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Morgan Jones detailed the creation of his amazing vehicle diorama. He talked about the design, rendering, texturing, modeling and the creation of details.
Hi! I’m Morgan Jones and I’m a student from South Wales, currently on track to completing my final year doing ‘Game Art’ at De Montfort University.
Throughout university, I have tried a wide variety of specific subject matters related to creating the art you see in the games industry. This includes digital concept art, traditional drawing and 3D modelling of both characters and environments, with the purpose of honing my skills and finding the area that I desire to specialise in. Now, this being said, I have always had a strong love of environments through what I see in CG films/games and I find it fascinating how an artist is able to stretch what is seen in the real world and exaggerate it, yet still have it read as believable and appealing. When younger, watching films like Pixars Wall-e, Cars, and Finding Nemo inspired me and ultimately got me hooked on the idea of creating worlds that told a story in every little detail, which is something that I am continually striving for in each piece of work I create.
As far as my current projects, at the start of the academic year, I was given a list of industry set briefs and was told to choose three that best suited my aspirations on the course. I would then have 3 weeks to complete each project in turn and was then given an extra week to polish what I felt to be the most successful; which happened to be the piece that I’m talking about today. This task was set to help get me up to the pace required of me in industry whilst still producing work of a consistently high quality. It was also a great opportunity to experiment with different workflows to find out which is best suited to how I prefer to work. I can then apply this knowledge to the process in creating my final project, which is what I’m working on now!
Modeling is my favourite part of production when creating an asset for games. Combine this with my love of old classic vintage cars and that was all I really needed to start this project. I started by wanting to create an old school VW beetle.
This project also started with creative constraints which is really handy to know from the get go because they can help inform what is possible to do in the time frame whilst staying within budget. The main targets to keep in mind were that there had to be a hero asset/environment combo, they had to be under 50,000 triangles in total and I had a texture budget of 3 x 2048 x 2048 targa’s including an extra 1024 alpha map for the foliage. After doing enough research to get the project moving, I started to block out the scene with the first draft mesh of the hero asset itself. At this stage I was only focussing on what the scene as a whole would look like and how I could effectively compose the varying elements to create a pleasing composition. It was important to keep this idea in mind at this stage because everything I create will be based around this initial block out and given the time frame, it helps to get a solid foundation to build the scene upon.
I quickly realised that I needed to craft the environment to enhance the focal point of the car. This means that anything I create must benefit and lead the eye of the viewer straight to this point. I decided to change the back of the plinth and make it smaller because it was taking up far too much visual real-estate and was in turn not helping the hero asset shine. Another area that I decided would be a really nice compositional element was to capture a ‘frozen in time’ aesthetic and get a still turntable of the car smashing through the fence on the cliff edge allowing for a lot of scope for implied dynamism. This got me thinking about how the car could smash through the wooden fence as it sends wires, splinters and dirt flying through the air. Whilst also flattening anything that the car has left in its rampage through the country environment.
As for the plinth itself, the inspiration for the style of the cliff side came from many trips down to Cornwall on holidays which gave me a tonne of primary reference to work from as far as the style of rocks that comprise the cliff face as well as the type of fencing and vegetation that would naturally become a key element of the scene.
The best bit of advice I got when creating any environment scene is to make sure that anything I spend time creating, especially given the time constraints, benefits the scene as a whole, compositionally and to help tell the story. This meant that I found it helpful to keep working on different elements of the scene incrementally instead of taking a single asset to completion before working on the next. Working this way allowed me to see negatives and positives in what I was creating incrementally as well as better informing my lighting, composition and everything that will ultimately make the scene successful at completion. Not to mention, it’s extremely helpful if you have a low attention span and like to constantly be varying what it is you are working on.
However, everyone works differently and one pipeline won’t suit everyone, so just tailor it to the way you work best.
Detailing a scene is a constant battle especially when doing something in a more stylized fashion. I struggled at first working out exactly how far I could push my models and textures before it started to leave the style I was aiming for. As general rule of thumb, I learnt that I should try and push my textures further and then I would know where the line was. All I had to do then was bring the texture detail back a little, imply more fine detail and use whatever I was texturing at the time as a bench mark for the rest of the scene. The tricky part of this process in the current scene was that I also wanted to imply a lot of directional movement in the scene. One of the ways I thought would be cool to indicate this was within the grass texture on top of the rocks that I modeled. I lessened the detail of the grass and made it far more painterly that followed the direction that the car was going in to imply that the grass was flattened. I also knew that this texture would be less visible all around because I wanted a large contrast between the flattened and untouched environment that had been growing there far longer than the cars brief interruption of the landscape.
Some great advice I got when creating the models in the scene was also to consider breaking each model down into simple form variations. I needed to be able to define what the main shapes of each model were as well as its secondary and tertiary forms. This helped each model remain consistent with one another.
For example, in the modular rock asset I created, I tried to keep a harmonious separation between the large rocks, the medium scale rocks and the more sedimentary stones and pebbles that collect in the crevices. This a good port of call if you want your asset to read as believable in any given style. Of course if this were a realistic asset, you would give this kind of model a much more rugged appeal and give the sculpt a lot more detail but this wasn’t the kind of style that I was striving for.
The really fun part is when the base is all in place and you can start touching up the details of all the assets and create more tertiary models to take the scene to the next level. Much like the block in stage, getting all of your base materials and models in place and working together means that all you have to do is keep touching up what you have whilst adding some more detail in areas that you feel would benefit the scene.
The environment side of the scene was a lot of fun because everything I modeled, I could get a lot mileage out of. For instance, I only had to make one killer rock asset that showed a lot variation as you rotated it and I could use that single rock to construct the base of the scene by duplicating it and building it into the other instances. I could vertex paint the top of the rocks with my tiling grass texture and that was base of the environment more or less complete. Something that I really enjoy is breaking up my PBR workflow with some hand painting. Not only does this add some visual contrast to the elements of the scene which helps the focal point stand out but it also gives my workflow a lot of variation because sometimes it’s nice to sit down and go back to basics with creating some nice hand painted vegetation.
To place the grass, I first decided that I wanted a lot of variation in the different foliage types and I wanted to use the exact same method I used to create the rocks. I focused on large areas of foliage first to flesh out the scene. I then started to place in some variation closer to the edge of the cliff face and then used the much smaller foliage types to further hide the point where the grass would create a harsh seam on the edge of the cliff. Clustering smaller elements here help blend between different surfaces and aids the believability of the plinth. I could also use the small grass alphas to add variation to the parts of the grass that the car had flattened which helped the overall silhouette of the environment and added to that theme of movement that was on the back of my mind.
As far as the posts were concerned, as well as being a natural recurring element that will be familiar to people who live near costal paths that lead to the beach they also added to the flow of the scene and added more directionality to the car. I wanted the car to look like it was really impacting this fence so I created some variations of the same model in different pieces and arranged them accordingly around the scene, thinking how they would have looked if the car had just smashed into them. Placing them was tricky however because I found that they were getting in the way of the main asset and when giving the scene the sit back and squint test, I realised that the values of the posts were too similar to the car and the scene wasn’t reading well as a result. I decided to strengthen the warmer hues of the fence to separate it from the car and move them so that the silhouette of the car wasn’t being affected which was tricky to construct.
The same went for the wires (which I created using a simple spline set up inside of UE4) in the sense that it would be moved around to bring more visual interest to the scene, but also shouldn’t obstruct the scenes hero asset. It doesn’t sound like a lot to change which would be correct, however, making sure that the hero asset in the scene is being supported by the other elements of the scene instead of being intruded by them is essential to creating good readability in the scene and lets the viewer know exactly what they’re looking at even from a distance.
On top of the basics of creating simple alpha cards and tiling textures for the plinth, I felt that bringing more variation to the detail on the plinth could only benefit the scenes progression. For instance, I created a simple tire tread Decal map and placed it accordingly behind the car to show where it’s made a bigger impact on the environment. The decal is simply a normal map that is being projected into the top of the plinth to imply added flattening from the tires.
I also decided to add extra details such as grass and dirt being picked up by the car on its travel, by placing these details in front of and behind the car. This really helped with the illusion that the car was making an impact on the environment, enhancing the believability of the weight and movement of the car through the scene. The same goes for the splinters that I added later, they have their own source of dynamism and detail to help push the scene further.
This asset was quite challenging to get right particularly in the modeling stage but it’s the best part for me because I love the challenge of working out how to construct a complicated shape in a 3D space. This car is a fun rounded shape that was tricky to get right as the edge flow of the piece had to be spot on to read and light correctly in real time. It also happens to be a shape that most people are very aware of and it’s easy to spot if there’s something off in the shape even if you can’t put your finger on it at the time. This meant that the shape of the car went through quite a few variations in its shape before I got to the car that you see in the result. Something that I thought would also be easier in the long run was to keep the car clean and undamaged until I unwrapped textured and then started to move verts around later to imply where the scene was making an impact on the vehicle. As far as the texturing, I used a straightforward methodical process of working the materials from the ground up. I would start with a basic metal and matched it to the type of metal that was used on this model and started added the paint and dirt whilst subtracting from my paint to give the impression of scratches and bumper scuffs.
I am always trying to aspire to the styles that inspire me and I was told that artist that work on stylized animated films have a tendency to only add areas like dirt or rust to an object if it makes a direct visual impact on the scene. They are less likely to add an overall dirt pass to an object as though you were portraying a realistic object. They would simply make an impact with the texture variation that they give the object so it is noticeable at a moment’s glance. I decided to use this technique by only placing dirt, scratches and smears to areas of the car that would be directly impacted by the elements. I then left the rest of the car clean to add more contrast to the subject matter. Hopefully, the result to the viewer from a distance is that they can see that the car has dirt on the front from smashing through the environment as well as kicked up dirt around the wheel arches and bumpers.
This technique allows me to add large areas of detail without worrying about too much fine detail which would distract from the style of the scene. It was also tricky to get the spotty specular look that you get when you look at car paint. I found that the best method to get this was to create a greyscale spotted noise map and import it into Substance Painter. I would then tile this over all of the paint in the roughness map. This meant that when the car was lit, you would be able to see this small specular pop from where the metallic material under the paint is reflecting more light in concentrated areas.
I used similar techniques for the surfboard prop by adding areas like board wax to help some natural roughness break up on the overly glossy surface. This prop also tells you a little about the owner of the car as well as providing some insight onto where the car is eagerly heading too which was an amusing bit of narrative to support the hero asset.
Creating the glass was an interesting task because it was an area that I wanted to be much simpler to the rest of the asset. I had a set up inside UE4 where I created a material that had a unique roughness detail that I had painted in Substance Painter. I added some refraction with guidance from lecturers. Next I added some reflection captures to the windows cube map texture input rendered from the clouds so that I could really sell the reflection from all aspects of the environment. This is one of those liberties that you can take when creating a diorama that you probably wouldn’t get away with in a larger scene because the expense of doing this would be too high. That being said, the result in the diorama just gives you more accurate reflections from your environment which is always a plus when your producing beauty renders to show.
I did happen to have a lot of awesome guidance inside UE4 from Dan Upton when it came to this set up which I really appreciated.
I also made some colour grading changes to the car and added some extra details such as bumper stickers and pinstripes to push the colour contrast of the asset against the scene as well as taking the opportunity to inject a little more humour and personality into the asset. All of this comes together to really tie down the story that I was trying to get across with this scene. Much like the rest of the scene, I wanted the materials I created to be convincing and believable yet not overdo the details and keep the texturing as basic as I could. I was able to push the details on the car a little more than the plinth because I wanted to take any opportunity to express contrast between the elements in the scene.
This was absolutely the most therapeutic part of the scene to create because it was all hand painted and there was no technically demanding elements. It’s nice to include elements like this in my work because it gives me the opportunity to be really let loose and relax about what I am creating an element of my scene. After gathering a few images of the kind of sky I was after (at the right time of day) I jumped straight into painting.
I started by creating simple gradient background that had a nice sky blue which got lighter as it got closer to the horizon. I then created a clipping mask with a series of custom brushes that gave a nice varied cloud like silhouette. What I was looking for at this stage was a nice variation in overall shape as well as getting crisp edges to the clouds. I always go in later and soften these edges but I find it easier to make edges softer later than work in reverse order.
After I was satisfied with the mask, I just started working in soft shading of lights and darks within the mask to start sculpting the shapes of the clouds. I did this in a single layer because I wanted the sculpting of forms to be very organic and loose so that if I wasn’t happy with certain brush strokes, I wouldn’t ‘Cntrl Z’, I would just paint over the top. This helped me get a nice painterly texture with appealing soft shading.
The final step was to push the clouds back in the scene by adding some depth. I achieved this by including small protruding clouds in the foreground that I painted with larger brush strokes with much less refined edges as well as adding some plane trails and dissipated clouds to break up some of the clean edges I created in the mask. In the end I felt that the texture was far to desaturated so I added more colour intensity to the whole image and increased the contrast using levels.
The overall aim was to have a really punchy sky that contrasted heavily with the colour of the car and to increase its visual contrast whilst adding a lot of atmosphere and height to the image. I wanted to show off the comical distance the car is going to travel when the scene continues. I found that the second I brought in the sky box, the scene transformed into a much more refined piece and brought an insane amount of life to the scene that it didn’t have previously.
Overall, this scene was a great fun to create from the get go. I’m really starting to find a style that I want to explore and refine with my future projects. I do want to say that this scene only got to the stage that it is currently because of constructive criticism and feedback from my tutors and course mates. The danger of working on your own is that you get so focussed on something that you’ll stop seeing what could be changed to make the artwork better. My biggest advice for creating a scene like this, is to get in the habit of constantly getting feedback from people with fresh eyes. It is the listening and applying of that feedback that really takes any artwork to the next level!
Special mention to Patrick Herbison for consistently providing feedback when modeling the car and pushing the detail!
I am currently working on my Final Major Project at University where I am re-creating an environment from ‘Princess and the Frog’ in order to culminate what I have learnt on the course and apply myself to a larger time scaled project. If you want to check out this level as I create it, I’ve set up a weekly blog showing the full process from start to finish. This will include all the design decisions, techniques and any obstacles that get in the way when creating an environment.
Thank you very much ’80 level’ for giving me the opportunity to chat about this scene because I really enjoyed creating it!