Environment Artist Kyle Steward shows us how to turn a 2D concept into a 3D environment using ZBrush, Substance Designer, and V-Ray.
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My name is Kyle Steward, and I am a student at Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Games & Animation where I am studying to be an Environment Artist. I recently finished up my project “Museum” and am thrilled to share a breakdown of how I arrived at the final piece.
Our assignment for the class was to recreate a 2D concept into a 3D environment in five weeks. Enter, Rado Markovic. His concept, Museum, was on my desktop for most of 2018, so I knew my first choice right away, plus I’ve been itching to do something overgrown.
I was working on a pretty tight deadline with other classes on my plate, so I had to manage my time carefully. I cannot stress how important it is to keep your schedule organized when balancing several projects and allotting time toward different responsibilities. I spent a few hours on my first day searching through images that matched closely with the concept because I didn’t want to stray too far from it. My reference included props, textures, and a hard drive worth of moss growth.
I imported Rado’s concept as a backplane and the blockout began. The first thing I wanted to knock out was the staircase. Starting with that would assist in judging the scale for the rest of the scene. To further help with scale, I imported Unreal Engine’s mannequin which is close to 180 cm in height, and matched him to the character from the concept. With that, it was easier to set up my camera angle and focal length.
There wasn’t much time for iteration so blockout was a quick phase for me, and I would go as far as to say my “blockout” skipped a few steps. That helped me in the long run, giving me more time to focus on the details I was unsure I’d have time for but desperately wanted to add. I spent a little extra time when blocking out the props to make them closer to the final model.
Guilty! I’ve spent too long shunning one of Maya’s most powerful toolsets. Curves played a big part in building my structures and props. The ability to go back and adjust the curve in a nearly non-destructive manner was an eye-opener.
After getting into curve tools, I went through my asset list and set out on a model creation spree, focusing on objects that would benefit specifically from using this method and the functions it offers, primarily Revolve. It ended up being a good time saver plus resulted in good topology, so it’s win-win. Otherwise, everything was modeled from scratch aside from vegetation, but more on that later.
Hot off the topic of curves, my staircase would not be standing without them. After setting the general slope angle that the staircase would have, I drew out a curve along the slope. With that I was able to use MASH, which was a new tool to me, to place meshes along the curve with an adjustable quantity.
For those that don’t know, MASH is a built-in suite of tools for anything from motion graphics to procedural visual effects in Maya.
My need for it originated from a spline system I made in Unreal Engine which was initially for chains and eventually transitioned into a modular system I could reuse. I was a bit lost without the tools I’ve grown accustomed to in Unreal, so I researched ways to replicate my spline system and settled on MASH. Turns out it had exactly what I needed!
The banisters were placed using MASH’s curve tool while the railing and base were shaped through lattices.
Now all my curves match up with one another and flush as can be. Wrong!
My instructor, Max Dayan, delivered some great feedback throughout the project, in this case, the banisters. Luckily, MASH is node-based and if the mesh history is retained, a simple curve translation can fix the whole thing. Bullet dodged.
After I finalized the left side, I duplicated it over.
For the sculpture, I began with the male bust project in ZBrush. From there I carved out a structure reminiscent of the statue from concept using a few general ones for reference. I would have loved to spend more time on it. Sculpting is not something I’ve utilized often in full scenes and I personally think the organic style that stems from it looks great. But for this one, I decided to save time and get the surface details through texturing.
I began my texturing phase in Quixel Mixer where I made multiple materials to reuse and tweak across assets. Wood is a dominant texture in this scene and required a significant amount of editing per asset to make it look both similar and unique. I didn’t want the wood to come off as a slap on the material. Whether it was slight cracking, discoloration, or roughness variation, it was important to have various small touches to differentiate the material.
After creating materials in Quixel Mixer, I imported them into Substance Painter for texturing my props and structures. A few of the props were easier to do directly in Quixel Mixer, so the workflow varied by model. Honestly, Quixel Mixer served to be a pain when texturing props. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great for creating materials with their library of scans, however, I would’ve been better off using Substance Painter in most cases. Maybe that is due to my familiarity with SP? I don’t know, just a thought.
For the most part, all variation was done in Substance Designer. From overlaying discoloration to roughing up surfaces, editing/mirroring masks, and displacement. I used it somewhat like I would Photoshop and chose it simply because I am comfortable and confident with the program, and iteration was fast and non-destructive.
Here is a sample floor texture from the Quixel Mixer viewport:
Here are basic edits made in Substance Designer:
Cardboard and Paintings
Is it crazy the cardboard box was my favorite asset by the end? After modeling and UV-ing both an open and closed box, I took it into Quixel Mixer where I used three different cardboard materials, complete with edge fray and decals I drew up. I felt they were still bland, so I added a little pop with blue tape.
As for paintings, it was an enjoyable task sifting through art to incorporate into my scene. I wanted to keep at least one from Rado’s concept as a tribute, so I hunted down the Medieval Church by Arthuris. Aside from that, I decided on a few of Rembrandt’s plus my girlfriend’s favorite, Sunflower by Van Gogh. On top of each one, I layered roughness and discoloration.
Floor and Stairs
The floor was split into two-meter planes. For those, I made two tiling materials for modularity, one with light debris and another covered in moss. Each could flow seamlessly into one another. I placed decals on planes with displacement to stray away from the card effect. These range from torn-up wood pieces, rocks, and leaves.
For the stairs, I followed the same process as most of my wooden structures, but I paid extra attention to the bottom steps blending well and appearing worn where people once walked.
For vegetation, I’m using scans from Quixel. The library was fitting for my needs and I didn’t have time to be picky since I was coming up on my last week. The integration between Bridge and Maya was also a big help in cutting downtime. I chose a few plant types and made four clusters of various plants that I could use in a modular fashion. In highly visible areas I split the clusters and individually placed what was needed.
A big factor in the overall look was moss. I chose to not bake it directly into the textures, rather use masks and a separate moss material inside of Maya to blend them together. This allowed more control over the whole scene and as a bonus, if I desired in the future, I could turn it into a Winter scene by swapping out the moss material for snow. On top of the moss texture, I created a layer of V-Ray fur to provide some depth and directionality to the moss that was missing from the flat texture. To stay away from uniformity, I created a length mask with various values that faded toward the edge so the moss tapers off.
The only reference I used was Rado’s original piece. For rendering, I used V-Ray. The lighting is made from purely rectangle lights utilizing directionality, temperature, and volumetric fog. I used an image downloaded from HDRI Haven outside with high exposure and a warm light cast on it to fake outdoors. The volumetric rays were achieved through V-Ray fog which I exported as a separate render element so it could be adjusted individually in post-production.
For post-production, aside from the fog, I rendered ambient occlusion, material ID, and Z-depth. Photoshop was my choice for post-software. Ambient occlusion was useful for darkening up those corners a bit that appeared too flat. Material ID was handy for slight color tweaks to individual assets and brightening up focal points without affecting the entire render. Finally, I used Z-depth to create a light lens blur in the foreground.
I’m pleased with how smooth the project went overall. From iteration to feedback, it flowed smoothly. I believe getting off to a quick start played a big factor in shaping the final piece.
The biggest struggle I faced was coming to grips with offline rendering. I’ve been spoiled by real-time and an environment this scale is not something I’ve done before in an offline renderer. Too much time was spent waiting on renders to check minor changes, a habit I need to break.
Tips for Creating Atmosphere
Atmospheric scenes are driven by lighting. My environment relies heavily on it to deliver the feeling I intended. Volumetrics contribute greatly to as well but don’t overdo it. It varies by scene type but always notice the small details in your environment. In my case, the lighting, dust particles, and overgrowth play primary roles in telling the museum’s story. Otherwise, it’s just another museum.
Thanks so much and stay safe. Keep creating!