Building Plasticine Worlds in Unity
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We stream high end result to hololens from Unity so imagine this through an AR HMD!

Very informative thread, thank you! Inspiring and reassuring to see the process behind such amazing renders. I started using UE4 a month ago, for a work in my firm and I'm still struggling with some concepts! I wish to see more article like this! Thibault (from France)

Your post is very good and meaningful. How long will it take you to write and post? thank you for sharing slither io

Building Plasticine Worlds in Unity
13 September, 2018
Environment Art
Environment Design
Interview
Materials

Maciej Szymaś shared an incredible in-depth breakdown of his huge project made with Unity, Substance, and Blender which is an attempt to unfold a vision in Burton’s style. 

Introduction

I’m an independent self-taught 3D & 2D artist and designer with a huge passion for my job, especially for game dev. In the childhood, namely 20 years ago, I used to draw and sketch a lot, later on, painted, mainly untypical landscapes and also had experience with graffiti (ale these works have been placed on my Instagram profile: emaceart). I was absorbed in experimenting on Atari 65 XL/XE (a program to raster graphics preparation: Coala) & programs to raster, vector and animation on Amiga (Deluxe Painter IV, Fantavision & 3D Construction Kit) then. From then on I have a fondness for retro graphics and also project and animate in Pixelart style. I also did graааiti for some time. Today despite the typical 2D & 3D graphics I make projects and animate in the pixel art style, which is both relic and a tribute to those years. I design games, 3D assets in this style and I’m planning a video clip.

Now it is the fourth year of my experience with 2D & 3D graphics for the gamedev needs. I started in 2015, but only the last six months can be perceived as really intense and fruitful.

This short period of time was filled with quarterly private projects within the confines of intense self-education. At the same time, in my free time, I tried to run a one-year-long project, which let me fulfill myself in this area and deepen my knowledge. Both the former and the latter are available for commercial needs. I already have 8 finished projects and there is one project I’m working on for a year, which is is going to be finished soon.

Today I successfully fulfill myself in 3D projects: create game assets in Blender, make textures in Substance Painter and compose small universes in Unity3D, also as illustrations for applied art.

As a hard working person by nature, I can’t stop myself from developing my skills continuously. While doing my job I get used to thinking that there is no challenge I can’t set myself against. Now it’s time for creating characters and working on Unreal Game Engine!

It’s only a year since I regularly started to work on different games production and cooperating with different teams. I took part in 3 bigger games and around 5 smaller. Since two years I manage my own indie game production and for half a year I run my own company. I plan to share some of my games ideas to investors. When it comes to education, I haven’t studied at any art or graphic school. It’s my father, who pushed me into art, more or less consciously, when I was 6.

The project

The thesis that this project is in Burton’s style comes from one of my fans. While working on this project, one of the fans compared what I do to Burton’s creative output… I’ve seen half of his first films. While researching on the author trying to understand what the fan means I got to know that it’s mostly about some motifs and the general atmosphere of a fairytale, ‘caricaturality’ and unstable organic… that Burton creates.

I used this thesis later on during movie video promotion in order to strenghten the message and to direct the younger receivers to the point.

Another person compared this art to Adolf Lachman, the creator of the game “Machinarium”. I haven’t used this comparison during promotions, as it is obvious to me that one should refer to classics only. Someone else told me that my projects atmosphere is similar to those in American McGee’s visions… I just got another opinion that what I did is similar to “Morphopolis”.

We could compare in such way without end. What you see comes from my imagination (which I hope to prove in the interview) and is original as soon as someone hasn’t hit upon similar stylistics or motives and hasn’t expressed it, which is perennial author’s excuse.

The Plasticine World is a year-long project, so you may imagine it is done with passion in my free time. The first model was done at the beginning of March 2017, but drafts were done in December 2016. I can say that it’s the biggest project of mine, the one that took the longest period of time and the only one basing on high polygon models and textures. What is more, the visions in this project have their roots in my childhood, but this will be explained later on.

These sketches are a result of sudden inspiration. I remember that I grabbed a piece of paper spontaneously and drew the main motive, namely trees at a gulp, just within several minutes.

First models for this project were done at the beginning of March 2017.

At that time I knew Blender 3D and only several tricks, thanks to which I didn’t have to project everything manually but with the help of modifiers. The concept of plasticine texture came to my mind a bit later, and then I got interested in Substance pack.

The world

When I try to recall the past, this project seems to express what I tried to draw on hundreds of pieces of paper in the childhood. However, I wasn’t able to connect them all in a reasonable cause and effect thing.

This project probably joins the main motives and images that come to a go in my artistic life for many years, it gives a new consistent and coherent undertone. I as if add new comments to the story and supplement it with many motives, not to say, I interpret myself again.

My drawings in the characteristic style done dozen years ago.

On my Instagram timeline, you can find works with hundreds of graphic motifs drew in the round shape, snot-like, in twisted style and dozens of Unreal landscapes.

Even the colors match is the same – distinguished violet, faded orange, unripe green.

All those works seemed not to have any connection and were partially inconsistent in the mood then.

I remember that I wished to tell some message with this works, but each new drawing stood out from the previous one in any aspect. Additionally, it’s hard to tell a story without any reasonable data carrier except for a pile of rolled or glued pieces of paper.

It turns out that I tried to say something with pieces of paper. I drew a time-lapse movie on a sheet of paper. Here’s one example.

One day I even glued six cardboards to create my own universe of the size of A1!

I hope that you like, what you see on the current renders. It’s not the last word of mine and not the first attempt to express myself from the past with the use of the latest technology, maybe to express myself the way I was, without reinterpretation.

Production process

My assets are made procedurally in Blender with the use of several modifiers. As all those things were designed to be used for game purposes, I did a lot of manual work on the high polygon meshes from the modifiers. It was still economical retopology.

Each model has its 3 steps of LODs.

I’m the advocate of economical work with the aim of interesting final effect. I don’t cut corners though but search for clever but official solutions. In order to get such streamlined and gentle shapes of trees, I used the Skin modifier and in some cases an object of metaball type (for the trees head).

Skin modifier is suitable not only for trees creation but also for characters. I encourage to test it on your own. Type in the search engine phrases skin modifier + trees to find out how just in several quick steps great shapes can be made.

Models made with the use of this and also subsurf or multiresolution modifier is the great base for sculpturing. It is worth to remember that the great effects achieved with this simple and pleasant ways are only the ¼ of the whole artistic process. You would have to face retopology, UV map creation and texturing.  

Here is the quick way for half-automatic retopology. The trick will work only if you manage to create with this method a clear oderly mesh with the quad type net and you will carefully observe the changes done on the surface of your model.

What I do is click [ctrl + alt + PPM] one of the lower edges in order to mark all the edges in the row automatically. Then I choose select – checker deselect: each second edge will be unmarked, next select – select loops – edge loops to get each second edge unmarked with constant lines around the whole mesh. Another step is deleting them by pressing x + dissolve edges and make a fast retopology in this way, which is repeated at least one more time.

I will not explain in details the stages of UV maps creation and texturing as it is a completely different knowledge than the modeling itself. I encourage to experiment in these fields on your own. One thing I can prompt you with is that “UVPackmaster PRO” is a useful additional tool for maps in Blender. I can also add that Substance Painter is 10 times easier than Photoshop.

Colors

I try to use contrastive colours in my works. The easiest way is to use the secondary colours, but this results in monochromatic and less vivid colours in this way. A bit more difficult is to match contrastive colours together. While working with colours, I assist myself in devices, but the effects are always modified according to my own taste, observing how my work changes during the process.  

Getting back to the theory: I encourage to check, which colours lay opposite to each other on the colour pallette. When we try to colour the work with the use of such colours, we’ll get a poor effect. We may, however, help ourselves with a tool created by Murry Lancashire “Colour Constructor”, which makes life much easier… And here’s the time for the magic: the final effect we’ll get after processing will be entirely different and what I mean is that it will change for the better. Do not become discouraged too early while experimenting with colours, even if you don’t use Colour Constructor and choose random contrastive colours. Don’t become discouraged, fight till the end and believe me it is going to work! I hope I didn’t give away any secret deeply hidden from the world. You need to know that post-processing is just a question of several clicks done with closed eyes and with the use of ready-made tools, but this is going to be explained a bit laler.

Colours and atmosphere of my works are often dark with a lot of shadows. For post-production, I enjoy using Ambient Occlusion, which makes the project “dirty”, but also adds softness and plasticity. Like Rembrandt, in 50%  I rely on colors, the rest is “poured” with dark shadow. I do this for two reasons. First, economical, as I finish my work faster and many things can be hidden or may be resigned of. Second, artistic, as I achieve a mysterious intriguing aura… Since it works in this way, there is no need to be afraid of mixing different trends, motives, types of atmosphere or seemingly opposite tendencies.

Texturing

Getting back to the texturing. Let me start with the fact that I have been working every day for 15 years in Photoshop. Substance Painter is very similar to it and half less advanced when it comes to the number of functions. I appreciate work comfort and economy, so the first condition is met. What I mean as program economy is the extent of its adjustment to own needs. If a program has many functions it needs to have an option of creating own keyboard shortcuts…but as we found out that SP has a small number of functions, even if it has the possibility of own shortcuts creations, you may not need to remember them as the program is simple and uncomplicated… To compare with, I know around 100 shortcuts in PS, while I couldn’t get to know more than five in SP. This should illustrate how convenient and simple tool it must be. Earlier I tried COAT, but resigned from it and didn’t get to know other programs even.

The realistic plasticine texture was done by my colleague in Substance Designer. I modified it on my own in SP with the use of masks in the layer mode…so exactly like in PS.

Scale

The outstanding scale results only from the video perspective. The way the receiver perceives my presentation depends on the way I place models on the scene and how the camera moves. My project is, in fact, a bit smaller, but still not tiny or small. I have to install add-ons in order to arrange the scenery quickly and usefully in the scale I need. I work on Unity 3D and use EasyScatter tool from the AssetStore, which allows to “paint” with objects. Other add-ons are written by my programmer. One of them allows converting hundreds of models to the useful form within dozens of seconds. I remember that manual work I had with assets for the scene (such as scale, turn, need of creating prefabs) took me hours or even two days in the past!

For the illustration needs, I create scenes according to the Golden ratio theory. I use PHImatrix to quicken the process. I generate fractal curves and place shapes in the scene according to them.

Before I start to create a scene, I try to do a mind map, use the app Realtimeboard and Pure Ref a bit, that helps me with references.

Getting back to the second question: Yes, I work modularly and procedurally whenever possible. I’m an ardent supporter of automation, but only to the moment when there’s no visible pattern effect in my projects. I pay special attention to avoid noticeable reproducibility.

Post-production

Even though I use convenient tools, post-production process takes me a significant amount of time… it lasts too long, as I am hesitant for a long time.

I use lightning BOX HD. Thanks to it you can set up hyperrealistic lights with the possibility of getting an even more realistic effect. The tool sets automatically the realistic lights, similar to the look of what we see through a window in the sunny day.   

I change the settings to more realistic even, for the needs, namely I decrease the colour saturation by one half and add effects like aerial perspective and the impression of heavy after rain air (I decrease contrast). I set up lights in a way to get a quite long shadow from the objects, diagonally to the middle of the scene, which doubles the number of actors on the scene. Slopes add dynamics and are relevant to the Golden Ratio theory.

Thanks to the same tool one may also set up colours, which means postproduction. Nothing prevents us from using the standard Unity tool called Stack, however, I do not recommend it. Due to inconveniences in its usage. Lightning Box is, in fact, skin for Stack… After installing LB user gets the skin for Stack with the most needed several slider controls. Stack is not convenient in use. I used it for a year and not go back to it anymore, sometimes only for a while – looking under the mack of Lightning Box.

When it comes to post-production, as I mentioned before, everything happens on its own. Just several clicks change the work entirely but one must use taste, sensibility and some experience on this stage.

The proper attitude would be to resign from the main light and rely on environment sky and several lightning points – this is something I still learn about.

The last stages

In the last stage, before a make a movie, I use particle effects to simulate the effect of flying glow-worms, dust, leaves and sparkling sunlight. I use it to make the work more plastic. I believe in the power of “accent”: these things cannot overwhelm in my works,  one cannot use too many of them. The particle effects are great to complement the atmosphere, decorate the project for the better look, no matter whether it is a video or computer game.

While working on material for the Unity 3D video I could use a tool called Cinemachine from the AssetStore for the camera movement, but this tool is inconvenient to me. That’s why I at the spot of the moment bought a 3D mouse 3DConnection, installed add-on with the same name, working with it in Unity. Now while shooting a video, not switching to game mode and in the real time, I operate the camera as if it was a drone: everything just to make life easier and make a day last twice longer – I strongly recommend.

I usually adorn my video production with music, which is specially written for this purpose. The Plasticine World project had a dedicated music, written on my request by my friend musician Jakub “Morte” Madzia.

Challenges

The most time-consuming production stage was creating UV map, retopology, making LODS.

I try not to experiment too much alone, I try to save most of the energy for the creative process itself. That’s why, before I start working, I search for methods and solution. I found an interesting solution to retopology, which finally wasn’t that difficult, but monotonous in its authomacity, long lasting and having nothing in common with creative work.

It was even harder with UVMap creation. There’s no time for automation at all. One needs to have spatial imagination and prepare it well.

Working on all the other things together with composing was a genuine pleasure to me and a series of successive actions.

Thanks for your attention. I encourage to follow my social media profiles:

Maciej Szymaś, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Artem Sergeev

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2 Comments on "Building Plasticine Worlds in Unity"

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emaceart@gmail.com
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emaceart@gmail.com

@WilliamZarek Every day for a year I set up regular hours for half-time free lance job, thanks to which I actually developed. This is how quarterly project were done. The rest of time, including late night hours I spent on additional development of previosuly mentioned things and preparing a project of the year! I worked on the year long project every day.

williamzarek@gmail.com
Member
williamzarek@gmail.com

You talk about “setting quarterly private projects within the confines of intense self-education and running a one-year-long project.” Could you please go into some detail about how you structured your life and these projects, so you could progress and achieve your goals? Thanks for your time.

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