Yenifer Macias talks about creating environments and designing props for them in Maya and explains how the warm, cozy look was achieved.
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My name is Yenifer Macias, I am from Colombia, I have worked for several animation productions, and I am currently working with Exodo Animation Studios and lately. I have been working as a freelance artist for videogames. I am very happy to have been a part of a video game called Gord as a Prop Artist, in my portfolio I have a mix of Unreal Engine and Arnold so I tend to work in both industries. I must confess though that my interest in Unreal Engine has increased and I want to explore it a little more.
I studied at SENA, a Colombian institute and I graduated in 2013. Since I started studying, working as a Lighting Artist caught my attention but I wanted to go further and I fell in love with environments. They are a mixture of everything and I enjoy doing them a lot. I also try to work on my personal projects, for me, they are very important, and even though I am working on other paid projects, I always have the need to do something of my own just for fun.
Designing the Cabin
At my previous jobs, I would always design something based on concepts created by someone else and I thought it would be a good exercise to create my own environment designs. But I am not very good at drawing, so I gathered several references and started building something with a small 3D layout and I was modifying the pieces according to the main camera and whatever occurred to me along the way.
First, I defined the most important thing, which is the structure. When I saw references with so many plants inside and so many shelves, it occurred to me that it would be nice to put a tree inside and make it sort of the main column in the house that is still alive and is used as a shelf. Most of the things that I put in this space were inspired pretty much by a single image, I liked it a lot but I did not want to rebuild it as is. I was also very inspired by the impressive work of Sergio Raposo, he works with very beautiful shapes with realistic textures, each scene inspired me so much that when I finished this environment, I wrote him a message, and Sergio replied very kindly.
It was a time of big frustration for me and his words comforted me, when I started this scenario I was very afraid the result would not be what I expected because I had not worked without a design as a base before, but it was a very enriching exercise and I really liked that I managed to do it. I think it was a great achievement.
Working on the Details
Once the environment was defined in the blocking phase, I was moving it according to the design, I began working on the details with the largest parts (walls, floor, shelf tree, the base structure itself). For the walls, I chose some wood samples from each area to only add some detail in ZBrush, to avoid doing more work. I did the same for the floor, I only modeled a couple of stones and a plane to cover the floor.
When it comes to the tree and the fireplace, I worked on them as a prop aside from preserving the proportions they had in the layout. The tree was sculpted in ZBrush and the leaves were then added in Maya, it was only the tree that needed retopology and the stones were done with ZRemesher. The fireplace, windows, and railing were made in Maya. I use Maya only because it is an industry-standard and I got used to that tool. I have also used Blender and 3ds Max but the companies I am working with now mostly use Maya and I feel more confident using this software which is why I create my personal projects there as well.
Creating the Props
For the props, I started off by making the furniture which is the most robust part of the props. I always try to go from the largest to the smallest, so it is easier to work with the largest parts defined. As I had already had some basic forms of the layout, I used them, and each object was modeled in a separate file. I felt that it was not necessary to detail them in ZBrush, so I only made details in Maya.
For my personal projects, I do not use libraries, not too much, at least. I always try to model even the smallest pebble that appears in the environment because that way I feel the environment is completely mine. Well, it is just what I prefer, I am not in a hurry for delivery, so I dedicate all time necessary. I looked at the images that I had as a reference to know what I could start filling the shelves and the tables with, so I made some books, potions, vases. I only used ZBrush to detail the organic shapes (i.e. the skull, the candles, the firewood, and the apple), I did not want the ceiling to be empty, so again, I got inspiration from Sergio Raposo, as he used some amulets hanging from the ceiling to fill that part of the space. I thought that some candles in the bottles would be beautiful as lamps and would fill the space well, it is important to add small details, as in this case, I put some berries and some small leaves on the table.
It was clear I wanted to surround the room with plants, as this would give it a lot of life, so I used SpeedTree, especially for the plant that falls from the balcony and the creeper on the fireplace. The creeper was the biggest challenge because SpeedTree has ivy options and it imports base geo and I had to make adjustments so it fit my vision of the scene. I only used two nodes, Trunk and Branches, plus an additional force to further guide the direction of branches.
For the textures, I used Substance Painter for every part of the design so I had to make UVs for each object. For planks, I used baking, so as not to lose the detail that I did in ZBrush without increasing the geo. To make the materials I paid a lot of attention to the look I wanted to have to go along that line, I used base materials by default in Substance Painter and I was modifying them according to what I needed adding layers and changing parameters and textures. I always try to arrange the layers in the least destructive way possible so I always use masks. For the bottles, I only made a dust mask to work the material, for the books, I made two different textures for each model to be able to duplicate it without generating too many repetitions.
To work on the composition (as I was creating it from the layout), I always try to work from a camera and thus modify everything according to it. I try to make sure things in the foreground, the midground, and the background have focal points, in this case for the focal points I relied a lot on the light to highlight them more. For the small details, I simply duplicated the details and arranged them piece by piece to see where they looked better, to me it is like giving a little love to the scene.
Lighting and Rendering
For the render, I used Arnold, I closed the room with boxes so the light would work in a closed place, I put Area Lights on the windows and a Spot Light as the key light to generate Volumetric Light. Inside, I put a large Area Light to use as a bounce light on the back of the camera, and there were dark areas I wanted to highlight a little more so I put an additional light on the tree to illuminate its shelves. I put a Side Light on the foreground table and some on the interior part of the balcony. I worked on 4 different cameras so I generated 4 different files and I was modifying the lights according to the camera.
For post-production, I used Photoshop since those were all static images. I compacted the layers to be able to work in 16 bits, I added a background, I played a lot with masks, I added a lookup and a hue to vary the tones. I wanted to generate a warm atmosphere, so I finished with a vignette to focus more on the center of the image and adjusted levels to generate more contrast.
A great challenge for me was to achieve a good final result that would satisfy me. With a new design created by me and with those moments of frustration, when I was moving forward with the project I was afraid that it would not remain at the level I wanted to achieve. It was really satisfying to finish it, to be happy with the result, and to see the positive feedback, now I think it has been one of my best works. And now seeing it posted on 80 Level is like an achievement unlocked for me.
I have learned that each person travels their own path at their own pace and we simply have to enjoy the journey, the things we do with love are the ones that stand out and define us the most. Leaving little parts of our soul in something that we are passionate about is reflected a lot in the final result, I think that is a very strong added value.
For those who are starting out, just do not give up on yourself and your art.
Yenifer Macias, Environment and Prop Artist
Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin
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