I really like how you've articulated your entire process. This was a very enriching read. A Well deserved feature!
Great article! Thanks for the awesome read.
Wow, this is so cool! Nice job!
We proudly present to you the interview with David Luong – senior cinematic artist at Blizzard Entertainment. Throughout the years he worked on a number of great CGI-flicks for StarCraft II, Diablo 3, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch. In this little talk Davi was kind enough to share his thoughts on digital matte painting, sky creation and moving outside our reality into an exciting virtual world.
I’m David Luong, and I’m a senior cinematic II artist at Blizzard Entertainment, working in the Blizzard Animation division (we do the cinematics!). I do lighting/compositing/digital matte painting for the trailers and movies for our games. I first started at Blizzard in 2006, and worked on numerous cinematics since such as: StarCraft II, Diablo 3, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, and currently on Overwatch.
As a matte painter, I create skies and background elements for the cinematics. It’s not the full 3D environments where our awesome environments team create that interact with the characters. But more the farther elements that could be one offs, or cyclorama skies that can be used in many other shots (such as what I did for World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor). Marketing will possibly also use my art work for high resolution image stills such as for posters and other marketing materials on the web and such.
Creating the Sky
Skies really tell a lot of things: the time of day, the mood of the scene, the lighting, and the colors that fall onto the environment and characters. It’s really the most fundamental element in a scene that guides a lot of other art direction in a shot. I love creating skies for our cinematics when I can.
To create them, it’s usually a base of photos, that I’ve shot or from the collection at our studio put together to form a new sky that’s been art directed to look and feel a certain way. Other times, it’s created through a 3D program, such as Vue, like what I did for StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void. There’s a shot in there that Artanis looks at up into the sky, and that was a combination of 3D created sky from Vue, photos, and paint work. I also had to create an entirely 3D time lapse, for which I used Vue to execute photo realistic looking clouds and skies as well as integration of a sky I created in Photoshop for the night portion of that time lapse.
Digital Matte Painting
In digital matte painting, it’s really whatever works. Be it miniature work, photography, 3D, or painting. I love that’s it’s a combination of everything that can fool the eye into thinking something exists there that hasn’t before, and for it to look as realistic as possible. I actually heard of the Baking soda technique from Dylan Cole when I worked with him on Superman Returns on 2005 where he had to create some glaciers and ice digimattes on the film. It was a great idea, and still is. Glad to see other people know about that and use it too. I shoot random elements in my backyard, such as little rocks with high depth of field, which can then be used as mountains or rock cliffs in scale later on since it’s lit perfectly by the sky and sunlight to be already realistic. I’ll be taking my camera everywhere to shoot textures and matte painting plates when I go on vacation. Each project presents its own challenges and own look, and going through my library of photos, I can creatively use photos to enhance my digital matte paintings.
A Little Bit Above the Reality
Grounding everything on the physical realities of our world is what makes art relatable to people, and allows us to make it as realistic as possible. Having said that, art, like digital matte painting, will have artistic license to break some of these rules to create something out of the imagination, but still having some sort of physical logic in some parts so it’s not totally incredible. I think that’s the magical aspect of films in general, to take you off this world and enter into it (if it’s a good film), the same can be said about a great matte painting. It transports you into a new world if executed well.
Three lights, and an environment light for the most part! A key light, a rim light, and a fill light, giving you that nice core to shape a character or environment as well as an overall IBL such as an environment HDRI map that lights everything physically correctly at first. And then a bunch of other lights as art directed or from local physical objects like light poles and lamps and such.
I think as time went on, CPU and GPU speeds as well as other technology breakthrough such as better physics in a rendering engine really allowed directors to use more ambitious camera moves and environment effects. Back then, digital matte paintings would barely move, or move just a little bit because moving it more would break the camera projection from a painting, or it would be too complicated to composite well into a shot with characters moving about.
Today, it’s all possible, thanks to the knowledge passed down throughout the years in the VFX industry, and the power of computing. Camera moves will be going through an entire environment to show every direction and be able to have the character go in front of it at any moment through use of green screens, tracking and match moving to the CG impeccably perfectly. I try to keep up with what I can in the new programs, but there’s so much coming out. I’m always keen in learning new products to enhance my workflow, like what I did recently with Vue on StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void. I never used that program before, but was able to produce a nice little time-lapse out of it at the end of the project!
Matte Painting and CGI
Lots of hard work and time! For digital matte painting, it’s working well with the FX artist compositor, the lighter, the environment modeling artist to achieve the desired look.
Because things are so high fidelity these days being HD or stereoscopic, things have to be frame by frame perfect in the technical sense and from an art direction stand point. This is what we’ve been ingrained to do at Blizzard Animation, as each frame strives to be a poster frame at any moment the audience decides to pause on our trailers. It’s a lot of team work to get these frames to look as good as they do. So doing well on your own using all of the technologies available to you, learning new ones, and working well on a team is the key to getting shots looking good.
We’re incredibly grateful to David for his time and we strongly encourage you to check out his other articles and some of his amazing books. They’re totally worth it.
David Luong, Visual Effects Artist