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Aspiring environment artist Corey Hill talked about the development of some of his environments, commented on the usage of modern software, creation of meshes and materials and gave an emotional advice to artists working in gamedev.
My name is Corey Hill and I currently am in my last semester at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA. I am 26 years old, and currently I am a freelance environment and prop artist with aspirations to go into AAA development. As far as projects go I have contributed to a few graduate thesis’, various mobile jams, and some game development competitions. I have been lucky enough to receive various offers for freelance work, and art tests at a few AAA studios so my free time is mostly spent taking said tests as well as working on my own personal work. It’s something I truly love so the long hours and little nights of sleep are absolutely worth the progress I have been lucky enough to see.
My approach to the way I go about the production of my environments changes from environment to environment and prop to prop but most of my workflow remains constantly changing so that I can improve with each day.
The first and most important thing is so create a bank of images that inspire you. On Artstation I have a huge collection of images that is sort of like my wallpaper of inspiration. It’s sort of like a vault deep in the bank of my memory that every time I look at the images, the dynamic color palettes, the impossibly talented compositions, and the like, that I learn something new. So first and foremost if you do not have an inspiration bank please go out and get one, whether on your hard drive, Deviant Art, Artstation, or Polycount be sure to have one.
Multiple times throughout the day while I work I find myself searching for new ideas, and once I have found one I have grown attached to I decide this is such a cool concept, but how would I change it? Fan art is a wonderful thing, and fan art done well is almost magical. But making fan art your own is a rare thing that takes years of consistent hard work to achieve so I think it’s important to develop your own style through repetition.
The next stage is the block out. From this perspective level designers would absolutely hate me because I approach this process a little bit differently, but since my work hours are generally longer than the average person I can kind of get away with this for now, but this process will likely have to change once I get into development at a AAA studio, or even various indie studios. I find the piece in the scene that speaks to me the most and I really dial in the story behind that piece. The hero prop persay. I spend all of my time really thinking about where scratches and scuffs would go, and in this stage I become anxious about texturing because that is where much of the story telling can be found for me personally.
An example of this process comes from one of my pieces Mother Winter.
This originally started out as a huge challenge to my poly limits and ability to adapt a professional workflow and I actually was getting into streaming on Twitch at the time and so I always had critics which are super important to help guide me along the way. This piece was originally strictly the house, during the day, with no snow, no environment, and no story behind it. While the modeling came out okay, the second time around I really focused on the story. The sled for example.
As a storytelling element of my piece I was inspired in converting the original scene into a more family friendly version of a great artistic inspiration for me Until Dawn. The sled became a monument piece for me and so I decided first to model the sled overall. It took up a huge amount of space in the scene and gave the eye direction to look at with it’s diverse colors and the contrast of the skis against the snowy red fabric.
I started with the planks of the sled and made sure to gather tons of reference for modeling.
Here was my base reference I found off google, which linked to a site, I believe overstock, kind of like amazon. I blocked out the important forms such as the frame of the sled, and decided that this had the best silhouette for storytelling and that I could push this further.
The general forms are there, I took the sled legs, rotated and extruded them (In Maya 2016), and gave them a more dynamic silhouette and then beveled edges to give it a bit of a softer form. After that I modeled the skis, and the most important part to those were the bindings that help keep the boots strapped in. I was much more lenient on the poly count because the sled was becoming my hero prop, when I tossed a smooth on the skis it would allow me to bake down in substance with a High poly model and allow me to add dynamic edge damage and metal wear and tear.
The next step in my process is to unwrap with a program such as UVLayout. Much like in maya I decide where my seams are, the middle edgeloop of the skis for example, cut with hotkey “C” and drop with d. the 1,2, and 3 keys will allow me to move in between various maps and in the 2d uv layout view I then can hold either “F” to unfold, “R” to flatten it to it’s rectangular dimensions, or “Shift + F” to unfold as well. I usually find myself using various combinations of the first two keys, but for the skis I unwrapped them in a rectangular shape so that in Substance Painter I would be able to tile using a stencil, more on that later!
Once I have unwrapped the object I then save over the old one and I am ready to import the object into substance, pending if I have to transfer uv attributes to similar objects, such as the second ski, ski stick, or other forms of legs on the frame.
Once in Substance Painter we will see various options which could be overwhelming at first but much like Unreal, Allegorithmic has some really outstanding levels of documentation, and Wes and the others do an excellent job over there providing the tutorials in order to get your feet underneath you in this program. The substance suite is my go to for every project, asset, and scene and I am still learning more each time I step into the engine or Allegorithmic releases a new tutorial. So please if you’re reading this and have been thinking about dipping your feet into the water go all in, you can do it!
The first step is to bake down your high poly to a low poly.
You can do this by following the red box outlined in the image. It will take you to the image outlined here:
By clicking the paper icon on the right, similar to the new layer if you are familiar with phosohop you can upload your high poly here, choose your maps, add in anti aliasing for smoother normals and bakes, etc. Substance Painters baking is really amazing compared to some other programs I have used when first starting out my education. It really is amazing how far we’ve come both in game development and design, and how far we can still go!
After this you have various bakes, you can add in fill layers, drop in smart materials, and add in generators which is the wear and tear you see along the edges, similar to the aging in the process of many gun models you can view on art station.
Finally once I am done, I export the textures, usually 2048, or 1024, obviously based upon importance of props, but for a hero prop I usually gravitate towards 2048 maps. In my final individual screenshots for my sites I have recently dipped into upressing beyond game quality to show all the hard work and long hours I pour into my work!
There’s the entire process of creating an asset that I personally use, and it’s probably different than most people’s and I am sure I will continue to evolve my own process but hopefully this breakdown will help you in some shape or form, or even change your thinking about asset creation, just don’t be afraid to create!
Poster Girl Environment Creation (based on Last of Us concept art)
This is a really near and dear piece to my heart because I had a very cherished teacher to me guiding me the entire way. At the time I was trying to strive for optimization versus’ quality in my work and I was getting quite flustered but under the tutelage of my teacher he helped teach me the importance of remaining calm over the course of a hectic production schedule and still achieving the level of quality we all search for. I won’t go too in depth, at least not as much as I did in my asset creation because then it would reach the art of war lengths and no one wants to read that much drivel from me!
This scene was actually done in multiple tiers, months apart, as I am constantly re-working my environments at least 2-3 times a year because of how much I enjoy applying how much I learned and re-visiting past mistakes I have made.
The first tier came in the general creation while I was taking the class. My base reference came from my favorite game The Last of Us. A huge huge inspiration for me as both a game developer and artist. I still strive for the quality and story in my work that Naughty Dog achieved in this game. I don’t want anyone to hate me so I will avoid any spoilers but there is a certain ranch scene in the game that really spoke to me so I found the concept art and decided to re-create the base elements of it with my own flair.
As you can see the girl, the general layout, and organization remains relatively unchanged between the concept art and Poster Girl. Much like Mother Winter it is important to have a focal point in your scene, whether achieved through lighting, composition, or general direction of eye, it is critical to possess this in every scene no matter how large or small. This is definitely something I continue to learn each and every day. My hero prop both in my original tier of work, and my re-work was the guitar. Having mostly a wood and wallpapered room it became hard for me to achieve the contrast and direction of eye that I personally searched for but I decided to do this through texturing and lighting. I created my own God Rays in Unreal Engine after some research by making a plane, and having translucency and a vector 3 (3 hotkey) and plugging those materials together through a tutorial that can be found here.
Through the application of the god rays, and the rather garrish texture job of the union jack, with the wear and tear from previously baking down my high poly guitar to a low poly, I was able to achieve some sense of direction that created the contrast and sense of focus in the scene. This is something my previous scenes had been missing greatly and i never could have achieved without due diligence and research and Unreal Engine 4. So Thanks to Epic!
Software that I use for creation of meshes are strictly Maya. Over the years I have tried to dabble in other engines but my love affair with Maya has continued to exist for a little over 8 years now. Phew crazy to think about! Afterwards it’s just using the previously mentioned substance suite, UV layout, and lastly Zbrush for surface details, and level of detail smoothness. Zbrush is an amazing program and I genuinely love it dearly. It helps to relax during crunch time with some good tunes! As far as the best way to approach this task it is really important to not become intimidated by complex meshes. You obviously can not make a cube look like godzilla in the span of a day, it takes time, it takes many programs, and most importantly it takes patience and belief you can accomplish the task no matter how long it takes. Give it your best shot, break down the object into simple shapes, and try sketching it out to help it make sense for you. And never compare your version to the artists, or any other artist’s personal rendition. It will kill inspiration and motivation as well as confidence and I have personally been in and seen the graveyard of overly-ambitious projects ruined by complexity. Keep it simple, you got this!
Developing the materials to fit in the image is one of Substance’s amazing strong suits and I think that is why it has become an industry standard so fast. Multiple artists can achieve unity on a project and not have to spend hours adjusting textures, lighting, and contrast values to get the unity we need to make great assets.
While it’s important to pay attention to detail, substance has made it easier and less stressful which allows us time to pay attention to quality much more than before, even at the indie level. Most of my assets are game ready because I try my best to stress professional work ethic and practices however some are well beyond polycount and would not work in a game engine. The ski’s wireframe for example, the boot lock would require instant re-topo, and in hindsight probably should have occurred but sometimes my anxious need to get to texturing gets in the way of that. A bad habit I’m working on!
Mostly I decide texture size, versus importance, and then I always start out the map much higher such as 2048 and dial it down from there. Thanks to Substance that process has become much easier and it is one of the huge reasons I love it so much.
I would like to close this piece with a few words of wisdom from a student’s perspective. Most of the people who read this article and others like it are just like you and I, we’re artists striving to belong to something, anything, and for those of us who have a true passion for it we do our best to never let bad days of art to get us down. There will be bad days my friends, it happens unfortunately. Layoffs occur, quarrels with employees and bosses, and what is important to note is that you need to follow your heart as an artist even if the path seems to have some fog of war.
It’s the willingness to go unhindered into the fog of war, fearless of what may come career wise, and a willingness to learn from anyone no matter the skill level that will serve you well in the future, I promise. Do not compare yourselves to other artists it will only get you down, and they were where you are at one point, they just put in the effort to improve and asked endless questions and watched countless tutorials.
The only difference between you and the skilled artist is the amount of work they put in and you can absolutely do it if you believe in yourself and put in the time. I would like to end this with a quote from one of my favorite idols whom we all know and whose words of wisdom had influenced countless generations. So here goes:
I said empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it into a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.
Be water my friends.