Hi! It's been a while since my last article on 80 Level.
I have been very busy freelancing for the past three years and was able to work with some really exciting studios on diverse games including a few VR titles. Each project provided its unique challenges and as I was usually the only 3D artist in the team, those challenges came from wearing many hats and figuring out problems unique to each experience. I had a great time working on Trials of Fire which is now in Early Access where I had to work out how to make battle arenas appear to grow straight on the page of a book! I also had the challenge of making three large underwater maps in Unity for a VR game called Operation Apex which was featured in National Geographic’s Shark Week. Working on The Crystal Maze USA, a game about Lancelot, a talking dog, and Jack the Ripper and another game about brawling immortal babies have been a few other highlights!
I heard about Glimpse early on through industry contacts and eventually joined the team as a 3D artist on the project. Glimpse is a VR short film about a heartbroken panda bear called Herbie (voiced by Taron Egerton) who sits alone in his art studio reminiscing about the relationship with his recent ex-girlfriend Rice. It’s a really beautiful little short and my main task was to create Herbie’s art studio. We needed the gameplay space to tell lots of little stories, from the art on the walls and the books to Herbie’s little guitar and photos of him with his ex. It had to look like a really used, lived-in space and so we cluttered it with all of his art equipment, his shoes, and even his old takeaway containers. The dark sky outside and verticality of the room with the large windows were created to add to the feeling of melancholy and solitude that Herbie (and so the player) is experiencing.
When Building VR Scenes
I think for an environment artist working in VR the key is to really make sure your blockout works early on and also keep playing in VR to get a real feel for it. For example, the windows are tall and high up in Herbie’s studio and all you can see are some stars and a dark sky. In VR, this acts as a cut-off from the outside world. The only way to look out is to look up and you have no view of any buildings or other people. It really plays up to the emotion you should feel in the scene. Obviously, the technical restrictions also play a large part in how you approach a scene but with clever planning and blocking out you can minimize any impact of those restrictions.
We spent a while blocking out the scene to make sure the studio space was just right. Some early versions felt too big which meant that some objects weren’t very clear at a distance and it also just felt too roomy for the mood we were trying to create. Once we were happy with the layout and scale we did a lot of reference passes trying to figure out what kind of furniture, props, and art Herbie would have around him. Herbie is a bit of an arty hipster panda so it was fun creating the space for his character. Once we were happy with that, it was a case of scheduling all the different pieces we wanted and then jumping into the fun asset modeling stage.
With the help of assets, the main thing was to create a small but busy worked-in studio. But even though there is a lot of stuff in it, everything still has its place and its use, so it's kind of very organized clutter. Bob Cornish (one of the team members) and I are both artists ourselves so part of the process was just looking at our own stuff, all the little notebooks and sketchpads and pots of pencils all over the place.
Sketches on the Walls
The 2D art on the walls was created by Bambou Kenneth and I simply added them to 3D paper meshes with little pins and tacks all over the studio. I love how they all tell part of Herbie’s story, especially all of the little sketches of Rice.
I had the most fun when making the textures tell part of the story. The white paint on the bricks is chipped and worn out in places and some lino is exposed on the floor as the studio is set in an old warehouse conversion. Using Substance Painter, I had materials and masks for layers of dust and paint splatters which I supported with the use of decals in the scene. The sink is a typical studio sink, tidy but with dried old paint and stained ring marks from paint jars and tubs. I think it’s a combination of all these fun little details that makes the scene so enjoyable to create.
The scene is all static lit in UE4 aside from the single dynamic light in front of the player. I added a cool blue coming in from the moonlight outside the studio and then warmed up the interior with multiple little sidelights and some overhead industrial style lights.
Another fun aspect was when we showed the “memories” which are little 3D dioramas that appear in front of the player when Herbie is daydreaming about Rice. We wanted the whole scene to darken so that the focus would be on the little memories which were brighter. Because we were using static lighting, I actually added some parameters in the master material for the studio scene which allowed us to animate the material brightness and roughness so that it looked like the whole studio was dimming but the memories were still lit.
Aside from the memory lighting, I think the biggest challenge was just creating the mood and making sure all the details were there and it didn’t feel like a disorderly mess. Every single part of the scene needed to help tell the story and so getting into the character's mindset was a huge part of the task. There are several other parts of the scene still being worked on that we haven’t shown yet and each creates its own challenge, but that’s part of the fun! Keep an eye out for more from the Glimpse experience in the future!