Life as a AAA Environment Artist: Tools, Workflows and ArtEngine 101

Beenox Environment Artist Sylvain Jubeau discusses his background, workflows, and how he uses Unity ArtEngine to quickly create materials.

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What’s it like to work as an artist at a AAA gaming studio? Read on to learn about Sylvain Jubeau’s journey at Beenox (an Activision Blizzard studio) and how he’s been leveraging both procedural and scanning workflows to create stunning environment assets for some of the world’s most popular video games, from the Call of Duty franchise (Modern Warfare and Cold War) to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2.

Sylvain also provides an overview of one of his favorite tools, Unity ArtEngine, as well as three step-by-step tutorials on the software’s basics for generating photorealistic PBR materials in minutes.

Could you share a bit about your background? When did you first become interested in art and gaming?

I grew up in Brittany, France in a small village near Rennes. I’ve always been interested in art, especially painting (I took lessons as a child) and music (when I was a teenager, I started a band with my friends). My passion for video games began when I received my first console (Sega Master system 2) and hasn’t stopped since. 

After high school, given my interests in art and video games, I went on to study 3D visual effects at The Brassart School. After graduating in 2018, I decided to settle in Montreal, Canada, where I live now.

What’s your favorite part about being an artist?

What I love most about this profession is being able to see players evolve in the environments I create for them. I love hearing their feedback, which is essential for future improvements. The career is constantly evolving with new technology and new workflows, which keeps things really exciting.

Do you make art in your free time?

Yes of course! I enjoy learning new things and make a point to keep up with new techniques, software, and games. As an environment artist, I’m obviously a huge material nerd. If you see a character looking at the ground in the middle of a game, it's probably me observing the texture that was used.

How did you decide you wanted to work at Beenox?

Even before university, I had the vision to work on the Call of Duty franchise, as it’s one of my favorite games. It remained a goal throughout my studies. At the Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS), I finally met Beenox, the studio working on the franchise, and the rest is history. I feel grateful to work in such a great atmosphere and on a franchise that I love. I wish the same for all artists.

What does your role at Beenox entail? What are your key responsibilities?

At Beenox, I’m an Environment Artist, meaning I’m responsible for everything related to environment assets on the level. This might be vegetation, rocks, buildings, or even water. The goal is to create a setting that is attractive to the player.

What do you love most about your job?

What I love most about my job is working as a part of a team whose mission is to improve and grow together every day, and deliver memorable games for our players. We work on level art, modeling, textures, and shaders. We never get bored.

What are the main tools you use at work? What is your favorite tool?

I use several software suites such as Maya, Substance, Blender, Photoshop, and many more. But my favorites are Houdini and ArtEngine because they offer great artistic freedom and significantly simplify my workflow.

Are you currently scanning using photogrammetry?

I don't use photogrammetry often, however, I’m very interested in it. The realism and rendering quality that it can produce is exceptional. With more and more photorealistic games being published, the industry is increasingly moving toward this way of thinking.

How are you using ArtEngine? What are your favorite features?

I use ArtEngine to create textures, materials and sometimes to process scans. It’s very easy to start from a basic texture and then rework it in ArtEngine

My favorite nodes are the Smart Mutation nodes, such as Seam Removal and Mutation. They are easy to use and their AI is extremely powerful. I also use UpRes a lot, which significantly increases the resolution of textures by reconstructing missing pixels.

I’d recommend ArtEngine to anyone who wants to save time in processing textures and images. ArtEngine is one of the only software to offer this type of AI-based functionality and one of the most powerful.

Does ArtEngine save you time?

Definitely. ArtEngine saves me a lot of time on non-creative tasks, such as rendering seamless or delighted textures. I can also create variations of scanned texture very easily. It's hard to say exactly how much time it saves me, but my workflows are a lot faster than before. So much so that I don’t block off time in my schedule anymore for these sorts of manual tasks.

What will art creation for games look like in 5 to 10 years?

AI will play a big role in artist tools. The most boring tasks will be replaced by AI, which will allow artists like me to have more time to focus on their creative work and produce better results, as measured by overall quality and realism.

How has COVID impacted the importance of games and/or the game artist?

Video games are a great way to decompress and find space away from the stresses of daily life. They also can be incredibly social and help us bond with friends and family. In the current context of today’s pandemic, I think the role of the video game artist is even more important. The universes that artists create allow players to have fun, de-stress and socialize with others, all while adhering to social distance guidelines.

Creating Materials with ArtEngine in Minutes: 3 Examples

As mentioned, ArtEngine is a super powerful and easy-to-use tool if you want to quickly create materials for your game. Below, I’ve outlined three common ways that I use the program.

Tutorial 1: From Single Image to Material

What’s amazing about ArtEngine is that you don’t need to do advanced scanning, such as photogrammetry, to generate a decent PBR material. A simple flat jpeg photo from a phone will work, and the process is quick and easy.

Here, I have an image of a brick wall that I want to turn into a PBR material. 

After dragging my image into ArtEngine, I made some simple adjustments, such as rotating and cropping. Specifically, I used Free Transform to align the brick horizontally, then Crop to align the image perfectly to the brick’s edges. 

I then used Albedo Generation to remove the light information. In one click, the AI ​​works wonders and generates a convincing result.

Next, I removed hard shadows caused by irregularities in the wall. In ArtEngine, you have a couple of options for delighting. You can use Ambient Occlusion to lighten the dark areas or use Hard Shadow Removal. Here, I went with the latter method.

In the image below, you can see how the AI detects and removes these areas.

Next, I created the Normal and Height Maps. Usually, this is a complicated process and often you’ll get results that aren’t what you’d expect. Fortunately, with ArtEngine, this is as simple as adding two nodes, Normal Generation and Height Generation. With some adjustments to the parameters, I was able to obtain results similar to if I’d captured this surface using photogrammetry.

Here’s the Normal Map:

And here’s the Height Map, along with the Height Map settings.

Finally, I compiled all of the maps using Compose Material and made the material tileable using Seam Removal.

Here’s the final result and node graph.

Tutorial 2: Generating Better Height and Normals from Single Images

Sometimes, generating the Height and Normal Maps artificially doesn’t produce good enough results and I need to make some further tweaks. Depending on the particularities of your photo, your Height Map may be completely useless unless you make adjustments. 

In this case, the pothole in this photo of some asphalt is causing issues. Let’s fix that.

First, I cropped and delighted the photo using Gradient Removal.

Then, I redefined the hole in the asphalt using a mask. I used Blur to soften the edges and blend the result. This will help Height Generation regenerate the Height Map to be more accurate later on.

Next, I generated the Normal Map using Normal Generation. I then used this Normal Map as an input for the creation of a new Height Map. By checking the Flip X and Flip Y parameters in the Normal Generation node, I get all the information I need.

If we compare the two Height Maps below, we can see that the Height Map generated using a corrected Normal Map has much better light information. Indeed, the reconstruction done by AI ​​is much more precise.

Here’s the Height Map before:

And here’s the Height Map after:

And here is the final material:

Tutorial 3: Fixing a Bad Photogrammetry Scan

When you scan using photogrammetry, you may not run into the height and normal map problems described above, but other issues may arise, such as unwanted artifacts and tileability. With ArtEngine, you can quickly address these problems too.

In this scan of a cobblestone road, we have some leafy debris and hard shadows. The scan was also not taken at the best angle, nor is it tileable by default. 

The green spots below indicate where hard shadows were removed.

I then used Free Transform to correct the angle of the image.

In general, you want to clean a scene before capturing, but this isn’t always possible. Fortunately, ArtEngine has very powerful nodes to correct things like this during post-processing.

In this case, I used Content Aware Fill to remove the leafy debris. This node acts a bit like a clone stamp, but it works on all maps at the same time, which is great. I painted a mask over unwanted areas.

Here are the results after removing debris, as well as the node graph.

I then created a mask by using blur, level, and Histogram Scan. This is useful if you want to add variation to your texture after - for instance, if you want to add moss or grass between the stones.

I then made the texture seamless using Seam Removal. For materials with less distinct patterns (such as grass or carpet), using Seam Removal alone will get the job done. However, with more structured patterns like this, I needed to guide the AI a bit using the mask I created above.

For finishing touches, I adjusted the sharpness and contrast with Sharpen and Brightness / Contrast. 

Finally, since I wasn’t able to capture roughness or gloss during scanning, I recreated this map by adding a Roughness / Gloss Generation node. 

Here’s the new Roughness Map:

And here’s the final material and node graph.

If you’d like to experience how AI can help you quickly and easily create materials, I’d recommend giving ArtEngine a try. Until May 17, the tool is available for $19/mo (vs regular price of $95/mo).

To learn more about my work, you can check out my ArtStation or connect with me on LinkedIn. Thanks for reading about my background and workflows. I hope you learned something new!

Sylvain Jubeau, 3D Environment Artist

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Comments 1

  • Tokarev Kyrylo



    Tokarev Kyrylo

    ·2 years ago·

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