Killer Sci-Fi Environment Production Tips and Tricks
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Killer Sci-Fi Environment Production Tips and Tricks
27 February, 2018
Environment Art
Environment Design
Interview

Jay Malhotra shared some fantastic stuff he has created with CryEngine and gave some interesting tips on 3D production.

Introduction

My name is Jay Malhotra and I am a senior environment artist over at Cloud Imperium Games in Manchester, UK. I have been in the industry for just over 10 years now having begun my career at the now closed Eurocom where I’d worked on mostly movie tie-ins and the James Bond Franchise with Goldeneye Reloaded and Bond Legends. I initially went to university to study Games Programming but realised afterwards, art was where I really wanted to be and so spent around 6 months after obtaining my degree learning all I could about 3d Art creation and putting a portfolio together which lead to me getting a job at Eurocom.

I came to work at Cloud imperium games 4 years ago now excited about the project and its scale and scope really appealed to me. Since then I have been responsible for the modelling, shader/texturing and technical setup on some of the ship you can see and fly in Star Citizen today.

Project

So with my recent personal project of the Cryo Chamber I really wanted to push the emphasis of what I envision as realistic Science Fiction. Often you see Sci-Fi work online which breaks the realm of reality and it’s easy to lose that sense of tangibility as often the domain of sci-fi is used as an excuse to get away with artistic choices. Often with this it’s easy to negate an understanding of materials and engineering of objects and surfaces and how they are constructed and made. So with this in mind I challenged myself to work on an environment that would look to be far more tangible and push the realism factor in the sense that it could feel like a real achievable environment one day.

So early on when I had an idea of what I wanted to achieve; it was a case of picking a environment that would help accentuate my goal. One of the obstacles as a human race we face in the future with space travel is traveling vast distances over very long periods of time and the need to cryogenically sleep. Having been a huge fan of Ben Procters and especially his work on Avatar, his Cryo Chamber concept for me became a great base for me to pull some initial structural ideas from.

I always planned to take it in a different direction though and push it more akin to the International Space Station which is where I drew the other half of my direction from. We’re all familiar with images of the interior that Nasa provides and for me that was key to bring in that sense of tangibility and connection of realism from.

Planning

I approached the scene as you would almost any piece of game art and blocked out the module elements to the scene. This allowed me to take it into the Cryengine as soon as possible to start construction of the environment as a whole. It was important for me to do so as it would help me visualise the scale of the scene and make any major changes early on. The scene itself isn’t that complex and is built in a completely modular fashion but each modular element I took to a greater level of detail then would typically be expected in video games. I wanted to push the boundaries and showcase what could be possible in the next-generation.

Modeling

3ds Max was fundamental for me to create the scene, using it I was able to construct the kit of all the modular pieces and quickly and easily export them into the CryEngine. Another key factor with the modeling process was the use custom normals(a.k.a smart normals), which sped up the modeling process significantly. Without the need to bake down any high poly objects I was able to iterate quickly between 3ds Max and the CryEngine.

Assets

All of the assets were created by myself, using a plethora of reference images for certain elements. All the models were created in 3ds Max and textures using Photoshop. Marvelous Designer was also used for the fabric elements which I would then bake down to tileable textures and use accordingly in the scene.

The biggest difficulty for me in the whole process was more of a mental one, Im very logically minded and for me to create something I first have to give it a sense of purpose and why. So when trying to think of how to construct or place detail it would take a lot of thought behind it which became a mental challenge. Even how things are constructed would take thought and small elements like how much to bevel or chamfer an edge depending on the material and molding method I’d take consideration too. So often you see work where objects don’t look as they should and its the careful understanding of these aspects that can raise the level of quality in the final result.

Details

Having been heavily inspired by the International Space Station which I had used for reference, you’re taken back my the amount of buttons, switches and wires in any given room. I wanted to capture that to a degree to again increase the tangibility of the environment. A cryogenic room with all its systems and technology behind it would be very complex and for me to portray that it would be through the small details.

To go about detailing out the environment I created myself a kit of switches, knobs, buttons, lights and wires and using 3ds Max’s object painting tools I was able to quickly populate the larger modular pieces. Again not having to bake down objects and using custom normals I could quickly and easily change things around until I was happy with the final result.

Materials

Primarily my materials were all created in Photoshop. The exceptions being the Marvelous Designer bakes used to create the fabric elements of the scene. I would take the high poly mesh of these from MD and bake them to a flat surface to output the normal, height, and AO map and then do the rest of the work in Photoshop. Due to the fact all my textures were tileable it just didn’t make much sense to use Quixel or Substance Painter. Those pieces of software are great for adding lots of wear/tear/dirt elements but due to the art direction of the scene being relatively clean it was more about the subtlety of detail and I wanted full control of it all. Especially when trying to balance the gloss/metallicness of a material. I was able to layer up subtle detail of smudges and scratches without them becoming overpowering. It was important to do so because it’s easy to go too far with it all and you again lose that tangibility and realism.

Lighting

Lighting the scene was a huge challenge mostly due to the structure of the environment which does not lend well to any primary source of lighting due to its modular nature but more of a repeated set. Having taken inspiration from the ISS I wanted to attain the clean off white imagery you see with many pictures of its interiors. So from an early stage after the initial blockout I would start to add lighting into the scene to emphasis just that. This then allowed me to know where to focus detail but also identify key areas of contrast which happened to be the Cryo Chamber pods themselves. And throughout the whole creation of the scene; modelling and lighting would help dictate the other. Fixtures and directions they faced or pointed would be decided key elements that needed focused on both artistically and logically.

One of the benefits of using the CryEngine is its ability to adjust lights in real time without the need to bake down lightmaps which allowed fast iteration and tweaks to attain the desired the result.

Challenges 

As mentioned before the mental obstacle was the biggest challenge overall, thinking and truly understanding why and what you’re creating took a lot of thought. To attain the tangibility and relatability I wanted for anyone looking at the scene was my goal and so it was a big learning exercise trying to achieve that. The way to overcome it all was to simply take in as much possible from real life. Learning and understanding construction of objects and using reference as much as possible too.

In some areas I think it was achieved and others still a work in progress for me but I’ve got a great platform of understanding moving on to my next piece.

Jay Malhotra, Senior 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
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9 Comments on "Killer Sci-Fi Environment Production Tips and Tricks"

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Dosso
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Dosso

he said he used custom normals(a.k.a smart normals),and didnt bake
so i was wondering if he uses Trims method alongside tiling textures he mentioned
and does it mean decals are always on others poly just above the mesh ?
costum normal in max is just some smoothing set up for beveled edge in order the make them feel rounded right ?
thks

Dosso
Guest
Dosso

Hello, he said he used custom normals(a.k.a smart normals),and didnt bake
so i was wondering if he uses Trims method alongside tiling textures he mentioned
and does it mean decals are always on others poly just above the mesh ?
costum normal in max is just some smoothing set up for beveled edge in order the make them feel rounded right ?
thks guys

ultraether
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ultraether

Awesome work, hope we see this in Star Citizen soon

farshid
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farshid

thanks for 80.lv telegram channel

Brubble
Guest
Brubble

Nice work. At least hes getting a paycheck from backers.

Bobby Joe
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Bobby Joe
Ernest Borg confirmed mad. Although wildly behind schedule and with a huge scope increase, 400+ employees and continued funding of about 30Mil a year greatly increases the likelihood of project completion. Have fun eating your words in probably 2020-2021. For contrast, hasn’t Rockstar been working on Red Dead redemption since before 2013, with a huge dev team, and an engine already suited towards what they are trying to do? Shit takes time man. Look at CDPR and Cyberpunk 2077, they are STILL working on those games as well AND both Rockstar and CDPR have been developing those engines since their… Read more »
Obizwan
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Obizwan

@Andrew
Check this out, it’s all well explained 🙂
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-K7WT9IIok

Ernest-Borg9
Guest
Ernest-Borg9

If you would like a refund for this failed videogame project, check out http://www.reddit.com/r/starcitizen_refunds

Andrew Whitney
Guest
Andrew Whitney

Lovely work – do you have any information on usingcustom normals(a.k.a smart normals) – links etc would be great. Many thanks for the article.

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