Crafting Grand Well-Balanced Environments
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Thank you for sharing your work process!!

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Crafting Grand Well-Balanced Environments
25 April, 2019
Environment Art
Interview

Brie Gibson shared the details behind the production of Guardian, her thesis project at Ringling, and talked about the blockout, composition, material & foliage lighting tricks, and more.

Introduction

I’m Brie Gibson, an Environment Artist from Houston, Texas. Currently, I’m a Senior at Ringling College of Art and Design studying Game Art. Since I will graduate in May 2019, and I am looking for opportunities to break into the game industry.

I chose Ringling because of their Game Art program. A lot of other programs are more generalist or game design focused but Ringling’s isn’t. Their program currently focuses on Environment Art. The projects made by Ringling students are also a reason why I chose it: the work produced here is phenomenal and I’m constantly inspired by not only our alumni but our current students as well.

The program can be quite rigorous: while it isn’t hard to get in, it is hard to stay. We’re constantly pushed to be on par with the industry from day one until we graduate. There’s a world of possibilities in Game Art and Ringling allows for students to access and experience multiple facets of being a game artist. I personally know I couldn’t have learned and grown so much in such a short period of time without the guidance Ringling provided.

Guardian

Goals

Guardian was my thesis project, and for it, I wanted to create something epic, impactful, and memorable to showcase all of the skills I’ve learned here at Ringling. Basically, I wanted to go out with a bang.

One of the requirements for our senior thesis environments is to include a small interactive space. So our environments should not only be beautiful but also have meaningful player interactions and a navigable path.

One of my individual goals outside of the project requirements was to create a scene that felt like a scene from any fantasy game and a world that felt like it extended beyond the limits of what actually existed. Lore and worldbuilding are one of my favorite things about fantasy, so having the feeling there’s a whole world behind those mountains that I could get lost in was essential for me.

The scene is actually quite big. It’s separated into three main areas showcased in each of my beauty shots, the vista, the wall, and the interior sanctuary. Since this is an interactive space, each key area has a visual landmark for the player to navigate around the space.

I planned the visual development, and while I deviated a lot from my original idea, it is still the basis for all of my work.

Blockout & Modeling

When blocking out a new environment, I focus on big shapes and silhouettes primarily, getting the gesture of the environment right before building off it further. Silhouette is one of the most important things to maintain in a good model. Details are the flavor, they can be baked down, but the silhouette is what breaks the scene apart and stops it from being so flat.

When modeling, it’s important to remember that not every model needs to be a hero prop. If a simple model gets the job done, it gets the job done. Sometimes a box is just a box. Yet, I try to give every model at least the second pass.

Modeling-wise, I try to keep every asset as reusable as possible. For example, the big fortress style walls are broken into many pieces: an arch, columns, a lower wall, a buttress, an upper wall, and damaged versions of each of those pieces. With more pieces it’s easier to create interesting arrangements, otherwise, you might limit yourself. The only asset from the wall kit that’s only used once is the gate.

It’s also important to reference real-world architecture. While fantasy is fantasy, it’s still based in reality. Architecture, especially old and ancient one, has certain structures and layering tules that are needed for it to be believable. The architectural style of the old fortresses isn’t necessarily complex but has some limitations that, if added, can make the model more credible. Personally, I referenced a lot of old Moorish architecture from southern Spain.

Materials & Textures

A lot of the geometry is fairly simple because this was a solo project on a big scale and a time limit. I had to find a lot of ways to speed up production while still achieving the look and feel I wanted. I knew from the beginning that I could push my models further with good textures. Texturing is an incredibly important part of the art process to learn. The textures can make or break a model no matter how good the latter is. For me, it was more important that the materials hit the visuals I wanted rather than be necessarily realistic.

My materials are mostly produced in Substance Designer. One of my goals was to create tileable, highly reusable textures.

While my textures carry a lot of the weight of my models, I didn’t want them to be too overwhelming. I made sure that visually they had balance and weren’t too noisy. Too much activity is overwhelming and too little is boring for the viewer.

To make my models align with my visual targets, I used a few material tricks. I wanted my scene to be grand and epic, and a quick and easy way to make structures feel more imposing is to set up a linear gradient based on the Z axis. This adds more variety visually and grounds a lot of the tall structures.

Above you can see a simple set up used to get more variety in the material. World space allows the transition to be visible based on the height of the object in the world. The parameter values depend on the scale of your scene and should be tweaked individually. In some areas it’s subtle but you still can see the gradient in the examples. Atmospheric perspective dictates: the further something is away from the viewer the lighter it appears. This rule reinforces the distance visually.

Value is often overlooked when it comes to materials, but instances of a material with altered values can add more depth, accentuate pre-existing modeling work, and guide the player eyes. In terms of the color palette, I always try to stay within a primary, secondary, and accent color for the scene. Just like I’ve mentioned above, too much color will create too much noise for the viewer while too little color can be boring to look at.

Composition

A large part of the composition was nailed down in the blockout stage. While I am an Environment
Artist primarily, I also have a background in illustration. At the start of any 3D project, I start with exploratory environmental sketches that often messy and ugly. They’re meant to make quick, highly iterative changes and save time. It’s quicker and cheaper to make design decisions and mistakes in 2D rather than in 3D.

Like in blockout, shape and silhouette are really important for the composition as well. Each compositional shot is set up in such a way that the environment is broken into foreground, midground, and background. Everything is built to support the overall visual. The lighting is angled specifically to enhance the composition, highlight focal points, and draw the player’s attention to interactive elements. ( I’ll talk more about the lighting in this scene later). A major supporting element for composition in grand scenes is verticals. Verticals direct the player’s eyes up and make the scene feel bigger, but like with anything, you’ll want to use them moderately.

Flow is essential for any composition for it guides the viewer’s eyes through the piece and art should be looked at. The depth of the scene relates to the breakdown between foreground, midground, and background. Your focal point should be in the mid-ground of the piece to get the most attention. A great way to get the viewer to look at your focal point is to make it the area of most contrast. In the image above, you can see that the first place that draws your attention is at the shed because of the lighting and placement. A general guide to composition is to have all the elements asymmetrically balanced, which makes them more interesting. If the composition was evenly split it wouldn’t be nearly as engaging. The larger and darker forms on the left make that side of the composition feel heavier to the viewer. A good composition has places of high activity and areas of rest for the eye.

It’s a bit cheesy, but constructing the environment to me is a lot like creating a painting. I constantly check on the progress of my environments. At the beginning of each project, I set up potential screenshot locations in key areas and take a screenshot every time a meaningful change is made in the space. This is done to make sure the environments are continuously working and that I don’t lose any artistic choices I’ve made along the way. All in all, I’d say I took about nearly 1,000 screenshots over the process.

Tips & Tricks for Foliage

During the scene production, I’ve also learned many tips and tricks to working with foliage and lighting it properly. First off, when creating masks for foliage to maintain a soft look I apply a 0.1 gaussian blur. It helps things look a little bit more fantastical in my opinion.

I also pay special attention to lighting grass. Because there is so much foliage in the scene which means the allotted lightmaps are quite small. Therefore, to get the grass to be lighter, softer, and more integrated into the scene, I make it ta bit emissive.

A lot of my optimization process was about trying to do the most with as little as possible. I tried to make most of my assets modular and if they were not modular, I tried to create them in a way that they were highly versatile and could be re-used as many times as possible. A lot of my foliage is created with the same approach in mind. The vines were modular, and I created several arrangements to fit around a variety of structures including flat and bent surfaces. Creating this modular system allowed for the vines to be placed anywhere and bend around almost any surface.

For the foliage, a portion of the project’s textures was created in ZBrush where I modeled a base. The base was then imported into Substance Designer as a heightmap, and  I generated a diffuse, normals, and opacity mask from it. The other portion of the foliage textures was generated in Photoshop and hand-painted. I only did this for a few foliage pieces like grass or some lotus flower leaves. If the simplest method works and looks good, do it and save yourself time.

Lighting

I approach lighting first from a mood standpoint: what feeling do I want to evoke in the scene? In this level, I wanted every aspect to feel like a fantasy environment, to carry that other-worldly charm with it.

Technically, the lighting in this scene is actually quite simple. Everything in the scene is lit with one Directional light and baked down. I worked on the scene and the lighting together throughout the whole process, and when the scene changed and evolved so did the lighting.

I used an HDRI skybox. It’s important to try and get as high-quality skybox as possible because of the scale and constant visibility. For me, it was essential that my skybox was HDRI because I wanted to produce an HDRI map to plug into my skylight.

Using an HDRI image allows for your skybox to more accurately affect your environment: you can see that the subtle hues of the skybox are reflected throughout the space (slight purple and pink tinges). You have to import the skybox and the HDRI separately. The HDRI size matters less since Unreal scales it to 512 no matter what. The HDRI is simply hooked up to the skylight as an SLS Specified Cubemap but it adds a lot to the feeling of the piece.

I personally got my skybox from HDRI Haven which offers free licensed HDRI skyboxes.

Conclusion

I’m always happy to answer any questions about my work and talk more about techniques. I’m available at bgibson@c.ringling.edu.

You can also follow me and my work at my Artstation.

Brie Gibson, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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