A Long Overdue Tree Update

Hello! I'm Orsi, the girl who ended up modeling most of the trees for this game. When I joined the team two years ago, I didn't think I would be doing much serious environment modeling. I was fresh out of school, hired to develop some interesting, hidden things around the island. For the first six months or so, I did a lot of brainstorming and playing around in the engine, but nothing that improved the aesthetics of the island in any significant way. However, since some of my projects involved mocking up certain types of trees, I realized that tree modeling is one of my favorite ways to unwind. So, when I got burned out working on a particularly challenging project, I started to volunteer to make tree sets.
Back then, most of the trees around the island were variations of an oak-like tree, seen in the previous tree updates. The landscape architects had plans for different tree species for each unique area, but the other artists didn't seem to enjoy modeling vegetation, so they mostly focused on the buildings and paths, and used the old trees we already had to complete the scene. The result was a lot of architecturally distinct areas, set mostly in the same generic oak forest environment.
When I added my first few tree sets, the other artists grew excited and started letting me model or modify trees for them, and certain places started to really pop out as unique, coherent areas. Here are some examples of the trees I created:
Near the starting point of the game, there is an agricultural field lined with birch trees. Luis, an other artist on the project, made some birches of his own. They looked nice, but they had short, stubby trunks covered up by with big circular clumps of foliage. When they were placed around the area, they just didn't feel like a birch forest to me. I missed the defining characteristic of a birch forest: the thin, graceful trunks that parallax beautifully as you walk past them. I asked Luis if he would mind if I made some birches of my own, and he was happy to let me do it. You can see the result above.
The autumn forest existed way before I joined the team, but also used to consist of differently colored generic oak trees. I made a set of maple trees instead, with dark, tall trunks and thin sprays of foliage positioned loosely around the branches. These were probably the most controversial trees I made. We spent a long time debating whether the impressionistic way the leaves were scattered around the branches was working with the style of the game or not. In the end, everybody seemed to like them too much to change them. I think this way of modeling the foliage allowed for the airy, glowing, golden feel I was trying to achieve. This was also the place I first realized what a big impact trees had in defining the area. Once I placed the trees, all I had to do was create some ground textures and grasses to create the forest you see above.
In this screenshot, you can see some oaks I made to replace Shannon's old ones. I created a set of three, in different stages of growth, which is usually the way I approach tree making. It is the best way to create an area that feels like it is alive and still growing. The huge oak in the foreground was one of the few modular trees I actually had to sculpt more detail into, since the trunk got so huge it needed to be broken up a little.
The pine forest is very dear to my heart, because it's my project...and I don't mean just the modeling. Jonathan had three puzzles in a mostly empty area, and I decided to explore the concept behind them a bit more. I ended up designing and modeling this whole area, including the puzzles (with tons of feedback and guidance from Jon, of course). The pine trees here were the landscape  architect's idea, and I was very excited to model them. I tried to stay away from making them all look too Christmas tree shaped, so I found reference images of older, taller pines with saggy, less regularly spaced branches, and decided to go with that. I especially love the way the light bounces around in the messy foliage.
The landscape architects also asked for some mangled, old olive trees in the agricultural area. This was a nightmare to figure out how to model to fit our style, since we don't usually have a lot of detail in objects, and the reference images they provided had crazy twisted trunks full of holes and cracks. I ended up sculpting the trunks in Zbrush, and decimating them, leaving some hard edges. We use this process a lot for other things around the island, but it was the first time I used it for trees. I made the branches modular, and created two significantly different trunks, which the artists can use to combine into even more messed up, mangled shapes. I am still not entirely sure whether I like these or not.
These flowering apple trees took me a while, and they are still not very efficiently textured, but they are getting there. The challenge was to get the silhouette looking like there are branches coated with flowers poking out all over the place. I feel far from finished with these trees, but they seem to be getting a lot of positive feedback, which surprises me constantly.
The eucalyptus forest is a little transitional area I decided to dress up when I had a week to spare. I didn't get very far with the trees, there is actually only one eucalyptus model, and it's not very detailed. I had some difficulty with the very directional foliage. All the leaves had to point down, which was very different form the way I used to make foliage before, where I'd just place planes at random angles in a big bunch. I'm sort of glad I left it where I did, however, because I learned a lot from the following plant I made, and I can apply it to the problem when I revisit these trees during polish.
This last tree is more of a vine, but it's one of my latest creations, and I'm very happy with it. It's a modular wisteria set. There are two bunches of flowers, two trunks (for a corner and for a flat wall), and an independent bunch of vines. All these different pieces can be placed to create varied shapes, to make each plant look unique and and adapt to the surface it's climbing on. The way I created the flowers is how I'm going to re-do the eucalyptus foliage in the future, and I imagine that will make those trees a lot more interesting and beautiful.
Well, these are just some of the trees I made, and the other artists have made some of their own, but these seemed to be a good variety to show off and talk about. Hopefully I didn't ramble on too long, I am just always excited to talk about any aspect of the game I can!


  1. Beautiful artwork, Orsi. I only wish we could see larger screenshots of all the images in this post.

  2. These look excellent, very nice job!

  3. I was […] hired to develop some interesting, hidden things around the island.

    And this, my friends, is one of the awesome things only an indie studio can afford to do.

  4. i love these trees.
    You are very talented.
    good job

  5. Excellent job!

  6. This was a fascinating read, and those trees are so cool! I actually *really* like the olive trees; everything else is so pretty, but those look like they’ve been through the shit. The game I’m currently involved in is also having some tree problems, so it makes me… heartened to see y’all succeeding at it so thoroughly!

    • Eric A. Anderson

      I actually *really* like the olive trees; everything else is so pretty, but those look like they’ve been through the shit.

      Best comment ever.

  7. wow you rock! Your trees are amazing! My favorite is the eucalyptus, it’s just so unique. Have you ever seen a eucalyptus tree in game? or an olive or wisteria trees?! The pines are nice and different too, there are lots of games with pine trees but none like yours.

    And as for the maze puzzles you designed yourself, I can’t wait to try them. Seeing how the last tree update was more about two years ago it’s a nice surprise, the trees have evolved a lot.

    Hope you keep posting your ideas and good luck to you Orsoyla and the rest of Thekla!

    • I really love the Eucalyptus trees too. I’ve seen a few or two in my hometown Australia especially in the ‘bush’ or ‘outback’ as we call it. I guess that’s our term for forest except with lots of Eucalyptus trees. And you are going to make them even better? Wow! Thank you, it is so nice to have a little bit of home in the game… Makes me feel like I have my own little zone now.

  8. Fantastic post! I’d actually been thinking a lot about how wonderful the trees have looked in the trailer etc, so It was great to be able to take a good look at them. It really cements the aesthetic of the game for me.

  9. Absolutely stunning work. I just want to be there!

  10. Any chance we can get some large (desktop background) versions of some of these?

  11. Any info on what the polycount on some of these are? They look crazy detailed (but beautiful!) Is performance still an issue or have you guys sorted something out on that front?

    • Orsolya Spanyol

      They are all somewhere between 1-6k tris, but some of them still need to be optimized. They add up to a lot because we place them everywhere, but hopefully we’ll be able to keep all of them around if they get optimized a little.

  12. Wow! I think half of the fun is just going to be walking around the beautiful island! I think the replay value will just be visiting the island to chill and relax. I hope when you win you get a picnic basket, sunglasses and a beach towel :-)

  13. I like how easy they are on the eyes, and how there are still lots of nicely colored detailed shapes to be enjoyed. I’m very impressed!

  14. I think the olive, apple, and eucalyptus trees could use more Z depth.

    Excellent work regardless.

  15. It may sounds strange but it was the aesthetic of the trees that I saw in screenshots that initially drew me toward this game and eventually this blog. It is so exciting to see someone explore tree foliage in such a way and to see such wildly different yet still easily recognisable creations.

  16. These are really nice, thanks for sharing. I love the pine forest!
    The variation of trees you have here is impressive, it really feels alive. Also, the leaf shader is super nice, the colours are brilliant!
    The olive tree canopy bits are a little too clumpy or something, the shading on the clumps makes them stand out a bit much. Thinking of an olive tree at home the canopy is pretty fine and spread out, and hangs a bit. Though it is young.

    I look forward to wandering around these forests!

  17. My god, it’s full of trees!

  18. As an artist myself (fine artist /oil painter) what initially drew me to this game and site was the overall aesthetic of your world, the trees being a big part of that. I often get commentary on my own tree creations so it was fascinating to see and hear how you approach their construction and nuances. It has inspired me to closer examine my own approach with a more three dimensional mentality. Thank you! I’m very much looking forward to living in this world. It’s one of the ps4 games that has me most intrigued.
    Congratulations for finding a career path that challenges you to evolve and one that you seam to enjoy!

  19. Beautiful work. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house surrounded by a forest that contained many of these species. I remember the birch forest being the most spectacular, but maybe that’s partly because it was the hardest to get to, being in the middle of a swamp :) We only had a couple apple trees, but wow they’re beautiful.

    Seeing them recreated with so much attention and care is really great. You really captured the essence of each.

  20. This shows some real skill with Zbrush and some very unique approaches to 3D modelling what I’d recognise as very difficult shapes to create and get right. Nothing in nature is a straight line.

    My favourite are the eucalyptus trees, they’re absolutely stunning.

  21. really nice sence of shapes in those foliages, an great patterns! just one note tho: your apple flower tree dont feel connected to the world because of on single detail: no petals on the ground, not a single one ;) just saying…

    • Orsolya Spanyol

      You are right! I have tried a few times to add petals to the ground, but it has been difficult, since the entire area is full of thick, tall yellow grasses. When the petals are on the ground, they are not seen at all, and if they are floating on top of the grasses, they look very wrong. It’s something I just haven’t been able to work out yet.

      • One solution I could see to that is to have them collect in drifts along the stone walls, tree trunks and other artefacts and displace the grass.

        Also, these remind me of the peach tree in my courtyard, and I have the impression that it often drops whole blossoms, which would displace more grass and be more visible.
        This could have just been after a hailstorm though, I would have checked a month ago but all our flowers have faded.

        • I don’t know what I was talking about, the peach should have bloomed in August, after the post… Maybe I’ll remember this year, though with any luck I can admire apple blossoms in-game by then.

  22. That’s lovely work. The birches and conifers are especially nice, but I think the orange autumn foliage takes the cake. That orange is like POW RIGHT IN THE KISSER.

    … I like orange.

  23. I haven’t checked if it’s been asked before, but will there be multi-monitor support for The Witness? Multi-monitor support for FPS games is for competitive advantage, and I usually don’t care enough for it to make a difference. The Witness environment seems so well constructed that two or three monitors could go a long way towards feeling like you were actually on the island. I would shell the extra money out to enhance my rig for multiple monitors of The Witness.

  24. No technical skills from me to speak of, but boy the island is looking beautiful. Super excited for every update, and eventually release! Thanks guys.

  25. Beautiful work, just stunning. The Eucalyptus and the Wisteria make me want to see what a Weeping Willow would look like in this style.

  26. These trees are gorgeous, Orsi. I’m inspired by the thought and effort you’ve put into this one detail.

  27. Looking suh-WEET!

    Thing is, I’ve been 100% faithful to my iPad 2 lo these 2 1/2 years.
    Well, there was that one thing in Cabo — but she meant nothing …
    Anyhoo, I’m wondering if my stalwart primary computational device can handle all of the graphical
    & audioacal splendiferousness that is “The Witness”?

    Or, upon loading of the splashscreen, will wisps of smoke start curling out the back? lol

  28. I have kind of a technical question about how these trees are actually modeled / rendered, if you don’t mind talking about it. Are they basically just a set of intersecting planes with modified normals for lighting (like you see in many games), or are you doing something special beyond just the game’s high-saturation visual style to give such a nice sense of volume? Does the grass use any similar techniques? I know in a previous post there was some discussion about arranging the foliage into clusters of triangles, is that still being used? Thanks in advance if anyone decides to respond. The trees look great!

    • From what I understand, the clusters-of-triangles-in-a-bowl thing was something Shannon used back when the engine couldn’t handle opacity maps. Now we usually use bunches of rectangular planes, modify the normals, and use Ignacio’s foliage shader, which lets us control the fade in and fade out of planes based on how they are facing the camera. We sometimes use this shader for grass as well.

  29. Today I learn about controversial trees…

    • None of our trees lean to the left. And birds who land in them can only fly with their right wings which simultaneously drop nuts for squirrels.

      I mean it. Change the camera perspective. See what I mean.

  30. Absolutely lush. All tree models look amazing, looking forward to how you will further develop the trees. I’ve been in Greece quite some times and given the amount of Olive trees I’ve seen, I’d say the trunks are great, but the leaves should be more uniformly spread instead of forming clusters. Good luck, it’s shaping up to be awesome, all of it!

  31. this all looks fantastic! i’ll probably spend my time ambling in the autumn backwoods; im a sucker for that inviting orange hue. although, personally, i think the dark trunks emit something sinister and darkly and maybe a lighter shade could fair better (but that’s without knowing the tone of the game/area)—just my opinion.

  32. Wow. I was inspired to model some 3d stuff after seeing the trees in your header then I see this. Amazing work, good job to the person/persons who did the 3d models and textures.

  33. Orsi you did a really good job, I love it, I love the most the pink tree aka japanese cherry blossom style, but all of them are really nice to the eye.

    I can’ wait to play the game on PS4, Braid was amazing and this… it will be just fucking amazing !!!

    Can you do some red tree ? Like a blood tree or something ?

  34. I keep wondering how Jon manages the art of his games. Obviously, both Braid and The Witness have a focus on the visually pleasing, and I get the sense Jon has a lot of oversight and input as to the final look of the games. I don’t know how someone whose not a visual artist themselves would do this (or is he?), I certainly couldn’t dictate a visual style, I just don’t have the mind for it. Sorry for the rambling.

    • Though I have no previous industry experience to compare, I think the great thing about Jon as a director is the huge amount of trust he has in his artists. He has some very specific requirements about the art style where it relates to the gameplay, and he is never shy about letting us know if something is not quite working for him, but beyond that, he seems to trust us to make the game beautiful. As long as we manage to fulfill those requirements and come up with something good-looking, he tends to let us work out the details. This has been working fairly well, because the artists are very passionate about the project and the environments we are creating. It’s like an upward spiral, since the more freedom he gives us, the more personal love we can put in the project, and things just turn out better.

  35. This is incredibly good work. Seriously, hnnnnnnnng. Well done.

  36. What beautiful trees you made! What tools did you use to make them?

  37. First thing: great work! Those threes looks awesome!

    Second thing:
    I live in Liguria, Italy. Through my window I see olive threes. Here they are everywhere. Your trunks are great. They are correctly gnarled. I feel I have to give you an advice about the foliage. The olive leaf has a peculiar characteristic: its faces have different colors and different light behavior, so when you move or/and they are moved by wind they change color. The lighter part reflects the light and results very bright under the sun.
    I searched for a video, I didn’t find a great one, but here it is video!
    Some pics: olive threes, olive leaves.

    I hope what I’ve written was clear and useful.


  38. I still wanna know if this — a showcase app for the PlayStation 4 — will run smoothly,
    if at all, on a revised [the $399 model] iPad 2?

    • We plan to have the game run on the iPad 2, but this isn’t finalized. (We need to see how well the game runs on the iPad, in the end, before making a final decision about which models of the iPad we will support).

      However, on the iPad the game won’t be displaying the same geometry as on a high-end machine like the PS4. The iPad would be running a lower-poly version of the game with simpler shaders. However, as time goes on and iPads get more powerful, we can eventually reach parity with what gets shipped on the PS4 and PC.

  39. Beautiful looking trees! I love the impressionist feeling they have. I am a fellow 3D foliage enthusiast. : D

  40. I use the exact same technique for my game using zbrush and decimation master to create organic assets! These trees are absolutely beautiful!

  41. Each tree type’s beauty comes out depending on where its situated… and its like the trees are where they wanted to be…:)
    It seems the trees are enjoying the game the most by being an essential part of it. They are the witnesses.

  42. Wow, I’m so impressed with this post! I didn’t think the trees could look any better but you’ve been able to make some truly beautiful models that also change the ambience of each area. I’m especially fond of the birches and pines: I think there’s something eerie about both of them, how the birches are so thin and skeletal, and the pines so overbearingly massive.

  43. What I love about real-world birches and pines is their lightness: you always see a lot of the sky through the foliage.

  44. This is an incredibly fascinating article. It’s great to see someone with a love of a task that others find especially tedious going to town on it. These trees look absolutely beautiful.

  45. Thanks, Jonathan, for the info!

    But upon re-reading my question & seeing PlayStation 4 mentioned,
    it only just now occurred to me — a 2 1/2 year old tablet [iPad 2-$399] costs the same as
    an absolutely cutting edge SOTA gaming console [PlayStation-$399]!

    Unbelievable …. lol

  46. Spanyol Józsefné

    Orsikám!A sziget körüli “ligetek” kidolgozása és a szinek szépek.El sem tudom képzelni az egész játékot a fák nélkül,bizonyára üres és színtelen lenne.Ügyes voltál.

  47. I am planning on getting a PS4 on launch so I can play this game in its best version!

    Regarding these beautiful trees, I am hoping there is some moment in the game where the wind blows all the leaves off of a tree, very dramatically! That’d be spooky.

  48. Robert McKittrick

    Gamespot just said the release date expectation was March or April… This makes me sad.

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