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Growing Believable Environments

Jeremy Huxley from Naughty Dog offers some sage advice for designers about doing some fantastic environments.

Long gone are the days when rendering limitations forced video game artists to focus almost exclusively on hard surface design. Game environment designers now need to know their deciduous from their evergreens, as a push for ever richer and more believable digital worlds puts a firm focus on visually immersive plant life. Jeremy Huxley, a CG Master Academy Tutor and Senior Environment Artist at award-winning games studio Naughty Dog, offers some sage advice for designers about going green.

Given that real-world environments, even many urban ones, are home to a dazzling array of flora and fauna, just where should an artist start when planning how to populate their world with plant life?

“What I always try to do myself and I recommend to students is to start off by gathering a large amount of reference and inspiration and create a large collage of that in Photoshop. Once that’s done you’ll have already started to compartmentalize your ideas, whether you realize it or not. Once you have your collage I recommend going through and creating a simpler and more concise style guide, creating categories such as rocks, plants, trees, architecture and possibly a section with other styles you like. I, for example, always include Kazuo Oga’s matte paintings in my work for inspiration, along with a few other things I find inspiring.

Are there any golden rules for determining the broad layout, especially with regards to variety and the interplay between different plant types?

I would say that the most important thing to keep in mind is how the environment is going to affect the mood of the environment or story beat. The shape, color and density of plants are all very important when creating a scene that is warm and inviting, or chaotic and dangerous.

How much do final lighting and rendering limitations come into play when considering plant density and scene complexity?

Whenever I have asked my Art Director and mentor Tate Mosesian, he would always tell me to push as far as possible, further than I even anticipated and worry about making it run once we get it where we want it visually. Somehow we always get it running in the end.

How important is it to follow cues from the real world, in terms of seasonal changes and any geographical influences on plant types?

There are inherent emotions involved with the changing of seasons, I grew up in the mountains in the Pacific Northwest in the United States and the seasons are very well defined there, it is important to exploit these emotions and associations that already exist in most of us. In terms of plant growth I base this on how I want the player to feel, are we in a sparse field, on a summer day, or are we standing in the same field in the middle of winter? These both will feel very differently to the player and most of that emotional change is a learned thing through personal experience and other films or games.

Finally, what are the rules for adapting real-world influences when creating environments rooted in fantasy and science fiction, where there’s a need for something tangibly real, yet strange and new?

We break rules all the time, it really comes down to what the story or emotional beat is that we are concerned with selling. Nothing else matters, we are telling stories and especially in sci-fi or fantasy you can push those really far for your own means, in a more grounded game you can still push things super far as long as it doesn’t actually in the end work against you. Always try crazy things, they work out more often than not, if you try to always stay safe with your work it will get lost in all the other stuff out there.

Jeremy Huxley, Environment Artist at Naughty Dog

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