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!
Jean-Baptiste Caillet, a student at ArtFx, gladly broke down his colorful and serene winter landscape scene made with Maya, Arnold and Substance Designer.
My interest in photography and video games started when I was 12 and over the years evolved and included Digital Painting, CG and VFX images/videos. Thanks to that, I ended up at ArtFX at 18 years old.
Nowadays, I love working on environments and use any tool needed to achieve my goal. Sometimes I want to work on Concept Art by imagining different worlds, mainly 2D, and other times I want to create full 3D environments as I did with Peaceful Morning.
Every project starts with a sketch!
So I did some thumbnail sketches, which were very rough, barely understandable. Most of the time, I like to start with something quite abstract, and then I try to understand what I drew, what it could be. It’s funny because everyone will see something completely different as it’s just some random shapes which can evoke anything. For you, this shape could be a spaceship, for me it could be a rock, for someone else it would be a character. It doesn’t matter, because you will see what you want in this shape, and you don’t have to force yourself, it comes naturally.
The goal at this point is not to draw a beautiful image with a lot of details everywhere, but to quickly represent and illustrate what’s on your mind, a basic idea. That’s it!
To do so, I just focus on the dynamics of the picture, the composition, and the main shapes. That’s why rough drawings are very powerful, because you will just focus on what is needed, and you will leave behind what isn’t. If your image works with simples shapes, it will work when you add complexity to the shapes and detail. But the opposite isn’t true.
After those ugly sketches are done, I pick one, the one I will work on until the end. At that stage, the only thing I knew was the following: I want to have snowy hills because I love how the light reacts to it, how it goes through it, the great colors it creates and this material also creates a very calm mood, I believe. I also wanted to have some kind of dwelling (it could have been a castle, an abandoned wooden house, a farm, etc. I wasn’t sure about it, at that point) and a lake.
The next step was to find references for everything. I don’t know everything, and even if I think I know something, I do some research about it.
TIP: Always have references on what you are working on. Also, research can help you find more inspiration.
What I avoid is to start by doing searches before creating my thumbnails, because my thumbnails will be what I’ve just seen before. And I don’t want that, I want to have original ideas as much as I can in the composition of the image, and then use the references for all the details.
The thumbnails allow me to put on paper an idea and try to have a nice composition about this idea. Once the research was done (lighting, colors, materials, assets, etc.) I did a quick blocking in 3D and started to modify the composition, to change things, add some elements here and there.
Actually my point wasn’t to do a still image, but a movie with camera movement. But, for the last week of the project, I realized that I would have to render like 150 frames. It would take a lot of time, during which I wouldn’t be able to work. So I decided, that it would have been a huge waste of time. I didn’t want to waste 3 days on rendering in the last week of work and preferred spending those 3 days on finishing the image in Nuke, rather than waiting for the images to be computed. It was at that point when I decided to do a still image.
I had to create a new camera to have a new composition, because there wasn’t a good place to freeze the camera movement, not at the beginning of the movement, the middle, or the end.
I worked on the 3D process the same way I do in drawing; start from the big shapes, then move to medium and, finally, small ones.
The main first step was a quick 3D blocking: I created some basics shapes for the hills and the farm and placed the camera in order to match the thumbnails.
Then, I did a first try of lighting, just to indicate where the light comes from, and where the shadows would be. I planned to adjust it later on. The goal here, was to quickly represent my idea in 3D, with basic shapes and lighting, that’s it.
Once the blocking was done, I could move on and start adding some details. So I started with the farm, which is the subject of the final image, and the only asset. After all, my picture is just about snowy hills and a farm.
After the farm modeling was done, I started the shading/texturing of it, using Substance Designer for the procedural textures of the farm.
Then I first did some early tests for the snow shader using Arnold in another Maya scene. I knew it was quite far from being nice, but it was okay to use this as a base. I imported it into the environment scene and I applied it to the hills, and then I made some tweaking to adjust it and correct what was wrong.
The hills where basic round shapes. Using displacement, I created some variation in order not to have perfect round hills.
I really enjoy this feeling of having a quite small wooden house in a huge landscape. In my early sketches that was what I wanted to have. Then with the searches and great pictures I found, I knew I was going to do something with this spirit. I can’t really explain it but having a small house makes it cute, and makes the landscape feeling bigger, showing it’s vastness, and then by adding the snow, it adds a peaceful spirit to the image.
So I really wanted to keep this sensation with the small wooden barn, even if the scale looks a bit off. I made some tests, and with a bigger size I didn’t like it at all, so I ended up with the current size for the barn.
This asset doesn’t actually have any details. At first I wanted to have a quite detailed wooden barn, but after finishing a more advanced blocking version of it, I realized it wouldn’t be worth it because the details wouldn’t be seen. So, some parts are actually not finished, but it’s okay because the farm isn’t supposed to be seen in full screen.
TIP: It’s always important to think where your energy is supposed to be used in order not to waste it. Always ask yourself when you are working on a big project: is this going to be seen by the audience?Which element is in the biggest area of your image? Which element is in the 2nd biggest area of your image? And so on. By determining that, you know which elements you have to work on first.
Here is a way to represent what I said about the main elements of your image:
I did it only to illustrate what I was saying. During the project I did this directly inside my head. But if you feel the need to really do a diagram like that, do it. If it can help you to have clear idea, to analyze your image, take this time, because it’s worth it.
Shaders & Textures
For the snow on the hills I simply applied the snow shader to the round shapes with these settings:
For the snow on top of objects, like the wooden fences, the roof of the farm, etc. I extracted the faces where the snow should be and exported it.
On a new scene, I imported the extracted faces. I used this as particle emitter from a surface. Then I converted the particles (Blobby Surface) to a mesh which I exported to smooth it in ZBrush.
Once the shape was good, I imported it into the Master scene, where the environment was, and I applied the snow shader.
I don’t have much to say about the wood texture. There is nothing crazy here. I did it using Substance Designer, and if you want very precise information about it, I recommend taking a look on Youtube. There are very cool videos explaining this.
I also used Substance Designer for the red painted wood. I did a texture of red paint, then I mixed the paint with the wood until I got something believable.
For the frozen lake texture, I did the big crack first, then the medium ones, then the smaller ones. Once again, I moved from the biggest to the smallest shapes. I added some frost on top of it and exposed a parameter which allowed me to easily choose the amount of frost in this texture.
I always started by doing the height map, just focusing on the values and shapes and once it was done I moved on to the color, roughness and the rest.
Here is a render form Iray inside Substance Designer :
Once again it’s not perfect, but it’s okay as it is barely seen in my image.
The lighting is very simple actually. I just have a few lights: a cold Skydome for ambient light, a warm directional light, and another warm light to reinforce the directional light. I added an extra one, to have a better lighting for the wooden fence in the foreground of the image. But that’s pretty much it.
I also used the aiLightBlocker, to cheat a bit with the lights in order to remove light from certain areas.
So to recap everything I said, here is my overall process and step-by-step visualization of the project: