A while back I attempt writing a simple CloudShader for use in three.js scenes. Exploring the use of noise, it wasn’t difficult creating clouds which isn’t visually too bad looking. Another idea came to add Crepuscular rays (“God rays”) to make the scene more interesting. Failing to mix them correctly together on my first tries, I left these experiments abandoned. Until one fine day (or rather one night) I decided to give it another shot and finally got it to work so here’s the example.
In this post, I would going to explain some of the ideas generating procedural clouds with noise (these topics frequently go hand in hand). While noise might be bread and butter in the world of computer graphics, but it did took me awhile to wrap my head around it.
Noise, could be described as a pseudo-random texture. Pseudo-random means that it might appear to be totally random, but being generated by the computer, it is not. Many might also refer to noise as Perlin noise (thanks to work by Ken Perlin), but there are really different form of noise, eg. Perlin noise, Simplex noise, Value noise, Wavelet noise, Gradient noise, Worley noise, Simulation noise.
The approach that I use for my clouds could be considered Value noise. Let’s start creating some random noise by creating a DataTexture of 256 by 256 pixels.
Now if we were to now render this texture, it would look really random (obviously) like a broken TV channel.
Let’s say if we were to use the pixel values as a height map for a terrain (another use for noise), it is going to look really disjoint or random. One way to fix it is to interpolate the values from one point to another. This is becomes smooth noise. The nice thing about textures is that these interpolation can be done on the graphics unit automatically. By default, or by setting `.minFilter` and `.magFilter` properties of a THREE.Texture to `THREE.LinearMipMapLinearFilter`, you get almost free interpolation when you try to read a point on the texture between 2 pixels or more.
Still, this isn’t enough to look anything like clouds. The next step is to apply Fractional Brownian Motion, which is a summation of successive octaves of noise, each with higher frequency and lower amplitude. This generates Fractal noise which generates a more interesting and continuous texture. I’m doing this in the fragment shader with a a few lines of code…
Given this my data texture has 4 channels (RGBA), one could pull out 4 or 3 components if needed, like
Now if you were to render this, it might look similar to the perlinNoise class in flash/actionscript or the cloud filter in photoshop.
Although we have a procedural cloud shader, how do we integrate it into a three.js scene? One way is to texture it over a sphere or a skybox, but the approach I use is to create a paraboloid shell generated with ParametricGeometry, similar to the approach Steven Wittens used to render Auroras in his demo “NeverSeenTheSky”. The code / formula I use is simply this
Now the remaining step, but its probably the most important step to simulate clouds is to make use and tweak the values from the fractal noise to obtain the kind of clouds you want. This is done in the fragment shader where you could decide what thresholds to apply, (eg. cutting off the high or low values) or apply a curve or a function to the signals. 2 articles which gave me ideas are Hugo Elias’s clouds and Iñigo Quilez’s dynamic 2d clouds. Apart from these, I added a function (where o is opacity) to reduce the clouds of the skies nearer the horizon to make it more illusion of clouds disappearing into the distant.
So I’m going a break explaining some of my ideas for producing the clouds. This might be disappointing if you’re expecting more advanced shading techniques, like ray-marching or volumetric rendering, but I am trying to see how far we could go with just the basic/easy stuff. Now if adding the crepuscular rays works, it would produce a more impressive effect that we can avoid complicated stuff at the moment.
So for the “God rays”, I started with the webgl_postprocessing_godrays example in three.js, implemented by @huwb using a similar technique used by Crytek. After some time debugging why my scene didn’t render correctly, I realized that my clouds shader (a ShaderMaterial) didn’t play well in the depth rendering step (which override the scene with the default MeshDepthMaterial), that was needed to compute occluded objects correctly. For that I manually override materials for the depth rendering step, and pass a uniform to the CloudShader to discard or write depth values based on the color and opacity of the clouds.
I hope I’ve introduce the ideas behind noise and how simple it could be for generating clouds. One way to get started with experimenting is to use Firefox, which now have a Shader Editor with its improved web developer tools that allows experimentation of the shaders in real time. Much is up to one’s imagination or creative, for example, turning the clouds into moving fog.
Clouds is also such common and an interesting topic which I believe there is much (advanced) literature on it (like websites, blogs and papers like this). As mentioned earlier, the links I found to be good starting point is by Hugo Elias and Iñigo Quilez. One website which I found explaining noise in an easy to understand fashion is http://lodev.org/cgtutor/randomnoise.html
Before ending, I would love to point out a couple other of realtime browser-based examples I love, implemented in in a very different or creative approaches.
2. Jaume Sánchez’s clouds which uses css – http://www.clicktorelease.com/code/css3dclouds/
3. IQ Clouds which uses some form of volumetric ray marching in a pixel shader! – https://www.shadertoy.com/view/XslGRr
So if you’re interested, read up and experiment as much as you can, for which there are never ending possibilities!