Rendering Plasma in POV-Ray

POV-Ray has some very powerful commands for rendering realistic plasmas and explosions, but not very many people know how to use them well. This tutorial will show you how.

[youtube: 350 292]
An turntable of a plasma cloud rendered in POV-Ray
UPDATE: download the high-res version

To render plasmas, there are two basic commands you need to know:

– Media
– Turbulence

Media is a material parameter in POV-Ray designed to mimic the way the interior of a substance reacts to light. You could think of it as similar to a volumetric texture–but a more visceral way to describe media would be to visualize it as a gelatin or poured acrylic. You can tint it, swirl it, and pour it into a container of any shape you like.

Media works essentially the same way as other textures and materials in POV-Ray: you can assign colors to it, you can apply patterns to it, you can warp it or bend it, and you can even use it in layers. However, unlike textures, media has volume. The amount of light that is transmitted through media is dependent on the thickness of the media you are viewing it through. It is this property that allows media to be used to simulate fog, deep water, clouds, plasmas and a variety of other effects.

You can read a tutorial on the media command here: Simple Media Tutorial

Turbulence is a “pattern modifier”. Pattern modifiers alter the appearance of your texture or material by deforming them it various ways. POV-Ray had several different types of pattern modifiers. The turbulence modifier adds “noise” or chaos to your texture. Typically it has a soft, cloud-like shape; although with various settings it can also take on the appearance of marble, rocky soil or aluminum foil.

You can read a tutorial on the turbulence command here: Advanced Texture Options

By combining media and turbulence, you can create clouds, fog, plasmas and many other effects. When turbulence is combined with media, it alters the density of the media in a random way. This causes the media to appear as if there were something suspended inside it. By changing the turbulence settings, you can choose the way the media clumps and flows.

In general, the trick to getting great results with media is to use several density layers. Nature tends to be very fractal-like, with lots of interesting things going on both at the macro and the micro level. You want to emulate that in your renders. You can accomplish this by creating layers that simulate the large things that are going on, and then additional layers rendered on top of that that simulate the tiny details. This does slow down your render, but good things come to those who wait. 🙂

Let’s walk through an example:

// global settings: here, we specify which version of 
// POV-Ray this file was designed for, as well as our 
// default gamma settings for the scene
#version 3.6;
global_settings {
  assumed_gamma 1.0
  max_trace_level 5

// camera: this simple camera looks at the origin from 
// a slight angle. it is the same camera as used in the 
// default POV-Ray scene template  
camera {                        

  // this line allows us to create an animation. by 
  // changing the camera angle around the y axis based 
  // on the clock, the camera will orbit the origin
  rotate <0.0, 360*clock, 0.0>             
  location  <0.0, 0.5, -4.0>                  
  direction 1.5*z
  right     x*image_width/image_height
  look_at   <0.0, 0.0, 0.0>
// a simple, completely black sky sphere            
sky_sphere {
  pigment {
    rgb <0.0, 0.0, 0.0>

// fireball: let's simulate an explosion. to do this, we're 
// going to use the media and turbulence commands to create 
// a plasma effect inside of an ordinary sphere.
sphere {
    0, 2.0
    // it's important to make the outer shell of your 
    // object transparent... if you can't see through the 
    // outside of the object, you won't be able 
    // to see the media inside it
    pigment { color rgbt <1, 1, 1, 1> }      
    // media is held within the interior of the object    
    interior {
        // we're going to create a single media object, with 
        // several different density maps inside it. this works 
        // similar to building a layered texture. "density" 
        // controls the thickness of the media at a particular 
        // point. density can be controlled independently on 
        // each color channel, allowing you to have colored 
        // media by emitting or blocking certain colors of light. 
        // density maps multiply--not add--the density of the 
        // layers together. this means that if a point has a zero
        // value on any layer, that the total density for that 
        // point will also be zero. this is extremely
        // useful for creating complex patterns and effects
        media {         
         // POV-Ray supports three types of media: emissive, 
         // absorbing, and scattering. "emission" is self-illuminated 
         // media. it will not cast light on other objects, but it 
         // has the appearance of glowing. "absorption" blocks light 
         // instead of emits light. absorbing media casts shadows on 
         // other objects. "scattering" media is lit by other 
         // light sources, and can scatter light. it is substantially 
         // slower to render than the other two types, however, it 
         // can be used with photons to create effects like 
         // visible sunbeams
         emission 1.0                  
         absorption .2   
         // LAYER 1
         // for our first layer, we'll blend the edge of the sphere 
         // to transparent. this will make edges less obvious and help 
         // hide the fact that the media is contained inside a sphere. 
         // we want it to look free-floating, so it's important to 
         // disguise the edges
         density { 
            density_map {
                [0.0 rgb <0.0, 0.0, 0.0>]                
                [1.0 rgb <1.0, 1.0, 1.0>]                                
         // LAYER 2
         // explosions usually have bright centers. for our second layer, 
         // we'll give the explosion a "hot" core by multiplying past 
         // the 1.0 range in the center... POV-Ray doesn't support HDRI
         // (the MegaPOV build does) but this trick works nonetheless
         density { 
            density_map {
                [0.7 rgb <1.0, 1.0, 1.0>]                                
                [1.0 rgb <8.0, 8.0, 8.0>]  

         // LAYER 3
         // now that we've blocked out the general shape of our media, 
         // for our third layer we want to get it looking more cloud-like 
         // and less like a ball. we'll do that by adding some soft, low 
         // frequency turbulence                           
         density { 
            density_map {
                [0.0 rgb <0.0, 0.0, 0.0>]                
                [0.2 rgb <0.5, 0.0, 0.0>]
                [0.4 rgb <0.8, 0.4, 0.0>]
                [0.9 rgb <1.0, 1.0, 1.0>]
            // here's where the magic happens... a low turbulence setting 
            // causes our media to take on a soft, cloud-like shape           
            warp {
                turbulence .6   
                lambda 1.5  
                // low omega values create soft, blurry results; 
                // higher values are crisp and wrinkly
                omega 0.25  
            // this warp causes the explosion to look like the particulate 
            // is ejecting from the center by pulling in all of the color 
            // toward the center... I haven't tried it, but I bet you 
            // could do some nifty animations by adding a clock term to 
            // one of these values
            warp { 
                black_hole <0.0, 0.0, 0.0>, 2.0
                strength .95  
                falloff 2.5
          // LAYER 4
          // explosions have lots of detail, with many fine swirls and 
          // eddies. we can simulate this by using a high-frequency 
          // turbulence value. again, we'll multiply past 1.0 to keep 
          // the explosion "hot"
          density { 
            density_map {   
                [0.0 rgb <0.0, 0.0, 0.0>]                
                [0.1 rgb <1.0, 0.0, 0.0> * .75]
                [0.2 rgb <1.0, 0.5, 0.0> * .75]                
                [0.8 rgb <1.0, 1.0, 1.0> * 2.5]
            warp { 
                turbulence 1.5
                lambda 2.5
                omega 0.55
                octaves 7                
            scale .75
            warp { 
                black_hole <0.0, 0.0, 0.0>, 2.0   
                strength .8
                falloff 2.0                                              

          // if you find that you have glitches or black spots in 
          // your media, try turning up the number of samples. 
          // more samples will cause it to render slower, so don't 
          // turn it up more than you need to
          samples 20 
          scale 1.25
    // THIS LINE IS VERY IMPORTANT! in order to hold the media, the object
    // needs to be hollow... if the object is solid, the default, then the
    // media won't show correctly. don't forget to include this command! 

As you can see, media is a very powerful tool that will let you create a variety of amazing effects! It does take some practice to get a feel for how it works, but the results are well-worth the time spent learning.

More POV-Ray media examples to explore:
Kurt Bangert and Carola Blaesing-Bangert, Media Examples
Media and Particle Systems by Jenny Orr
Web Walking: Media by Mike Kost

Questions? Ideas? Amazing scenes you’ve created? Leave a comment!

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6 Responses to “Rendering Plasma in POV-Ray”

  1. Independent Developer » Blog Archive » Plasma HD Render Says:

    […] tiny little 320×240 render of the plasma for the POV-Ray tutorial was a bit hard to see, so I did a render in 1920 x 1080 resolution for those of you interested in […]

  2. boyfarrell Says:


    Great post and an impressive result!

    I would be interested in simulating a very simple situation compared to yours. I want to simulate a glowing rectangle (box), and bar . Any ideas on how to do this. I would like to have a wall near objects which reflects the emission slightly, just to add to the effect that they are actually emitting light.



  3. Lisa Says:

    Thanks for the compliment!

    I’d probably use a similar method. model my box or bar, and then fill it with emissive media, skipping the turbulence to give it a more solid look.

    The other thing you could try is the looks_like command. The looks_like command allows you to attach an object to a light source. What you would do is create a light that cast on the other objects the way you want. Then, model your box and attach it to the light with the looks_like command. You can then still fill your box with emissive or scattering media so it glows. This gives you a box that is self-illuminated, but will still cast real light on other objects.

  4. Draeden Says:

    Excellent tutorial: simple and useful.

  5. 3d models Says:

    Wow great tutorials. thanks for sharing

  6. Hayalet Oyunlari Says:

    Hey great post! thanks However I can not open images of your blog in using Opera browser