How to Create Leaves (Alpha Plant) in Maya 2017

Have you ever looked at an animation or game, saw all the foliage and wonder how the industry does it? How can they have so many pieces of geometry at once?

I'll show you how! Using tools like Photoshop, we are going to create a texture that mimics leaves. We'll touch on creating alphas, assigning textures, playing with attributes, and more! Take a look!


Software: Maya 2017, Photoshop CC 2017


How to Create Leaves (Alpha Plant) in Maya 2017

Hey guys, this is Monica at Academic Phoenix Plus and today I wanted to show you how to create an alpha plant. As you can imagine, trees and plants take a lot of geometry. But in the industry, they use Alpha Maps to give you a sense that a plant exists.

If you guys want to download this tutorial, you're more than welcome to. I have the files and source images at

The first thing I'd like to do is create a pot, so I'm going to go ahead and go to my front view. I'm going to go to Create>Curve Tools>EP Curve Tool and I'm just going to make myself a quick little pot. I'm going to go ahead and just kind of drag a little. I can always fix it later. Let me go along here a little base and end it here. Press Enter. Go to Right-Click>Control Vertices. You can go ahead and tweak the vertices so it's not set in stone. Don't hesitate about grabbing these vertices and tweaking it a little bit more. Just making sure that it looks a little bit more rounded. Right-Click>Object Mode. Let's go to the main area.


Now I’m going to Revolve this. The key to Revolving, is that I'm working on the center of the grid and my curve actually goes around it. Over here, under Surfaces, we're going to go to Revolve, and this is my pot. Now the other challenge is that this is in NURBS so I'm going to convert it. Modify>Convert NURBS to Polygon>Options. Just make sure Control Point is selected and then Tessellate. Okay, you can see that at this time this is what it looks like. If I press ‘3’, it looks more like its companion here. By the way, this can still be influenced so if you wanted to make some changes to the curve or anything, you still can. I'm going to go ahead and convert my Normals because right now they're going the wrong way. I'm going to go to Mesh Display>Reverse. There we go. That looks better.

Now I can go to the curve, let me hide this one actually. There we go. Right-Click>Control Vertex, and the fun thing is that this is still being manipulated by the curve itself so you can still tweak it. Once you Delete the History, though it becomes permanent, so just be very careful about that. It's up to you if you want to keep tweaking it. Just go ahead and make it a little bit more realistic. Let's go ahead and go to Object Mode. Now if I want to keep this permanent, I go to Edit>Delete by Type>History. When I manipulate the curve, it's not going to be effected because I deleted a connection. I'm going to hide it just in case I need it back. Bring this up a little bit. Okay, so this is going to be my potted plant.

Next I'm going to create a stem so that there's actually something to put the leaves on. This is just a regular cylinder. I'm going to go to my Inputs and increase my height. Give myself a little bit of geometry. I think it's a little high, probably on the Subdivision Axis, I'm going to drop that down to 12. It's organic so just kind of make sure that you move things around a little bit so it looks organic on all directions. Just make sure you're manipulated in different directions so that it looks a little bit more realistic. Just want to make sure that it actually is flawed. That's what makes it real, when it's flawed, but I'm going to cover this with leaves so I'm just going to go ahead and leave it like that. Edit>Delete by Type>History. Modify>Freeze Transformations and I go ahead and save before something terrible happens to my scene.

Let's get to the fun part. What I really want to do is create leaves using Alpha Maps. I'm going to grab a plane and scale it. I'm going to make it a little bit longer. I also like to reduce the geometry to so Subdivision Width and Height to 1. Let's see, Edit>Delete by Type>History. Modify>Freeze Transformations. So UVs>Plannar Map>Options. We're going to use a Y-axis because it's going up and down. Make sure the Keep Image Width and Height Ratio is on and apply. Let's take a look at our UVs. Go to Object Mode. Alright, so we have our UV. This is in a 0-1 space. Let's go ahead and export it. Go to Image>UV Snapshot. It's really important that you always set your project. I’ve already set mine so I know that it's going to put it in my Images. This is going to be my leaf_UVsnap. 2048 a little high, I'm going to go to 1024. Probably that's too high too, but we'll just leave it like. We can always reduce it. Make sure it's a tiff and click Ok.

Let's go to Photoshop. Now I'm going to go to Images and open up my UV snap. Here's my UV snap and the first thing I always do is go to Channels and delete the Alpha-1 because I don't need transparencies. I'm going to make my own. Here's my layers. I double click on this and change this to UV snaps so I know this is my UV snap. Create a new layer bring that underneath and I also like to change this to screen. Just take a look at my previous tutorials on how to texture and this shows you how to actually texture. This is a more advanced lesson so just keep that in mind that I'm just going to fly through it. Ok, so we change this to Screen. What Screen does is if I paint on this, you can actually see underneath the UV snap. let me undo that. There you go. Now we'll lock it. select this - these are the areas that you're not going to see. I like to make sure that I cover it in grey so I know that I'm not going to use it. So Modify>Contract. I usually use 10 pixels and then I create a new one. I'm going to use 50% gray. That was a Shift+Backspace, 50% gray. This is going to be called Border. That lets me know that no one's going to see this aspect of it. Keeps it nice and solid, no extra information. This is where all the magic happens.

I already have a leaf, so I'm going to go ahead and grab the leaf here. This is a PNG so it has transparencies. Let's go ahead and Control+A, Control+C, Control+V, Control+T. You guys get all that? Now the tricky part is how do we make sure that transparencies get seen. So when you're working with Alpha Maps, you've got to make sure that there's a little bit of a border between the actual leaf and the background. The reason why is because it has this anti-alias that can cause problems. What I usually do for my background layer is Shift+Backspace, then I use my Foreground Color. Click Okay and you can see that there's a little bit of a green line. It's your anti-alias. If I scroll in here, you're going to see that it's a little bit of a white and that's a little white dot and that's actually Photoshop trying to help you kind of blend things together naturally. Unfortunately when we're trying to do alpha maps, we don't want that blend. Select my leaf, so Ctrl+Click on this little thumbnail, Select>Modify>Contract and probably just 1 pixel. Then I'm going to delete it. Oops. Ctrl+Shift+I is invert and then delete. It should hopefully get rid of most of the anti-alias.

Let's say that we want to make an alpha map. Let's go ahead and Ctrl+Click on this little thumbnail. Let's go to Channels and click this little button right here. We're going to click on that. That's going to create an alpha map for us automatically so that's really convenient. I'm happy with that. Let's go ahead and save. We can always change it. That's why we keep layers. Let me save as a PSD. Actually I have my layers because I am going to flatten it. Layer>Flatten Image. Yes for Discarding and Ctrl+Shift s and then go to Tiff's. I'd like Tiff's. It's going to replace this one. That's ok. Click Yes and ok, let's go back to Maya.

Right+Click>Assign New Material. I'm going to use a Lambert for now. I can always convert it. Let's go to my Lambert2. This is going to be my leaf. I'm going to go to Color>File and it automatically goes to Source Images. I should have Control+Shift S, Save this into my Source Images. Here's my leaf color. I'm going to turn off layers, Save, Okay. Let's go back to Maya. There's great press number 6. If it has an alpha map, it automatically grabs it into the transparency, which is great.

Now let's say you want to use the AIstandard material. Instead of a Lambert, let's use some more advanced one or the new one for Maya 2017 which is their Arnold shader. Here's a little troubleshooting, guys. Notice that my Arnold is missing here. There could be multiple ways why my Arnold just disappeared but it's really easy to turn it on. Windows>Settings/Preferences>Plugin Manager and I have to scroll down until I see this thing called MTOA. It is Maya to Arnold. Go ahead and load that.

Assign a New Material. Here's the Arnold, just like that. And let's grab the AIstandard. Alright so we have this little guy right here. I'm going to Edit>Delete My History. I'll just want my tabs to be smaller. Let's go to Color. You see how it's Diffuse>Color, click on the little checker. Go to File, go to the Little Folder and right away you can see the difference between a Lambert and the AIstandard. You can see that it doesn't connect to the transparency right away. Very similar to a lot of other 3d packages, we have to create a separate map for transparency. And I already have one and it's right here. This is what we need. Pretty simple to to make this. I'm going to go back here. What I'm going to do is Double Click on my layer2, I'm going to use Color Overlay and I'm going to change this to white. Layer1, click on D on your keyboard to go to default. Shift+Backspace>Foreground Color, click OK. That's going to turn it black. Go ahead and get rid of my border and there you go. Easy peasy. Ctrl+Shift+S I'm going to Save this as a PSD for now this is going to be my alpha. Then, of course, I'm going to go to my Source Images make sure this is a Tiff, leaf_ALPHA, No Layers, Save. Going back to Maya.

Now under the AIstandard, I'm going to go ahead and collapse everything. What I'm looking for is Refraction and you can see that there's an Opacity. Let's go ahead and click on that little folder, go to File and then grab our leaf_alpha. You're going to notice that nothing seems to have changed. Let's go to Arnold and go ahead and render it out. This is what happens with Arnold. You can't see anything. Let's create some lights.

Create>Lights, I'm going to use two Directional Lights. Usually when I light, I usually just go one way this direction… Really fast lighting, just so I can see what's going on. Another direction and maybe just reduce this a little bit. The intensity can be a little heavy because there's two Directional Lights. Let's go ahead and reduce that. And now when we go to Arnold and render, which is over here, you can see the leaf. Now that I place it on the environment, you can see that it's black. You might be asking, well what happened to the alpha map?. We seem to have done everything right?

What's interesting about Arnold is it's actually a very sophisticated shader. Let's go ahead and select this guy right here, so we're going to go to our Shape nodes. Right here there is an Arnold tab. We'll open that up. Do you see how it says Opaque? Turn that off. Right away you can see the difference. Let me move this so you guys can see it. There it is. Now you can see that the plant is now transparent. So perfect.

I'm going to Shift>Insert Edgeloop tool. I'm going to clean up my Mesh just a little bit. I’m going to clean this us up by adding a couple of edges like that. Select that one, Delete, select that one and delete. I'm also going to move my Pivot Point over here so it's going to make it easier for me to place it. Then I'm going to scale it down because it's tiny. It's a leaf after all. I'm snapping it, so V+Middle Mouse, Snap. Let’s take a look at what it looks like. Just one sad looking leaf but that's okay! We're going to make a bunch. Another thing is that this is really flat so Shift+Right Click>Insert Edge Loop Tool and I actually like to give it a little bit of depth. Just a little bit. It's going to make a big difference. I’ll add another one. Maybe grab some vertices. Move this up, maybe just to the left a little bit. Just give it a little bit of depth. May not seem like much but it's going to look a little bit more realistic.

How to duplicate this. Ctrl+D, Rotate. Leaves are different sizes and scales so I always recommend that you make it different scales. You know, kind of create a little bundle of leaves. Make sure again that they're rotated in different directions. Ctrl+D, I'm literally just Ctrl+D away. Duplicate, Duplicate, Duplicate, and then scale them in several directions. Of course you want to take a look at it and see how does it look. You can see that I'm get starting to get a bunch of leaves. I also like to Ctrl+D and I'm going to rotate these and it's fun, because you can see that automatically I'm going to get different rotations. That's going to be really helpful. I so start placing these up and down the branch. I'm going to move this down a little bit, maybe scale it a little bit, Ctrl+D. Start going up the tree. It's going to take me forever, so I'm going to go ahead and select this. Duplicate, move it up, over to the side, make sure everything's somewhat matching. Again, just kind of rotate things around. Rotate it and you just continue that until you have a plant.

This potted plant needs a pot, so let me Assign Material. This is going to be an AIstandard. Click on this and I already have a texture so I'm going to go ahead and open it. Right away you can see that this isn't really working and part of it is because of the UVs. I don't like it. I'm going to go to UV's>Cylindrical Mapping and now already it's looking significantly better. Actually I’m very much happier with that so now I have this nice little potted plant. I'm going to give this some dirt so I'm going to grab this. I'm going to select that and I'm going to grab these guys. Let's just Double Click, Shift+Double Click, UV>Planar Mapping>Options. Use the Y, Apply. Assign a New Material. I'm going to create a new material. This is going to be dirt so Arnold>AIstandard. It's going to be dirt. Again I like to label everything. Grab this file, grab that and already have a texture for dirt so let me find it. There it is. Open so at least now that's going to look a little bit more like soil which is going to sell it a little bit more. That not too shabby, not bad.

The whole purpose of this tutorial was to show you really fast how to create Alpha Plant in Arnold. It's a new process compared to Mental Ray. There's a couple places I could tweak. I can go into Photoshop and tweak it now so let's go back to here. Let me open up my leaf that I was working with. My working file is in images so I'm going to go ahead and grab my leaf_color. Let me Ctrl+Click, then Select>Modify>Contract. Let me do 2 pixels this time. Ctrl+Shift+I, Delete so that's going to look a lot better. Go ahead and save, Ctrl+Shift+S. I'm going to go to my Source Images and change this into a Tif. I'm going to replace this one, No Layers>Save>Yes>Okay. They didn't like it. That's okay. Control+Shift+S, Source Images and this is going to be my TIFF, and I'm going to say color2, just to make my life easier. No Layers>Save>Okay. Go back here, click on our little leaf. Leaf_standard, click on this, the Diffuse and grab that. It refreshes everything and now with this looks a lot better.

There’s a couple other things we could add to this. We can add Bump Map, we can add Specularity map, we can do a lot more to this item. That was just a really quick introduction on how to create Transparencies in Arnolds and also how to create a plant very very quickly. I hope you found this useful and thank you so much for listening. I truly appreciate it. Please subscribe to my channel, share my tutorials with your friends, and let me know what I can do to make your art stronger.

Alright, I will see you next time.

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