Sci-Fi Environment Modeling Tips
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Sci-Fi Environment Modeling Tips
29 May, 2018
Environment Art
Environment Design
Interview

Marko Topic talked a bit about the production of his sci-fi 3d environment, based on the concept art by Alisher Mirzoev.

Introduction

First of all, hello to all you’re readers and thank you very much for a chance like this, it means a lot for aspiring artist as myself. My name is Marko Topic and I’m coming from Zagreb, Croatia. A small country in southeastern Europe. I graduated on Polytechnicum Zagrebiense and have a master degree in information technology. Previously I worked in game industry as an environment artist on „Monster league racing“ and „Theme park wars“ It was a small studio with amazing and talented people based in Ljubljana. 4 years ago I moved back to Zagreb where I’ve been working in the commercial industry as a 3D generalist in the largest privately owned company in Croatia and one of the leading regional companies doing pretty much everything from designing and modeling to rigging, animation, lighting, and compositing. Even tho my main focus was always environment art, having a chance to work on different aspects of 3D graphics was super beneficial and I will always be grateful for that.

My journey into the 3D industry started 15 years ago when saw cinematic for Blizzards Warcraft 3 for the first time. It was just amazing and I instantly knew that that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I was so inspired and determined I got a college degree and continue working to this day developing skills so one day I can finally do what I always dreamed of.

Personal work: The hobbit hole

Planning 

It started by stumbling upon amazing concept art made by Alisher Mirzoev. Usually, when I see something that inspires me I add it to my „to do“ folder and if after few months I still find it interesting enough to invest countless of hours in making a 3D scene of it, I just do it. Like pretty much every other artist, I start with gathering references, ideas, thinking about mood and story I want to tell and even tho its environment without characters I will always try to add life in it. For this particular project the biggest challenge and for me personally most interesting parts was lightning. I made 4 different light setups and even scrap half done shading part because I wasn’t happy with lightning and mood I had in my scene. Lightning is always tricky in interiors with lots of metallic surfaces where color is heavily influenced by reflection and specular lighting, but if done right it also brings amazing dynamics and personal satisfaction.

Concept art by Alisher Mirzoev

Modeling 

For me, Maya was always a tool that felt right in my hand, from day one and no matter how many hours I spend in it, it’s so vast and complex that I always find myself learning something new. The technical part of modeling was pretty straightforward here – good old fashion hard surface modeling, but from art style perspective it was quite challenging. I didn’t want over the top futuristic look with too many complicated parts that don’t look real or believable, on the other hand, it needed to look good, interesting and to make sense. What I often do is try to imagine how things are made and how would they work in this situation if they would exist. For example, if there are stairs, there had to be something that connects them to the wall, screws that hold plating in place, some kind of drain for liquids and dirt, little-plated compartments for wires/storage etc. All those little „logical“ details help to achieve realism in the final shot. Since I knew I will go with a combination of procedural materials and decals, models in focus had to be pretty detailed and on point. It makes modeling phase bit more time consuming but it pays off later on especially since you can build your own base of models and easily reuse them, unlike custom made maps for a specific object. For wires and cables, I used a free script made by Lunar Animation – Hanging Wire Generator. It’s fast and easy way to create hanging wires/cables, for everything else I used standard tools that come with Maya 2018.

Models’ wireframes

Details 

The key ingredient for achieving the realistic look is good research and reference gathering and I can’t state that enough. More time you invest in research, less time you will spend wondering around in production phase and overall, I believe you will end up with nicer and more consistent result.

Of course, you can’t plan every tiny part of your project and as it develops it changes, evolves and if guided right it can become even better than initially planned. What helps me here a lot is every day when I’m done with work I make a fast render, put it Photoshop and start drawing little details, adding notes, images, ideas for improvements and use that as starting point for next day.

Besides that, as I mentioned before it helps to think about how things are made and how would they be made if they are real.

MRS_08

Texturing 

My typical way of texturing usually involves Substance or Quixel Suite, but for this project, I wanted to make everything procedural, combined with decals which means no UVs or custom maps. So basically entire scene was made without a single UV map (they are all automatic). Thanks to Redshift’s flexible shaders I was able to make everything like scratches, dents, dirt, and rust procedural no matter what surface it’s applied on. It takes a bit time to create shaders in that way but saves you so much time considering you don’t need UV layout for everything and jumping from application to application to do all the materials for the scene.

Example of shader network and decal map.

Lighting 

Lightning is obviously a very important part. It can completely change the way you experience scene and that’s why I love it so much. Playing with warm and cold tones always looks appealing and you can’t go too much wrong with that. Light setup was relatively simple. For the main area, I used bluish area lights on the windows and warm yellowish light in the control room to give it a pop and drive viewers eye to it. As previously mentioned, since most of the scene was built with very reflective materials, I needed a lot of smaller light sources to give it a nice reflection and specular highlights. For those lights, I used a combination of mesh light for illumination and incandescent shader to get more control over the look of the light source itself. I could have gone with just incandescent shaders for both, but they tend to generate more noise than mesh lights thus results in longer render times which we obviously want to avoid. Having a huge advantage of redshifts speed, it allowed me to play around and test many different combinations without losing too much time on renderings and for me, that’s the beauty of it.

Light setup

Rendering 

When rendering complex scenes like this, the most important part is to get as much data from your render as possible so you can be flexible in compositing part. That’s where nice AOV setup kicks in. Every material in the scene had its ID map combined with different passes for attributes like color, reflection, specular etc. Having render setup like that enabled me to easily adjust everything later on in compositing phase and save so much time.

Using redshift in this project was really a great experience. Having the ability to almost instantly see your work helped me so much with fine details and tweaking render results. It simply enables you to do more iterations in given time compared to CPU renders, which ultimately results with better renders. As with all things nothings perfect. When it comes to rendering with GPU render engines, you really have to think a lot about optimization. Unlike CPU renders which use system memory which you usually have more than enough, graphics card memory is very limited. That being said, Redshift has an amazing technology called „out of the core rendering“ which enables you to use RAM when you run out of VRAM. In some cases that can slow down your renders so you still want to optimize your scene and assets as much as possible.

Example of AOVs

Marko Topic, 3D Generalist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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