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My name is Stepan Zakharenko, I am a 2020 Game Art Graduate from Ringling College of Art and Design and I did my thesis, Soul Raiser, with Zixin Huang and Stephen Chi. Each of us was responsible for a unique area in the game, a snow biome, catacombs, and a cathedral, which is the area I worked on. Before starting our thesis, we worked on many solo projects, such as 2D side scroller, vehicle battle arena, top-down adventure game, and first-person and third-person exploration games. Before Ringling, we didn’t have any game experience but we had the required drawing skills to attend RCAD.
Studying at Ringling
Ringling focuses on visually-sophisticated gaming environments that tell stories. Therefore, the entire curriculum is focused on providing students with the professional artistic skills necessary to create compelling and believable interactive experiences. However, we learn step by step, starting with basic artistic skills and then game engines and 3D software. We have amazing faculty and a lot of successful visiting artists that participate in critiques and offer a relevant, real-world perspective to bring students' thinking out of the classroom and into the professional arena. This process provides us with invaluable feedback from the best in the field, which we can immediately apply to our current works in the process. Moreover, the best thing about Ringling is that it is a highly-collaborative teaching environment, whenever you are working outside of class time there are a lot of students to provide feedback or help with problem-solving. Those are the reasons why there is so much fantastic work coming from Ringling over the years.
Soul Raiser: Goals
Our main goal was to create a believable environment with a unique architectural style and rich background, inspired by gothic and art-nouveau styles. We aimed for our environments to be consistent and have logical connections. We all wanted to practice different skills, such as trim sheets, intricate designs, foliage creation, as well as handling special architectural and natural environments.
Right before starting the project, I had a chance to travel to the South of France and visit various cathedrals that shaped the art directions and helped our project.
I started the project with a rough blockout to figure out the scale of the Cathedral, playing area, composition, and how modular architectural pieces will work together.
My suggestion for creating a greybox is to treat it as an important phase, where you have to figure out the core of your project and make sure you won't need drastic changes along the project.
This modular setup was initially created for the exterior of the cathedral, where pieces had to be simple but at the same time with some level of detail to them. I followed gothic architectural design to create this setup, making sure that it had a logical connection between the pieces and that they didn't feel like they were just stuck on top of one another.
Every piece is important here, however, I focused mainly on the ceiling and everything that attaches to it. Focusing on the details in those areas allowed me to create the areas of interest and make sure that it doesn't feel noisy.
In order for our models to be consistent, I created the master material in Substance Painter. The idea behind the material was to create a stone with dirt that was easy to use as a base for texturing.
To start with, I used the Concrete Simple material, which is a part of basic materials in Substance Painter, and began building the dirt layers on top of it. I started with soft overall dust to give the stone a very subtle dusty look. I then added another layer of dirt that darkened the stone in some areas. In order to do so, I used dirt grayscale and played around with levels. The last step for the material was creating a dense dirt layer. For that layer, I used stains and a mask builder. I really enjoy using mask builders because it provides the most control for crease dirt and edge wear.
After testing the material in the game, I decided to blend in different color variations of the material used for the stone.
I added two more layers. The first layer is the brighter copy of the material blended in using dirt and dripping dirt generators which helped to bring out more details and create some highlights. The second layer was created to balance the other layers in addition to adding a little more color to the stone.
The lighting and mood went over a lot of iterations throughout the process of making the scene. It started out with very saturated lighting so that I could get an idea of what type of color I wanted for the scene. I went with a complementary color scheme where the main light is orange and the lamps in the hall have a yellow tint. The distinction in color between the lights created the focal point.
For the light settings, I try to use stationary lights as much as possible because it gives the highest-quality lighting and it is relatively fast to adjust.
I always use lumens and try to set the attenuation radius relatively high which allows the light to have better and more natural falloff.
I try to keep post-production to a minimum for my scenes. For this scene, I was satisfied with my lighting setup and colors, so I only slightly changed the scene’s shadows and midtones in terms of contrast and saturation to make them cohesive.
Without / with post-process:
The most challenging aspect of this production was to create a unique environment and make sure that it all belonged together. It was challenging to figure out the modular structure of the cathedral and optimize the detail. The best approach was to model some of the designs in Maya and bake them into the planes to create trim sheets in Substance Painter. It also saved a lot of time, since I could reuse trim sheets in ZBrush adding details to the models that had to be viewed from close up.