Airborn: Creating Concepts for a Stylized UE5 Animation

The Airborn Studio team discussed the process of creating concept art for their recent Airborn UE5 Showcase animation, spoke about the idea behind the project, talked about its art direction and visual language, and shared some thoughts on its color palette.

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Introduction Please introduce yourselves to our readers. How and when did you all team up?

Johannes Figlhuber, Art Director: I’m an Art Director at Airborn Studios. In the past, I was involved in games like Ori and the Blind Forest as a Lead Artist, Spyro: Reignited Trilogy, and Crash Bandicoot 4. Working on the Airborn UE5 Showcase, I shared art direction duties with Simon and also did concept work.

Simon Kopp, Art Director/Concept Artist: I work as a freelance Art Director and Concept Artist for Airborn Studios. I’ve been working in games and movies for about eight years. Airborn Studios is a very frequent client and I have also been involved in the production of the games mentioned by Johannes as a Lead Artist. I currently work as Art Director on the environment concept creation with Airborn Studios for Blizzard's Overwatch 2. Together with Johannes, I worked on the Showcase as an Art Director and Concept Artist.

Airborn UE5 Showcase How did you get started with your stunning Showcase project? What inspired you?

Johannes Figlhuber: The first idea for Airborn has been around for over 17 years and plays a large part in how Airborn Studios started and developed. Airborn started as a little personal project by Steffen Unger, and over the years more and more people got hooked on the idea and contributed their art. Some of the biggest inspirations were Laputa – Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso; movies by Studio Ghibli in general. Other influences were movies like Steamboy and Tailspin, and games like The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker and Crimson Skies.

Unreal Tournament 3 – Mod "Airborn - Pino’s Journey" – the harbor

The project got quite a lot of attention at the time and even won awards. It also kickstarted the founding of Airborn Studios as a game art production company. Fast forward a few years and we started wondering what if we spent some time with Airborn again, explored new places and characters, and used new technologies and a new engine to bring it to life. The result of these musings is what you see in the Airborn Showcase.

Small part of a village for the slightly newer UDK version

The Story Could you tell us about the story? What are its main characters, and how do they live?

Johannes Figlhuber: The basic premise is centered on a girl adopted and raised by a ragtag group of pirates and scavengers. She lives with the group, learns their ways, and how to survive in this beautiful, but harsh environment. She loves to explore, discover new creatures and collect strange plants for her collection.

One of her jobs on the ship is the maintenance and service of the airplanes of the crew. She can get into places, the burly mechanic can’t reach, and became quite proficient over the years. She managed to convince one of the pilots to show her how to fly one of the small Air Motorcycles, and now she uses every free minute in between missions to zip around on it.

She has inherited a mysterious compass – the origin and meaning of which are not known to her, and at some point, she is forced to go on a journey to find out where the artifact leads her.

Simon Kopp: It’s a pretty classic setup for a hero’s journey for sure. One of several stories that could take place in this world. After all, the setting itself was always the main draw for us since the beginning because world-building is such an appealing and enjoyable endeavor. Thinking about what kind of physics apply in such a place, what kind of flora and fauna would be able to evolve and exist, what kind of people inhabit it, and what implications a world mostly consisting of floating islands would have for their way of living and the technology they employ.

Art Direction and Visual Language How did you design this world? What are its main pillars? How would you describe its origins?

Johannes Figlhuber: When it comes to our visual language, we had lots of time to figure out the mix and direction. We wanted to design a world and people that feel both awe-inspiring and strange, yet also familiar and rugged.

We have this seemingly contradicting mix of clearly fantastical elements, like flying islands and air whales, and on the other side fauna, flora, and technology that seem functional and believable. Imagining designs that look like they adapted to those strange rules and function within those limits is something we enjoy exploring.

This is something that we wanted to be visible in the visual quality and language of the world we designed. Fairly complex, realistically rendered designs and atmospheric lighting meet slightly stylized and expressive textures and colors. There was a lot of exploration of different texture styles and how to represent details, what to accurately depict and where to simplify and stylize.

We made some brushstrokes visible, without going the full cel-shaded, ink-outlined "comic look" route. We used those brushstrokes to indicate details, creases, dirt, or wear and break up silhouettes, and add fluff to soft materials. We also found ways to stylize our normals, to give our characters a more painterly look.

Simon Kopp: The worldbuilding for Airborn was approached in a "hard world-building" fashion. We’d like to know most of the answers to most of the really important questions a viewer could have. If you were to dig into the world you’d find a lot of answers in the world.

We already had done a few themes/settings in the world of Airborn, so we knew the essence of the world. The world of Airborn has three main pillars:

  • A shattered world: Flight, verticality, openness
  • Limited landmass and scarce resources: Efficient Space management, recycling/reuse
  • Steampunk/Dieselpunk: This concerns the technology level of everyone living in our world, and how they adapt to their environment.

With this project, we wanted to do something new in this world. In order to keep it within a tight budget, we focused most of our efforts on one area of the world – the jungle area. 

The first final concept art and key artwork for the jungle area

We wanted a few key elements: A world shattered into floating islands, very different regions, believable flora and fauna, and then plausible characters living and acting inside of this world. We designed the world from big to small. We went through the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ from the whole planet down to a plant – everything is connected.

For the jungle area, we decided on a few things:

  • It should be fairly warm, with no extreme changes in temperature
  • There is not a whole lot of rain and almost no groundwater, but there is a lot of moisture in the air.
  • It is pretty hard to live there. Not hostile, but just very difficult to get by, like in a real jungle.

All that brought us to two main world pillars for the jungle area:

  • Conserving water
  • Recycling/reuse

The conservation of water is the most important part of the area. All plants, all animals, and all humans are trying to harvest, store and gather water.

Since rain does not have a chance to be stored in the soil in this region, it quickly drains away and washes precious nutrients away in the process. Plants and architecture have to solve the problem of harvesting condensing water, and catching the rare rain. That brought us to many unique visual and functional solutions.

The water tree – actually a branch of a huge tree

This tree for example gathers falling water from higher-up leaves of other plants and stores it in its huge leaves. It fills big balloon-like fruits with water. The rest of the water is absorbed by the thick stem. While the fruit ripens it gets heavier and will in time rip through the leaf it is lying on. The leaf dies and hangs down. Birds and other animals can hide and nest there. The leaf and its fiber will be reused by humans and animals to then build shelter, feed upon, or just fall down and decompose.

We designed every plant with different kinds of mechanisms for either storing or gathering water in mind. Each plant has its own way of dealing with the climate. One condenses water, one gathers water dripping down from bigger plants and another might take water from another plant as a parasite.

We wanted to show the life cycle of each plant as well. There are always dead leaves, signs of decay, or bite marks on every design. We didn’t want to show a perfect world, but a world full of natural cycles. 

The Architecture How did you work on the architectural style? What influenced your vision?

Simon Kopp: The architectural style is a direct result of the main pillar – water scarcity, and the fact that they live in a jungle. The materials and ways of building the structures are taken from what you’d expect in these kinds of areas. A lot of fibrous materials, weaving, lots of wood, and everything as light as possible. The architecture in this area is mainly built onto the side or underneath big islands. The inhabitants need to gather water as well and since it doesn’t rain they have to get it through condensation or store whatever drops down from the trees and plants above.

Concept art for the harbor of the big settlement

We wanted to split the houses from their roofs. The roofs are mainly there to gather and direct water into storage. Every house has some kind of ability to do that, some better, some worse. The houses themselves were inspired by nests hanging in trees or from ropes.

The second pillar, reuse, plays a major role in architecture. Nature gets reused by humans – but also mechanical elements. Reused, repaired, and combined in new ways. This isn’t unique to this jungle area, but more like a grand pillar to the whole world. New resources are scarce, so you have to repair, recycle and reuse everything. If it’s broken beyond repair it’ll get repurposed into something else.

Settlement concept art depicting the town

This town is centered around a very old condensation well made from stone. A very old method of collecting water from the air. These are the only big stone structures in town and form the center of the village. The oldest families live there and have power over the distribution of water. Each smaller building might have a miniature version of that kind of well, some just have a stone chimney. The topic of gathering and storing water is leading design decisions and direction.

The village in UE5

Working With Colors Please tell us about your approach to the color palette. How did you make sure the world looks welcoming?

Simon Kopp: We decided on the colors of each scene and shot with a color script. Every scene had its emotional purpose and we decided on the colors for each shot individually and then side by side. Some changed through time, but the emotional arc was always the prime reason in decision-making.

We start with toned-down values and colors in the beginning and then lead up to vibrant, rich colors through the middle to the end. Intense, rich red and orange at the climax, calm, soothing colors in the beginning.

Final color script for the Airborn Showcase

Conclusion Could you share some advice for artists willing to create their fantasy worlds? What main things should they consider?

Simon Kopp: Set up 3 main pillars for your world and then consider and use these in your designs. Different factions can live in vastly different areas of a world but might have to deal with the same problems. How they solve these problems makes the world unique and interesting.

All that said, don’t try to control everything, leave some room for chaos and unexpected accidents. If everything is too logical, and presented in a way, so the audience can easily see and understand it, a world can feel too methodical and artificial.

Also be aware of what you decide for yourself in the background, and what you wanna convey to the audience. These two are not the same. You shouldn’t explain everything, mystery is more interesting than midi-chlorians.

The Airborn Studios Team

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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