Self-taught 3d artist Henrik Larsen talked about his newest project Scrounger and explained how he managed to build this 3d short in Cryengine.
My name is Henrik Larsen. I’m originally from Denmark, but have lived in the US the last 17 years. I have a background in traditional art – drawing (illustration), but have for the last 6-7 years studied CG. I am self-taught, but have used any online resource I could and can get my hands on, like Digital Tutors (Pluralsight), 3D Buzz, and many other places – YouTube even, and generally tried to learn doing the work to its smallest detail. Therefore, in order to be able to make 3D environments, I thought it wise to know most aspects of production, modeling, texturing, design, animation, lighting, so as to do the best work possible.
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In regards to the project itself, well, I wanted to do something that was different for my portfolio, and a bit of an exercise in Sci-Fi. I wanted it to have a different look – basically my take on Sci-Fi, which is a mix of something new and something familiar. I wanted to ‘dream up’ everything, so decided to go with large shapes – circles, some angularity, bright colors, distinct elements, and not too detailed, which means easily recognizable from a distance and an emphasis on form. I also did not want ‘cool’, but something vulnerable, and – at least to me – something plausible. Everything had to have a purpose, and not just ‘be there’ to look cool.
All the models were made in 3DS Max and imported piece-by-piece into CryEngine. In effect: the programs I used for the film were: CryEngine, 3DS Max, Maya, PhotoShop, After Effects, ZBrush and FL Studio for the music.
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The film consists of hundreds of pieces, but is one large environment laid out as a space station with distinct locales and feels – colors and lighting situations. Therefore, Scrounger (the robot) could move between the areas seamlessly for one long shot – if needed. That too was why it is one big area – I weren’t sure from where the camera would move, so it had to look good all over, and of a consistent quality. The story took on many shapes – ranging from a space museum, to a bank, to simply an abandoned space station, to what it became – a space bank.
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So, I started making some quick drawings of the various hallways – just quick strokes – getting whatever was in my head down on paper. After that, I laid out the pieces and came up with the different hallways. What did I want to say – Sci-Fi-wise, if I had about 4 minutes to do so? That is what I went with. It all had to be original, which is something I make up from what is in my head. A lot of the assets are very intricate, and a lot ended up not showing – unfortunately, but that is part of it.
For the characters, I wanted a fairly complex main character, but something that was manageable, since I’m not an animator. I made a bunch of animations for Scrounger – for different situations – him jumping back, getting shocked, being nervous, flying around, dodging, picking up something, opening something, and so forth – probably about 30 or so loop-able animations. I then brought them into CryEngine’s Character Tool, gave each one a name and assigned them in the Track View. Each ‘scene’ is a separate Track View sequence – one for the opening air ducts, one for the asteroids, one for the vault room, and so forth. That way it was broken into smaller components. I would have an idea of a particular scene, write it down, and then block it out by first animating the characters movement in CryEngine, and then the cameras. Often there are more than 10 cameras to each scene. Each would be animated for movement, DOF, after the characters, and they would then switch in the Director node between them, according to the action.
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A lot of the film was a ‘bit-at-a-time’ – meaning, it all had to come together as one big piece – at the same time. There were many stages – concepting, modeling, texturing, lighting, rigging, animation, making the shots, compositing, music, and bringing it all together, fairly well in that order. After Effects was used mainly for color grading, and chromatic aberration (shifting the red and green channels to help move the footage towards a film look, as well as a few effects.
I initially learned to work with 3D using Unreal and 3DS Max. From there I dove into other programs listed above, so as to know about all the aspects of making environments. Often there’s a discussion about using 3DS Max or Maya, and it is really 50/50 which one to go with. I like and use both. I also like equally Unreal and CryEngine. There is certainly room for all of it.
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It was not difficult working with CryEngine. I found it quite natural, when making a movie, and generally it lends itself so well for a cinematic look, although it is a lot of tweaking with the lighting. I would have an Environment Cube map anywhere where the scene changed look and lighting, and for each, I cranked up the effect on Specularity and color to get what I thought was a realistic look. In the scene with the planet and the sun behind it, it was meant to be a planet waking up to the morning. The sun is a sphere with a bright emissive material, with a very bright directional light behind it, reaching into the space station. The normal outside scene CryEngine starts with was turned off and replaced with a large sphere of stars.
For the cinematic look, it was down to materials and lighting. I looked at a lot of film and tried to see what made something look cinematic, if stripped down to its core. So, it was high contrast lighting – bright lights – always colored, and shapes, and shadows. As for the lighting, I was quite selective with shadow-casting lights. You can’t have too many in CE, so only a few here and there for real-time interaction.
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It was not difficult making the Sky Boxes (the stars). It is a tileable texture I made in PhotoShop, inspired by real shots from space telescopes.
As for the hero assets, well, they weren’t really that different except that they were animated, and had to be rigged. I wanted a certain look to the character, since I had no dialogue, and no facial expressions. Therefore, I went with an insect-like behavior – all of it to be expressed by arm and head movements. That was tricky (for me), since I’m not an animator. The characters have a higher poly count than normal, since they had to look good in close-up shots.
Lastly, there was the music. Part of my background was studying to be a classical pianist. So, I’ve had composition and theory. I’ve always liked classical music, and synth/electronic music, and thought I could do that for this. Actually, the music was what came together the easiest – on a scale of the whole project. For the piece (Scrounger), I used FL Studio, since I have a pretty decent synth setup.
As for my experience, I have not worked at any studio, but am hoping for the chance to do so. I would like so much to work with other people in this field. As of now, I have a regular job 40 hours a week (nothing to do with art), and on the side, I do this – 3D – another 40 hours a week to constantly improve. So, a good 80 hours a week it is nose to the grind stone!