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Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Senior Environment artist at Rocksteady Studios Jody Sargent was kind enough to talk about one of her personal environment projects. She discussed the creation of the scene, landscape creation and discussed some of the tools she used during this virtual space creation.
Hi, my name is Jody and I’m a senior environment artist currently working in London at Rocksteady Studios. I landed my first job in games eight years ago after going to Develop in Brighton with my final year Video Game Design degree work and showing it to everyone who would talk to me! I first worked on a game called The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s Quest at Headstrong Games and then on House of the Dead Overkill, Dancing with the Stars and Rabbids Rumble. I also spent a year working on All Zombies Must Die for Double Six in Guildford making environments, characters and VFX. I then landed a job at Splash Damage working on their free to play shooter Dirty Bomb and this was followed by joining Rocksteady Studios to work on Batman: Arkham Knight. I have been very lucky to work on very different games and different art styles and they have all helped to shape my own art in various ways.
We often hear about the mood of the character, but there’s not a lot of talk about the mood of the environment. Yet, I think all of your works do have a separate mood and evoke powerful emotions. Could you talk about the way you try to build that emotional component into the environment?
It’s an interesting question because I think there is sometimes pressure to add characters to tell a story or a feeling that an environment might not be able to do that on its own. Whilst I agree in some cases, in my work I always want the environment to do the talking. When I think back across my life as a gamer and the wow moments that I had, a huge amount of those had to do with a sense of wonder and many of them a sense of scale. I remember seeing a huge underwater cave with a blue whale in Ecco the Dolphin on the Mega Drive and screaming at my mum “wow the whale is so big it doesn’t even fit on the screen!” I was just in awe of it. Some of the huge environments in the original Tomb Raider games had the same effect, just that sense of wonder at being somewhere fantastical and exploring it was so interesting to me. In my work, particularly lately, I have wanted to explore that and try to evoke that same feeling. I also try to draw from personal experiences. For example “Hiking in 2077” was inspired by visiting Mount Snowdon with my dad when I was little. When we got to the top on the train, it was so magical, I felt like I was the first person ever to see it and course I wasn’t but that didn’t matter. Is always stuck in my mind and I wanted to try to capture that in the environment. The huge ship in the piece is old and has been there for ages. There is really nothing that special about it, but for viewers, it’s their first time to seeing it and it should feel new and amazing, like they have just discovered it for the first time.
Using Environment Elements
When you are an environment artist, colour lighting and composition are your friends! I don’t pretend to have mastered any of these and it’s something that I constantly try to improve with each project. Making a 3D environment is different from 2D concepts as the player can walk around and view the level from any angle so this is a big consideration. For this reason, I normally try to figure out my story telling elements first and get an interesting sense of scale. I try to help guide the player with colour and detail, using warm colours and high detail to highlight areas of interest and cooler colours and sparser detail to let the eye rest. It’s very important to do this and not make everything the same as you will just end up with a lot of visual noise. Shapes are another great way of guiding the player and also setting the mood. For example in “Hiking In 2077” I wanted a peaceful mood so I chose large circular structures and a soft palette. In the natural history museum piece, the background is cold and angular and more hostile, highlighting the warm and inviting safe area and drawing the eye there. It’s very important for an environment artist to be a great communicator, working with the designer to guide the player. It is not simply a case of getting a blockout and making it look pretty, you are responsible for both of these aspects and its key to doing a great job to tell the right story.
Telling a Story
When you are designing an environment, you have to figure out the full story of it and sell that to the viewer. It can be tougher depending on whether you are making your own art or working from a design. A good example is on the Riddler racetracks in Batman: Arkham Knight. On the one hand I had this huge sprawling racetrack design and on the other this character that is working alone. You somehow have to make sense of that and make that in to a believable and interesting story. For the Riddler levels I came up with the Gotham Water theme in order to tie them all together and explain how the Riddler could have access to all of these huge crazy areas. This meant I could have the player driving up the side of huge dams and through all these rapids and sewers without overpowering the Riddler. So he has found these existing abandoned areas that are really visually interesting and he’s taken them over and had his robots construct his riddles inside them. There is also loads of graffiti around, to show you what he is like, he’s down there figuring out all these riddles and scrawling taunts and images on the walls like a madman. All of these little elements combine to sell that story to the viewer and it can be really great fun telling the story. It’s actually my favourite thing about being an environment artist.
Creating “Hiking in 2077”
Technically it was a new challenge for me. I have worked on large environments before, particularly in my professional work, but I had not used some of the tools before like World Machine and Speedtree, so that was new. Working on that larger scale meant that I had to find ways to speed up my workflow by working in a more procedural way and also meant that I had to put even more focus on optimisation given the huge distance that you can see. My trees and rocks all used the foliage system, so I could paint them on and update them whenever I liked. I could also take advantage of Speedtree’s colour variation, wind functions and billboard LOD’s. I used Unreal’s grass types for all of the small foliage that were culled and LOD seamlessly to help maintain the framerate. All of this made changing the composition on the fly so easy. In fact I have an image at the end of my write up that shows most of the variations that I went through and how much it changed. Typically each change could happen in a couple of hours so I really could just sketch around with ideas without having to commit to early which is a way I love to work. On my new project I’m really nailing down the composition early but sometimes I just love the freedom to sketch in 3D and these techniques make both options really easy.
In terms of storytelling it was also a little different. When working on a small interior it’s easier to add small story elements whereas in a big open scene you really have to decide on your key elements and tell the story through them. In this piece I wanted the viewer to feel like they were on a personal discovery without making it feel too gamey or cliché. I did this by picking a lifelike environment: something that was believable and relatable while adding something very out of place. The ship was made to look quite old and rusty but had no human presence or attention and despite a few suggestions of making a city inside it I really wanted the ship to be quite commonplace, like it had been sat there for a long time without anyone giving it much thought. It brings me back to my memory of going up Mount Snowdon as a child, that sense that something has been there, quiet and unmoving for a long time but to the viewer it’s a new experience, a personal discovery. I think there is really something interesting in that.
Building Procedural Materials with Substance
In this project I actually tried out a few ways of making materials although I now enjoy Substance so much that I am using it almost exclusively. I used Substance Painter for the ship. I had a simple base metal with some colour masks and then some layers of rust, grease and general grime. I made this into a smart material and was able to texture all of the modular pieces using just this, which was so fast! For each piece I went over the masks and did a little hand painting just to break them up and make them a little more natural, focusing rust on the more protruding parts and grime on the inside areas. I also used the particle brushes to add some corrosion from weathering, which was fun! For the terrain materials I used a combination of 3DMax modelling (for the grass) and Zbrush for the rocks and pebbles. I also brought in some high poly photogrammetry parts in to my Zbrush textures just to try it out and even though it worked pretty well, I think that Substance Designer might still be the way forward, for me. This is because it would take a decent amount of time to get a good result in Zbrush but that result was not very easy to iterate on from there. For example, I wanted to change the scale and tiling on the rocky ground texture, but in Zbrush this was quite time consuming. In substance designer, this quick iteration is so much easier and I love that about it!
There were many ways in which I optimised this scene and made sure it could run at a good frame rate, even with my old GTX670 graphics card! I could have pushed it even further, but as it was a personal project I didn’t want to spend a huge amount of time on this and also wanted to use fully dynamic lighting although it was expensive. I made sure all of my instanced object had appropriate LODs and culled at the right time. The trees LOD to billboards which made a really nice optimisation that saved some frames! I also sat and made a list of what variations I would need at the start, making sure that I had a small amount of instances that would give me enough interest without a huge budget. I made sure that each tree and rock variant had lots of different detail and interesting silhouettes on each side so that I could get a lot of variation simply by rotating the meshes rather than having to have a huge amount of them! These changes made a considerable difference to my frame rate without having to spend a huge time on optimisation, I do that enough in my day job!