Stylized 3D Art Philosophy

Stylized 3D Art Philosophy

Dylan Mellott shared his thoughts on stylized and hard-surface 3D art as well as shared some useful tips and materials for learning. 

Dylan Mellott shared his thoughts on stylized and hard-surface 3D art as well as shared some useful tips and materials for learning.

Introduction

Hello folks, my name is Dylan Mellott and I’m a Hard-Surface Artist in the Video Game Industry.

Throughout this article I’m going to be walking you through some of my overall philosophy on creating Stylized 3D Art (and some things to consider for 3D in general) but before we do that I’ll give a glimpse into my background and how I got into this Industry.

Where do you come from? Where did you study?

I grew up in a very rural village in Pennsylvania and only started to take interest in art at the very end of High-School. A mentor of mine pushed me towards furthering my education so I took the leap to go to game art school for my BSc. Even though I had a curriculum and classes, the vast majority of my practical learning took place in Art Forums like Polycount, LunchCrunch, and Ten-Thousand Hours.

Connecting with other artists online was a huge factor in my growth and eventual employment, and it’s something that I keep up with to this day.

What companies have you worked at? How did you get into the game art in general?

My first ever professional gig was working as a 3D Artist at a company called Marxent, which is a commercial AR and VR company. I modeled various household props and created tiling textures of the floor and wall tiles that you could purchase at a Home Goods store like Lowe’s or Home Depot.

While I wanted to work in the Game Industry, this job kept my skills sharp and I got to work with a lot of young and motivated individuals. I even learned Substance while working there and I was fortunate to have an opportunity like that right after school.

As I mentioned, I had my heart set on working in Games and so every day for a year I went home after my day job and worked on my portfolio. Eventually, this would pay off when I got my first Industry gig as an Associate Weapon Artist at Hi-Rez Studios. My first game was Paladins: Champions of the Realm and I’m very appreciative for my first project to have been a stylized one. On Paladins, I learned how to push shape language, look for tone variation in materials, and how to hand-paint. These skills would come to serve me to this day and on every project that I’ve worked on.

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After Hi-Rez I went to work at DICE LA on Battlefield 1 and Battlefield V. It was really interesting to go from hand-painted and stylized art to immediate switch for photorealistic weapons and gadgets. Having that photoreal skillset really rounded out my overall approach to making art, and during my time there I was fortunate to be under the guidance of two stellar hard-surface artists who’d been working in games for decades. The team at DICE LA pushed my quality bar to new heights and I gained a deeper respect for every step of the 3D process.  I have a ton of appreciation for the team there and the level of fidelity they set to accomplish.

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Eventually, working on both stylized and photoreal projects led me to have a great admiration of both workflows and it’s all ended up informing the artist that I am today. Ultimately, this experience took me to new territory with The Mentor Coalition where I currently mentor anyone who is interested in learning more about 3D fundamentals and how to create stylized 3D artwork.

I love working with TMC and it’s a pleasure to stand alongside great industry talent who are all putting themselves out there to help people grow.  I love to support artists in their journey and it’s been an experience I’ve thoroughly appreciated.

A Few Aspects of Stylized Art

There are a few broad principles to be aware of when it comes to making stylized art, but some of them extend to art in general. I like to break it down into three overarching sections.

  • Shape Language

This is the first and foremost element to be aware of.  This might be a term that you’ve heard fairly often, but really the essence is what sort of “feeling” you get when you look at an object.

There are many things to consider when manipulating shape language, but it’s important to keep reminding yourself about the feeling you’re trying to get across. Once you know your intent, look at objects in the natural world or other artwork that might evoke that feeling and introduce similar elements into your work.

We can use these elements to play to our viewer’s expectations (round characters being stereotypically jolly or friendly) or we can even use them to subvert our viewer’s expectations (round characters but with strong, secondary triangular components to give a sense of uncertain danger).

Take for instance the designs of Sully and Mike from the Monster’s Inc. universe and note how rounded they are. Any pointed and potentially dangerous elements have been reduced in size or rounded-off,  this lends to the idea that these characters are more inviting or safe to be around. These are the kinds of ideas we can utilize in our work to emphasize our intent.

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Before moving on, I’m giving a small shout-out to silhouette here as this goes hand-in-hand with shape language and describes what the solid image of a given object is. Typically this is represented as a full-black image that shows the outline of the object in question. Silhouette provides the viewer with a sense of form at a distance. It’s a way to immediately read an object and impart how you might need to react to it. You can use shape language in tandem with silhouettes to sell your intent even further.

  • Exaggeration

Did you push or reduce your forms to exaggerate your intent? Did you use color and tone to emphasize what you want your audience or viewer to feel? What are you trying to highlight and in what way?

A favorite reference of the last two points is Moby Francke. I specifically reference his work because he utilizes the importance of readability, simplicity, iconic design elements, and intentional use of color. Notice in the references below how Francke exaggerates parts of the body, hands, head, and weapons. Combining these components makes his work stands out as being unique and captivating.

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  • Gradient

Possibly my favorite part of the three overarching points. For this section, I want to specifically point towards Dota 2, as in some ways they’ve sort of standardized the idea of using functional gradients in games via their extensive art guide.

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Gradient is one of those things that has a ton of utility. It can be used both in color and in grayscale, but the understanding of gradient, in a nutshell, is that it has at least two major functions in stylized art:

  • Firstly, it establishes contrast by highlighting brighter values while pushing back darker values. We can use this to draw attention to more important elements while tamping down less important ones.
  • Secondly, it establishes a layer of basic depth via value and tone variation. This can be used overall across an entire piece or only on very specific elements.

In the context of a game, the gradient can be very important for an isometric or top-down camera like you’ll find in Dota 2 or League of Legends.  It helps to distinguish characters not only from one another but also from the environment that they are in.

In the context of individual art pieces, the gradient can be used to effectively introduce simple variation. This will help to make your work appear layered, allowing you to then build upon it with a greater effect.

Before we move on to the 3D and Technical portions I want to emphasize that there is a large spectrum on how to approach stylization. Rarely will you find stylized art that doesn’t combine multiple elements of art fundamentals. I encourage you to always look at a wide range of art, and ask yourself what speaks to you!

Modeling Workflow & Philosophy

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When it comes to modeling there are a lot of ways to approach how to build shapes and assets. However, what doesn’t change are basic considerations in regards to your models and your work.

One of the most essential things to remember is that your responsibility as a 3D game artist is to ensure that your work not only looks as polished as possible but is also highly optimized to perform well at runtime.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old dude, I’ll often hear students and beginning 3D artists toss around the phrase “engines can afford so many more polygons now!” This is a bad mentality and will lead to a lot of unnecessary bloat in your models, much frustration with your work, and a lot of glares from your Tech Artists. New tools or engine updates do not afford us the ability to forget about being meticulous in our work. We must always strive to deliver our best quality at our highest degree of fidelity and optimization.

How do you work with the geometry?

When I start a new model I always keep the topology super low. I build what is essentially going to function as my game resolution mesh that I can manipulate very easily and non-destructively. It’s extremely important for me at this stage to avoid adding a ton of details or subdivisions.  I want to solve nearly all of the problems in the game resolution mesh instead of trying to solve them in the high poly later. This helps to keep the high poly process very simple and I can up-res or down-rez very easily from there.

High Poly Workflow

My high poly workflow is pretty simple. For stylized art where I want very specific control over the way my bevels read when smoothed, I usually end up doing my holding edges by hand. Sometimes I’ll use a “double turbosmooth” method in 3ds Max but usually, I’ll always go in and hand-edit it afterward. Adding edges by hand is time-consuming, but if we have simple and clean topology then it’s a snap.

When it comes to more complex operations where I might have to cut something in, I might use a boolean and fix the geo afterward. Most of the time I end up drawing vertices or lines and cutting the shape out to fit the concept or design as needed. My overall approach here is that I want as little cleanup as possible. I like to work with modifiers in 3ds Max and approach my work in layers. This lets me work in a really flexible way where I can just turn on or off elements as needed. Basically, I invest the time up front to speed up the steps later.

UVs

When it comes to UVs for hard surface, the main thing to be aware of is that you want to keep your UV edges straight where possible as this will allow you to pack your UV islands more closely. Also, bear in mind that you really only need 6-8 pixels of space between islands to prevent texture bleeding when you mip your textures down.

*If you’re unfamiliar with what Mipping is, it just references a texture that becomes progressively lower in resolution. Usually, this is used to reduce render time and is a cost-efficient way to help with memory loads.

My workflow mainly focuses around trying to keep as few UV Islands as possible.  This helps for clarity when editing UVs but also reduces the number of vertices created by splitting your UVs. Every so often you’ll need to go and add more UV splits due to erroneous shading or odd normals, but I always try to start large and break it up from there.

These days we have access to things like IPackThat and RizomUV. These software solutions are used to great effect, I personally usually end up using a mix of packing software with editing by hand afterward. I like to know what I’m getting and if there is an error I need to correct later on I know why, where it came from, and where it’s located.  I definitely encourage you to learn these tools, but having a thorough understanding of UVs first will be very important. Again, new software solutions do not afford the ability to become less meticulous!

Texturing Process

For texturing these days I use several different software choices and it’s pretty dependent on what my goals for the given project are.

Substance Painter offers a lot of flexibility in terms of non-destructive workflows and procedural materials. The catch here becomes that things look procedural out of the box and it requires a lot of hand editing and masking to really make something look unique. Overall though, it’s one of my favorite tools to use.

3D Coat and Photoshop are my go-to tools for making handpainted art. The color blending tools in 3D Coat and the ability sync to Photoshop makes the combination of these two tools a strong force in the stylized artist’s toolkit.

*One additional thing I’ll mention is interesting new tools like SoMuchDiffuse that give you some hand-painting flexibility in Substance Painter. New options like this could open new doors for the stylized 3D artist.

Stylized PBR

This is a topic that I have a particular love for. In modern games, we’ve just begun to touch the surface of what PBR has to offer, and there is still so much room for development and evolution. You could definitely say that I’m just a bit excited to see where we take stylized PBR in the future of games.

My overall approach when it comes to practical application is to do whatever it takes to make the asset look good within its own context. I know that sounds kind of broad, but ask yourself “What are the goals of this project?” My best words of wisdom are that I encourage you to experiment and to draw inspiration from many sources. Breaking convention can sometimes lead to great surprises!

Captain Ahab Details

The whale, anchor and the stripped part of the gun were a lot of fun. Painter gives great freedom to work in flexible and nondestructive manners. For these specific elements, I layered several Fill Layers together to isolate specific channels so that I may manipulate them to my needs.

First I begin by creating a Fill Layer of the color I’ll be using as my base. Then, I create a Mask on that Fill Layer where I stamp an Alpha or draw in the shape I want.

Then I simply layer on an isolated gradient and finish with a stroke layer to underline the decals.

For the Whale decal, it’s a bit more complicated but it’s a fairly similar approach.

For the outline, short of drawing an alpha by hand in Photoshop or something similar, there isn’t an easy method of approach. In this instance, I drew it by hand with pen pressure turned on so that I could get varying thickness in my lines.

From there I layer on additional elements until I match the look of the concept. As you can see from the gif below, I separate each element on to its own Fill Layer. That way I can keep my layers self-contained in case I need to make large scale edits.

Overall Advice for Learners

My best overall advice honestly is to try many different kinds of art. Every single piece of art I’ve done has informed my abilities as an individual and every style I’ve tried has in some way connected built off of previous projects. Learning how to hand-paint helped me make better realistic materials. Making realistic models helped me learn where to focus on shape language for stylized pieces.

For stylized specifics, there is a big range, but I’ll list a couple of strong tutorials below:

  • For hand-painting, the talented Yekaterina has incredible breakdowns of painting models from scratch.
  • For stylized PBR, I recommend Marc Brunet‘s introduction.

Again, I strongly encourage you to try many different methods and multiple approaches. You never know, you might just introduce the 3d community to a whole new way of approaching stylized art!

Please feel free to reach out to me directly if you have any questions or if you’d like to connect!

Contact Info

Dylan Mellott, Hard-Surface Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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