How to make space interesting

Space is boring.  That’s all there is to it.  That can prove to create a challenging task when you have to create the art for a SciFi shooter game.  I am talking about creating background scenery for Zorksox 2.  Since space is 99.9999999% nothingness, we will need to bend reality a bit in order to create something interesting.  Take a look at this picture:

This is a pretty simple star pattern.  The sad reality is, this is what space looks like.  Travel a billion kilometers in any direction and you will still just see stars.  Let’s start off by listing the interesting looking things that space does contain.

– Planets
– Asteroids
– Nebulae
– Comets

That’s pretty much it.  I know, it’s not a lot to work with.  Asteroids are going to be incorporated into the game as sprites.  You can shoot them and/or crash into them.  It would look weird to have animated asteroids in play, and have static asteroids in the back ground.  Therefore, I can’t really use asteroids.  I am going to star off with a simple idea.  Take a look at the image below, it is a blueprint of the scene we will be creating.

I am going to use GIMP 2.8 exclusively to create this.  Let’s create a 1280 x 720 image.

Now we need to make the background black.  There are lots of ways to do this.  You can use the bucket fill tool.  You can go to Colors -> Invert.  My favourite way it is simple drag the black colour onto the canvas.  Name this layer “Small Stars”.

Great, now the scene is black.  Let’s add some stars.  We’re going to use the Hurl filter to do this.  Filters -> Noise -> Hurl…

I left both sliders at 1.

Now lets remove the colour from the stars.  Colors -> Hue-Saturation…

Make sure the Master button is pressed.  This will cause your action to effect all colours.  Bring overlap slider to the maximum, and bring the saturation slider down to -100.

OK, now the stars are the right colour!  I don’t like how bright the stars are, so I will use the Brightness-Contrast tool to fix that.  Colors -> Brightness-Contrast…

This is what I have so far:

Those stars look pretty good!  We’re not done though.  I like to have more control over what they look like. Right-click the layers window and select New Layer…

Name this layer “Clouds”.  Make sure it is above the Small Stars layer.

We are going to generate some clouds on this new layer.  Filters -> Render -> Clouds -> Difference Clouds…

I set the sizes of X and Y to 16 and 9 respectively, because that is the aspect ratio of the image.  After you press OK, GIMP will generate your clouds.  Now, with the Clouds layer selected, change the layer mode to Subtract.

Once you select Subtract, you will notice that most of your stars disappear.  You can now adjust the opacity of the Clouds layer to define how patchy the stars are.  I set the opacity to 60.  Here is the result:

This looks great.  The background stars are done.  At this point, depending on how much RAM you have, you might want to merge the Clouds layer down.  By right-clicking on the Clouds layer and selecting Merge Down, the two layers will become one.  This is useful to conserve RAM, but you will not be able to adjust the patchiness of the stars anymore.  We will need to make four more layers, so it’s up to you if you want to do this or not.  I will leave the layers separate.

Now we need to make a planet.  Find an image that looks like it could be the surface of a planet.  I am using this one:

It’s important to use a very large image.  It also needs to be square.  Open this image into a new GIMP project.  Right-click on this layer and select Add Alpha Channel.  Now we are going to use the Lens filter to bend this image into a sphere.  Filters -> Distorts -> Apply Lens…

That was easy!  Before we through this into our star scene, I want to do one more thing.  Create a new black layer above the planet layer.  Create some clouds.

Change the layer mode of this cloud layer to Subtract, just like we did before.  Likewise, change the opacity to 60.  Now scale the image down to 300×300.  Image -> Scale Image…

This is my result:

Now, right-click on the clouds layer and select Merge Down.  This will combine the two layers.

Now, copy the image.  Edit -> Copy

Go back to the star image and create a new transparent layer on top of the other layers.

Edit -> Paste

Our planet is now in our star scene!

While the planet is still selected, grab the move tool and move the planet to the lower-left corner.

You may have noticed that you now have a layer called “Floating Selection”.  Once you have positioned  the planet, right-click on the floating layer and select “Anchor Layer”.

The planet is now placed in it’s own layer.  Be sure to call this layer “Planet”.  Here is my result so far:

Now we will make the bright star.  Create a new transparent layer that is above everything else.

On this new layer, select Filters -> Light and Shadow -> Supernova…

Using the Supernova filter can be a lot of trial and error.  Just know that if you pick a colour that has a value of 100, it will be too bright and you wont see any of the spokes.  This is the colour that I picked:

Update: Darker colours turn out way better. Try choosing a colour that’s much darker than I have shown you here.

Here is my result:

Almost done!  We need to add a shadow to the planet.

Create a new transparent layer.  Name this new layer to Shadow, and make sure it is above the planet layer.

Now, with the Shadow layer selected, grab the Ellipse Select Tool.

Select the area that will be covered in shadow.  It’s fine if the selection extends beyond the planet.

Fill the selection with black.

Go to Select -> None

Go to Filters -> Blur -> Gaussian Blur…

This should create a nice, fuzzy shadow on the planet.  The only problem is, the shadow is also covering some of our stars.

To fix this, select the planet layer.  Grab the Fuzzy Select tool.

Click on the empty space around the planet.  We want to select everything BUT the planet.

Now, with the selection made, click on the Shadow layer.

Press delete.

Very cool!  Our scene is pretty much done.  You might want to turn the opacity down on the shadow layer to allow a little bit of the planet to show through.  You could also try painting over the planet lightly to give it a slightly yellow colour.

Another very cool thing you could do is add some plasma.  This isn’t very realistic, but it does look great.

Create a new black layer.  Place this layer above the stars, but below the planet.

Go to Filters -> Render -> Clouds -> Plasma…

Change the layer mode to Grain merge.

Set the opacity to 20.

And there you have it.  A stylized space scene.


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