Harley Palmer has walked us through the working process behind the 70s Skateboard project, explained how the board was modeled and textured, and shared the rendering setup in Marmoset Toolbag.
My name is Harley Palmer. I am currently a third-year Student at the University of Hertfordshire studying Digital Animation: Games Art, and I am working to become a Games Weapons & Props Artist.
I was constantly playing video games ever since I was young, and up until I reached the end of Secondary School, I had no clue what to do afterward. I was always described as artistic from a young age, I quickly became more and more focused on expressing my creativity and imagination through activities like traditional drawing, painting, and building Lego.
As I got older, I focused more on the traditional drawing side and chose Art as a GCSE option. Simultaneously, I was becoming more and more interested in Video games and fascinated by how they are created. As I got to college, I started mixing my talent and my hobbies together and found that I could study and practice the skills needed to become a Games Artist.
I had no extensive background in computer science at the time. I think the basic knowledge I did have was some minor Python programming and Scratch, which was a website where you could create 2D games. Despite my amateur background, I knew this is what I wanted to do as my career.
I spent two years on a Games Design course at Seevic College, where I learned the barebones of asset and level designing. With a mix of help from the classes and a lot of personal research and practice, I was able to produce simple assets in Maya with textures made in Substance 3D Painter.
The majority of skills I have learned were from tutorials, tips, and looking at other Artist's work on ArtStation. It's difficult to pinpoint how or where I learned a specific technique, however, I always make sure to remind myself that my work isn't perfect and there will always be room for improvement so the main priority whilst making a project is to consistently analyze my weaker areas.
I have worked on a lot of small collaborative projects (some of which haven’t seen the light of day), but the most recent and completed project I have been a part of was Until Tomorrow. It was my second-year university project I created in collaboration with two friends – Daniel Field and Finley Memery. It was a game level that took place in an overthrown bunker, with a clear indication of a presence that had the power to wipe out a military. I worked on creating a large number of assets that we needed to make the environment and had an equal amount of input in the set design and environmental storytelling of the project.
Until Tomorrow – Finished Snapshot – Main corridor
I am currently in the process of creating my 3rd-year project, called Insurrection: London, which will take place in a dystopian, apocalyptic, 1970s London, inspired by the streets of Hackney and Artwork by Connor Sheehan.
The 70's Skateboard Project
The 70’s Skateboard was one of three end-of-year projects I’m tasked with creating and is one of the props I’ll use in Insurrection: London. I took the majority of my Inspiration from my own personal collection of boards, but due to the era, an additional variety of reference material of the British Punk Aesthetic from the 70s was required.
This board needed to be owned by someone who knew how to skate and do some pretty hardcore tricks but was too broke to buy a fancier-looking board. The owner’s story needed to be at the forefront of the board, and I need to show how the Skater rides, what trick he prefers to do the most, and how often he returns to maintain his board.
I definitely prefer aiming for realism in my work, so more often than not I don’t usually use concept work to model assets. It helps me get an understanding of the importance of the asset (in terms of how visible it is to the player/camera) and also what the person designing the environment had in mind, in this case, it was my team and myself. However, for the most part, I stick to photography and Blueprints so that I can get accurate measurements of the object I’m modeling. I prefer real photos of the object when texturing so I can break down all the wear and tear as precisely as possible, or in other cases, compare how the light reflects in various lighting scenarios.
Modeling the Board
The modeling process was the quickest part and in my opinion, that is down to my choice of workflow which is backward. I’ll start by modeling the most complicated section of the asset, in this case, the trucks, in Blender and also model them with as many polys as is necessary to capture all its details. My newest and most preferred sub-method at the moment is to model all parts that are included in an asset separately so that I can check that each part is proportional to the next. After I have my high poly FBX, I duplicate it and start removing edge loops and changing certain excessive faces into Tris to lower the polycount as much as possible. I particularly find that assets with cylindrical aspects, like the skateboard trucks, have soft but pronounced beveled edges that can be achieved with five or six edge loops, these types of edge loops can easily be baked down, effectively lowering the poly count.
One of the most efficient workflows I’ve adapted (I had been taught this in my first week at Uni) was to use the Mirror modifier to my advantage. The clue is in the name and it’s not anything new but when I need to make anything symmetrical/ duplicated, I use the Mirror tool. I usually leave it on, with “On cage” toggled off, so that I can see how it will look when finished, but it saves so much time and I realized I can use it whenever I want, not just in obvious scenarios. For instance, in my Sterling L2A3 Model, I wanted to model the holes in the barrel of the gun, I soon realized all I needed to do was model half the circle (flat), add a few Mirror Modifiers and an Array modifier, and the gun practically modeled itself. I actually got to witness the age-old saying “Work smarter, not harder” and I’m grateful I learned how helpful modifiers are in general.
My main time consumer for both projects was baking. I’ll be the first to admit I’m still learning but for the skateboard asset, more specifically the trucks, I spent a lot of time questioning why the errors I was seeing were happening. I ended up solving this by manually separating each part (I.e., Nuts, bolts, Spacers, Wheels, Bearings, Screws) away from each other in Blender so that they wouldn’t bake onto each other when they’re not supposed to. You can semi-solve this in Substance 3D Painter’s Bake settings, but I found this technique a lot quicker. The baked normal map of the separated mesh can be used on the unseparated model and give the texture the detail I want but not feature any of the overlapping issues.
Topology and Unwrapping
The topology was relatively simple compared to working on characters in the past. My retopology method can switch between using the SubDivide Modifier and removing excess loops or the more frequently used method in which I adjust the mesh’s edges/vertices by hand to fix any normal errors I can see. I’ve gotten much quicker with this stage as time has gotten on.
As for UVs, I tend to use Blender’s Unwrap tool for all the parts at once and then proceed to align any bizarrely-shaped edge loops the unwrap tool might have caused for each UV until I have easy-to-understand UVs, I’ll then double-check the scale and proportion of all the UVs with one another. I prefer starting with an iconic piece (for the Trucks it was the main axel piece) that I can use as a base and then scale the other parts to the “Icon’s” UVs. This way I know that as long everything is scaled accurately to the same piece (which I know is also Unwrapped correctly) I can preserve my sanity, knowing that the other UVs are correct.
The Texturing Workflow
I’ve realized now, I much prefer the texturing process to the modeling process as this is when I see my work come to life. I started with the underside of the board and ripped out the grain texture (and only the grain texture) that can be found in a preset wood material, as a base. I don’t use preset Smart Materials in my projects, I prefer knowing the ins and outs of my material as I put it together myself.
To continue, I try and use the same workflow as would occur when manufacturing the board. Wood base, paint on top, personal spray paint from the owner, stickers, excessive grime and dirt, and the wood chips on the topmost layer. Any grime I add to my projects I try to hand paint on so that I’m not relying on bitmaps and masks by themselves to do the job as they tend to just splatter dirt everywhere. When creating a realistic texture, I find you need to think realistically, would there be brighter bits of wood under the metal where the sun hasn’t been able to reach? Has this owner grinded, kickflipped, or ollie’d and would I need to show the scratches from the pavement and shoe marks on the grip tape?
The metal trucks were a lot of fun to paint. I made a handmade aluminum texture closely based on reference and then the paint layered on top which I once again worked backward from. I scratched off the paint layer the same way it would if the board was used to rail slide, as well as if a pebble may have flicked itself past the trucks when riding. I want the person who sees my assets to see a story when they look at my damage and wear.
When creating a metal texture as of recently, I make sure the metal scaler is almost maxed so that when implemented into Unreal Engine, It actually looks like metal and not “plasticated” metal. A lot of effective metal textures I’ve seen people create also have a lot of noise in the base color and it’s not until you look at metal in real life that you would see how accurate this actually is. We don’t usually notice it, but most metals do have quite a large amount of noise whether that’s in height, color, or roughness.
I don’t really use a lot of tools that aren’t already obvious, I try to never use the same brush for longer than ten minutes so that I can ensure every bit of dirt is unique. And I also use an unhealthy number of masks and bitmap masks. For example, I’ll start with one rough dirt layer and put it in a folder with a nice-looking bitmap mask, and then put the said folder into another folder with a new bitmap mask, so that the masks are a completely new combination. You can achieve some really nice stains splatter with this technique. Continuing that new folder has the same thing happen but with a black mask which I’ll then hand paint in the areas I want it seen on.
The challenge I faced with the board’s texture was the grip tape, I was worried I was going to create something that looked like pure polka dots and that was because I relied on textures to achieve it. In hindsight, I could have taken the model into ZBrush and sculpted the noise of the grip tape myself, the reason for not doing so was because this asset isn’t ever going to be that close to the player that they will notice. As well as the little time I have to spare with all my other coursework, I couldn’t really afford to do so, however, this meant I needed to nail the texturing as best as I could. I didn’t just use one noise layer but 4, as it's technically a sandpaper, but at this stage, it wasn’t enough and I knew I needed to add more personality to it. I went on to damage (by hand) the edges of the grip tape and add lots of roughness and dirt on top of the noise layers. It made the board look very worn down and neglected but if you look at professional skateboarders’ boards, even in today’s day and age, they don’t worry about its condition.
Adding the Stickers
The stickers themselves were modelled in Blender as part of the board, I made sure to add a few additional faces underneath the parts that were peeling off so that it had no back face culling errors visible when rendering. But for the most part, the Stickers and Wheel Patterns were designed as alphas in Photoshop and implemented into Substance 3D Painter afterwards. Surprisingly this has to be my favourite aspect of texturing because I have full control to add little easter eggs and references to my work. If you look closely, you can see references like “Dell Boy” and “The Codfather” as stickers. Overall, the colourful patterns and sticker designs I just made up as I went along with the key inspiration of the 70s in the back of my mind.
Lighting and Rendering
My previous projects which aren’t available online unfortunately were victims to some seriously poor rendering skills. I definitely prefer Marmoset Toolbag out of everything as it is simple to understand, easy to render, and can achieve some pretty realistic results with the right settings. My go-to setup for rendering is a flat plane mesh with a not-so-rough material so that I can capture the reflection of my model, this is always complimented by Neutral Lighting as it looks so much more professional. That doesn’t mean I can’t use nice colors like hot pink and Turquoise but if I do, they are very desaturated. A very useful tutorial to get started with professional rendering comes from a guy called ChamferZone on YouTube. He renders a revolver but the settings and tips he mentions are what aided me to understand Marmoset better. I was quite thrown by the clear difference in model and texture quality between his work and my own, but I realized I can achieve a very similar look with the right amount of effort.
I try not to use the Sky sphere for lighting in any way as it doesn’t look right to me, but I do use the same type of light it uses which is directional. I use directional for the overall Ambient set lighting and a few spotlights to mimic sunlight. I make sure to add an extra Light facing toward the camera to bounce off the asset’s back, it’s subtle but effective.
I always use Raytracing, I find that it is the main thing that takes my work from “Eh” to “Okay, now we’re talking”. Obviously, that isn’t always an option for less powerful devices. Raytracing gives my work its nice soft shadows and bumps up the ambient occlusion, to add to this I adjust the diameter of the lights I do this to stop any sharp shadows from showing. The last, but nowhere near least, step(s) I take is in post-production where I mess around with the camera settings; it’s important to note that there is never a consistent preset of settings I use, and for every project, I tamper with each and every scale until it looks right to me. However, I always make sure to add a depth of field to any renders that aren’t a clear and focused side shot. Seeing the blurred-out, farther away areas give the render a more photographic look, but this is only ever the case with a reduced FOV. On top of this, I up the contrast, saturation, and exposure ever so slightly to make the textures pop and include some very small bloom effects if needed. The final step I take is to increase the sharpen scaler a fair amount, some people may dislike this, but I think it makes realistic models look better.
The shots I like to go for are:
- A Clear Side/Overview shot (No DOF) to show off the asset (Normally with a duplicate of the asset next to it and flipped around to show a 360 view).
- 2-3 Beauty shots of the most iconic parts of the asset.
- The asset In a scene (Brick Walls, Road, Asphalt.. all of which can be found on Quixel Bridge).
- (With the asset position clearly) 1 Full texture Render, 1 Flat grey texture Render and 1 Wireframe Render.
- Bonus (Depending on time and Motivation): A mini showreel with an animated action shot.
If I could give any piece of advice I would say to focus on the story of the asset, you can make an object with a very basic shape and texture tell a very impactful story if you are patient, and take a little extra time to think about whether or not that detail “should be as intense as it is” or “maybe I could try removing some wear from here since it wouldn’t have been touched that much”.
And for beginners in general, an asset will always need improving. Even when the object is finished and done and you are drained, return to it not too long after to add that extra bit of detail you wanted to but didn’t.