Photorealistic Scene: Studying & Recreating Reference

Photorealistic Scene: Studying & Recreating Reference

Hicham M. Oudni talked about his first solid project Derelict Kitchen, a photorealistic environment made in UE4.

Introduction

Hi! My name is Hicham M. Oudni, I’m a highly motivated self-taught Environment Artist. I am passionate about detailed story-driven environments. My career goal is to work with dedicated individuals who believe in telling a breath-taking story through stunning visuals. I am always learning and enjoy taking on exciting challenges to expand my knowledge and skill set. 

Due to the lack of any formal training or apprenticeship anywhere near where I live, I had to forge my way through from the beginning. I had to share my focus between my passion for game art and design and my studies for some time. I completed my master’s degree in Electronics and Embedded Systems (2018) and I am now fully dedicated to pursuing a career in the game industry following an old but persistent dream. 

First Project

For as long as I can remember, I always had that passion for apocalyptic world scenes either in games or in movies and always marveled at how great game studios like Naughty Dog use their talent to create such appealing environments. I was stunned by their game “The Last of Us” and I knew that it would be tough for me to match their skill but I kept learning and working hard, and after several years I felt that I could start building a solid piece of art for my portfolio. As a result, I started working on a project called “Old Living Room”. I needed some feedback and guidance though, so I turned to Bobby Rice. I’ve never met Mr. Rice in person but I felt the ultimate support from him for the last 10 months. He supported me all the way through in his free time. He advised me to push for the next level turning what was just fun art to a professionally accepted embodiment of concept art turning real-world references into high-quality visuals and magnificently optimized environment. 

After spending quite some time looking for references, I started working on “Derelict Kitchen” inspired by a photo series by photographer Mario Tama.

That was a big challenge for me because the scene has a very interesting composition and lighting as well as rich details in every prop providing some phenomenal storytelling potential.

Derelict Kitchen

Reference Analysis and Pre-Production Process

First, I started breaking down the main reference.

  • Big reads
  • Lighting focus points
  • Color exploration

 

I did a breakdown of the color composition in the ref using a professional algorithm tool to study it thoroughly. 

  • Scale
  • Reference gathering

 

I started looking for references that are close to the main ref in their mood as well as for the props. I used PureRef to organize the ref boards. 

Scene Production

After the scale breakdown that I did during the pre-production phase, the plan was to get the scale identical to ref. I started by blocking the bigger props like furniture and then going gradually to smaller props. 

Props Creation Workflow

The first idea was to find a plan to manage all the assets in an organized way so I decided to separate them into sets. Each set will be modeled separately and contains different objects. It’s very important to create the key pieces first and work down to the less important props. Large assets are also good to check for scaling issues. 

The assets were mainly modeled using Maya, but some high poly models were sculpted in ZBrush. To make them low poly, I had to optimize or completely remodel those assets in Maya, as a lot of them were quite high in polycount. 

I packed each set together and layed out the UVs. Each set consisted of several objects. There were a lot of small objects so it was unnecessary for each object to have its own texture sheet. 

Baking in Marmoset Toolbag 3 

I took low poly models and added back the missing details from the high poly by baking texture maps in Marmoset Toolbag 3. It turned out to be the best choice for me. It offers a lot of flexibility because you can simply edit baked maps by painting on top of your mesh. 

Texturing

The textures follow a 4-step process to achieve natural aging and wear that tells a story (Surface, Pattern, Grunge, Edgewear). At this stage of production, I like to start texturing with these constraints in mind:

  • Treating each of the assets as if it's been telling a story since the moment it was forged
  • Thinking through the following details: how old is it? how much was it used? has it been dropped resulting in dents? has it been washed?
  • All weathered, used, and influenced surfaces are driven by use, gravity, and age. This means the application of dirt follows a mathematical formula.
  • Always remember that grunge, dirt, and grime are never driven by random application. 

 

Color

The reduction of saturated noise information allowed solid natural tones to come through in a balanced way. At first, I had too much noise in the base color, but I decided to put all that into the roughness. 

Rusty Look

I used grunge and noise textures as a base and then painted on top of them to get a more organic and natural result.

Materials

At this stage, I rather focused on standard surfacing and minimal simplistic layer blending. The use of Designer in this scene was limited to the creation of the base wood planks that make up the wall and the floor tiles. My main texturing tool was Substance Painter, which I used to start defining the surface and add some layers of details. 

UE4

My scene isn't complex: I used the standard engine layout, basic materials, and simple lighting utilizing one spotlight as my directional light and a skylight with an overcast HDRI image without using any fill lights. 

Afterword

I did struggle to find the perfect starting point at first. After a while, I realized that the best way to manage the project was to make a list of different tasks. I then started working down this list, one task at a time. My logic was to create a scene that’s identical to a reference and try to give people the feeling of a double-take, make them wonder which one is real. After all, it was simply a matter of following the reference and getting that mood and feeling right.

Hicham M. Oudni, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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