitation and can take as long as needed for complex computation of lights, more advanced post-processing and higher resolutions.

One such rendering technique is known as ray-tracing. The software traces a “ray of light” from the position of the camera and paints each pixel based on what the ray of light intersected with. This allows for more complex rendering - it can recreate the heat distortion you would get over a hot road in the sun, for example - but at the cost of rendering speed. Thomas “Prof” Guimbretiere

And this is the heart of why people render their builds. Iskillia got into rendering as a way to sidestep the limitations of Minecraft and “better reflect the atmosphere and context of my projects”. For JoeBricksy, another of the community’s incredible artists, the reason was simpler: “The projects I created with my Team Gazamo got too big to be able to see them in-game,” he says.

Monas Roth by the Gazamo build team, rendered by JoeBricksy

Oriental Steam Punk Map Pack by Gazamo, rendered by JoeBricksy

Serenity Imperium by Gazamo & Solari, rendered by JoeBricksy

Playlist Park by the Shapescape build team, rendered by JoeBricksy

So what do you need to get started?

A beautiful Minecraft build is an essential first step: “I am not a magician,” says Iskillia. “The build itself needs to look good otherwise the render will not.”

Then you’ll need to take the build’s level.dat file and export it to a format which 3D art programs can understand: an .obj file, for example. Mineways is both Iskillia and JoeBrisky’s preferred conversion tool, but there are others, like jmc2obj.

“You then need to import the generated file into a [3D art] program of your choice,” says JoeBricksy. “I use Blender for that.”

Blender has the advantage of being free, but there are many other programs to choose from, like Maya and Cinema4D.

This shot gives you a sense of how JoeBricksy’s deft use of lighting, focal depth and camera placement embue a scene with a particular mood.

Here’s the same scene as it appears in Blender - a program with a truly terrifying number of buttons. It’s more than point and shoot.

“The converting program also exports a .mtl file which includes all the textures,” says JoeBricksy. “In Mineways you can also choose a texture pack that you want to use. Once the build is imported with all its textures you can choose a camera perspective, set up lighting and a background. This is the part where you can get creative and stand out from others. It's similar to taking a photograph. Lighting, colours and other effects can create a certain mood to complement the build.”

“I separate the whole process in different layers,” says Iskillia. “Each of these layers contains [things like] the depth of field, the material reflections, the visible light or the ambient occlusion. It is easier to work when each element is separated and can easily be adjusted without interfering with the rest.”

“Then you hit render and wait until your image is rendered out,” says JoeBricksy.

If you have loads of water, and highly reflective water at that, like Iskillia's render above, it can sometimes be a long wait indeed. Transparent materials, the presence of fog, the number light-sources, and simply the number of visible block faces will increase the time it takes to render.

“It is not too uncommon to have renders that require dozens of hours of processing!” says Iskillia. And that’s just for a still image. An animation can take days to render. “Sometimes I take advantage of online rendering machines that you can rent in exchange for what can quickly become a considerable amount of money.”

And, at least for Iskillia, the process doesn’t stop there: “Once I am done with the renders I have made, I merge the layers together in Cinema4D and transfer to Photoshop, which allows me to put filters on top of them, as well as my watermark at the bottom.”

Iskillia may not need help making his work look beautiful, but he still asks friends for their own take on his personal projects. And, as with Splekh’s stunning renders here, they unlock new ways of seeing the same work.

Splekh's shots almost completely transform Iskillia’s Aman build, focussing on individual sculptural and architectural elements and presenting them with an entirely different mood than in Iskillia’s own shots.

Renders allow the artists to exaggerate elements of the build to powerful effect. Here, Splekh’s tinkering gives the impression that the buildings are bursting with internal light, acting as beacons in the hazy night.

It’s quite a lot of work, in other words, but the results speak for themselves, and, more importantly, they speak to people beyond the Minecraft community.

“While in most cases renders get made to show the Minecraft artwork, the render itself can also be a form of art,” says JoeBricksy. “What's interesting is that renders, and especially animations, help people who have never even touched the game, understand that you can use Minecraft to create beautiful pieces of art.”

Survival game, social hub or 3D sketch tool: Minecraft is many things to many people, and renders help players’ creativity to reach even further! Thanks to all those render artists who’ve graced this site over the last year or so - you help set Minecraft masterworks free!

You can visit JoeBricksy’s render portfolio here and Iskillia’s render portfolio here.

Merci beaucoup to Bulix for his translation help.

Written by
Marsh Davies

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