Time really flies! I joined the talented studio Ubisoft in Stockholm and I feel like I’m growing every day at work. During my free time, I mainly focus on doing more drawings and concept art. In the past, I did 365 Days of Art for two years and drew every day. It was a really good exercise for learning more about color and composition plus becoming being quicker when creating ideas and doing paintovers for 3D. For me, 2D and 3D are complementing each other in a very good way and in the future, I want to fuse them even more. To put my drawing skills to test, I’m planning to create illustrations for a children’s book my dear friend Sara Forsberg is writing. After doing many projects I see that the best way to take a big step in improvement is to put yourself in a project where deadlines exist and other people are growing together with you. Finding a contest or a side project you can do with a friend is a good way to push your skills and have some fun along the way.
For the Artstation Challenge, I wanted to do something different from what I usually do. When I start a new project I try to set some challenges – I usually put two or three main topics that I want to tackle in-depth and then build the scene around them. This time, I went for the hand-painted style, sculpting and time management.
I also wanted to focus on bringing a concept piece to life and Emilie’s beautiful concept of Merlin’s Cave was a perfect fit. I had to be smart with the planning, so I set up a google sheet to get a good overview of the tasks and mark them with green when they are done. Keeping the plan simple is key – you only need to have a quick overview of where you are and what is left to do.
During the blockout, I want to establish the silhouettes and composition first, plus set up basic lighting. I usually do the whole scene in Maya, then export it in Unreal Engine. When I am happy with the result, I start breaking things up into smaller pieces and planning what assets I’ll need for the scene. For rendering, I use Maya’s Arnold – it has a GPU function which allows to bake simple lightning and make the forms read clearer really quickly.
I wanted to capture Emilie’s concept first and then work from it to fill the whole cave. I tried to get a feeling of the room as fast as possible and then focused on bigger asset like trees.
Blocking out vegetation early con can help you a lot and it’s a fast process if you do it smartly. I always do a quick version in Photoshop first, so I don’t waste time on modeling. Just doodle some nice shapes and see if they are reading well. Remember, when you do a leaf card think about the negative space. Also, try to be smart and create small branches from a big one. Keep some gaps that will let you cut out the smaller pieces and then build bigger branches from all the pieces to get a fluffier canopy. And with some gradient and multiply painted over the random leaves, you can get some quick depth. Later on, you can just model over your painted leaf cards, get a stronger normal map and add all the other maps that are needed.
I do the same with tiled textures – just doodle some quick shapes with a noise brush to get a good bark, for example, or take an existing texture and just do some Photoshop filter magic on it. First, get the shapes in and find a good color balance, and after that, you can create a nice high poly.
I focused on Fable Legends and World of Warcraft as my key reference for the style. When it comes to doing stylized art, the form is key, so keeping the focus on the silhouette of the trees was important. Try making it flat-shaded and see how good it is reading. You can push the silhouette shape to make it read clearer and also add some quirkiness to it.
I tried to keep the trees very simple but still readable. As I wanted to save time on texturing, I knew that a strong base was important. The surface needed to give the feeling of an old tree so I started with a simple standard brush to create the form, then moved over to building on top of that with Orb Tube and Orb Cracks. If you don’t have Orb brush back (you should get it) you can also use Clay Buildup with DamStandard. After that, I pinched and moved the extrusions from the tree and built the form that way finishing everything with Trim Dynamic.
A note: when sculpting, try to keep a low resolution as long as you can. It is easier to build form and move around the surface that way.
Working on the props quickly was important. I wanted to fill the place but also keep the same quality, so the plan was to have quite a simple texture style and let the form play a bigger role. I started with box modeling and then used the Lattice tool in Maya to bend the forms. During this stage, import the high poly with some flat-shaded colors in the engine to see if it reads there. The quicker you get something in the engine, the better your tweaking is going to be. The Lattice approach can also be used later on the low poly. It’s good to make the background flat-shaded and your props flat-shaded black to read the forms easier.
For texturing, I used an approach that we utilized while working on Blast Out at Tarhead Studio. At that time, we were inspired by Fanny Vergne, the people at Blizzard and the Dota 2 style guide, a really good read if you want to do top-down art. The approach is to focus on the sculpt and let the baked textures do the work for you. After the high poly is done, I bake out Curvature, Ambient Occlusion, and Convexity to use them as alphas for texturing.
I start in Photoshop with flat color and add some gradient. After that, I take the AO and the purple color for shadows. I invert the AO and put it in the alpha channel of the flat color. 25 % opacity and multiply and we have the first base. After that, I put on the Curvature with around 30% opacity on with overlay as the mode. This gives some nice definition. After that, I take the Convexity and use that as a mask for a brighter color than the base one to give the texture some highlights. After that, you can just start painting on a separate layer and add some more personal touch. This is a way to get a really quick and non-destructible texture where you can change the base color, for example, without destroying anything else.
Making the pages for the book was super fast. I really wanted to paint them but with the short amount of time I had, I just took existing pages from a big medieval book and used Photoshop filters on them. I usually use a dry brush and some cut-out, plus the reduce noise filter. With more time you can use this as a base and paint over.
Lighting & VFX
I really wanted to get a magical feeling for the lightning and go with nice strong colors. I opted for the mixture of blues and lilac with some warmer red and brown tints. For this scene, I used baked lightning with softened shadows.
In the scenes, I am usually using the same lightmass settings that have been working for me for quite a while.
I kept VFX quite simple. Effects are still very new for me so I used a combination of YouTube tutorials and help from my co-worker Elia Anagrius Stampes. Mainly, I wanted to give depth to the water and create the white outlines around the objects. The foam and the water were made with depth nodes.
I would say time was the biggest challenge. I knew how to tackle different tasks, but I did not have that much time to do what I wanted so I had to plan smart. I tend to use my side project as a good exercise to learn and improve my time management. Good planning will make the project less stressful and boost your productivity. When planning, don’t forget to always give yourself some free time to breathe and relax. Knowing how to plan your own portfolio pieces will help you a lot when you start working at a studio: you can estimate the time required for the tasks, plan extra work, etc.
I’d also like to point out how important it is to look for feedback from friends, co-workers or in the online communities. When you do a project under a deadline you can easily forget things you had in mind, while a conversation with a friend might serve as a reminder or generate completely new ideas. And don’t forget to give feedback to others as well. In the industry you are working in, the production is feedback driven.
Jacob Claussen, Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev