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Sam Gao talked about the stylized art direction of one of his projects with a Ghibli style and shared several tips for environment artists.
About the Project
Tactics Empire is a short adventure third-person shooter created by Erisa Liu, Ken Visudharomn, and me. The idea and direction of this project were born from both the things we loved growing up and the skills each member of the team had.
In this article I will be mainly focusing on the art direction and some environment art tips that helped in terms of efficiency and performance when I dealing with a large environment in a limited amount of time.
I wanted the style to be able to support the gameplay and the narrative setting. It is a blend between Zelda Breath of the Wild, Studio Ghibli, and Grand Blue Fantasy Relink.
The enemies in this game came from a more modern style of Japanese mecha animes such as Evangelion, from design to texturing and VFX. It is contrasting with the rest of the environment which is an old school Ghibli style. Spiderman Into the Spider-Verse proved that the style jumps can create a level of impact to the visual.
A side note about animation: Animation is quite new for me, yet I found a tip for the game animation: treat it as a GIF or emoji creating as much impact as possible within a couple of seconds to grab tension instead of thinking too much about readability and acting.
I tried to use a linear path as much as possible because it makes the level overall easier to manage and creates a heroic experience for the character with defined single-point composition.
This was reversed in the final level The Town of Noir leaving the playable area empty and surrounded by high-frequency details which gave an arena feeling.
Designing a level with art in mind saves a lot of time down the road.
Here is a sheet of our modeling style I established.
Environment Art tips: For a fantasy environment it is nice to break down the concept into a couple of elements, then build a kit for each element. “Kitbashing” is based on the limited pallet. It is much faster and most importantly, maintains consistency throughout the design.
For the town, we were heavily inspired by the vibe in Howl’s Moving Castle which took place in Europe of the early 19th century. We combined that with magical fuel that enhanced steampunk tech parts. The windmill was the testament to the style, and I used it as a guide for all the architecture.
The modular kit also handled 90% of my props.
Texturing Style and Approach
Studio Ghibli paintings are a library of the references. I wanted the materials to have a certain level of PBR properties that allow the light to bounce around nicely balanced with traditional media handcrafted flavor.
Note: I added many variations to the color map based on the reference, however, with PBR lighting I found it was easier to do the opposite. Keep the base material cool and simple. Use decals and world position to add the gradient.
Substance Designer is amazing for creating variations for one texture, and I have two versions of every texture. Blending between low and high intensity of details is based on the composition.
Another important thing is that I stylized the heightmap with the same brush set for the vertex blend.
Environment Art tips:
- For a big project, is it worth to take some time and build a system based on what the style needs avoiding 1-1 textures as much as possible, even for the props. It makes the integration process much easier.
- Keep the tiling textures under the same grid so you will only need to UV them once.
For the master material:
- Trim the edge for different types of bevels + world position + overlay gradient with a 3-way vertex blend.
Upon those, I also have mesh decals and Slope material to add variety.
For Mesh decal and cutting sheets, I found that using Masked material with DitherTemporaAA (to control the opacity) works better than using decal material.
The best way to think of vegetation in this style is to treat it like a painting, from the base color, slowly building up the details and layers.
World position color is the best way to achieve these washes of color.
Workflow: The vegetation in the Studio Ghibli style tends to have a huge range of level of details, so I created a highly-detailed version for each sample, then created low-fidelity versions through materials.
Environment Art tips: ZBrush to Substance Designer is still my favorite workflow for vegetation. Creating custom functions inside Substance makes the whole process much faster. I learned the techniques from Jeremy Huxley. Peyton Varney also has similar tutorials.
I tried the volumetric clouds but ultimately went back to hand-painting them. A trick I found is to paint a subsurface mask with the clouds and use it to fake the scattering effect.
Lighting was a tricky task because it is not “perfect” in terms of realism. I used both gradient and point light to stylize the lighting structure, both in value and color temperature. One trick I use to increase the contrast in a soft-lit situation was to shift the highlight to a cooler color.
I strongly suggest that environment artists get into some basic VFX or animation because dynamic vibrancy adds a lot to the overall feeling. You don’t need much, Zelda Breath of The Wild is a really good example.
I think art appears at its best when the personality of the artist emerges through the visuals.
A more practical suggestion would be to have a tight and clear blueprint and plan before the project but stay loose until the polish phase.
Thank you for reading! I hope you found something helpful here.
Special Thanks To
- Helder Pinto
- Mike Marra
- Trey McNair
- Giovanni Martinez
- Jeremy Huxley
- Anthony Vaccaro
- Peyton Varney
- Steven Hong
Sam Gao, Environment/3D Artist
Cartoon Water Shader by Adam Homoki is a fascinating highly stylized water material and a river tool with many features including buoyancy, caustic effect, refraction, water depth and more.
Any future updates are included and will be available for download in case they are released.