Leon Johnson talked about his weapon art project AtomFuse54: EMPE-A25 discussing the modeling process, advantages of having a personal material library, and presentation.
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Hi, my name is Leon Johnson, I’m a 21-year-old 3D Artist from the UK. I started learning 3D with Blender when I was around 16 after I had been introduced to the world of CGI through my Dad’s old art magazines. Over time I became more interested in pursuing 3D art and eventually managed to find work in the creative industry soon after starting college studying digital media design. I've always had a love for all things sci-fi and so my personal projects always gravitate towards sci-fi inspired designs. I have always found guns particularly interesting to model due to the amount of variation between each type and how unusual and strong the shapes can be – they’re a perfect way to really get creative with design since even the most abstract gun can still be recognised from its most basic features (I highly recommend this guide by Daneil Solovev for those interested in getting into weapon creation).
EMPE-A25: Inspiration and Reference
I’ve always wanted to create art that felt connected together in some way and I’ve always been inspired by universes and artists that produce great art such as Wolfenstein, DOOM, and Maschinen Krieger, so I had the idea of creating AtomFuse54 to almost pay homage to a lot of the great art I’d grown up seeing.
By creating models that belong in the same world, it forces me to improve my design skills and really consider the purpose behind each model. Before starting to create anything, I spend a while gathering as much reference material as I can to use as inspiration. This usually consists of a lot of pre-existing designs, but can also be images of random objects I find that I think may be useful. I have a small library of reference images from pieces of machinery I find in real life in order to ‘kitbash’ ideas in 3D at a later date in order to build up more variation in the final model. If I struggle to come up with any initial design ideas, Brainstorm is a really useful tool for quickly generating interesting thumbnails – it can be a great tool for pushing through design blocks at the beginning of a project.
I typically start each project in a similar way, by trying to work from the largest roughest shapes, and then gradually refine and add smaller details as I go along. 3ds Max is my primary 3D software and I’ve spent some time over the years making hotkeys and using/tweaking scripts in order to speed up my workflow. A lot of tasks can be reduced to a few clicks once you start breaking down each step, this definitely makes the production pipeline more efficient. Here are some of my favourite available scripts:
Once I have the largest shapes developed, I start to move on to smaller details. For the AtomFuse54 projects, I typically tend to favour ‘aesthetics’ over functionality, since I like the ‘wow’ factor it adds to the models. I find that once an object has enough detail this can often be enough to sell the illusion that it ‘functions’ in the real world. Throughout the modeling process, I check to see if the silhouette of the gun is still readable whilst being interesting for the viewer to look at (I find this to be a difficult process!):
For details like the scope, I typically use booleans to create the initial shape, before fixing the topology and making it suitable for subdivision. I often repeat this process multiple times for more complex shapes since I find this to be a good way to gradually build up complexity without compromising the topology too much. If I find myself becoming bored by how a particular mesh is looking, I can simply remove boolean operators and keep changing parameters until I achieve a look I’m satisfied with. To prevent being daunted by complex shapes, I remind myself that the majority of objects you encounter in real-life when broken down are composed of basic primitives that are unionized or subtracted from one another.
UVs and Retopology
I used triplanar mapping inside V-Ray which allows me to skip manual unwrapping for each component. For personal projects I challenge myself to stick to sub-d as much as possible to try and improve my general modeling, it takes longer for more complex shapes but means that you have more control over the final look, plus makes it easier to create a lower poly version if needed in the future. I try to also use instances as much as possible since this not only saves on performance in viewport but makes it far easier to test out new ideas without having to repeat the process many times over!
For texturing, I use a small collection of materials and masks I spent time creating in Substance Painter and Substance Designer before exporting ready for use. I try to favour basic materials such as steel, rubber, and plastic before combining procedural elements inside Max using a mixture of masks and photo textures. I find having a small material library that you can use across projects super useful, since not only does it save time and prevent creating duplicate materials, but it creates a sense of cohesion between models, which definitely helps to sell the idea that they were created in the same world/universe.
Material layering in V-Ray:
Lighting and Post-Process
My lighting setup is pretty simple, I start by using an HDRI as base lighting since it provides a lot of high-quality lighting information (HDRI Haven is a great resource). Once I’ve established a good lighting and colour palette, I then add smaller low-intensity lights to highlight smaller details on the model – I find this really helps to make more reflective materials such as steel and glossy paint ‘pop’ in the final image. I usually render off separate passes such as AO, Diffuse, GI, and Reflection in order to tweak later in post.
In terms of post-production, I try to keep things organised and not add a great deal of overall complexity. I start by compositing my render passes on top of the raw image and tweaking the blend mode and opacity until I’m satisfied, as well as adding a soft glow on areas of intense light. I often combine LUTs inside Photoshop in order to add some extra contrast and warmth to the final image.
Pushing Personal Projects Forward
During a lot of personal projects, I find the hardest aspect is dealing with self-doubt, questioning the design and overall look of the model, especially during the halfway point. I think it's important to take a break and review your progress often, this encourages me to push forward with projects. Keeping progress pictures can be really useful for tracking the development of a project, and it can act as a positive reinforcement. Keeping vigilant of new plugins/scripts is a great skill to have, especially if they can speed up your workflow or push you to explore new techniques you would otherwise have avoided.