Its been a while since I did an experimental project, so I decided to go back to the basics with one of the very first things I learned to do in After Effects: making the earth.

Earth Mk. I

One of the tutorials I followed when first learning the ropes showed how to make a planet by applying a faux-3D sphere effect to a map. You could even make it rotate and everything. Back when I was starting out this amazed me, and I set out making loads of different planets with different terrain maps and atmospheres.

Unfortunately, over these years I have misplaced these early experiments, so for the purposes of this post I recreated a quick, barebones version that shows the basics of the effect.

So this has everything the earth has, right? You’ve got your continents all in the right places, clouds moving over the land, light and shadows caused by a sun somewhere off screen. And yet it doesn’t exactly look realistic. It was only a couple of years later, when I started playing around with 3D software, that I found out what was missing.

Earth Mk. II

Cut to a couple of years later. As with after effects, one of the first tutorials I found when learning about working in 3D was how to make the Earth (this seems to be a very popular subject for tutorials). This time it addressed things like surface and atmospheric effects, more details on textures and lighting etc.

I won’t go into the details too much, but three of the things it mentioned were that:

1) water reflects, land doesn’t, so there should only be a visible highlight when the light hits the oceans.

2) Earth has an atmosphere that isn’t just clouds, thats why we can breathe. If you look up outside, you’ll see that this atmosphere is blue. Adding a subtle blue glow to the globe recreates this.

3) There are a lot of people living on the earth, and when it gets dark the cities we live in light up. Therefore, on the dark side of the planet these city lights should be visible.

With these new tips, I created a render of our little blue rock that for the longest time has been a featured image on my company website and many of my online profiles. I even threw in the moon and the sun for good measure.

So this looks pretty realistic, got all the effects that distinguish our planet, or most of them anyway.

Earth Mk. III

Cut to 2016, I’m looking for a project to do and I think to myself: ‘it’s been a while since I made an Earth, lets see what happens if I take the last one as a basis and throw everything I’ve learned over the years at it. To recap, here’s what it had so far:

  • Water and continents (obviously)
  • Clouds that move over the surface
  • Water that reflects while land doesn’t
  • Atmospheric glow
  • City Lights
  • The moon and the sun

Mark 3 was going to have all these things and more, and it was going to be fully 3D and it was going to move.

First off, I rebuilt Mark 2 using the Element 3D plugin. I also added the sun and the moon and decided that the earth should rotate around its own axis as the camera moves around it. “But wait!” said my inner space nerd, “The earth is tilted on its axis.” So I looked up the axial tilt online, which if you’re interested happens to currently be 23.4°. Now my Earth rotated around this axis instead of the 90° straight axis that it did in the previous versions.

Making the city lights was a challenge, as simply having them as an illumination layer on the Earth-sphere would have them always be on, even during the daytime. After fiddling around for hours inside of Element to find a way to make them trigger only in the dark, I finally gave up and decided to make a second Earth (a night earth) that consisted only of the city lights. I then made an inverted mask of the Earth for it, so that the city lights would only be visible if the sphere was dark.

Using masks allowed me to add several other effects to the night side, like night time clouds that have a slightly different texture to the daytime ones and a less prominent (but not totally absent) atmosphere. However, using so many masks eventually led to some odd ‘ghosting’ behaviour going on around the terminator (the line between day and night).

Luckily, I was able to come up with a solution that swatted two birds with one stone. It added an extra layer of realism AND hid some of the annoying visual glitches caused by all my masks. The answer was Golden Hour. As you know, when the sun rises and sets (so around the terminator) the sky turns a fiery red and everything looks really awesome for a while. To emulate this, I added an orange hue to the terminator that moves with it, also making the atmosphere briefly glow red as it approaches the  visible edge. Admittedly, it is a lot more exaggerated than in real life (mainly to hide those annoying masks), but personally I think it looks rather pretty.

Next I added another atmospheric effect that was missing from the previous version: Auroras (also known as the northern lights.) These occur around both of the poles when solar radiation is deflected by our good friend the magnetic field. As we are constantly being blasted by the sun, these are present pretty much all the time, so I added an effect to the poles that emulated them.

Lastly, I created a starfield as a backdrop and some cinematic effects to give the whole thing more depth. But again, my inner scientist was not convinced.When the sun is visible, or when it is the daytime on the earth, the light is so intense that it drowns out other stars, making the surrounding space appear pitch black. A lot of key framing later, I made it so that the star field reflected this, only showing when the planet is in shadow and the sun is not directly visible.

All this led to the following result, which I personally think is the best Earth I have made to date.

While researching some of the details for this project I stumbled across a lot of interesting facts about the Earth that I was not aware of before. As my skills develop and I discover more about the world, I’ll probably be making a lot more versions in future. But for now I’m pleased with the result and I hope you like it.

If you disagree with any of my choices, or feel like I missed any details in the complex behaviours of our planet, please feel free to get in touch as I’m always looking to improve my skills as well as learning more about our world.

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