Viktoriia Didenko talked about the storyline and production details of her scene inspired by Strugatsky brothers’ novel and Tarkovsky’s movies.
About the Scene
I found myself impressed by this mysterious Soviet Union dream about space and something that lives between the layers of our reality and the black and white world of static noise. Such people like Stanislav Lem, Strugatsky Brothers, and Andrey Tarkovsky all made art that has something very important in common – a sense of serenity and pleasant nostalgic void. I decided to make something with a similar impression and show a place that functions without people, just like Zona in the novel Roadside Picnic.
Before I get to the workflow, I would like to talk about depth and impressions you can get from the visuals. For this environment, I mostly looked at Tarkovsky’s movies. In his works, Tarkovsky sometimes extends moments and turns them into an admirable routine, just like the shots of nature at the very beginning of Solaris.
I love how he uses desaturated colors and slow movements to create a message which comes not directly from what we see but from our memories. I think this is what mysterious Solaris planet does to anyone who looks at it – it reflects and makes their thoughts, memories and wishes almost materialize.
I can not help but mention that at the very beginning of the movie there was a scene that showed a person who returned from the station Solaris. He explained what he saw there and while he was describing the surface of the planet, you could see how he was struggling not to sound crazy. What he experienced changed him and his perception. Before his story, we were shown the shots of nature mentioned above, and they are perceived differently by the watcher and the main character differently towards the end of the movie.
In the movie Stalker we are shown the main character’s house which looks all worn out, very dark and dirty. But is it though?
Only recently I have noticed some resemblance between the scenes with the beds in Stalker and Darkwood. They gave me the same impression as if those were safe places in a dangerous world, but extremely fragile. In Stalker, this prop is shown very little. The lighting makes it feel like this place is dead and the only way for the main character to survive is to leave whatever belongs here, which is, unfortunately, his family.
Another reason why we see such lighting in his own house is that he might be influenced by Zona and have a connection with it. This means that now, home is a burden for him and should be left behind.
This reminds me of the game Inside by Playdead studio. A boy that, to my mind, represents something pure and innocent, runs through this terrible system which creates an impression of the Holocaust. In the end, he turns into something disgusting that can not live in the sunlight anymore.
I also want to mention Half-Life 2 environments. At the very beginning of the game, you are introduced to the station you arrive at and its interior with all the TVs and technologies of Combine. The streets of the City 17 are oppressed by futuristic metallic constructions. It is not clear anymore who lives where and all people are just scared and ready to leave any moment. The player has never seen this city before the Combine, but the combination of walls, materials and what represents power now creates a feeling of lack of comfort. It seems that you almost remember how all this looked before.
I got the same impression when playing Observer. In this game, we see some Eastern European location in the near future. The walls of the poor apartment buildings are terribly worn out but covered with holograms and wires to provide the new technologies. Since we do know how a dirty apartment building looks like, it is easy to feel nostalgic and imagine how it could look like before.
This kind of contrast resonates and changes us. When we come back to the places from our past, they appear to feel completely different. And then we feel nostalgia.
I wanted to create something that would make the same impression, at least for me. I wanted to create a world in a different reality yet nostalgic.
I decided to investigate the world of the Roadside Picnic universe. The book has more emphasis on the main character, Red, and doesn’t show what else can be found in Zona besides strange spider webs, time loops, waves of heat and cold, and a disease that melts the bones. So I thought it would be somewhat a good idea (at least as a test) to put Roadside Picnic, Tarkovsky and Half-Life together and see what happens.
The vision I got was a seashore with some kind of construction with pipes. I remember seeing such constructions on the beeches when I was little and my grandmother took me to the river or when I was in Crimea.
The purpose of the construction is to tell the viewer what time and place this scene belongs to, at least approximately. The scene is supposed to look as if people were there some time ago, but now the place is living a different life.
The story tells us about people who either got stuck in a time loop or became wild due to unknown reasons. Some of them later obtained the ability of rebirth and fast evolution. As some people returned to the sea, they started resembling beluga whales or other marine creatures. Their brains advanced, which now lets them control metal with magnetic fields, but since they are wild and born alone, there is no one to teach and guide them. They only thing they see is others walking in the same direction and this becomes their only motivation. They are children of Zona now.
I imagine how I would walk through that environment and just observe how they live and their routine is.
Here is the pitch I chose for this environment:
‘Roads of Zona brought us to a new place where we saw the children of these poisoned lands. So-called Walkers. They looked different, but, as I could see, nothing could take away this usual for any human being negligence of their own abilities and freedoms. They walked in these beautiful constructions above the sea, as if they were bringing a new purpose of existence. Then, some would trip over their own metallic legs, or over some completely harmless obstacle, and fall to their deaths. Later, they would be reborn in the ugliest way I could think of and assembled their strange vehicles for another time. As if it is the only option. They would do that in order to set themselves to this doubtfully important journey again.
But why? And where?
What else is there?’
I also dissected one of the ships to have a few broken pieces to throw here and there.
I baked them and painted masks in Substance Painter to tile textures through them. Here is an example:
On some of the props, I did vertex painting.
Here is a little compilation of the materials used in the scene:
I used a plane to tile the sand material with the dither node used to break the tiling pattern in the environment.
I made the seaweed material and took it to ZBrush as a displacement map. Before that, I created some simple shape in Maya and UVed it. Then I put the displacement map, decimated and cleaned it up, and got a model to tile the material.
Same was done with the barnacles. I took a plane through the same process and got a fixed shape. I could not tile the material through it because it would not match but it still worked. I put it in the foliage folder and painted it on the ships and rocks.
The cords are using the same material and the Spline blueprint.
I had an idea of the walking ships that are assembled and run by the creatures I described earlier. I knew that the vehicles would be made of metal parts and I had to figure out the pattern and style of their look. I wanted them to have this edgy style which included elements of the ribcage, spider crab legs, and strict lines.
The reference I got for the legs and shape language:
Here are some assets made for the scene: