Photogrammetry at Embark Studios
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Photogrammetry at Embark Studios
17 May, 2019
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Recently, Embark Studios published an interesting 3-part article that covers the way the team works with photogrammetry using an example of their last trip to the island Tenerife in Spain. We found it an enjoyable and very practical read that will hopefully inspire other small studios like Embark to put their hands on this challenging yet rewarding technology and create fascinating realistic sceneries.

About Embark Studios:

Embark Studios is a new game studio based in Stockholm that was founded just a few months ago. The team has already started working on their first title described as a “cooperative free-to-play action game set in a distant future, about overcoming seemingly impossible odds by working together” and chose UE4 as their engine. In addition to promising captivating visuals, the game developers strive to “blur the line between playing and making” which means empowering the players not involved in game dev professionally with the tools to build and create. This is unquestionably a large and very ambitious task, but Embark Studios are aware of it and seem to approach it rationally by starting small and bringing the audience along on their adventurous journey.

Photogrammetry has been gaining its popularity throughout recent years, and more and more studios have started introducing this technology into their pipeline. Such games as The Astronauts‘ The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Ubisoft‘s Far Cry 5, and DICE‘s Star Wars: Battlefront (we did a huge interview with DICE about it) have achieved memorable high-quality visuals with it to name a few.

There’s, however, a common opinion, that Photogrammetry is more suitable for AAA studios with a generous quantity of resources on hand, both technological and human, which allows them to utilize the technology to the best advantage. Being a rather small team, Embark Studios tried to object to it and shared the way they deal with this time-consuming process by automating some of the steps with the help of Houdini and custom procedural tools like “Sortie”. The latter tool was developed by Paul Greveson to reduce the time spent on sorting thousands of photos and scans. To separate different scan sets, these guys take ‘dark’ photos in-between by holding a hand in front of the lens, and this allows Sortie to put each set into a folder of its own.

“Being a smaller team means that we need to rethink how we work with photogrammetry. To reduce or eliminate time-intensive and mundane work, we try to automate as much as we can and make use of procedural tools when possible. So far, we’re encouraged by the progress we’re making. Some tasks that used to take days are now down to hours”.

Andrew Svanberg Hamilton, Art Director at Embark Studios

Andrew Svanberg Hamilton, Pontus Ryman, and Robert Berg, the team members and authors of the article, have all worked with photogrammetry in the past (you can find the results on their ArtStation pages), so the combination of their knowledge and experience was fruitful. During their 1-week trip to Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands in Spain, they captured the volcanic biome of the region and came back with 749 unique scans and 115,000 photos in total which were then turned into game assets.

Be sure to check out our interview with Robert Berg, where he talked about his environment building process in more detail:

Creating a Shadowy Forest in UE4

The game developers point out that in order to get the most out of a trip like that, one should do a research of the region beforehand as well as plan the work thoroughly. Not only is it necessary to bring all the needed equipment and good clothes, but also make sure to capture a sufficient number of reference photos and videos with and without a color chart. When capturing a biome, Pontus recommends splitting the location into parts and focus on generic surfaces and objects first, such as common terrain types, dirt and other layers, simple bushes, rocks, cliffs, and other elements that might seem too basic. These materials will let you set up a solid base for future visually interesting and unique elements. Just like in any work, a good foundation is a must-have, and only after establishing it you can start breaking it up and adding catchy elements.

“It’s easy to be drawn to that amazing and unique rock structure, when in fact it’s the more mundane and generic rocks or trees that you should focus on first. These are the sort of assets that will be repeated throughout the environment in a game engine”.

[…]

“These eye-catching assets add a lot to the final result when layered on top of the base. On our trip to Tenerife, they included walking paths, dried out river beds or just a small natural ledge to break up a generic-looking slope, which will add an extra layer of believable quality to the overall environment impression once in-game”.

Pontus Ryman, Environment Artist at Embark Studios

A range from granular terrain materials to large cliff faces will help form the base of our world. © Embark Studios

A real-time render of some of the assets that we scanned. © Embark Studios

To make game assets out of the scans, Embark Studios used a bunch of programs: RealityCapture, xNormal, Houdini, Blender, and Substance Painter. RealityCapture helped the team to align the images and produce high-poly 3D models and xNormal – to reduce the insane number of triangles (millions and even billions) to a reasonable polycount. Further adjustments and transformations were facilitated with the help of a custom Houdini tool that allowed the team to decimate the in-game models to a specified triangle count, a Blender plugin to mix scans, and Substance Painter to clean up the final result. In the third part of the article, Robert Berg shared their particular workflow and discussed the importance of de-lighting, detail maps, and other nuances that improve the quality of the game assets made out of scans.

Point cloud and camera angles of a scanned rock in RealityCapture. © Embark Studios

The same rock structure before (left) and after (right) de-lighting in Substance Painter. © Embark Studios

“To limit the memory footprint of the asset, we make heavy use of detail maps that allows us to lower the resolution of the unique maps while still keeping the high-frequency detail that is required. Detail maps are an extra set of scanned textures that you tile on top of the unique textures to increase the fidelity without the need for huge textures”.

Robert Berg, Environment Artist at Embark Studios

Within several months, the team has made great progress. Here’s their first environment test:

And this is the end result:

Whether you’re looking for materials on photogrammetry or not, we encourage you to take the time to read all three parts of the article and study Embark Studios experience as well as the artists’ portfolios. Find the links below:

To learn more about photogrammetry here’s also a collection of our previous articles and news on this topic:

As always, feel free to share other helpful materials in the comments!

Author: Daria Loginova

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