Ken Bock shared his approach to stylized art and did a breakdown on the Forgotten scene that he worked on during the Environment Artist Bootcamp at Game Art Institute.
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The Forgotten Scene
Hey there! My name is Ken Bock. I currently live in Atlanta G, where I attended the Art Institute of Atlanta for my BFA in Game Art & Design. I also took part in the Game Art Institute's Environment Artist Bootcamp in 2018, where I did this environment piece. I can honestly say I wouldn't be able to complete this project without Ryan Kingslien and other incredible teachers at GAI. I currently work as a 3D Environment Artist at Floyd County Productions, where we work on various projects such as the Archer TV show and more recently some unnamed Marvel productions.
I got my start into 3D art from my passion for video games. My passion for video games comes from, yes, playing them but more from being immersed in the culmination of their rich stories, incredible art, and addicting gameplay experiences. Growing up, I would always buy the collector editions of my favorite games (Diablo, Halo, Warcraft) and watch the "Behind the scenes" videos. These gave me glimpses of what it takes to bring these works of art together. Giving me the dream one day to work somewhere, where I could contribute my own creativity and passion for art, video games, experiences, etc. that would inspire and entertain millions just like they do for me.
This was my first take on a stylized piece. I really wanted to sink my teeth into a good one since I've always done realistic art and I knew by doing stylized art I would learn so much along the way. Plus stylized art always seemed so fun to do!
The Forgotten piece by Stoyan Stoyanov really grabbed my attention because it's such an incredibly looking scene! Just with the composition and mood, it has a lot of varying elements/props in it that I thought would challenge me as new things that I've never done before. I also saw a lot of underlying stories to it that I could really push further with my own imagination. One of the things that stood out to me was the little guy down in the cage. Then, the sword in the barrel with the slight glow to it on the right. After that, just how the whole rest of the scene showed if he'd been there for a while. With the roots/vines growing over the door, moss growing around his cage, etc.
So, I decided to show it as if the ooze/goo had leaked out of the barrel to him. Transforming and allowing him to break out of said cage and escape. Now, I will be the first to tell you that I really didn't succeed in selling that as the main focus of the piece. That being one of many reasons why I plan to revisit this it to improve upon just that.
From start to finish it was a constant learning process. I found myself testing different methods/techniques, watching loads of video tutorials and spending hours solving one objective at a time. This can be very discouraging, especially, when you get stuck on a challenge for hours that you just can't seem to crack. But, man, when you finally do crack it, it gives you such a great feeling of achievement. No matter how big or small of a challenge it was, you figured it out, and that's a win! Those wins add up as you go along, and you use that to continue to fuel your drive, to keep pushing and taking on every obstacle that comes your way. Then the next time you come across that issue (or one similar), not only do you have the knowledge this time how to achieve the result you want, you also know five-plus ways how NOT to do it but also those ways how to produce other results you wouldn't think of. You know, "happy little accidents", haha. This is how I learned to troubleshoot better, find my solutions and stay motivated. Because for me, to have an idea in my head and in the end to be able to produce that result is in its own right just so rewarding!
First, I'll start off by saying I absolutely love MODO! When you first work with it, you can tell it was designed by artists for artists vs. others that feel like they were done by programmers for artists. It’s an incredible software and I highly recommend it, especially for beginners. It's easy to pick up, learn and other software just can't compete with its modeling tools and features. Most importantly, it just works. What I mean by that is, I'm not having to fight with its tools/features bugging out on me and having to find workarounds just to get results. It's a very solid and reliable program that allows you to stay focused on the art and be creative. I can easily say I'm twice as fast in it then I am in any of the others, where I feel like I'm working with a hand-tied behind my back. No, I'm not sponsored by The Foundry in any way. Haha. I just love MODO that much!
My Overall Workflow on Nutshell
I started with the blockout and low poly in MODO. Sculpted the high in ZBrush. I went back to updating the lows in MODO to match the modified Highs. UVed in Rizom. Baked and textured in Substance Painter. Then compiled everything in Marmoset. I wish I could say it was a smooth process from start to finish but it wasn't. haha.
Blocking out is such an important step of any prop, environment or even character piece because it can save you so much time in the long run. Allowing you to quickly visualize proportions, achieve the composition you're looking for and adjust things on the fly before you take the piece further down the pipeline. This is especially useful when you're working with the concept art. You'll find out real quick that while you lay things out from the concept into 3 dimensions, it won't always come together exactly as it looks or as you'd expect. You'll also run into problems that you couldn't predict. Which is why the earlier in the pipeline you catch them the better.
During my blockout, I caught a few of these myself. So in Forgotten's concept, it shows you in a cylindrical room where the walls end on the sides. Now I could have built the room out exactly as it shows, in a full encompassing cylinder room but I wanted it to be more of a diorama and have a "window", so to speak, for the viewer to look through. So, I had a couple of hurdles to get by first.
- How do I end the walls, center support beams, and stone rings on the sides?
- Do I create the props that are front and center in the concept's foreground? That might obstruct the view of the rest of the scene?
These things were easy for me to address and play with since everything was very lean and roughed out.
Another thing I caught while blocking out. The whole scene is packed closely together in the concept. The assets between one another and the walls behind them. The issue with the big cylinder copper cage centered in the background (see Fig 1). Looking at it, I can tell it has an even diameter shape around it and has a certain size/scale in relation to the other props in the room. So, when I blocked this out trying to keep the room as tight as it appears and matching the concept as closely as I could. The cage ended up clipping into the wall behind it. So, I had to expand the walls back a bit to make a room for this, which then, in turn, makes the room appear less compact in reality vs the concept.
Once I was satisfied with the scenes overall composition, I pushed each of the models to their low poly state. There, I pretty much focused on scoring the models overall base silhouette, then I'd bring it into ZBrush to push the rest of the way doing the high sculpt. A lot of the time after doing the high, I would have to update the low model because the silhouette would have changed. In Fig 2 with the cage, you can see how it progressed. Starting with the basic blockout model, the rough silhouette that I'd then bring into ZBrush for sculpting and finishing with updating the low to match the high.
Jumping into a stylized piece and with it being a good minute since I last used ZBrush, there was a lot of back and forth in figuring out my workflow. Initially, how to have the models prepped, before I brought them into ZBrush otherwise I'd run into issues when I'd subdivide or dynameshed them. Of course, I could have done this in ZBrush but it was just faster for me to do beforehand. In Fig 3, you see the barrel prep model, where I added support edge loops to maintain the hard edge. Also, to optimize my time spent per asset, I would trim down the parts to be sculpted that could be duplicated. With the barrel, you see I only sculpted 3 boards and the one metal bars around them. Then I would just duplicate those for the baking afterward.
High Poly Sculpting
I looked at a ton of artwork from various Blizzard artists, who work on World of Warcraft, Heros of the storm and other artists such as Tobias Koepp. This gave me a great reference on how to achieve readable stylized materials (wood, metal, stone, etc.) that I hadn't done before.
For sculpting the actual material, I tried a lot of different brushes and workflows in achieving the stylized look. I ended up heavily relying on Michael Vicente's Orb Brush Pack. You can see a simple breakdown of my approach to sculpting the wood in Fig 4. I started with the Orb cracks, then broke those up a bit with the Orb Pinch, hPolish & Orb Flatten Edge. For my metals, the Orb_Hammered_Metal, and stone the Orb_Rock_Details/Noise. Then, generally on every model, I used the Orb Slashes for subtle detailing.
All in all, when trying to score these stylized materials I though in the sense of broad strokes. Sculpting the larger details of the materials vs and smaller subtler ones.
Wood - Veins
Metal - Dents
Stone - Large Erosion shapes.
I could push further detail later in the texturing.
For my UVs, I'll admit I'm a bit weird when it comes to it because I actually enjoy working on UVs. Especially, when the tools I use for it are so awesome! So, I picked up Rizom. Normally, I would UV in MODO because its tools are pretty sweet but when I saw some feature videos on Rizom, it grabbed my attention a lot. So I jumped into it. It took me a little bit to get used to it, but with a few video tutorials, I was working well in it in no time. I'd say it's a very fluid and easy program to pick up.
One of the features that really sold me was being able to save a "cut" map. Where you add and remove edges on the fly that you want to designate as the seams of your UVs. You just select the edges you want, then hit "C" to cut its colors in red (symbolizing where the cuts will be made) and store them as the ones to split when you run the unwrap command. And those selections are saved until you remove them. Until Rizom, I used to always to make the entire selection of edges first, then do the unwrapping. Then afterward, you didn't easily have quick access back to the same selection later on. So having that alone was incredible!
Two other features Rizom has that I love are an awesome "Shortest Path Selection" and a packing feature that's smart enough to place UVs within one another if there are holes/open space that can be utilized. These are all just the tip of the iceberg because there is still a whole other slew of incredible features Rizom has that I still need to learn. I highly recommend it!
Texturing was a whole lot of just experimenting for me. I used Substance Painter for just about everything, except for a pattern or two which I created in Substance Designer. Overall, I was trying to achieve a PBR-stylized look. My first goal was to create a smart material for every material that I would need for the environment (Wood, Stone, Metal, etc.). I must have made each material at least five or six times each just playing with tools and procedurals in Painter before I landed on one that I liked. With my texture workflow, I heavily relied on my texture bakes from the high poly sculpts. I used them procedurally with the Generator "mg_mask_editor" to target the curvature and position of the object. This was great for adding in highlights and gradient effects, which would normally have been painted manually. In Fig 5. A on the layers list under "Stylized_Wood_001", you can see how I broke up and targeted different areas of the wood. I started with 3 bases that were in pure overall color variation. Then, I targeted the "Edges" (Fig 5.B) "Crack_Dark" (Fig 5.C) of the models. For more variation, I added a gradient on top of it, like how they do in hand painting stylized textures. I did this same type of setup for the other materials as well. Then I would go to each prop, assign these Smart Materials and modify them accordingly. Finally (seen in Fig 6), I would add in the "Stylized_World_Lighting" layer to the model to simulate and depth of sky and ground light bounces to the objects as a whole.
At the end of the day, I'm happy with what I was able to come up with my texturing, but looking back now I see so many places with the room to improve. Some of my metals have a reflection on them and some don't. Most stylized game materials (like the kind I'm trying to emulate; Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm,etc.) don't have much for reflection if at all.
Marmoset Lighting and Setup
Finally, I brought everything together in Marmoset. I initially compiled the scene in MODO, and when I imported the assets into Marmoset, they just popped right in the exact same place. The only exception was the plants. I made about 3 or 4 variations of them and decided to lay them out in Marmoset. I regretted this very quickly since I find navigating and manipulating objects in marmoset can be quite cumbersome.
For lighting, the light source in the concept is coming entirely from above with a type of fog all around and everything seems to have a good set of even lighting. So when I just did a single spotlight (with fog) at a high intensity pointing down (Fig 7.A), I wasn't getting a lot of detail on the objects in the scene because it was casting very hard shadows all around. Especially, from the support beams down on to the center cage, pretty much hiding it.
So in (Fig 7.B) I turned on the marmoset Sky using a darker interior HDRI preset and turning down the brightness to give me an overall low illumination to the scene. Then, I added a few spotlights pointing in from the sides along with two-point lights (with shadow casting turned off) higher in the environment to add some rim lighting.
Lastly, I still didn’t feel like I was scoring the god ray's casting in from above well enough. So I went in (Fig 7.C) and added additional spotlights right between the support beams, where they would be casting from higher intensities to really push that effect. I also threw one spot directly below the support beams onto the cage to help push more attention there as well.
In terms of post effects, all I really did was just tweak the Exposure and Saturation settings slightly within Marmoset's camera. Beyond that, I didn't do much more.
Looking back at it, I'm very pleased with how it turned out. Now I see so many things that I can go back and improve upon or do differently and I plan to do so in the future. I struggled a lot with my texturing, which, I feel, shows and not really being able to sell the broken cage story as the focus/attention grabber. I also like to redo the whole scene within Unreal 4, which will give me much better control over the fog, lighting, and open up options to include some cool particle effects.
Other than that, I had a blast every step of the way. From taking on various challenges, getting excited when my bakes came out perfect the first time. Redoing tasks over & over until I got the results I wanted and most importantly, seeing it through all the way to the end. This was a project where I knew I would be facing many obstacles: like the uncomfortable feeling you can get when your learning something new, staying motivated to put my personal time into it every night after working a full day and most importantly to never doubt myself.
So for any artists out there, who are stuck on a project, feeling discouraged or just not motivated. I say to you: "Think back to where your passion for art comes from. It’s okay to fail just as long as you get back up and most importantly don't quit, don't quit, DON'T QUIT!!".
Ken Bock, 3D Artist
Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova
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