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Environment Design Tips: Scene Structure & Colors

Zhang Xiaoyue shared some details behind his Sci-Fi/Mech Factory scene: environment design, story development, structure and color interrelation. 


Hi, I am Zhang Xiaoyue. I am from China, currently studying at Gnomon. I graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and worked at NetEase as a Character Artist. I decided to join Gnomon to improve artistic skills and hopefully get a chance to work on a triple-A project. 

Gnomon is a specialized school for those who want to work in the 3D industry; it has numerous connections with well-known companies and studios. Unlike other schools I attended before, Gnomon provides extensive knowledge on various topics like offline/real-time rendering, different workflows, etc.

Mech Factory: Origin

The project Sci-Fi/Mech Factory started with daily concept practices:

Coincidentally, it also became my final project for both Christophe Desse and David Mooy’s classes. The purpose of the project was to see if I was able to handle the entire pipeline from design to production.

Story, Shape Language, Proportions

At first, I focused on the story: where this place is, what facilities it needs, and how platforms/constructions move. Once the foundations were set, I could now move on to designing the shape language. When you look at good concept art, you can make out a certain methodology for shape language application. It becomes obvious that shape language is everywhere. At this stage, I consider things like echoing and tension areas.

When designing a scene, proportions are very important (see the image above taken from the artist Sparth). When using proportions and design language correctly, it becomes easier to guide the eyes of your audience, thus making certain areas look interesting. 

Boring shapes vs Interesting shapes:

Almost all assets follow the proportion rules.


The blocking process is pretty much the same as blocking in concept art. Experimenting with different shapes and forms helps me to design the scene better. I constantly ask myself the following questions: Is it too boring? Is it too complex? Is it reasonable? Do these things contribute to the theme? Does my composition help guide the audience’s eyes to the main object? 


Once the blocking is finished, I move onto the next step - materials. When I applied my first materials, I used contrasting colors – such as black and white – to figure out the ratio between light and dark and figure out the positive and negative space. Speaking of color, one of my teachers always told me to use high-saturated tints to guide the audiences’ eyes. Low-saturated colors will help accentuate the space of your scene - in other words, make your scene look bigger.

Structure & Color

I think that in an environment, the structure and colors should be looked at separately. Colors basically contain material, light, and shadow information. Thought these three things (materials, lighting, and shadows) depend on the structure, they can also reinforce it and hide/correct any unnecessary information.

For example, in Liberto's design (see the image above), the viewer would easily lose focus set on the cockpit without the blue line. This is a very typical example of how color can be used to fix the structural issues.

Final Step

Finally, I used Redshift to render the scene. Rendering in Redshift is faster, plus it supports PBR textures directly from Substance. Compared to V-Ray, Redshift only takes 30-40 minutes to render an image as opposed to spending several hours on the same task in V-Ray. My only concern was how light contributed to the shape and how it separated the foreground and background.

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Zhang Xiaoyue, Digital Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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