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Subsurface scattering is a phenomenon that occurs when photons of light penetrate the outer layers of the surface. It bounces around inside and then leave the surface to return back into the environment. It's a phenomenon that gives human skin a very translucent quality and adds to the realism when you do character models. So for sample on this particular model, you can sort of see the red quality in the ears. There's a strong light coming from the background that's sort of lighting up the ears and making it look like sort of thin cartilage. There is also sort this slight reddening here in the shadows.
When shading characters is just one of the things that really adds to the realism of the render. So you look in this setup of the actual scene here, add a strong light in the foreground, and then a directional light coming in the background. This directional light is lighting up parts of the surface and making it look semi-translucent. That's why I have another diagram here to illustrate the basics of how subsurface scattering works. Once again I have photons of light, some of them are being reflected back into the environment.
But if you can imagine that this here, there are several layers of a surface, you could see how some of the photons of light enter the surface, they bounce around a little bit and then they bounce back out again, back into the environment. This is what creates the subsurface scattering effect in the real world. As you'll see mental ray has a number of ways to create subsurface scattering effects. I've added it to this model of the teapot here and you can sort of see how in the shadowed areas we have this sort of luminescent red glow.
Actually, most materials in the real world exhibit some amount of subsurface scattering. The only ones that wouldn't be things like metal or rock where light just can't penetrate the surface. So it's another thing that you want to consider when you're developing your shader. If you're doing something like a candle wax or human skin or surfaces like jade, things like that, subsurface scattering under certain lighting conditions will really make your surfaces look much more realistic.
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