Finally, the Nature Academy is over and it’s time for a review. First of all it was a hard choice between the Gold and Platinum membership. In the beginning, I couldn’t really judge which one to buy, so I simply went for the cheaper one.
I started with almost zero knowledge about Blender. I have just done one render completely on my own and until the start of Nature Academy, I have just watched some of Andrew Price’s tutorials but never actually modeled one. Together with the start of the Nature Academy I set up this website, so almost all content until today is related to the Nature Academy.
Immediately after I had paid the price for the course, I received an email with my login data. This is really good, because I don’t like waiting for virtual things. On a special website there’s a lot of content available for download instantly. I have a quite slow internet connection, so the ability to download stuff is great. However, you can’t use download managers because the links will expire.
For download, there’s the Drag’n'drop collection which is a series of Blender models for use in any scene in case you don’t want to model them yourself. It includes grass, trees, rocks, mountains, plants, shrubs and skeleton trees. However, I can’t get the grass work well. I have no idea on how to import it correctly and there’s no tutorial on that.
Next, there are reference photos of beaches, clouds, fields, flowers, forests, grass, lakes, leaves, oceans, pathways, plants, rocks, shrubs, flowers, snow, streams, stumps, trees and trunks. The quality of those is ok for a reference picture, but not suitable for background images (but that is not intended).
Third, there’s a bunch of textures related to nature such as leaves, ground, rocks, shadows, skies, tree bark and also some seamless textures. This is great for people like me who have not set up a texture collection yet.
In the beginning, there were some download issues. Some files referenced wrong content. This is fixed now, so if you join the second course, everything will be fine.
Every week a new tutorial is released. A tutorial is a series of more or less videos, depending on the complexity of the scene to create. Typically, only a still image is rendered, but for some tutorials, bonus material exists which is about animating the scene.
All in all there were nine courses and the topics are grass, rocks, trees, plants, lakes, flowers, oceans, mountains and forests. The next course however will include three more courses which are rivers and streams, waterfalls and aerial shots. Andrew announced that the price will increase which is probably due to the new tutorials.
The quality of the tutorials is just the same as you can see on Andrew Price’s regular BlenderGuru website. So if you like the tutorials there, you’ll like the Nature Academy videos as well.
For me as a complete newbie, I could complete the scenes without asking additional questions. At the beginning, I needed 16 times longer than the length of the video, at the end I could finish the scene in about twice the time of the video. And finally I could even answer other participants questions in the forums.
I confess I didn’t have time to finish the animations (and I didn’t have a fast enough PC at first), so I rejoin the second course (which is for free by the way) and do the animations then.
One thing to note is that not all tutorials are purely based on Blender. There are three tutorials which make use of free 3rd party software which is Arbaro for generating a realistic tree (week 3), the ivy generator for creating ivy around a tree (week 4) and the ocean simulator (week 8), which is actually a different version of Blender. For me, using that software is fine, but if you’re already familiar with those topics, you might not benefit so much from the course.
The grass tutorials is much about hair particles. I spent much time, getting it right and experienced crashes due to the wrong Blender version I used (not Andrews fault).
The rocks tutorial uses various displacement modifiers, texturing and an advanced method of duplicating objects that look different when moving through space.
Arbaro is the main point of the trees tutorial. It includes lighting an outdoor scene and texturing the leaves. In this tutorial, only the tree is created. The final render should have some grass.
The plants scene is using the ivy generator mentioned before. Next, it uses array modifiers to create the leaves of a fern. Here I think Andrew could have spent some minutes on reducing render times, like I did: render times of 18 minutes or 7 minutes is a big different in my opinion.
The lake tutorial introduces reflections and fog. Modeling is limited to the lily pads, other plants are imported from the drag’n'drop collection.
The flowers tutorial is again about particles, including weight painting. Modeling is another part and for the background, alpha-masked trees are used.
The ocean simulator creates the ocean of this tutorial. Texturing and reflections are other big points. In this tutorial, the horizon is not flat, which looks a bit awkward. And actually there is a solution described by Gav Bain.
The mountain tutorial uses the ANT landscape generator which is built into Blender. Snow and mountain textures are done using material nodes, which was really impressive for me. Sculpting is also used to enhance some parts of the mountain.
Finally, the forest tutorial uses pre-modeled objects again and is about weight painting, particle systems and some texturing. As described in my forest blog post, the puddle reflections looked like melted glass and needed improvements.
Every week, there’s a live cast session where Andrew answers questions and does a focused critique session. The live casts last 1 hour each and after some initial issues, it worked well then. Actually I could never participate on my own, because the live cast time didn’t match my working time, but there’s the possibility to send Andrew an email and he’ll answer the question then.
The live casts are FLV videos hosted by a 3rd party provider and aren’t available for download directly. The size is at ~110 MB each but actually there’s not much to see – just Andrew talking. That’s why I converted the videos to MP3, which reduces the size to ~30 MB and I could simply put it onto an MP3 player and listen to it when I cycled home from work.
All scenes are available as Blender files for download. I think it is a good idea to have the scene available in order to review the settings Andrew made. Actually I never needed it, because I was happy with my results.
The inspiration boost is a collection of videos which are hosted on Vimeo, so not special content of the Nature Academy. So you can get that for free if you don’t mind browsing through thousands of videos to find the good ones.
During the Nature Academy, a photographer donated another collection of reference photos, the Oliver Huth collection. These photos are higher quality than the reference photos provided by Andrew; you can see that the photo was composed and lighted properly.
The forum is actually not a forum but an enhanced commenting system. It is split into four parts regarding support and questions, finished scenes, suggestions and off-topic comments. Today there are ~3500 comments posted and some of them are really valuable.
Once all courses are finished, you can apply for a certificate. To do so, you have to submit one of the finished scenes you created.
In parallel, a competition starts. All participants are asked to create a realistic nature scene. The price is ~500 US$ in hard- and software. While you have to submit the picture only, the winner needs to send the Blender file as a proof.
The course was nine weeks of work where I spent much time and where I neglected my wife in the evenings. But it was also nine weeks of intense learning, much better than watching TV or drinking in a bar.
The tutorials made by Andrew are just great. His pronunciation is clean and good to understand for foreigners like me. Sometimes it’s hard to follow, especially the Compositor sections, but works with the pause button.
I absolutely liked the Nature Academy. I learned a lot and all the topics were quite new to me. But if you’re a professional Blender artist with several years of experience, you’d better consult someone’s review who started on the same level like you did. For all the beginners I can only recommend the Nature Academy.
So far I know only one more review, which was written by Alex Telford, who also describes himself as a newbie. His review includes comparisons of scenes done before Nature Academy started which I obviously can’t have.