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Building Small Things: Diorama Breakdown

Allen Frechette made a little breakdown of his amazing natural diorama, which shows very interesting ways to use Speedtree and Marmoset Toolbag.

Allen Frechette made a little breakdown of his amazing natural diorama, which shows very interesting ways to use Speedtree and Marmoset Toolbag.
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My name is Allen Frechette, I’m a late 70’s kid that grew up with a single Mom (early years of my life) that found himself gravitating towards CG like 3D cartoons Reboot/Beast Wars (early 90’s) while growing up in the technology boom where video games came from Commodore 64/Atari to Nintendo/Sega and Xbox/PlayStation battling out in what I call the “Bit” war. Also, don’t let me forget computers like Apple Macintosh the “brick” and PC’s transforming into powerful rendering and gaming machines. This is my world and I loved every part of it growing up.

I grew up in Seattle, WA as a Carpenter dreaming about CG, just being a part of that creative process of making video games, movies…… everything really to do with CG. I knew that’s what I wanted to be….  a 3D Artist. I started my education at Bellevue Community College in Washington State to earn my AA degree in Computer Animation and Effects. I felt the program was good but I really needed to be where it was all happening and a course load that would really (I’m mean REALLY) push you as an Artist. NY is where I had my eyes set on. So, I moved to NY with my girlfriend and I attended at School of Visual Arts. I earned my BA from SVA in Computer Animation and Visual Effects.

Today I’m still that very kid. I have extreme passion for Games, Cartoons, Movies or whatever creates that world where we like to escape to. I love surrounding myself around creative likeminded people, exploring and sharing new fresh ideas while learning new techniques for our industry. For me, creating 3D Art is my life, it fuels my passion for it, pushes me to just be the best Artist I can be and its super addictive.

Currently I work at Microsoft as Technical Artist IV in a HoloLens Studio making cool art for our clients. I can’t say too much because of the nature of our work but I can say it’s super rewarding.

Vegetation Experiment  

I decided to go with the red-eye tree frog because I’m from the Northwest and it was coming to that time of year where you start to spend more time inside rather than outside instead of exploring the awesome Northwest. Also, one of my mates is a big outdoors guy too and I was making it for him as a gift. It was a way for us to pass the time as we started to spend more time indoors. We critiqued my work and saw the progression of the environment. It was good old fun. 

The red-eye tree frog I knew everybody has seen one at one point or another, either on the web or at a pet shop and hopefully when they saw it they could identify the subject. I wanted it to be familiar.

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I love Quixel Suite and Teddy with his team did amazing job. I knew I wanted to use everything the team created and use SpeedTree to see how they could integrate. I knew Megascans was going to be awesome to use but wondered how would SpeedTree’s quality be compared in the same scene. I had some concerns but the only way to find out was to do it, I suppose. That was my base line, use two awesome programs for vegetation and see if I could make a cohesive scene merging new tech and older tech as well as challenging myself to make a scene feel alive while tell a story.


I started out using PureRef collecting images of a red-eye tree frog. Probably spent 3 to 4 hours just doing research on how the amphibian looked like, what the colors are, textures and how does it move. I think this step is super important because it helps my mind really engulphed the nature of the creature. Once I got a good idea on what’s the frog’s features were, I started to sculpt him in zBrush. I used the collection of references to help guide me through that process. 

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After a sculpting the frog I went back to doing more research for the environment. Collecting images of the frog’s environment, leaves, trees, dirt and anything to do with its surroundings. I knew I wanted to build a diorama but wanted to keep the geo low in poly count where I could and others elements have the flexibility to do with what I wanted too. This wasn’t going to be for a game or anything but I think it’s always a good idea to challenge yourself in that area if your wanting to progress in games or real-time rendering applications. 

Next I started to build the environment, making simple shapes for the ground and water. The research I did showed the frog on a lot of leaves and plants. The plants I did see, appeared to look like Elephant plants which have unique shapes to them. I used SpeedTree for that process and I built two unique Elephant plants and a fern. I also wanted to tell a story so I placed the newly created plants in the scene trying to find a good composition. Filling the scene was the following part using Megascans for ground cover like rocks. It’s a fast-creative process that helps the scene feel more complete.

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Adding the frogs were next, I added them into the scene and used Maya’s sculpting tools to position the frogs on the plants. At this point, I could really get a good sense of the environment. It was coming together. Final step was making the rain and water droplets. For those I used Maya’s particles and Bifrost.

The Frog and the Water 

The frog’s main form details were sculpted in zBrush using mainly claytube, move and dam standard brushes. The tertiary details I used a variety of zBrush’s alpha stamps. It’s just time at this point, layering the details to create something that can sell the sculpt. The painted detail was done in dDo.

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I created the water by making a plane that I formed to the shape of the diorama. I made a droplet ring that a created in Photoshop and turned it into a normal map using nDo. Next I duplicated the geo and offset it and scaled it down a touch. By doing this, it will create a variation on the edge of the water once I put everything in Marmoset Toolbag.

Muddy Water Albedo.

I think that’s the hardest part about water there’s subtle differences in opacity that we pick up without really noticing it. Like when a puddle of water hits the edge of the dirt it absorbs it, making the edge thicker in sentiment which creates the water to be less transparent. This subtle difference in the creative process of the water makes the illusion that the water has thickness or weight to it. Next in TB3 I just made the bigger piece of water geo have an additive opacity and the other have a dither opacity which creates thickness. Finally, I made sure to add the albedo into the opacity for color and played with the values to get the feeling I was looking for.


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Quixel is an amazing tool, with the combination of Photoshop features it just a fun and exciting program to use. I started out painting the base color, working myself through the mid tones and high lights. The flexibility of painting in 3d and having ability to adjust the layers as needed is just so rewarding. With the combination of masks, curvature map, position gradient and normals it allows you just do some super-fast detailed textures that normally would take days. I add the details next layering them up as I went. Finally, I painted out the specular to give variation on the skin to give the frog a wet feel.

The droplets on the leaves were done in Maya using Bifrost and most of it was shader work done in Marmoset.

Presenting in Toolbag 

I choose Marmoset Toolbag because Joe Wilson and his team are just rock stars. They made a real-time rendering app that is just so fun and initiative to use that gives incredible results. The new additions in TB3 are fantastic too. It gives me a way to push my art out and get great quick results without having to go into Unreal or Unity to create shaders which is just another step of the process.

I exported everything out of Maya and put it into MT3, building each shader for the elements while playing around with the values to get the right feel. I lit the scene with a 3-point lighting system and a skybox for color making sure that not only did the scene tell a story but also the lighting. I think this is a great way help enhance your scene. With Marmoset, another great feature is DOF for the camera. I played with that for each camera thinking about how I would have shot it if I was there in real life also making sure the camera could tell a story too.

I think with Marmoset or any Real-time render you must think about each element as its own and not all surfaces will react the same way in light. I’ve seen it too much even in my own work that things to start to feel the same under light. This is where things start to break down for me in the believability of the image we are creating. So, with that in mind I will tweak the shader to have subtle differences in the specularity with the help of the texture maps focusing on the whole composition. Like the plants for instance will have translucency about them as the light penetrates the surface so I will make the shader that has subsurface scattering on it and go down to the part where it has a place you can either make a map or tweak the color. I tend to do both because I can define how much light enters the surface by painting values onto it as a map and slide the values of the color while tweaking the depth and scatter values to see how the plant reacts to the light.

 Lighting is another beast. I read this book called “Lighting for Visual Artists” by Richard Yot. It helped me a lot. He goes into how lighting reacts to objects, creates moods, color the whole gamut of it. What I love about it was it picture heavy that helped me really see the differences. Now I apply what I learned from that book and use it in my work today. I love adding color to each light because light has so much color to it which helps depict the mood of the scene and helps tell a story.

 It’s all about storytelling, composition, and lighting. Everything else will find its way. Keep rocking and making cool art and I’ll see you guys around.

Allen Frechette, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 1

  • James Dack

    I heard this guy rocks socks.

    Great article, Allen!


    James Dack

    ·7 years ago·

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