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Andy Hansen is a 3D environmental artist from North Carolina, who has a passion for all things Disney. Last year he created a wonderful Throne Room. Combining stylized visuals with top notch technology he was able to build an incredible place straight out of a classical Disney animated film Sleeping Beauty. In this article he will discuss the environment creation and will talk about his favorite development tools.
I’ve been really getting into game art over the past few years or so, and I am just recently beginning to break into the games industry. I’ve been particularly drawn to environment art because I think it’s an incredibly important aspect of any game. Your characters that are the stars of the game can each have their own individual story, but they cannot truly go on an adventure until they begin to explore the world they inhabit. Environment art gives you the ability to tell a grand story in the background and sometimes in the foreground of the game. Games have been my passion ever since I first had access to DOS menus and a dial-up internet connection to explore shareware games when I was little. I’m excited to see what’s in store for the future and I hope to be able to share my work with more people!
Colors, Shapes, Lighting and PBR
Being obsessed with classic animation, I study a lot of animation backgrounds and try to really implement characteristics from these in to my own work. I also am a huge fan of World of Warcraft and love all of the artwork that Blizzard produces for the game (check out 80.lv interview with the Blizzard devs). One of the main elements that I’m always thinking about with my work is how color is used. I try to make sure that color is always bold and works with the rest of the scene. Shapes are also something that I’m trying to keep in mind at all times and I try to make sure that my work both reads well, and also has interesting silhouettes. Finally, I try to always have lighting that works alongside my texture work. So I guess, interesting colors, unique but very readable shapes, and moody lighting would be how I could define my work.
I’ve been hesitant to dive into the PBR realm for awhile but quickly realized how it could be used to have full control over textures once I gave it a go. It’s very easy with hand painted work to let lighting completely engulf all of the painting that you’ve done, so it’s definitely a balancing act when working in PBR. I try to keep the usage minimal, but take advantage of it when I know it can add that extra something to a piece. If you are just using diffuse maps alone with PBR, you should at least look into seeing what a specular map can provide to your asset. While normal maps can hide your painting, a specular map can still add interesting surface detail and breathe life in to your scene (in addition to giving further control with your PBR settings).
Maleficent’s Throne Room
For the longest time I was wanting to recreate an environment from one of the classic Disney movies. I also wanted to work on a project that I could really push myself with and learn more about what is required to bring a full environment to life.
I love studying animation backgrounds because they are essentially full environments that must be cohesive with the characters inhabiting them (just like a game environment). I ultimately chose to work on Maleficent’s Throne Room because of the interesting lighting and the challenge of creating an environment primarily out of stone.
There were some immediate issues when first constructing the environment that I was able to work out thanks to the fantastic community at Polycount. There’s this green light expanding across the scene that represents Maleficent’s power. The tricky part is thinking about how to ultimately render this. I started with some test textures that had the green hue baked in.
I quickly realized after some feedback that this was not going to work and went with a more neutral brown/red stone, but used specular maps to mix with the lighting. After this consideration, I had more overall control over the mood of the scene. Nearing the end of the project though, I still had to go back and revise the lighting multiple times to come as close as I could to the original work material.
Building the scene was also around the time that I first started learning ZBrush and how it can be used to work alongside hand painted textures. I had made some basic versions of the base wall bricks then quickly found the potential of having a more defined stone to use that I got from my ZBrush sculpts. I ended up doing multiple iterations of the stone as I continued to improve with ZBrush until I finally ended up with what you see now. While a considerable amount of time was put into building all the elements of the scene, in the end it was worth it. Portfolio work should represent your current ability, so if you know you can improve something you just made, you should do it! It is still important to not get stuck in a constant iteration cycle, so always keep in mind that when building a scene, there’s plenty of other pieces ahead.
Techniques Behind Textures
The workflow that I use for each texture varies on how exactly it is being used and how important the texture is overall to the scene. It’s good to always be thinking ahead about the construction of your assets before really sinking time into them. If you have an idea in mind as to how you’re going to execute the painting, you end up saving time because you are more organized and also are not spending time being indecisive. One of the biggest things that really makes a basic diffuse texture pop is painting in interesting gradients. Gradients tell the eye what’s being rendered up close and then what is being considered farther away. While there are techniques and specific shortcuts you can take to make your textures have more dimension, it really comes down to just creating a solid painting that can stand on it’s own.
Some things that I do use often is “photo-bashing” parts of images from real life into my textures just to add more surface detail. You have to be careful when you do this though as you can quickly make your textures muddy or ruin the cohesion of the texture and make it look disconnected. If you do decide to blend photography into your work, you will have to paint over it in the end. One of the main layers I use in Photoshop near the end of creating a texture is the overlay layer. Overlay is one of those powerful layers that many Photoshop users are probably very familiar with. When I photo-bash, overlay is the layer I use after adjusting the brightness of the original image, as overlay can both brighten aspects of your image and also darken areas, making it perfect for when you’re trying to add surface detail. I also use overlay to slowly build up edge work, as overlay will keep in mind the hue you have beneath the area you’re painting.
Here you can see how I built a grassy/plant floor texture recently. Grass can be one of those overwhelming things to paint depending on how you look at it, but there are some great ways to blend 3D with 2D to produce a detailed texture relatively quickly.
I’ve learned this method from Vertex 2 and if you have not read this magazine yet, you should check it out! My take on working in ZBrush is that I tell myself that the sculpt will still be painted over for the last 50% of the texture, so I try not to get too caught up with editing the sculpt, although the more final you can make your sculpt, the faster your painting over it will be.
Philosophy for Producing Models
Since each game has their own rules in regards to how detailed an asset can be, I try not to think too hard about tri count but it is in my best interest to keep each asset under 1000 tris or less. I will go above this if it’s a particularly important asset, such as a throne. Everyone has their own way of approaching props, but I will almost always start with just a box primitive and work from there. It’s still important to just always be thinking ahead when you’re building an asset. For example, if you know your model can be made into pieces and then put together later, then model a piece and proceed to UV it. I’ve found that this is a very fast way to get through a low poly model, but this will primarily save you time if you are working with shapes that you are already familiar with.
Lighting in Scenes
When I am rendering a portfolio piece, I try to use a cold spotlight hitting the scene on one side and then a warmer close-up spotlight hitting the opposite side of the scene. I find that this is a safe go-to for rendering scenes because it provides more dimensions to the models being shown. I don’t always follow this setup for lighting though. Lighting hand painted assets can be difficult because any color that you do add via your lights, can also drown out colors that you painted into your textures. Keeping all of these things in mind, it can be easier to just start your textures in grayscale and continue painting this way until you figure out your scene’s lighting. It’s best to keep your lighting in mind first at all times, as it has the biggest impact with just a few tweaks.
I seem to have a habit of toying with emission or adding a strong light source that guides the eye (bright crystals, glowing butterflies). It’s important that your textures are easily readable and in some ways, should have the environment that they reside in embedded within the texture map. So if you were for example, building a sewage passage, you should think about how water or the climate your assets are in are being changed. In this situation, I would make the stones along the wall look more slippery with brighter edges and a high contrast specular map. Since hand painted work has most of this information painted directly into the diffuse, I do keep special effects at a minimum.
5 Most Useful Tools for Production
- xNormal – Super easy to use texture baking tool! If I do any sort of sculpting it’s immediately processed through xNormal to get a Normal map that I can then get cavity maps from. The cavity maps provided then lead to a base to start a texture from.
- 3D-Coat – Pretty much my favorite projection painting program. With recent updates to the brush engine it feels so much like Photoshop. 3D-Coat also has some awesome retopology tools that makes it great for getting your sculpts down to a low poly version. Another great feature is that it has the ability to move your painting to new UV islands on the fly. So let’s say you’re working on a prop and realize that you may have not provided enough space on your UV map for one of the focal points (it kind of looks blurry compared to the rest of the model). 3D-Coat lets you drop back in to the UV mapping section of the program and edit your current UV’s, then switch back to the painting area and just like that, all your painting data is transferred over to the updated version of your UV islands.
- ZBrush – A program probably in most 3D artists’ toolbox. ZBrush is such a deep program that I’m still learning to get the most out of. Whenever I’m tasked with making detailed stone I’ll move to ZBrush after making an initial block out in 3ds Max to get fast details. ZBrush just has so many incredible brushes and processes that can get you a great starting point for a texture. ZBrush also lets you save alphas of your sculpts so you can transfer those details to another sculpt in the future and ultimately, work faster and create iterations.
- Photoshop – Your standard painting program, important to all digital artists in some way or another. I use Photoshop to composite my bakes and images of sculpts together and then begin painting from there. Photoshop still has incredibly strong brush control and settings but I’ve been keeping my eye on some of the newer painting programs that have been gaining popularity recently.
- Unreal Engine 4 – The latest and my opinion, the easiest engine to render scenes in.
Unreal Engine 4
I have moved to Unreal Engine 4 after my experience working within Unreal Development Kit before. It’s in some ways night and day comparing the two because of just how much emphasis has been put into ease of use for Unreal Engine 4. The UI is much more visual compared to Unreal Development Kit and there’s been some great tools put in place to get screenshots of your scenes easily. Since Unreal Engine 4 is so visual, for someone that has very little programming/scripting knowledge, it’s easy to just gather your assets together and get it into the engine. Unreal Engine 4 also provides control over PBR settings and has a great community surrounding the engine with plenty of documentation.