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We were lucky enough to chat with Cliff Schonewill – an amazing artist, who currently works with Sony Santa Monica. Cliff is an amazing sculptor and environment artist. Over the years he did amazing stuff for a bunch of big games, including Batman Arkham Origins: Blackgate and Injustice: Gods Among. In this interview, he shared some advice about design and creation of in-game content: environments and character. Check it out, there’s a ton of great advice inside!
My name is Cliff Schonewill, and I am currently pleased to be a staff senior environment artist at the terrific Sony Santa Monica Studio. I graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design’s computer animation program. As a person and especially as an artist, I believe that education and study is a never ending cumulative journey fueled by a chemistry of interest, curiosity, drive, needs, desires, and other such things, and so I wouldn’t say college is where I “got” my education, but rather where I started down this road I am now on.
Regarding my line of work in 3D, I am proud to say I work in the industry I think has really many of the best artists in the world from my perspective; the gaming industry. Put another way, the creators of real time experience-able interactive immersive artificial worlds that have so many things that need to blend together in concert, all within limitations that are a fast moving target. Like all forms of art, gaming hosts a particularly huge range of flavors. If you look behind the doors of anywhere at the leading edge of what they are doing in this industry you’ll find talented, hard working people, arms linked, wading through chest high molasses while balancing eggs on their foreheads, but wearing smiles. That’s a great place to be and just recently, for the first time related fully to my job, I truly feel that way.
My time in this industry is somewhat short so far, and I honestly feel I am only really just beginning, especially in light of what I just said above. I began as the only character artist at Armature Studio in Austin where I worked on an unannounced project that was shelved, followed by Batman Arkham Origins: Blackgate and then Injustice: Gods Among us for Vita in a minor way. I took some time away to live abroad for nearly a year in my wife’s hometown in South Korea, and then found Illfonic in Denver when I came home and worked there for a few years, primarily on their unique early development of their own IP – Revival, which is where much of my recent portfolio pieces are from.
Sculpting is obviously a huge part of your production process. How do you approach sculpture in 3d? Could you talk in general about your production process with Zbrush? How does the sculpting of living creatures and architectural elements differ?
Sculpting really gets me going, and is arguably my favorite process in the various steps it takes to get from nothing to something resembling usable/final. I actually often refer to myself as a sculptor to people who don’t know much of anything about my industry, as I find it a more accurate way for them to understand what I do than calling myself a 3D artist or specifying character or environment art as most jobs often do. In fact, I regard the whole modeling process as sculpting, not just the use of something like Zbrush (though again, that is my favorite bit!)
It is highly difficult to answer the second question there regarding how I approach sculpture and specifically in the digital 3D medium in a specific way. The reason I say that is that I find the approach is different in small or large ways for each thing I end up creating. In an attempt to be concise and answer this generally, I will say that my approach is typically a salad made out of at least some quantity of the following ingredients tossed together, not always in the same order; exploration, problem solving, encouraging and following happy accidents, transmuting things into other things, continual and somewhat constant design adjustments, planning and just going with it when things go off the plan, and taking a step back to consider and re-consider how something ultimately fits into a whole. I highly value being organized, but I place more value on being a mad scientist and allowing opportunities for something I am making to be improved upon, even late in its process, which often creates a bit of a mess. I just embrace the mess… sometimes the most delicious meals create a respectable heap of soiled dishes in the process, right?
I honestly think each strength has an accompanying weakness, and my process has a ton of room for improvement in quite a few areas. The more things I do though, the more I learn that I have to embrace the types of things that are imbued in my process as a simple extension of how I think and who I am – to recognize where those things make me strong, and where they leave me lacking. It took me time to realize that, and is a constant struggle to remember in the fast paced river of new tools, techniques, and processes we adapt to in the gaming industry.
As for differences between creating living beings and settings or architectural elements, well… I think these two disciplines really have a huge majority of things in common with each other, but those things are applied differently and have flavor and nuance to them as well as differing areas of knowledge and practice that make creating them possible. It takes a lot of time and focus in just one of these areas to really excel at it, and so artists can tend to take one road or the other and stay on it.
To get closer to an answer to your question, having done both character and environment art in some capacity in my few short years, I would so far say the primary difference is actually more of a technical one. Environment artists are to some degree always striving to get the most effect out of the fewest things – deconstructing an entire setting into what versatile re-usable pieces and textures they can make and assemble together in intelligent ways that allow them to create the large amount of content they need to while still being both feasible to make and sensible to run in real time. In line with that, environment artists have to predominantly consider the use and creation of tiling/seamless textures. This is also important in high fidelity character texturing pipelines these days but primarily to add fine or even micro details inexpensively on top of unique textures, rather than how ubiquitous it is in environments. Essentially, being an environment artist is like a lego lover’s dream and nightmare – you get to make your own legos, but you have to make everything with only, we’ll say, 15 different lego pieces. When you think about it, puzzling these things out isn’t easy and I’m really learning a lot by doing it, as I consider myself very new to environment art.
There is a large range of considerations and technical limbo acts that character artists need to navigate as well while they create, but they are generally more contained considerations. One of the things that I love about doing character art is that it allows me to really focus on one asset and get into the nitty gritty of everything – being a detail oriented person, that’s a real joy for me. I keep learning the hard way that I have to reality check myself often in this area when doing environment art, and reorient my mind to thinking about the single thing I am making at the moment’s context in the lego set I mentioned. One final difference I’ll note so I don’t run on for far too much longer, is that typically a character is meant to stand out, while often in an environment it is necessary and often desired to make things deliberately not stand out. It’s about more than just making everything look amazing, there is much more to consider there.
Both of these disciplines however are all about giving personality, readability, clarity, authenticity, and so much more to their creations within the greater context of the overall experience and the host of limitations involved in realtime 3D art, and that is not an easy thing to balance out.
Could you give us your step by step approach to environment design? What do you usually start with? What are the biggest steps during your environment production?
I sort of fell into doing environment art as a result of coming to Illfonic, and just having to design and figure things out was a great way to learn how to approach environment art. It was also probably a way to develop some bad habits, but also a way to begin to wrap my mind around what sorts of things I had to do not by being shown how, but by having to figure it out. This is not really the quickest way to learn, but it is one of the most effective paths to truly understanding not just how but why to do something a certain way – so I am grateful.
Being one of only three artists on that particular project with a highly limited budget we didn’t have concept art really, or art direction like you would normally think of it, and so we really had an unprecedented amount of freedom, which was quite fun for me as I like not only to make, but to design. Doing both at the same time while also knowing next to nothing about doing environment art was an interesting challenge. I believe what I have learned from that will allow me to create things far far better from now on, and I already know that to be true.
I’ll let you know some of the things I think about when approaching and making an environment and lessons I learned the hard way, but again I am rather new and certainly no authority on these things.
- First and foremost, to the best of my ability I try to envision/create/or come to understand what the sense of space will be – the personality/sensation/mood/
purpose/etc. If you have concept art, great! If not, become your own concept artist, in your mind if not on paper. This is key in the beginning, but it is also something that I think you have to allow to evolve, change, and improve through the process. Checking back though to make sure if you wander from the path you are making it better and not worse is important, it is very easy to fall off of a vision when you are working on individual pieces and it takes such a long time to begin to see it come about. What should it feel like and evoke in someone as they enter and move through this space? Does that evolve from one place to another? Ultimately what is the purpose of this place in the context of how it will be used or in the case of games how a player will use it? Having at least a rough idea of this is key to getting a good start.
- At least in the case of the player housing I was making, which is all the environment art I have to show, it was of the utmost importance that everything be exceptionally modular, allowing a tremendous amount of variations and layouts to be created from a few pieces. This was something I approached in a very amateurish and slow way with the first set I made, but with each of the few sets I created, I started to get the hang of how to extend the usability of things and get variation from fewer and fewer pieces, which brings me to probably the second most important thing after the sense of space and aesthetic: boil it down to its essential, its minimum. The detail-loving character artist in me struggles against this, which slowed me down with these first environments. Now however I am beginning to force the habit of grasping the sense of space I’d like to create, and from there beginning to identify the essential pieces that compose it. Big picture first – always.
- Along those lines, something I’ve learned as well is to force yourself to stay zoomed out in the beginning and not to just dive into the fun process of making pieces. Like I mentioned, I want to get into Zbrush and get sculpting, so this goes along with lessons learned about being fast and loose with the big stuff until you have a concrete plan in place that has identified the few most vital parts. Even when you do have something concrete, take some time before you start committing efforts to realizing it to layering and exploring on top of it to expand your ideas. You might just come across something you like a lot better that could never have occurred to you without having gone through some process, and at this stage you can easily adjust your plan. You aren’t throwing away much work, which I find no artist wants to do which undoubtedly holds things back from what they sometimes could be, to say nothing of resources wasted in a production environment.
- With your sense of space always in mind and your key pieces identified, it’s time to play with shape language to facilitate and accentuate a sensation, concept, or even polygon budget. This can certainly happen before what I mentioned above this, however having a conception of the key pieces first also allows you to apply experimentation or ideas to those things right away, rather than getting caught on details when you should not be. If you have a defined piece of concept art or something to work from then this may have already been worked out for you. As I said before, until now I haven’t been in that position, which is good as it has firmly rooted these sorts of thought processes in my mind. Along the lines of shape language, while you are thinking about silhouettes and such, give consideration to materials – how things are made. What everything is made of is important and really informs a lot of decisions at this point. Its great to have a visual idea that might be neat, but if it doesn’t work physically then that is a problem you need to solve. This will also being to provide you with ideas.
- From here what I am always thinking about is very easy – 1,2,3. Primary, secondary, tertiary. Do your big forms read and give clarity to the sense of space and add to rather than detract from what you were going for? If so, good – now it is time to consider ways to unify these and make sure they collectively perform their jobs without being too basic or too interesting. Look for ways to ground things, and for opportunities for each thing (unless it’s not appropriate) to have a breakdown of primary, secondary, and tertiary. I’ve found three is really a pretty magical number aesthetically in most situations, but use your discretion – that’s part of being an artist, this is just a thing to think about and utilize like any tool. To illustrate the concept a little, I’ve made a simple GIF, and the image of the sculpt below it also demonstrates some of these things. The textured result had a lot of contrast and little details making it muddy because of the way I aged it, but I think things are still clear and come through well because of the approach depicted here.
To continue breaking things down this way would risk being overly long winded, which I may already have been. In short – get an idea, boil it down to its essence, be loose fast and experimental to block things in, find something you are happy with then break it and bend it and stretch it a few ways to see if you find something you like even better, start from the essentials, ask yourself what things are made of and how they will facilitate bringing a physically believable sensation to your artificial setting, consider how shapes, materials, ideas, etc break down from primary to secondary, and from secondary to tertiary, then get to making it and looking at things in rough as early and often as possible in their actual context, and course correct as you need!
How do you work on the assets for your scenes? There’s always so much decor there. Is that all sculpted as well? Do you create unique assets each time or do you maybe use some modular structures, that allow to build spaces much faster?
Not only do I create some modular structures, virtually everything is a modular structure, in reference to the environment art. Characters naturally are a different approach. I originally, being new to it, approached things with more of a unique pieces mindset, but like I said – that was sort of an area setting me up to learn from mistakes, but was also sort of a consequence of us lacking a plan of how to approach what we were building. The wooden hallway set, which is the first environment art I did, ended up being composed of a reasonable amount of pieces considering its flexibility when you strip out duplicate pieces with different materials for variation, but a bare bones modular set wasn’t my initial aim. I’m proud of all the things the set could do, which unfortunately weren’t truly tapped into outside of my test scenes. The test scenes are what all of the screenshots are from regarding environment art in Revival, so the lighting and propping of a real level could surely much improve them. Having a place like this where I spend time doing some basic temporary lighting helps be a reality check against the sense of space I mentioned earlier. Contrasting that set is the last set I made. We needed an underground set for an estate and we needed it done very, very quickly. For speed I decided to utilize a ceiling set I made for the great hall and build off of that. The entire subterranean set consisted of I think 8 or 9 pieces and came together in just a few days. I realized then that I had started to become an environment artist as well.
In short – not only did I use modularity as a way to build things faster, it is an absolute must for how you build these types of things, even if it not for a real time medium. As to your question about sculpting and decor – I sculpt where it’s needed/wanted (and maybe sometimes where it’s not just because I love it so much). It all comes down to that case by case basis though, time is important and in the industry you can’t endlessly work on a single thing.
How do you work with the materials? What software do you use for painting? How would you advise to address material production with environments?
The materials and how they interact with lighting are key to the success of the sense of space. It is important to have areas of rest for your eyes, and so when approaching materials you don’t just want insane detail everywhere. This is yet another reason for the primary/secondary/tertiary approach to thinking about things – using detail intelligently and in the right areas is important. I think about what areas can re-use a material first and foremost so I have an idea of what will be similar. I look for areas to have material breaks for contrast, so long as it is not creating busyness or noisiness, and would generally say that this is also part of the early stages of planning. While establishing shape language, primary forms, and construction materials you might think be thinking about if you are going to have too much of a certain type of material or not, how you can start to add things that break that up, etc.
I adopted a Substance Painter workflow which I quite enjoy, though lately due to some different workflows I find that I am unable to use that to its potential and am using it more for a specific output. It is important to adopt a mentality of result first, not approach first as different places have different systems and it is easy to become used to a workflow then feel very naked when entering something new. Realize that whatever the interface, buttons, and techniques – it’s all in service of creating great things, ideally as fast as you can. I have used various workflows and softwares. They are great, but I want to use this as an opportunity to tell possibly some aspiring artists to focus less on the tool, and more on the artistic eye that will guide you to great results in any tool.
My advice for material production in environments would consist of things I said earlier – start with the basics, check on it in context early, don’t get married to a result and build on top of it without introducing clutter. Try to give yourself control of all kinds of results down the line so it’s not difficult to make a change if you want more or less of certain things in your textures. Remember to zoom out your perspective and consider the whole, hard as it is when you are forced to create things up close and personal.
How do you use the lighting in your scenes? What functions does the lighting serve usually in environment design? What kind of lighting do you usually use? Do you try to bake the lighting all the time or do you play with dynamic lighting as well?
First, I have to put up a disclaimer that I am not a lighting artist and while I enjoy lighting, I am no expert at it in real time game engines. As a second part of that disclaimer, as I mentioned earlier all my screenshots are from my test levels where lighting was done quickly and roughly to help illustrate to others a sense of space I was shooting for. I wish I could say it was all a great fancy light setup, but in reality it was done in a way that would not really be done in a game just by moving dynamic point lights around. It was hacky, but it worked quickly for my purposes. Revival was a game with a goal to have virtually everything be dynamic which didn’t allow for any baked lighting – though our lighting was never worked out, so we just used basic lights in Unreal.
Lighting is of paramount importance, really with most all 3D art. Good lighting can make or break things in ways. It is crucial to make something that works no matter what the lighting circumstances might be in cases where you are building something for a dynamic world that won’t just be theatrically lit once and kept that way. In the case of what I was doing, I return again to the concept of sense of space. I think it is important to consider a player’s traversal through a space and to try and create opportunities for them to go through zones of light and shadow as that feels satisfying and helps create a sense of atmosphere and volume outside of the typical tricks we use. I try to define a definite area of direct light but include sources of contributing ambience so that if you fill things up with a bit more light it at least seems to make relative sense. Try not to be precious with showing certain things you made, lighting can bring the environment together as a whole and cement the sense of space and that is paramount to just showing every nook and cranny, no matter how long you slaved over that one thing. Let there be darks and things that fade away.
Could you talk about your modular approach to environment design? How do you manage to build such modules that allow to create such grandeur? Most modular environments are usually pretty bleak and not that versatile. Yours are on the contrary – epic, chic and full of beauty.
Like I’ve said, those several sets were a learning ground for me and so not everything I’ve said through this interview was really applied well across all of them, but they were avenues through which I have learned some of the things I have been putting in my answers. Above I have given an overview of how I have so far started to understand modular design as a process, and I don’t know if there is a secret sauce outside of just the way I made decisions through that process. I feel if I were to re-create these now after having learned the lessons I did, since they were my first, they would be far, far better.
Bleakness can often result from modularity, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. I simply wanted to build pieces that would allow themselves to be combined in more than just a few ways which when experimented with could generate a surprising number of results. The first modular set I made, the wooden hallway set, was originally started with the goal of simply simply being a long rectangular contained room useable in any of the estates, a sort of dining hall or something similar. Once I had the basic set required to build it, I wanted to break up large areas of walls and the result ended up expanding the aesthetic and flexibility of the room into a crazy customizable hallway set that had a lot of different possible things going on with it. It wasn’t the original goal, but it went there.. When you make a piece, always be thinking if it serves only that one purpose, and force yourself to take time to just experiment with different ways to combine it with what you already have. You’ll find you start seeing things you didn’t before, and it starts to become somewhat obvious what you need to do to bring that into the set, allowing it to be more than just a set of things that bends around to fit various layout needs.
Would you suggest using architectural elements in your scenes? Do they help to build better environments? Do you think these elements might be used in games? Do they influence the performance?
Maybe, maybe, yes, and yes. The pieces you have pointed out are all real time game art for Revival as I have mentioned. As for whether I would suggest using architectural elements and if they help build better environments… that is somewhat of an unanswerable question. As always, it all comes down to what you are trying to make and what is needed to do that. In a huge set of cases architectural elements don’t make any sense. Naturally for these player houses we were making for Revival they did.
The types of thought processes I illustrated earlier are really applicable to just about anything. I think being an artist in this industry has a lot to do with simply honing what we call your artistic eye, expanding your mind, having some courage, and with that finding creative ways to realize particular goals within the constraints and tools you have.
Art shouldn’t have rules, but creativity is often most abundant where there are limitations to work within, rather than total freedom – which may seem counter intuitive. It’s somewhat like being in a pool – if you are floating freely you can go in any direction you choose, but if you are doing laps you have a destination in mind and a wall to kick off of, you have a start. If you can only start, you’ll be amazed at what can happen when you use your mind and problem solve your way to the other end of the pool. I like a saying, though I am not sure where it is from, “The hardest step in any journey is the first one.” I find that is true because we hesitate at the thresholds of things, and starting something new is a threshold. I would encourage anyone in any walk of life when it comes to a creative endeavor, just take that first step. Trust yourself a bit and don’t easily give up.