Anya Jo Elvidge talked about the way is combining low poly models, albedo textures and some beautiful animations during the production of her amazing 3d project.
Well, I’m a crazy person, I really need to plan everything I can for a scene before I start on it otherwise I struggle to find focus as I work. I’m not sure exactly how long it took me as it was after work and on weekends- whenever I felt like it really, but since I was really raring to get going on this project I didn’t spend absolutely ages on it. I treated the concepting stage sort of as its own little project, and then if I was happy with the concept I would take it further. In this case ‘further’ meant researching what the abstract plants in the concept would be, and how I would represent them; what kinds of environments existed that were waterlogged without being muddy and gross… how I would go about texturing some of the more prominent materials in the scene. And so on.
My main reason for planning in such a way is so I can manage my expectations a bit more with a project where I am working on it in such limited time frame (after work). If I just paint a concept and start trying to model it, it’s going to become an undetermined amount of time with an undetermined amount of things that I could do to make the diorama. In the case of a stylised scene like this, less is more. I don’t want to overwhelm the viewer (or myself!) with 10 variations of adorable white plants and 10 variations of pink. Even after deciding the cut down list of plants I wanted in my diorama, I still left some out. Essentially all I wanted was some ground level, small, and tall plants of varying greens and different coloured flowers within a pink/white/yellow colour scheme. And I could use vertex colours to add more variation later.
These 3 heights of plants meant I could create a gradient of small to tall height as you move back across the diorama, which makes for easy and clean viewing.
The building and tree in this diorama were quite easily planned because I had based them on things I’d seen in real life- The Palladian Bridge in Bath and a young rhododendron tree I’d found near my home.
Deciding how I was going to cut into the bridge to make it fit into a diorama, and how I was going to work with the ground and tree was all one big task that I had to work up pretty simultaneously to make the scene cohesive. I don’t want to shoehorn stuff in at the last minute as it would unbalance image I was creating.
I made sure I had very crude blockouts of everything I wanted before I even considered texturing. At this point I also played about with lighting very basically… Just some ideas as my concept wasn’t super clear.
I needed something to keep leading the eye back into the diorama on the right side, and I decided that a boat would be a nice addition. Stairs leading up to the building did the same on the other side. This meant the composition was flowing and nothing led your eye out of the scene.
The reason I began work on the ground of the diorama before the building and other larger assets was because I knew mostly how they would look in the end as they were firmly rooted in realistic inspirations. The ground and foliage, however, were the quite a dominant aspect of the scene and since the foliage was literally growing from the ground, it felt right to start there. I could also cover lots with the smaller props early on and start the project with a good kick. The colours and shapes of the foliage would set the scene.
Working with the textures and vertex colours
This project was intentionally made for myself as a sort-of break from standard game art creation methods that I have always used in the past, so I decided to go it without normal maps and roughness; albedo only. This made my materials much simpler to manage and it was all about hand painting! The only things I added here and there were subsurface scattering and SimpleGrassWind. I made myself a template for my materials, and used that for pretty much everything.
The 1.5 exponent plugged into the power node you see is a method I learned to prevent textures from being washed out. The value to be ‘correct’ is 1.2 I think, but I preferred the results with 1.5. It really helps the painterly, matte feel I wanted from my textures, and the light values become a lot less blown out where light hits them.
My use of vertex colours came as an afterthought of sorts, and is something I’ll be trying to integrate more in the future if I need it. For the most part, I used it very subtly just to add nice little gradients to my props. It saves you having to create a huge texture with all the colour variation you want on it. The tree and the ivy are probably the best example;
But I used it for everything from the streams of water to the grass tufts to the ground plane and the boat. Even if it is just used as an afterthought it can work very well. Just make sure your textures are light enough that you can multiply RBG colours over it- I had to lighten the ivy quite a lot, so that it is almost minty in colour.
Aside from the subtle use of vertex colours on it, the ground plane was literally just that- a plane. With an alpha on it. I decided to use a plane rather than a mound of earth like I usually would because I wanted nothing detracting from the focus of the diorama, and clods of earth hanging off the bottom are quite cumbersome and bulky looking.
The plane was shaped to go up a gradient from front to back and I tried to shape it around the form of the tree and building. I was constantly reshaping and resizing it as I went, even at the end- if there was unnecessary space that was doing nothing to add interest, I cut it.
Lighting the scene
Lighting is one of the most important aspects of a successful environment and can either make or break a scene. Personally, I want my lighting to be striking but also quite subtle… I keep my shadows light and avoid too much contrast. I f I had very dark shadows and light lights, the focus would be much more on the lighting than the work I’ve done. The image below shows how I rarely stray to very dark values, even in areas of shadow. The lightest area is the middle of the diorama, where I want to draw attention.
I’ve talked in the past about how I use point lights to accentuate a scene, but I did it much more for this diorama. With the striking contrast of the black background, I wanted to include as much colour and ethereal atmosphere as I could in the diorama itself which point lights are great for. I turn off ‘cast shadows’ on all my point lights, even ones inside lanterns, to avoid harsh or weird cast shadows.
It’s the little sparks that bring an environment piece, big or small, to life. Subtle movement of foliage, insects or birds flying. Even sound effects. I kept it really simple here because, like I said, I don’t have much in the way of spare time now I work. I intended on adding some little birds and such but I’ve decided I’ll actually do those as separate projects for fun.
I always like to add falling leaves to any environment that has foliage in it. It’s really simple to do and as well as adding movement it gives opportunity to add bright flecks of colour. The leaves/petals were done using Unreal Engine’s particle system, on a very basic level. The main things I used for that were setting Screen Alignment to PSA Velocity, and then adding an Orbit node(?) to make the leaves swirl. Colour/Alpha over life are fun to play with too. You can also set the leaves to stop moving when they collide with another mesh but I couldn’t get it to work for me very well without being distracting.
I set the material to ‘additive’ so I could have full control over the translucency of the petals as they fell, but you could experiment with settings until you find what you like- it’s all experimental!
For the water I actually used quite a hacky method. The material itself consists of a very basic normal map (actually taken from a rock in a previous project!) repeated twice at varying scales and scrolled over itself in different directions. Caustics add another dimension to the water, which I did using light functions.
I used a similar material for water foam meshes passing over the top of the water, which masked the transition to the waterfall itself, and for the waterfall another similar material but tinted blue with the UVs stretched massively in one direction to give the impression of water falling. Vertex alpha (vertex colour in the image) was used to soften the edges of the waterfall.
It’s hard to think of specific things because the project was quite basic in how I went about making it… but a few little things I like to do are:
-Subsurface scattering, I use lots of it. It makes the scene feel like it’s glowing.
-Custom skysphere. I make my own basic sphere and slap a 2 sided emissive material with cast shadows off, and blow it up to encompass the scene. Then you can have any background colour you want without affecting the lighting.
-Floating geometry for shadows. Use tree and custom meshes to cast shadows on your scene, so you can really control what the light is doing. Set the mesh to ‘hidden shadow’ and the mesh will cast a shadow but still be invisible.
-Colour is king. Plan colours really carefully. I liked working slowly through the colour palette rather than using contrasting colours for this piece.