From Realism to Stylization: Game VFX Production
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From Realism to Stylization: Game VFX Production
6 February, 2018
Interview
VFX

Matt Schwartz shared some really cool techniques he uses to build an awesome ‘constellation-like’ VFX for Riot Creative Contest 2017.

Hi I’m Matt Schwartz I’m from Toronto, Canada and I am a VFX Artist in the videogame industry at Ubisoft Toronto.  

During my 5 years at Ubisoft I have worked on several titles – Far Cry Primal, Watch Dogs 2, For Honor, Far Cry 5 and currently Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Prior to Ubisoft, I worked as a freelance artist and intern at SideFX Software.

As a child I was always enthralled by animation and drawing. Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, has always been one of my favourite artists because of the way he combines wit and storytelling through drawing while having a unique and defined style. Of course, from a young age I was also passionate about videogames, and found I was always interested in texturing and later the FX that were used in the medium. Although I was unsure how they were created I always found them to be the most exciting aspect of my gaming experience. Casting a new spell or blowing something up could entertain me endlessly just to see the effect used. Later in life this passion for games inspired me to attend George Brown College for Animation, specializing in Game Development. While there I found my interest still gravitating toward real-time VFX even though I was studying the more traditional route of character animation. At the time no school was offering a specialized course in just game FX, so I had to experiment and find information online about how FX in games were created.

After graduating I had the opportunity of being selected as a student intern at SideFX software, where the 3d software package Houdini is developed. There I created film fx, which were used in their promotional material for Siggraph that year. Although we were focusing on VFX in film, I was still curious to find ways Houdini could be used in VFX for games, be it through texture creation, procedural mesh modeling etc. Briefly working in the film related world of computationally intensive simulations and extremely long render times, I was still drawn toward the immediate feedback that can be realized with real-time fx that are used in video games.

This only furthered my desire to pursue real-time VFX as a career path. So, following the completion of my internship I began to take on freelance work as a VFX artist in games. Working on several mobile and PC games, I was thankful to find clients who were willing to work with someone so early in their career. This experience provided a fantastic medium for on demand skill development in game fx. I hoped to find a more structured environment that would allow me to collaborate with other artists more frequently so I applied to newly formed Ubisoft Toronto and started as part of the Quality Control team. Through this position I was fortunate enough to meet and be mentored by the FX Artists at the studio and moved into an FX role.

Stylized Effects

In my spare time, I enjoy creating stylized effects because it allows for a different stream of creativity that does not always have to be rooted in reality and there are no preconceived limits to what can be created. Those types of effects in games are what drew me toward this industry in the first place. Blizzard’s work on the Diablo series, World of Warcraft and the spell FX in Final Fantasy games even going back to SNES immediately come to mind as influences early on. At work, I am mostly involved in the creation of realistic based effects. These FX are also extremely fun and rewarding to create as each has unique problems to be solved, because of the limitations in real-time rendering inside a game engine when trying to simulate a real world event like an explosion or fire. Due to the excellent work of so many talented artists in the industry, there is a very high bar to reach to achieve realism.

There are a few primary differences between various styles of game VFX. Stylized effects tell their story through the use of exaggerated or simplified shapes, motions and colors. At the texture level this tends to translate to less micro detail in texture and shape so that they can be clearly and quickly read without superfluous noise. Hand painting is a common method for creating stylized textures.

Realistic effects are traditionally designed to mimic real-world phenomena. Fire, explosions, smoke water etc. and textures for these can be made in 3d packages of choice through fluid simulation or photo sourcing.

Realistic effects aim to reproduce detail found in real-world scenarios while stylized effects use fewer small details and focus more on shape color and form. An example using a fire texture below can help illustrate the large well defined shapes and silhouettes a stylized texture has versus a photo sourced fire texture which has much finer micro detail.

Riot Creative Contest 2017

For the Riot Creative Contest 2017 I settled on a celestial based theme.

The following criteria was laid out for the competition:

Create two spheres in a blank scene. Sphere one casts a unique spell or projectile attacking sphere two. Sphere two receives the impact and plays some sort of status effect on itself (shield, burn, buff, etc.)

I initially worked on several concepts and block outs for this project, originally creating a sound wave based FX that used green and yellow hues primarily. I was not intrinsically drawn to this idea, and experimenting with a new color palette eventually lead me to a constellation based theme as I saw some nebula like colors coming together.

I find blocking out the broad strokes when beginning an effect to be extremely helpful to nail down timing issues and tonal inconsistencies early on. Similar to how a character animator will block out a first pass animation using just key poses, I will try and animate the particles or meshes in the effect in a basic manner to get a feel for what the effect could look like in an engine.

Structure

An effect like this such as an attack or spell requires three things:

Build up –  A lead up to the actual effect being cast. This telegraphs to the player that something will happen soon and helps provide an opening to the following effect.

The attack or spell – The execution of the spell itself whether it be a projectile, shield, bomb, etc. This needs to feel be impactful and exciting.

Dissipation – A fade out post spell use, which helps make the spell feel grounded and not just vanish or stop abruptly.

Beginning with the anticipation, I used meshes to create the constellation arms and attached a particle emitter to spawn at each junction in the mesh so it simulates a constellation. Through the shader, I used a gradient mask to reveal the constellation line to portray the illusion of it growing from the center sphere and reversing to pull back in. I worked with the animation editor to time keyframes for the spawning of star particles. This gave me a rough idea of what an anticipation for this effect could be. The animation at this point in time was very cursory and broad to allow for refinement as other elements of the effect are completed.

Following the theme of using a constellation line, I created another mesh to be used as the attack itself. Using a similar method, keyframing the properties in the shader to reveal the connecting line and trigger star particles.

VFX incorporates animation key principles like any other time based medium would.Things such as squash and stretch, slow in and slow out, arcs, secondary actions and timing are extremely important. They all can be used to make an effect feel “snappy” and impactful. After roughing in the broad strokes of animation I begin to explore and add flourishes and refinements. The image above shows how stretch is added to the expansion of the constellation by incorporating scaling to the outward facing axis of each arm as the shader reveals the texture.

Whether it is stylized or realistic VFX I am always animating on a curve to ease in/out of animation instead of linearly. It is essential to adding dynamism to an effect by smoothing the ins and outs of a motion and adding visual interest. Few things in nature move linearly from one point to another. Things tend to accelerate or decelerate as they move, so this is an essential point to incorporate in FX animation if you want to give it an extra spark of interest.

At the point when I start to think I am really getting into the flow on a piece, I know it’s time to seek feedback from peers. Feedback is essential to improving a work, and I find it more helpful to seek early on in the process. For me, It helps avoiding falling in love with elements that may just not work, or detract from the effect. If it isn’t adding value to the overall piece, sometimes it’s better off removed and looked at from a different angle. Such as an element added early on in development below. It was suggested to me that the center spinning piece felt out of place as it has a different motion from the rest of the effect. so instead of continuing to force it into the composition it felt more effective to remove and reevaluate the need for the long pause while the constellation is visible.

Experimenting with ways to add elements to the effect while keeping it clear and readable helps me explore possibilities for ways to add visual interest. An element that began as experimentation was the status effect itself at the end of the effect.   

A common thought that can be had about video game fx is that they are all created through the use of particles alone. In actuality, meshes and uv trickery frequently come into play as you can achieve very interesting and complex effects through them. They often have the added bonus of being less computationally expensive to use in real-time.

For example, this effect was created using a sphere and two tapered and flattened cylinder meshes. I then pan a material down the cylinder and sphere to create the illusion of flow. Having the UVs of the cylinder laid out in a flat single strip filling UV space is essential to achieving this effect. The speed at which the flow happens in areas can also be controlled by the spacing between UVs. Wider space will flow more slowly, tighter space, faster.

Flowing stars are incorporated into this as well on a second underlying cylinder mesh of the same shape and UV layout. It is scaled to be smaller and rest beneath the smoke cylinder. This and having a different panning speed than the smoke adds depth to the effect and gives it the feeling of being layered.

Color

Choosing a color palette that was not too overwhelming or scattered also helped me create depth in the effect, and can help define which parts are to be the primary focus vs secondary. I chose to go with a split-complementary color scheme for this effect as it added a subtle color variation you would find in a real nebula. I reserved my primary blue color for areas of focus. The violet and mild orange hues for were my secondary color, used for the background and to add depth and overall shape. Color choices are important in communicating to the player what school of magic or potential impact the effect will have. Ice for example, tends toward blue and white tones whereas fire is expressed through reds, oranges etc.

Color value and brightness are important when trying to draw a viewer’s eye to a point of interest. Using value changes and shifts of brightness at the central parts of the effect create visual interest as the effect charges and dissipates as it transitions to the next stage of the effect.

Value is also higher for the connecting attack part of the effect to try and lead the viewer’s eye toward the impact. The values are generally higher on areas of interest and lower in secondary areas. Using this concept, I created a path for the user’s eye to follow from the starting attacking sphere on the left over to the impact on the right.

Working Alone

The process of creating this effect solo was different than in a studio environment because it was created from concept to realization by one person, all decisions made by oneself. If created in a larger studio environment, there would generally be a series of communication points before the FX is started. First,the gameplay intention is laid out by the Game Designer or Level Designer. They help you to define what the effect is for, for example – does it slow the target? Is it an area of effect attack? Is it used to help add life to the world or as a way to lead the player? This back and forth helps guide the visual language for the effect. The Art Director and Concept Artist are involved to help refine a cohesive look for the entire game to adhere to. They define the visual and shape language you are using throughout the effect. The most interesting part of game FX is that problems continually require new and creative solutions. This is an aspect that would not change whether a team of one or one hundred is involved.

If someone is interested in Real-Time VFX I would recommend experimenting with a particle editor in a free to use engine such as Unreal or Unity. This and proficient use of Photoshop for image editing or painting of textures along with a 3d package of choice (3ds Max, Maya) for mesh creation and fluid simulation will get you quite far. Working on replicating styles you enjoy and find interesting is an excellent way to begin learning how they are created and deconstructing why decisions are made the way they are stylistically.

I was extremely happy to find that when I began to learn real-time fx that there were amazing resources for learning being shared online. This has only grown in recent years and it is fantastic to see so much sharing of information online.

ImbueFX is an amazing resource for information about how all game FX are created. The channel no longer produces new content as it’s creator, Bill Kladis has moved on to Epic Games but it is still a fantastic resource.

For stylized effects and animation in general, I would say Jason Keyser’s youtube page is a wealth of knowledge for texture creation and animation in this area. As well as another Riot artist, Kevin Leroy has amazing examples and tutorials on his youtube channel.

No string of FX recommendations would be complete without suggesting the essential book Elemental Magic: The Art of Special Effects Animation. It is an essential read for helping understand the dynamics, shape and timing of FX animation and can be applied to any style of FX.

I would also like to mention a fantastic forum dedicated to the discussion surrounding FX in games, Real-Time VFX. I wish a resource like this existed when I was starting my FX journey. Definitely, recommend checking out and participating.

Never stop learning and exploring. There is nothing more important in my eyes for artistic and career development than this. If you continually push yourself to make new things you will always gain something from the experience. Personally, I am working to improve hand painted texture skills, animation timing, scripting, etc. Video game development is a learners profession. It is constantly changing and evolving with the advent of new technologies, it’s always interesting to see how quickly things change and how much more there is to learn.

Matt Schwartz, VFX Artist @ Ubisoft. 

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.

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