Connor Lee has explained the workflow behind the Japan 2041 project, shared the tools and sources used in the production process, and talked about the positive impact of Gnomon School's teacher Christophe Desse.
My name is Connor, better known as “2D”. I am an Environment Concept Artist currently studying 3D, VFX, and digital production at Gnomon. I’ve on a couple of books, private DnD commissions, and a currently unannounced project.
Japan 2041 was initially an environment concept piece I created last year as I was learning Blender and exploring some workflows I received from Jad Saber before attending Gnomon. I thought it was about time I tried again since I was too happy with how the original piece came out and encouraged by Christophe Desse to try something a bit out of my comfort zone.
I pulled a good amount of inspiration and references from Akira, Gundam, Blade Runner, Cyberpunk 2077, Synth wave, and the heavy use of neon signs in East Asia as I wanted to create a bright, almost dystopian looking environment with heavy use of Colors. My friend and I would drive around LA at night, where I took photos of buildings, streets, alleyways, and other areas to better illustrate a city through a single image.
Creating the Scene
The girl is a DAZ 3D character from the original concept project that I just reposed. The clothes were purchased from the ArtStation Marketplace from Evgenia Petrova, where I made adjustments to the garment to better fit my needs in Marvelous Designer, did some rough Remeshing, and then cleaned up and UVed in Maya. The boots are also from the original concept painting. I think I got them off the sketch fab that I made adjustments to in Maya and UVed.
I approached this scene like it was just another concept illustration. I took several assets from the original scene I built among several assets I've collected. The composition took a bit of time to figure out since I wanted to do something similar to my original concept but more dynamic and exciting since the original camera angle was terrible and boring.
I originally wanted to have the character holding a gun, but it felt weird and was a lot of extra work to texture, and I didn't have the time to work on that since I was so stuck on the composition.
I kept fiddling with the camera for about a week off and on as I was working on other projects, absolutely hating where it was going.
I was finally able to settle on the lower camera angle and to switch up the pose to feel less stiff after a lot of good feedback from Christophe on the past two compositions.
I would continue to make adjustments to the composition as I added more assets until I got to the composition in the final. It took a reasonable amount of time to find something I was really happy with and play it right up until the final render.
Working on the Bike
So, the bike mesh was an asset I bought from Munkhjin Otgonbayar as it was a perfect fit for my project and had an Extended Commercial License which was great since I can use it on other projects. After downloading and purchasing, I did some UV and used an overlapping workflow instead of a UDIM, since I wasn't comfortable with UDIMS. I also used Substance Painter. Lots of layering and masking to create the metal, carbon fiber, stickers, dirt, and other elements, since I wanted the ability to go back whenever I want to make adjustments.
I wanted to make something with recognizable Akira vibes but not too on the nose that it is annoying. So I thought the red mixed with black would be a bit easier on the eyes and not totally in your face, especially with the stickers. And I wanted to throw some Gundam Unicorn references. I'm a huge Gundam fan. I initially thought about doing more thunderbolt references, but it was hard to find some sticker sets I could press and turn into alphas. I wasn't really in the mood to make them myself and wanted the official thing. But it was pretty easy to find decal sheets for the RX-0 Unicorn Gundam, and since the destroy mode has a red glow, it ended up fitting well.
I approached it like I do when I make concepts; since I didn’t have time or the current knowledge where I was comfortable making them myself, I bought them, made adjustments as needed, fixed UVs, remeshed them, and made sure they wouldn't break my scene. The boots and accessories went through a similar process. The helmet was there because I didn't want to texture her face since you wouldn't even be seeing it anyways. I was planning to have the girl be a white robot texture, but it looked really out of place, so I made an effortless skin texture and added some decals from the Gundam decal sheet to act like tech-embedded tattoos.
The challenge for everything was making it feel used and loved. Not something brand new, and that been through a few crashes and needs to clean with a fresh coat of pain. But I was not destroying it and overdoing it. I have a terrible habit of overdoing it initially with my dirt and damage, so I spent a lot of time trying to balance it. So it wasn’t too busy and overdone.
The background was pretty easy overall. I took a storefront from textures.com. Threw it on a plane and extruded it a bunch to add more depth to it. Then I took that texture into Photoshop and made some Normal Maps to get a bit more easy detail. I used this same workflow for the signs added. I went into Blender so I could make the neon tubes with a Grease pencil.
I used several Kitbash 3D assets for all the extra stuff from the Future Slums, Cybercity, and Neo Shanghai kits I fixed up to texture them. And some Megascans assets for parts of the street and trash.
Rendering and Lighting
For rendering and lighting, it was pretty simple; the primary light sources were the signs and the ambient/fill. I used an HDRI set on a lower exposure since it was pretty intense, and it was tough to find good nighttime HDRIs. I also assed some emissions from glass materials to objects to give them that screen feel. And it was just a matter of positioning everything and adjusting strength.
Post-production was a lot of color correction, touchups, and Rain. The rain was just existing rain pictures put on a screen layer and adjusted accordingly.
I spend a reasonable amount of time making sure the rain wasn't too overpowering and making the image super muddy, and adding the impacts. Making the rain itself was as simple as putting an image from Google on different layer modes. Then painting some bits to add breakup and the desired effect.
For getting the mood correct, I just looked at a lot of references. Lots of screengrabs from Bladerunner, Cyberpunk 2077, Hong Kong for the neon sign. And I just applied what I saw to my render, making adjustments as I went
Christophe taught me many good workflows for fast and efficient texturing inside Substance Painter, which is what the class was about. But the main thing he taught me was balance and making sure to give just the right amount of texture detail to tell my story the best without overdoing it and destroying the image. His critiques were invaluable and were constantly pushing me to be better.
Some advice for aspiring artists – please look at references. It is wildly underrated and is a necessity if you want to create fantastic art. Even when creating from imagination, reference is key to making something look believable as well as unique.
Connor Lee, Environment Concept Artist
Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin
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