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The wonderful artists from Bluepoint Games talked about the way they’ve approached the remake of Shadow of the Colossus. They’ve discussed the production of landscapes, materials, vegetation, clouds and other important details.
Mark: Lets see, my name is Mark Skelton and I am the Art Director on the Shadow of the Colossus remake. Previous to this, I was one of the ADs on Star Citizen, the Chris Roberts Kickstarter project. I’ve been in the game / VFX industry for around 23 years. The longest stint was at Blizzard on the cinematics team. That was around 6 years. I think the shortest was Luma Pictures working on VFX for movies. That was about 2 years of hell. Not for me.
Elben: My name is Elben Schafers and I was an Art Lead for Shadow, leading the talented team on creating the vast environments. I started in games back in 1996 at a little (at the time) Canadian studio called Bioware. I was lucky enough to work on the Baldur’s Gate series. Christmas day of 2000 I moved to Austin, TX, to work for Retro Studios on the Metroid Prime series. In 2014 I ended my time with Retro and started working for Bluepoint Games to lead the Art team on Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. Still loving it all!
Mak: Hi everyone! My name is Mak Malovic and I was the Architectural Lead on Shadow of the Colossus. I’ve been in the industry for about 7 years now, and at Bluepoint games for close to 4. Prior to moving to Texas, I lived in Los Angeles working as an environment and prop artist for companies like Little Wing World and Wayforward. It was an honor and a privilege being a part of this project.
Michael: Hey! My name is Michael Kahn-Rose and I have been in the industry as a 3 artist for about 10 years. Most recently, i worked as a lighting/environment artist on Call of Duty: Black Ops lll and as a 3d artist in the VAD department on the latest Jungle Book movie. I started working at Bluepoint Games about a year ago as an Environment Artist with my focus towards lighting.
Troy: My name is Troy Mishler. I started in the industry as a Tester and Customer Service Rep for Sony Online Entertainment 10 years ago. About 6 years ago I started working as an artist for S.O.E. and eventually I found my way to Bluepoint. My position title is Artist, but in practice I do whatever is needed (arenas, cliffs, textures, sculpts, lighting, etc) I was also owner for some of the boss arenas in the game and was lucky enough to polish the water.
Alexis: My name is Alexis Boyer, I was the vegetation artist on SotC. I have worked as an environment artist in games for 5 years on projects like ReCore, Epic Mickey 2 and an honorable mention in Shadow of Mordor. I’ve been with Bluepoint just about a year now.
You’ve got an incredibly difficult task – to bring up to date one of the greatest games of all time. Not an easy job. What was the general consensus on the way you had to approach this task?
Mark: The biggest thing right off the bat is preserving important locations. We started with the base geometry of the original world as a template and added to it instead of changing it completely. This was an important first step in preserving the expansive experience. We also made small adjustments to the cinematic camera moves and cuts for smoother camera movement.
The biggest hurdle for me is lighting and atmosphere. We’re talking about a game that originally came out in 2005. The industry has obviously made huge advancements in tech since then, so the biggest question is how do we translate it? The way the original dev team approached pretty much everything back then has changed dramatically. From lighting, PBR textures, model fidelity, hardware requirements, you name it, visual techniques are much more advanced now. The trick is to look at each scene and ask “what did they mean by the aesthetics?” If Ueda had access to modern tech how would he have created it? Obviously this led to dissecting The Last Guardian, which gave us a starting point. We were fortunate to talk with the TLG team, understanding their methodologies for designing environments, and we let that influence our construction techniques. In some cases we could also discuss things with Ueda, share our ideas of how we interpret a scene and where we want to go with it. Sometimes his thoughts help us see the scene differently, but often he favored of our ideas.
One of the main things you see from the first shot is the new vegetation. How did you approach this task? Did you work with external libraries or did your team model everything yourself?
Alexis: It is challenging as the only vegetation artist on the project. The original game implies huge fields of grass and some dense forests. Bringing that to modern expectations is not easy with the sheer volume of plants that we need. Art direction did a great job kicking things off with a break down of what is needed for each area and then I work closely with the level artist to make sure we execute that vision. One person focuses on building the area and assessing specific plants that are needed while I focus directly on fulfilling those needs whether by hand-placed instances or GPU generated foliage. A great example is the redwood forest area. We often push our GPU mesh placement system to the very extreme to achieve a look that would take too long to do by hand. I know it drove our engineers crazy, but it looks amazing.
We primarily use scans for the base materials on most plants. In many cases we take those materials, build the tree branch or grass clump, then bake it down. In some instances scanned data wasn’t available, so we build it in zbrush. Other instances the library has exactly what we need.
The main geography of the place is pretty much the same, but you’ve tried to change the main look of the scene and made it so very different.What were the main additions that helped you saturate the scenes?
Troy: For the organic areas, we use the typical formula for adding detail: small clusters of rocks and foliage make environments feel real and set scale while vertex painting our ground to assign various materials helps apply detail where needed. To add another level of detail, we also use decals to create features such as erosion, moss. or a giant crack in a mountain side. These things help isolated areas, but in really large spans of open terrain it is important to deliver a feeling of flowing hills. Vegetation also helps deliver that flowing feeling. Sometimes a large span can be too repetitive or too perfect and in these cases we utilize negative space by removing patches of vegetation, instead adding rock outcroppings to break up the scene and add visual interest, increasing believability.
It is very important to us to maintain as much of the original as we can. With today’s technology we can deliver a more realized execution of the original vision, making the details of a mountain range more explicit rather than implied. With Physically Based Rendering, hi-resolution sculpts, and the tools that our engineers created, we can recreate a world that is incredibly detailed. With all those potential changes, it is very important to us that we enhance the source material, changes for improvements not just changes because we can change something.
Mak: It isn’t an easy task to improve on the architecture. We knew from the get-go that we didn’t want to alter it so much that we’d lose the mood and feeling of the original game, especially the sense of scale.
Instead, we try to expand and add ways that make sense to us and hopefully the player. That comes with its own challenges, from reinterpreting the original art and filling in the blanks, to creating new assets.
We start small, recreating a few widely-used textures and some architectural elements, learning the original shape language and design principles. With some input and feedback from the The Last Guardian team, we develop the principles and language for the remake (the TLG team believed our direction felt authentic). Eventually, we move on to the huge arenas and other structures throughout the world of Shadow.
We generally, but not always, use the base geo as a starting point and elaborate upon it (kind of like a highly-detailed white box). We add more scale reads and general detail while retaining the footprint of the original structures. In many cases we make adjustments with Ueda’s input, such as changing the scale of most of the steps/stairs to be in tune with Wander’s height. It is a balancing act. This is also the case for the texture-creating process. While adding new textures and materials or just remaking some of the original ones, we are careful that any enhancements still fit the world.
How did you work on the way you’ve kept that feel of scale in the scene? I’m super interested in learning how do you make those details big enough to feel real and fit the general environment?
Troy & Elben: The easy answer is we have solid art direction. There are the three typical levels of scale: big, medium, and small, and how they relate to the main character. In Shadow of the Colossus, our art direction regularly incorporates those elements of scale along with often ensuring elements with distant backgrounds, midground, and foreground also read well in the same scene. We then make different scales for Wander and for the colossi. Once we have placement for the scale for each colossus, we do another pass on object placement for the player scale. Keeping in mind the shapes and details need all those frames of reference produces that huge feeling, and with environment pieces to ground the colossi and Wander into the world it all starts to feel very epic and right.
One of the unique things we must overcome is the repetition in the cliff walls as well as making the walls still feel “together”. One of the engineers had the clever idea of generating a world projected material to tie our rock wall assets together and make them feel more uniform, so that they felt part of the same cliffside. However, sometimes this makes them feel too repetitive or monochromatic. To solve those issues we use decals to break up patterns, help with transitions, and tie the walls into the ground where it needs to look seamless.
Could you work on the way you’ve approached the production of the materials here? Are these all PBR? Do you use some other approaches?
Troy: We use Physically Based Rendering, but this is also a stylized game so our textures and materials are set up in a way that we can take advantage of it. As far as method, we use some Substance Designer and most notably scanned materials. We also use digital painting and photo-combination where needed. Ultimately the game takes place in a stylized world, which means we make changes to some of the materials and textures to maintain a greater cohesion and style.
As for our material system, we use the Bluepoint Engine, which uses a referencing material setup. This allows us advantages when we set up materials, such as changing one aspect of a family of materials (like a texture for mossy rocks) in one file and the entire family of rocks updates since they’re referencing the same common/base material. Obviously, this saves quite a bit of time when we iterate on certain areas in the game.
Really interested in the way you’ve worked on the landscape in general. Was it sculpted? How do you make it feel like the old stuff, but at the same make it new?
Elben: We knew from the start that the game has a large following – a large, passionate following of fans who rightfully are very protective of the original work of art – and deviating too far from the original vision would change the mood and impression of the game in ways no one wants. We need a balance to make the environments look new and yet familiar. We keep close to the original color tones and form language while also keeping within player space and overall feel.
There really isn’t one procedure for creating our landscapes. It’s impressive how our engine is capable of pushing the massive number of instance objects and how the LOD’s blend into each other. In any given level we may place over 50-thousand objects. Our rocks walls are made of many singular rock instances, each sculpted in ZBrush, macro maps transferred through Substance Designer, materials assembled in our own material editor, and objects assembled in our script editor with projected materials to further tie them together. Our man-made ruins have a similar process, with a little more assembly in Maya to begin with.
Our ground takes a slightly different path. Our open fields are so large that simple tiling textures would show a repeating pattern from any view. We use Maya’s vertex painting power coupled with our tech to vert and alpha blend five complete materials into a single material, visible in both Maya and our script editor. Material textures are created through Substance Designer and Megascans. To further push the mid and foreground detail, virtual grass is layered on top of the ground materials through vertex painting in Maya. Again, instance objects like small rocks and debris add that extra layer of clutter we want.
Could you discuss the way you started to use the lighting here?
Michael: Our biggest focus with lighting is keeping to the original art direction as much as possible. The original game was all about atmosphere and lighting, and hitting that look is a big task. We also use lighting to guide the player where to go and highlight what is important. SotC is also set in a world mostly lit from natural light, so lighting the environments and making it look natural is even more challenging with so few secondary light sources to rely on. Where artistic liberties allow, we make adjustments to let natural light into a scene, such as carving openings into the ceilings of dark areas or adding torches along walls.
In this game, in particular, environments sort of should feel deserted and dead, but for some reason, they never do. What do you think is the secret in this lifeless life?
Mark: I always insist on SOMETHING moving in every frame. Whether it be rolling fog, plants bending in the wind, dust motes circling, sand skating across the desert surface, or butterflies hovering, there should always be a subtle sense of movement from the environment. These subtle bits of movement take a desolate, static scene and give it a natural feeling of life without knocking you over the head with it.
Mark Skelton, Elben Schafers, Mak Malovic, Michael Kahn-Rose, Troy Mishler & Alexis Boyer — Bluepoint Games
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
Here’s an article on the tech used in the original Shadow of the Colossus.