Victoria Goldsmith talked about what it means to be an Environment Artist and discussed the Post Island project.
Hello! I’m Victoria Goldsmith, an Environment Artist currently working at Firesprite. Firesprite is a studio working on some great cutting-edge games, a lot of their games are unannounced but they are a studio to keep an eye on for sure!
I have been in the game industry for about seven years now; my experience has been a mix of working at indie companies, start-ups, and AAA studios. Some of the more widely known studios I have worked at are Sony London Studio and Improbable. My last few years have been dedicated to VR with the recently shipped titles Blood and Truth and Doctor Who: The Edge of Time.
Life as an Environment Artist
I like to think about myself as an Environment Artist that has an emphasis on Narrative. This is because when I work on any Environment or creative project, I like to have a visual story in my head and really push this into my work. Working in games, you are often given concept art to draw reference from, but the concept art can be limited, leaving a lot to interpretation. A lot of the time, there isn’t any concept art at all, and you will need to create an area from the creative constraints given. This can also happen when an Environment needs to be designed around Game Design, and there is no concept, you will then need to figure out how to make the scene visually appealing and have the scene make real-world sense to compliment the gameplay.
Not all Environment Artists can think creatively with ease and do struggle, some are more technically driven and really rely on concepts and others can make a whole scene with limited direction. This is something that isn’t widely talked about, it doesn’t matter if you're more tech-driven or creatively wired, it’s more about finding the right project and studio to match your skills.
Story Behind Post Island
Welcome to Post Island! The highest quality Post-Sorting Services in all the land.
Arrange for a collection which will be collected by one of our fine Postal Boatmen, the parcel will then be collected and sorted by hand at the sorting office. Finally, it will be airlifted by one of our state-of-the-art AirMail Balloons for fast and reliable service.
All wrapped up and delivered with a smile.
Post Island was inspired by a trip to Japan. In Japan, I became obsessed with all the brightly coloured red letterboxes and the little letter bags people have outside their houses. Some people even made their own wooden letterboxes, they all had their own character to them. My trip involved a lot of traveling around the countryside so it was an idea that seemed to merge itself together. I visited a lake called Lake Kawaguchi, which had these beautiful little islands in the middle. It reminded me a lot of something you would stumble across in one of the Zelda games. The lake actually reminded me a lot of Lake Hyrlule from the Zelda Franchise. I often wonder if Lake Kawaguchi inspired Lake Hyrule because the Nintendo headquarters was only in Kyoto.
I’m not a Concept Artist by any means, but I conceived the rough idea I had. The idea of a Postal Service on an island. I made a very rough blockout in Maya and used this to paint over in Photoshop.
I collected some good photo references to help generate a strong composition as the reference will always strengthen your artwork even if it isn’t purely Photorealistic, you can’t just rely on your imagination.
After getting to this stage, I had my loose concept, good reference, and I was ready to jump into Unreal Engine to start blocking out my island. It is always best to jump into UE4 as soon as you can, even at a rough stage, as it will help set up the project early, and you can bookmark camera angles easily, which can determine where you are going to add your details. For this project, I wanted the camera to look straight on and to show the side angles, so I didn’t spend time on the back of the island, which you would never see.
Testing the lighting early on to establish the mood:
I established I wanted a summer's daylighting scene early on:
On the blockout, I wanted to establish a good height to the scene, and it was clear from this early blockout, I needed to push this more.
Generating the Island and Adding Props
The actual island was made with the Maya Sculpt Geometry Tool, quite old-school but it did the trick! The rocks were a combination of Maya and ZBrush, they are quite basic, but they fit the stylized ascetic that I wanted to create, it could have very easily become a scene about rocks which is not what I wanted. I built 90% of the props, apart from the foliage, which I go into more detail below. There was an awful lot of time making the bespoke props and probably a bit too much time on assets like the envelopes, but I saw it as a love letter to Japanese culture. In Japanese culture, they like to add passion and love to everything they create.
For vegetation, I used a mix of the free Megascans and a couple of asset packs off the Unreal Store. I created material instances of the materials to change the colors to a brighter, more contrasted pallet to match my scene, particularly with the grass.
The scene itself was so prop-heavy, that I made the decision early on to use Megascans for the foliage. For me, this scene was more about the portrayal of a mood and story that I didn’t want to get too bogged down creating everything. On a team in Game Development, it is a combined effort making an Environment, this scene was just me, so I wanted to give myself a little slack and use the free tools around me. I will make a scene in the future which is more focused on the foliage which I will make from scratch.
When I had decided which foliage to use I set up the Foliage Paint Tool in Unreal to paint the ground foliage onto the rocks and around the environment. The tool allows a lot more variation of size and rotation than hand placing assets, it’s a must if you’re placing anything like grass or scattered rocks. I blended the foliage into the moss that was painted on the rocks to create miniature dioramas.
The plant sets I used:
- Ferns and Grass: Megascans
- Trees: Defuse Studios
- House Plants: IanRoach
- Wall Vines Unreal asset pack: LetsMakeCool.ART
The water Shader was made by Cartoon Water Shader: Sandvector Studios.
On the island, there are three main areas that take a lot of visual space, rocks, sand, and sea. I used a shader for the sea and changed the color to suit the pallet I wanted. The rocks and sand I took into SP early on to test out the color pallets. This locked down the color scheme for the rest of the Environment.
Everything was textured in Substance Painter, the letters had to go into Photoshop to add some extra details like the stamps. It was extra time consuming taking everything into SP but I really wanted to push a bespoke look and feel to the scene, which I think paid off.
The Vertex Paint tool in Unreal helped me blend the sand into the Jetties, I also used Vertex Paint to paint the moss onto the rocks. The moss acted as a base for me to add the foliage onto, it made the assets look more grounded and realistic with the green underneath,
Lighting and Rendering
My lighting was quite simple, I used a Directional Light and set this up as the sun with a couple of point lights to brighten areas. I used Exponential Height Fog on the horizon to blur the vista out and to create depth.
For the foliage, I set the Mesh Distance Fields to 5.0 and turned on Two-Sided-Distance Field Generation. This gave the shadows a much crisper and darker look.
The scene in Unreal was pretty spot on, so I didn’t need to fiddle with the LUT settings or edit too much. For my final render shots, I did brighten a little bit in Photoshop for a little more pop, but my Video is completely rendered in Unreal.
Reasons Behind the Project's Success
The final scene was really popular on ArtStation, I think this had a mix of reasons. Firstly, I think the aspirational, bright color elements always attract people, we always want to be whisked away into that fantastical scene.
Secondly, with Covid hitting worldwide, I think we all craved that holiday away we couldn’t have. I had people commenting saying they wanted to visit the island, and one person said “I wanna live there. I wonder if the Internet speed is okay”.
To me, this was such great feedback, people wanted to visit an Environment I’d created. Finding your audience is one of the greatest feelings as an artist.
The project was heavily inspired by my Japan trip so I wanted to add that element of travel. I rendered snapshots in Unreal and printed them with my Instax Printer. In my render asset breakdowns, I made a conscious effort to snapshot them as if someone had used a camera. I also made a ticket in Photoshop so it looked like a ticket you would really have if you traveled to the island.
The snapshot you see below is from a photo taken, not a mockup in Photoshop. I added the stones to give that "Influencer Instagram" vibe. I also designed a logo that looked like a postal stamp, which I placed over my renders for a bit of authenticity.
On top of the visual renders, I wanted to add that extra layer of immersion with the animation in the video. I worked with the Animator veteran Brian Vowles who is super talented and has a wealth of knowledge from working in TV and Film. He Animated the boats, the hot-air balloon, windmills, and Trams. It really added to the character of the island.
Assembling the Final Scene
For the scene, I wanted to convey a strong story that also had a sense of practicality. I also wanted to pack in a lot of detail so it looked like a place you would want to explore. The sorting office was the main asset on my island, you can’t have mail without a sorting office, right?
Then I thought about how the post would be distributed, boats and airmail seemed like the logical choice, a hot-air balloon added a nice sense of play to the scene too. But then I thought about how the post would physically travel to the top of the mountain... No one in their right mind would walk up and down carrying post, so that is when I had the idea of a ski lift.
The Packing Station is where I would imagine the boats would drop off the goods, which would then be sorted in the Sorting Office. With all these areas of interest in place, I added the little details like the letters and parcels. If you look around the island, you will see that I added little letters to look like they were dropped.
Perhaps one day mail and parcels could be delivered like this (but with less dropped mail). Amazon wants to have 100% renewable energy by 2025, so maybe this could inspire them to create a self-contained post island, who knows?