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Distance: Designing a Bleak World in ZBrush & Maya

Eddy Loukil has shown us the behind-the-scenes of the Distance project, talked about sources of inspiration, and explained how to make your workflow easier.


My name is Eddy Loukil. I studied at Créapole design school in Paris. This is where I got my master’s degree in 2012 and directed my first two short films “Infans” and “Calvaire Fruité”. I started doing freelance while I was still studying, mostly for interior design and architecture companies.

My very first experiences as an employee were internships at Eugen System and then at Cyanide, both of which are indie video-game studios in Paris. I was mostly responsible for crafting a variety of environmental assets and props. Shortly after, I applied to an outsourcing company in Rome named Forge Studios. I met the absolute best people there and learned how to use CryEngine and craft proper AAA assets. Unfortunately, the economical landscape for video games in Italy was rough at the time and I had to resign and find another job. In 2015 I had an opportunity to work for 22cans in the UK, on Peter Molyneux's new game “The Trail”. Having played most of his games in the Bullfrog/Lionhead era, I was excited to work with those guys and I took the job. That is probably the one job where I truly developed my creativity and thirst for new designs. I really enjoyed the way Art Director, Paul McLaughlin, drove the art department. He gave me a lot of artistic freedom and I was just producing a never-ending flow of assets of concepts. Eventually, personal struggles led me to resign and leave the country. After a short gig at Ubisoft in Paris, I was headhunted by a Montreal company named Moment Factory which was doing 3D for big mapping installations and shows. It got me curious and I went. Montreal was also where I started working for VFX, first as an employee at Framestore then as a freelancer for various companies like Raynault, Mathematic, Digital Dimension, Reservoir Creative.

I have worked on a myriad of projects during my career as a 3D Artist. That includes Films and TV shows such as Blade Runner 2049, Watchmen, His Dark Materials, Dumbo, Paddington 2. Also video games like Ghost Recon Wildlands, Ryse: Son of Rome, Wargame European Escalation, Confrontation 2, The Trail. Finally, plenty of art installations, music videos, product designs, and commercials.

The Distance Project

Distance is very much a design-driven project. I had some shapes and metaphors in mind and started a visual bible around it. The very first asset that I did for it in 2014 was this lighthouse:

At the time I was having an obsession with both Art Deco and Art Nouveau, and that resulted in this. I think the video game Journey was also a big trigger for me, as it made me discover that you could do a different kind of game. Something where you don’t have to smash buttons to progress, but is rather a contemplative piece of art slowly unfolding before your eyes. I had no idea that I would eventually work for years from that simple premise and first asset, and create a whole universe around it.

I wanted to create something beautiful, novel, complex, benevolent, and nuanced in its message. My goals haven’t changed since then.

Distance is a fable exploring themes of social alienation and discord.

We will follow the Peacock, the king of the Oxidized Realm whose neurosis led to the collapse of his regal routine and the destruction of the kingdom's engineered balance. As he sets out to repair the damages done to the Engine Tree, a huge machine that connects the world and its inhabitants, they will go through a world governed by enmity and encounter torn apart individuals.

Art Direction

It has been very interesting to me to see the different projects that people are relating Distance to. Some mentioned video games like Dark Souls, Elder Scrolls, Shadow of the Colossus, or Zelda, others compared it to films like Metropolis or Le Roi et L’Oiseau. Despite the fact that all those productions display vastly different aesthetics, I love all of them, and their visual language is simply integrated as a tacit influence on everything I create.

My process in creating Distance’s visual language was a little more high level than taking direct inspirations from discrete projects. I basically settled on three main visual languages: Art Deco, Brutalism, and Art Nouveau, and started blending them together to find the right harmony of shapes and forms. Only when the shapes were flowing together nicely that I started thinking of characters and objects.

The advantage of consolidating an aesthetic that uses a fairly broad spectrum of styles is that you can dose and mix them differently depending on the context. That allows the film to have a pure, minimal look at times and a heavy, ostentatious look at others.  

Creating Creatures

I always start off sculpting in ZBrush, as I find it very efficient for quickly concepting the silhouette and general flavor of a character. When I am satisfied with the design, I remodel everything in Maya. In most cases, I start from primitives and use very simple box-modeling tools. 

My method for Distance’s mechanics relies a lot on the layering of many pieces embedded together. This is what gives it a complex and meticulous look. I always try to have the pieces apparently functional, that’s what makes it believable even if the engineering behind it doesn't make much sense.

Designing the Environments

My process of creating environments tends to be more chaotic and freestyle than characters. The fact that they are for the most part immovable objects, makes for much grander liberty of shapes and designs, I can go wild on scale and shapes without worrying about rigging and animation. 

In terms of workflow, I usually spend a lot of time designing unique parts of the composition that are at the center of attention. In parallel, I make a bunch of smaller, more generic ornaments that I KitBash on top, to give it the extra complexity that defines the scale. I always model everything by myself and from scratch, every aspect of a design, no matter how small, counts in the final equation.

When the blockout is done, I usually bring everything into ZBrush, DynaMesh things together, sculpt, and apply a bunch of procedurals to get the right look of stone or metal. I have been doing this for so long that I use a semi-automated method, but a lot of it is still done by hand


My texturing process is very simple and optimized. I tend to keep the color and material palette very limited. I always liked the look and readability of keeping it that way. Distance basically has only 2 materials (with multiple variants), a kind of brass and a kind of concrete, that are used on both the environments and the characters.

One of the core metaphysical principles of Distance follows the idea that the world is a single entity; objects and beings are part of the same thing. Hence the relevance of having everything crafted from the same materials.

All my texturing is done in Substance Painter. I did a base concrete and base brass materials years ago and just kept improving on it. I prep my models quickly and dirty, decimate and export them from ZBrush, then auto UV in Maya, which is more than enough for Substance to handle the baking process and give me a decent procedural result. 

I have perfected this recipe to the point where I barely think about it or do any handpainted job on an asset.

Future Plans

With the help of screenwriters, I have put together a 25 minutes screenplay for a fully animated film.

I already have a small team of independent artists working on it and we would like to craft Distance in its purest form, following its original creative intent. We launched a Kickstarter a couple of weeks ago and are calling people to help us out.

Eddy Loukil, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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