Space Walk: Materials and Lighting in Outer Space

Space Walk: Materials and Lighting in Outer Space

Patryk Urbaniak talked about the production of his project Space Walk that won the first place in the latest Space Rover Competition from Hum3D.

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My name is Patryk Urbaniak and I am a Lead Lookdev Artist at Method Studios Montreal. Some of the movies I worked on include Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Deadpool 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and many more. The first time I decided that I would like to do something in 3D was actually when I was sitting in the theatre in Poland watching Avengers or some other Marvel movie. I think it was 2011 or 2012, it was a great time for CG.

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Space Walk: Idea

I was super happy after getting an email from Hum3d about a new challenge. Two years ago, I had an opportunity to visit a Boeing Factory in Seattle in order to look at a lot of space equipment that took us to the Moon. They have an amazing exhibition of space crafts, suits, and some other replicas. Given the chance to make a lot of good quality pictures I always wanted to create some 3D scenes based on these references. I think I just needed a little bit of motivation and the challenge helped with that.

My original idea was to create a movie set and have the render to be actually something that the camera sees, but as an observer, we would see green screens being recorded, people around walking in regular clothes and wires suspending the astronaut. After reading so many theories about not being on the Moon and recording it in a studio, I wanted to create a very realistic render of it for fun. 

Project Development

I started working on the scene as I always start my personal projects. I gathered a lot of references, created a material/mood board for myself, did a rough sketch of the scene. It had a few iterations, I came back to it from time to time to make sure those images still looked good. I like to give some time for the project to breathe after establishing a rough idea, just to get a little bit of perspective. Then, I separated all the assets into their own scenes, starting with the moon ground as it was the biggest asset out there. 

Modeling the Rover

In terms of the rover, I started with a simple shape blocking. There are a few videos of astronauts driving lunar rovers on the moon surface and I just took a few screenshots from those videos to determine good proportions.

Whenever I model a vehicle, I always start with the wheels as it helps me visualize everything better. You know how it is when you are doing something and one element is easily copied and you can get a good chunk of work done by just instancing the same thing? That's me! I start with the wheels because even if I did only one I will act like I did 4 and I will take credit for all of them!

I prefer to use 3ds Max for modeling as it has all the tools I need and I feel like none of the existing software can get me as far ahead in no time. I start with visually the biggest elements and get into smaller and smaller ones, finishing with some randomly placed cables, sockets, and chamfered boxes for extra poly-count.

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The astronaut has so many problems that I am surprised he looks good. First of all, I am not a character artist and I have no idea how to rig or skin a humanoid. This astronaut is a perfect example of an asset being built only for a certain camera angle as it would not hold up to any camera movement whatsoever. I started from his helmet as it was the easiest part because 80% of it is actually just a reflective surface with some extrudes for plastic/metallic parts. Then I moved to the chest and it was a real struggle, I tried for a few days and I couldn't get the shapes as I wanted to so I just made him hold a big rock to cover everything that was looking bad.

And you're probably asking yourself: how did he pose him when he doesn't know anything about the rigging or skinning processes? Two words: soft-selection. I rotated his arms and legs until each and every bone in his body bent to my will.

Materials & Lighting

Materials and lighting in this scene were quite challenging. It was really hard for me to create an interesting result with only one sun light. A lot of rover materials had to be metallic enough to give you a proper feel but at the same time, it's hard to define a metallic surface when all there is to reflect is pitch black. I had to develop metals with a fair amount of diffuse which was making them a little bit less metallic but a lot was achieved with displacement/bump/roughness. I had no idea if I was going to desaturate everything later in comp as it was still unclear to me. So I made sure the sun reflection and how much diffuse we can see was realistic in color as much as in black and white.

The whole moon ground was procedural model- and texture-wise. There is only one texture on it which is the footprints. The rest is based on a lot of noises being plugged into the displacement slot and each pattern has its own slightly different color in diffuse. While working on the light on Earth, even on the brightest day the shadows won't be fully dark, but given how bright it is on the Moon and that there is no atmosphere, there is nothing to scatter the photons through. I knew I had to break some lighting rules in order to sell the effect.

You can check out the ground sample here.

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For rendering, I used V-Ray GPU as I was able to iterate through the lighting and materials very fast. I remember I had an evening where I rendered like 20 different positions of the sun, long and short shadows, and at the end of it, I was able to decide which conditions gave me the perfect amount of illumination and still respected shadows and didn't wash out all the detail.

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The most difficult thing for me was to stay on track with my main idea. At the end of the project, the image in the studio with all the green screens was not visually appealing and it was better for me to just revert to the main render we see now. It was hard for me to change the decision so far into making it but I guess it was the right one as I was able to get the first place with it.

Pre-Production Matters

I would just say that the pre-production stage is almost as important as the whole production process of your 3D scene. Gathering the references is a very important aspect and you should always give it your full attention. I would always have too many references and then trim them down to solid 10 instead of trying to think through, concept on the fly, and art direct while rendering or modeling at the same time. This is where the error can occur and if you know exactly what you are doing then that’s great. But while trying to close a certain form of your model or the whole shot, having nothing to compare or base your work on makes it very hard to sell. We all have great ideas that we just want to chase and not worry about the details but a smart and planned preparation goes a long way.

Patryk Urbaniak, Lead Lookdev Artist at Method Studios Montreal

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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