It’s really great to talk to 80 Level again! I am still working as an Environment Artist at Next Level Games in Vancouver, Canada, plus I spent a bit of the last year traveling in Europe. I went to Italy, Croatia, and Germany for a few months, which was a fantastic way to see all types of architecture and artwork. I think being able to see environments like that in real life is really great for any artist.
I'm really lucky to have a workplace that is able to support artists in this difficult time. I know it has been really hard for many in this industry, including some of my close friends. I count myself lucky to be able to work from home safely and hope everyone is doing okay out there.
The drawing showed the house standing on its own without any background, and it felt like something that could be translated well into a diorama piece. I am obsessed with the idea of dioramas because the entire scene is shown on screen all at once, which translates pretty quickly in 3D. In comparison, if I had made this as an open scene with a full background (which I may do later on, we’ll see!) it would require a lot more work to fill out the shot. It can be difficult to create a background that feels balanced in terms of proportion and composition from multiple angles, in comparison to a diorama which is framed within one shot.
Even though I mainly showed the medieval pub from the right-hand side, I could still play with different angles whether straight on, tilted upwards, or a pseudo-isometric view from above. I think you get a well-balanced scene quickly by putting the work on a floating platform, and I honestly just like that look almost more than a full shot. It adds a lot of charm when viewing it as a miniature environment.
To begin the piece, I modeled the entire house first so that I could import it into the game engine as soon as possible. I usually like to block in the piece which allows me to set up my lighting and camera angles early on. That way I don't waste my time modeling areas that you may never see (which is pretty common with dioramas, as I usually show them from one main perspective).
The concept is quite stylized and slanted, with very few straight lines. To achieve this I modeled most of the wood planks normally, and just used soft selection or the deform lattice in Maya to reshape them. For example, the small mini roof on the right-hand side was originally 10 straight planks lined up, which I manipulated as a group to create a sloped silhouette. Small details like skewing planks jutting out from the house help with this stylization as well.
This process generally consisted of base-modeling, importing into the engine, seeing how it felt, tweaking, re-importing, rinsing, and repeating. Some of the components like the stone wall on the left-hand side were not modeled too extensively from the beginning since I knew I was going to adjust them based on the texture I’d be making later on.
One peculiar thing I find about this initial modeling stage is that, although I try to stick as close to the original concept as possible, I do tend to lean towards changing elements to fit my own personal style and taste. For example, with the house, I added a few more windows to create additional light sources I could play with. Another change was making it more of a pub versus a house/cottage by using some of the barrel props I had made under the roof area. I also incorporated a variety of foliage into the scene.
If you’ve seen more of my portfolio you’ll notice that I tend to prefer scenes that feel lush and overgrown (I can't quite help myself).
This piece landed pretty close to the concept, but I did add those few elements to customize it to what I wanted to create.
Overall, I think this initial modeling phase is my favorite part. I enjoy the beginning of a project mostly because it's full of potential, plus you can create things really quickly and see the result of your work almost immediately. It feels quite rewarding for me as an artist. I always joke about the pipeline of a piece resembling the process of growing up. In the beginning, you are young and full of ideas and growth, then there can be a bit of an awkward teenage middle phase where you’re not quite sure where it's going, and by the end, hopefully, you (the scene) look well thought out and mature. Sorry for a cheesy metaphor, ha!
Ground and Straw Materials in Substance Designer
I am still a bit new to Substance Designer, and luckily I have some really amazing coworkers and friends who have shown me the ropes. My friend Johnny Malcolm specifically has been a great resource through learning this somewhat intimidating software. I think my favorite substance in this project was either the straw (which is probably the most stylized one and has its own charm, I hope!) or the ground texture used on the main pedestal. That last material was my most complex graph, as I created individual plant shapes that were then tiled together.
To make this ground texture, I first created a single leaf shape, which I warped and manipulated a few times to create variety.
Then I plugged it into a few splatter circular nodes to create four different plant types.
I made three leaf/clover shapes and one detailed flower.
The initial leaf shape is also used in some of the foliage in the scene, including the trees in the background, the purple wildflowers, and the mesh alphas that trail away from the grass. Tweaking the size and proportion of the original leaf gave me a lot of mileage, which is why this software is so powerful. It's very easy to iterate as you go and allows you to recycle assets and graphs to create new art easily.
Once I made all my little plants and flowers, I wanted to tile them together to create the ground/grass texture. To do this I needed to tile them individually since I didn't want them to overlap and collide. First, I started with the most detailed plant, and tiled it to a density I felt happy with. I just used mask random, position random, offset random, scale random, etc. to get a nice balanced pattern. Once I was happy with this, I took that node and histogram-scanned it to fully isolate the position of the plants. Then I used a levels node to reverse it, and used this as the mask map input for the next round of the tile sampler. This way the next plant shape would not be placed in the same locations the first plant had been placed within. Then I went on to tile the second plant shape using this mask and blended it with the original tile sampler. This process was repeated for the next two plant shapes, and now all the plants sat in their own space without crashing.
If I had plugged all four shapes into a single tile sampler node I would have much less control over the locations of each plant individually, and it would be hard to get an organic and random placement without things overlapping. To finish I blended them over a grassy/straw base I made to finish the heightmap.
This texture is a bit busy to apply all over the ground pedestal, so I ended up making a simplified version of the texture to blend in Unreal with vertex painting. I didn't want these baked in plants absolutely everywhere, so this gave me control over where I placed this material. I also blended them with a brown mud/dirt texture I made, which is mostly painted near the house and under the rocks.
The straw texture is much more simplistic.
I started with a rectangle shape node, which I warped a bit to randomize it and break the rigidity. I blended gradients over it to create the effect of the strands flaring out at the base for the normal and heightmap. I also blended a noise I created with a directional warp to add small striations on top so that each shape felt more like straw.
Once I had the strand formed, I needed to create a clump of them to tile together. I used a splatter circular node to form a few small groups of strands, which was later plugged into a tile sampler.
Once I was happy with the placement of the clusters that was it for the height/normal map. The albedo was created by blending a few gradient maps from the height together, along with a strong curvature on top. To get the effect of wispy straw on the model itself, I applied this texture onto a base and then used the clusters I made in Substance to render alpha cards on top.
This way I could break the silhouette in Unreal and make it look like it was made of individual strands without it being too expensive on the model.
I still have a long way to go with Substance Designer, but I do think it really helped this piece come together. I can't wait to learn more of this software for my next scenes and see how far I can take it.
Lighting is so important for anything in 3D, as it can really make or break your models.
My setup is a pretty simple three-point light system with some individual lights to create the internal glow. To start, I added a directional light with super low intensity to light up the room a little bit. Then, I used one main spotlight directing from the left-hand side towards the house to create the most dynamic light. There is also a second spotlight from the right-hand side to fill in some of the darkest shadows. It's set to low intensity and does not cast any shadows, it's just used to soften the scene generally. Finally, I used a super strong rim light in the back to highlight the silhouette of the diorama. You can really see its effect on the straw roof at the top, and on some of the trees. The rim light helps separate the house from the background, which is important for a diorama since it's a stand-alone piece floating within the world.
For the glow within the house, I used a combination of point lights and spotlights inside the geometry of the mesh. I modeled a very basic interior (I simply extruded the door/window gaps and threw on a tiling texture) so that there was some surface for the lights to bounce off of. For the doorway, I used a very strong point light to illuminate the silhouette of the door planks and cast light onto the ground.
The same technique was used for most of the windows. I had to add back faces to the window frame slats so that the spotlights in the mesh reflected the silhouette of the window shape. This is really evident on the tiny tower windows on the upper right-hand side where the light falls onto the shingles below. This process was mostly going back and forth, tweaking the strength of the individual lights, how saturated they were, etc. until I was happy with it. I really wanted to convey a warm glow emanating from the interior as if the pub could be busy and full of people.
I've rendered a few of my past pieces with Marmoset Toolbag, which is a great piece of software. However, I really wanted this scene to feel natural and lush, and I knew I needed to incorporate vertex painting to achieve this, so Unreal seemed the way to go. The skybox is really simplistic, just a sphere with reversed normals and a flat grey texture. I played with an actual skybox with a starry night sky, but it felt a little disconnected from the seemingly floating island in the middle. So I decided to stick with a flat background and a super strong rim light to make the diorama the focal point.
For movement, I also added some wind to the texture of the foliage, some particles for the chimney smoke, and some small fireflies floating around. I think the more movement an environment has the more believable and alive it feels, and I hope to incorporate more particle types in future pieces I create.
This project took about a month or so to make. The general timeline is a few days for base-modeling, a week or two for texturing, a few days for lighting, a few days for foliage creation, and then the last bit for elements like particles, lighting tweaks, camera animations, and renders/breakdowns.
One of the biggest hurdles was probably connected with how to treat the pedestal since it wasn’t included in the concept. Originally, I had a simple rectangular block, however, as the piece came together, I found that it felt too simplistic. At one point, I had the building on some sort of an “orb” type thing, but that also felt a little disconnected. By the end of the project, I chose a sort of a flattened disk with a large amount of tessellation and foliage to transition between the house and the ground, which felt right to me.
Another issue I had was the amount of wood in the scene. I felt like the house elements kept blending together and it was feeling a little muddy, so I spent some time tweaking and tinting textures to try to get more material separation.
On the whole, this piece came together quite easily, more so than other pieces I’ve made. The issues I had were fairly minimal. I had a really good concept to reference, and I cannot stress enough how important this is. I've made some pieces “blindly” without any concept to follow, and I know that it can be a struggle to translate your own ideas into a 3D space.
I'm really fortunate to know a lot of 3D artists from work and school, so I was able to bug them with a bunch of questions about realistic lighting and textures for this scene. I think it's important to maintain connections with colleagues and friends in this industry, and it's great when you can get people’s opinions or ideas about your art. You can easily get tunnel vision when working on projects, and sometimes an outside viewer can point out little things that make a massive difference. I’d definitely recommend trying to organize little reviews or critiques with as many people as possible throughout the development of your projects.
I hope this article was interesting and informative for everyone! Cheers!