Miniature 3D Stylization Techniques
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Miniature 3D Stylization Techniques
8 May, 2017
Interview
3d artist Alexandr Trenovszki discussed the way he approached the production of high-quality dioramas with intricate stylized elements.

Introduction

Hi, my name is Alexandr Trenovszki and I’m a 27 year old 3D Artist from Hungary. I specialize in environments and nowadays I’m taking a lot of inspiration from stylized games and cinema into my work.

I think my journey to the 3D world is a common one. Play lots of lego and draw endlessly as a kid with little concern for big future plans. Lucky for me when I was 15 years old my parents decided to start a new life in the UK and I had the opportunity to pursue art more seriously. My parents were really supportive, so I took a dive into Games Design in college and Game Art in the University of Hertfordshire. Shortly after graduating I was hired by Sony to work on Rigs, a VR game over at Guerrilla Cambridge where I did world building.

Despite doing creative work I actually have a very analytical and orderly approach to learning 3D. I put a heavy emphasis on planning every stage of the project, evaluating non-stop and if the quality is lacking I will re do the sculpt, texturing, lighting, everything.

Planning makes big projects much easier to take on. This involves material breakdowns, how I approach each asset, what order and priority, references, scheduling and so on. I find I can stay in a creative mindset longer if I have a week long to-do list that I can follow. I used to rely a lot more on motivation but consistency is far better.

What I feel contributed to the quality of my work a lot is something really simple and you probably heard this on Polycount a lot: get more references. I don’t just mean download two dozen pictures of Italian letterboxes for your street scene, but references specifically for the lighting you are going for, the mood, authenticity (for staying true to the country/culture), colours and by far the most important one: quality.

If you like the aesthetics of a game or studio then take screenshots and think about what makes them look good and what is it that yours is missing. In my ‘By The Bridge’ scene I’ve remade everything at least once and the mountain went through four different sculpts/workflows before I was happy with it. This can be frustrating at times but I learned a lot more than leaving my scene at 80% and moving on.

Stylization

Stylized PBR strikes an ideal balance between creative and technical challenge for me.

With less focus on realism, you produce content faster and there’s much more creative control over the kind of mood and story you are going for in a scene. Pixar has this aesthetic perfected at this point and with PBR I feel like games can get really close.

Being able to iterate quickly is an important part of getting the exaggerated shapes right. The peach tree scene for instance involved a lot of organic shapes, so I could block out the entire scene in Zbrush. I would use Dynamesh to get the shape, decimate it and import the 100k~ tri asset into Unreal 4 to light it. If the rocks looked unnatural, noisy or if the shapes didn’t flow well I would do some paintovers and go back to sculpting. I bounce between real life and game references a lot to get a feel for what looks pleasing. To speed up sculpting I spent a day or two just making some high quality rock alphas that I could then use as a brush.

Figuring out the colours is a similar process. My diffuse/albedo textures are often monochrome and I use simple Unreal 4 shaders to change the colours quickly in real time. In the ‘By The Bridge’ scene for example I’ve used a shader that had a colour picking and a world space gradient component. I could use the former to switch between colours in real time and the latter was useful to retain the gradient even when I moved the leafs around. The flowers use the same shader except they have a gradient along the Y axis and not Z.

 

Sculpting

In Zbrush I try to prioritise silhouette and not to get bogged down on detail too much. I spend a lot of time with the big impact, basic brushes like clay tubes, standard, flatten, trim dynamic and move. Lately I’ve been trying height alphas to get less predictable shapes and speed up sculpting, something I’ve used excessively for the rocks in the Peach Tree scene.

I only ever use 3ds Max to create basic meshes for Zbrush, as well as low poly creation, UVing and world building, but that’s only because a lot of my scenes until now were heavy on organic shapes. For a sci-fi scene you would only ever use Zbrush for dents and cuts and even then Substance Painter might be a better choice.

Lighting

When it comes to portfolio work I cheat with lighting a lot. I have a “star” camera shot and I dress the entire scene around that one shot knowing that nobody gets to rotate the camera around. I try to settle on a lighting setup early into the project so that I can adjust colour values and move around assets if I have to. Doing the lighting you want to think about composition, mood and what you want to bring attention to.

In the ‘By The Bridge’ scene the tree’s shadow gave it a much clearer silhouette and established it as the centre piece, but otherwise it’s a simple setup with a single sun light.

The Peach Tree scene had a lot going on so I did a lot of manual work using dynamic lights to highlight the shrine and the pond whilst keeping the rest of the scene in shadow. The contrast really helps in keeping down the noise level and guides your eyes around the scene rather than getting overloaded. It also makes a scene largely comprised of rock a little more exciting. I also use movable lights to exaggerate the bounce light in some places.

Color

Generally I try to have the high poly -low poly bake part down before I dive into lighting and colours, which tends to be towards the end of the project. At this point I have the entire scene in front of me with finished normal maps on the assets, baked AO textures from xNormal and some basic lighting all in Unreal 4. I give everything a flat or gradient colour using instanced shaders whilst tweaking the lights to match whatever references I’ve collated on my other screen.

If I like a particular photo or screenshot but can’t match it in Unreal I throw it into Photoshop and mess with the hue or do some overpaints, then back to Unreal. Rinse and repeat until the scene is done.

Shaders

I keep my shaders as simple as possible in my projects. I don’t ever use tri-planar projection, crazier parallax or tessalation simply because these shaders are so heavy and rarely used in the industry. Even though my portfolio is entirely made out of stills I still want to give the impression that my scenes are optimized and could run well in a game.

I do love tinkering with cheaper, more functional shaders though. The ones that I use a lot are fake interiors for windows, vertex blending/painting, water shaders, fake lamp lights, simple bump-offset parallax and the earlier mentioned colour gradient shader used for leafs and flowers.

Alex Treno, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Branndon Fricks

I don’t know when these projects were completed, and they are beautiful by the way, BUT we use tri-planar projection (worldAlignedTexture in UE4), parallax, and tessellation in nearly every project we do (for desktop applications). I can assure you that these effects are quite common in the industry, especially since the GPUs required to display them are growing cheaper by the day. Anyhow, lovely work, and very inspiring!