A good friend of mine Aaron W. Young came to me asking if we at Default Interactive could render a slick Scientific image for at the time their upcoming paper on "Tweezer-programmable 2D quantum walks in a Hubbard-regime lattice"  The folks over at JILA had previously gotten an artist to work on another rendering for a paper of theirs, but this time we were given the chance to have a go.
Another major goal of this image was to try and get it printed on the Science Magazine Cover. So, making it look slick was going to be key.
Starting the Design
From the start Aaron had a rough vision of what the image could be. This was his initial sketch of the idea.
We also had this previous render to go by. This gave us some reference of where the design could go.
Additionally diagrams within the paper also helped as a source of inspiration.
These images were also used as reference as a gauge of the quality and style they were requesting.
This image was the general vibe they wanted, however slightly less sci-fi-esque.
These two images were used as reference for the styling the atom.
Overall, there were 3 main components to the image. The atom, the lattice grid and the laser.
Going into this I knew Blender 3D's new geometry nodes feature would be the best tool to use to model the various parts of the image. Having the flexibility to procedurally modify aspects of the modelling would be very important when iterating on the design.
The first aspect to be modelled was the lattice grid. Within geometry nodes the lattice was made by combining mesh lines together to form the basic lattice structure.
Once I had the basic structure, I could then create a grid of these lattices to form a larger lattice structure.
Using this structure, I could then add a mesh curve to give the lattice some thickness. Here below is the final lattice model.
The next aspect was the atom which again was all modelled using geometry nodes. Given that atoms are structured in a very specific way, geometry nodes allowed us to model the atom with ease. Any needed changes to any part of the atom could easily be made. For example, adjusting angle of the outer rings of the atom was simple as modifying the rotation of the specific node.
One key aspect they wanted to show in this rendering was the idea of the atom moving randomly across the lattice structure. Now we are not going to discuss quantum physics here, but displaying the idea of an atom taking multiple paths was not going to be easy.
That said, the first idea I had to convey this aspect was to use a path of atoms gradually getting less opaque to convey the idea that the atom could have travelled multiple paths. I tested this early to see if this would be the right way to convey this idea.
First tests proved to be a little visually busy and not very visually interesting. I knew that something else had to be the answer.
That's where long exposure photography came to mind. Now to do long exposure in 3D you have to make use of motion blur. As Blender in this case must interpolate the frames in-between where the motion is happening.
So, this render was setup to test motion blur out. Two atoms were individually animated along two paths. To get the straight lines of each path, each atom could only travel in one direction. So, to convey corners another atom was animated moving in the next direction. From initial testing it proved to be the right approach for the visuals we were aiming for.
Iterating on the Design
Next, we started playing with the camera angles to see if we could get more of the lattice in the image. However, I convinced Aaron that really, we should stick to making the image look slick to try and make that magazine front cover.
With that in mind, I wanted to keep the camera close to the main foreground atom and use depth of field to draw the viewers attention to this atom. In the background we could then have some of the paths represented by the motion blurred atoms.
This is where we started to get closer to the final image. From this point forward it was minor adjustments to the camera angle and the visibility of the motion paths.
A minor detail that was added was the bending of the lattice of where the atom is sitting. If you notice in the image the lattice is shaded green and bends down further than the rest of the lattice.
This helped show that the atom was being focused into the part of the lattice where the laser was focusing. Again, geometry nodes came useful to add this detail, as we could displace the lattice depending on the position of the atom.
Soon enough we were getting closer to the final image, before that though we had a fair amount of compositing to do.
The raw render of the image felt very bland. It's basically all emissive glowing meshes in a black void. So, in order to add some more visual interest we had to composite some effects on top.
The first effect was that of some dust particles to give the idea that a camera had been used to photograph this image. While not realistic at all it does help add some drama to the atmosphere of the image.
Next was to add some lens flares to the image to help accentuate the glowing aspects of the image and again give the idea that a camera had taken this image. Flared - Lens Flares In Blender  was used to create the flares and it worked great. The flares were render separately and composited on top to especially help make the laser impact feel more explosive.
All the while this image was being developed, we always kept in mind the magazine front cover. So early on an image of the Science Magazine cover text was composited on top to give an idea of what it could look like on the cover. Using this it helped the composition and layout of the image.
With all these extra compositing this was the final render accepted by Aaron and JILA.
The final rendering of the Scientific Image
Although this render didn't make the front cover of Science Magazine, the individuals over at JILA have used it extensively in various presentations and promotional materials. It was a great project to work on, and maybe next time we will impress with another image instead.