Moses Saintfleur talked about his Spirit Shrine environment, the workflow in ZBrush, the fear to fail and the value of failures, and creativity.
Hey! Сurrently I work at CyberConnect2 Montreal as an environment artist. This past couple of months have been a huge learning experience for me not only as an artist but in life in general. And to be honest, a few months before I moved to Montreal I really didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore. I felt extremely disconnected from my creativity.
Anyway, I thought I’d use this opportunity to share my experience with these kinds of feelings. I’ll also explain some of my thoughts and the process of creating the Spirit Shrine for the Artstation Challenge.
Creativity, Imagination, Potential
If you’re like me, you observe, listen, and get inspired to create. Sometimes, I get really ambitious. Huge bursts of creative ideas flow throughout my mind trying to manifest themselves into something amazing, something no one has ever seen, a feeling I can hopefully share with everyone who stops to look at my work.
And maybe it’s just me, but art is much deeper to me than what’s seen on the surface. For example, you can meet someone and have no idea what their story is by just looking. But, with art, we do our best to purposely exaggerate certain things so our stories tell themselves without words. So, when I have an idea or see the works of another artist, I try to understand what place their mind was in and how they were able to translate that for us to understand.
The stories and atmospheres possible are infinite. Just think: the planet we live on is one of 100 billion planets floating around in our Milky Way Galaxy alone. If that number of many complex systems can exist all at once, then I believe it’s possible for us to bring the unknowns of our imaginations to reality. They can all exist. There are many things we have yet to discover within ourselves and we have to reach for them.
I wanted to say this because I think many of us are afraid to take chances and create things which are maybe too unique in fear of judgment. Only you understand what lies within you and can make something of your potential.
Building a Healthy Relationship With Failure
Usually, when I have an idea for a new environment I’d start planning and blocking things out, feeling really good about what my intentions are and what I’d like to achieve. However, that blissful feeling you get when you’re starting a new project doesn’t last forever. Eventually, your state of mind comes back down to earth, and keeping that same level of motivation for the entirety of a project can be very difficult. There are many highs and lows.
A lot of the times we pause and think about just how crazy our ideas are and trick ourselves into cowering away from them. We even compare ourselves to people more likely to achieve what we want instead of us. Instantly, the feeling of failure seeps into our thoughts. “What’s the point of even finishing”. I often think. “I can’t do this”. Then I become angry at myself for not being better at that exact moment. Which is usually followed by sadness, and finally depression. How many of us can relate?
Deep down, we all have our own life goals and reasons for being artists. There’s no reason to compare. As long as you practice, never give up, and stay aware of the mistakes you make you’ll be fine. Mistakes are what teach us. The more we make the more we learn. It’s up to us to practice properly extracting the thoughts we have into reality. Only practice can help us master ourselves.
It took me a very long time to understand that I needed to fail in order to grow. I wanted to avoid making mistakes at all costs which paralyzed my creative output. But truth is, some things can only be learned through doing and/or failing. You can spend years watching tutorials and not improve at all until you actually put the knowledge into the practice. Tutorials are only meant to make us aware. It’s our job to put the content into practice. A famous quote by Napoleon Hill goes: “Knowledge is only potential power. It becomes power only when, and if, it is organized into definite plans of action.
So, back to the Spirit Shrine. Most of my projects would start by me listening to a song that triggers an immense amount of creativity. My state of mind is the first thing I establish. It helps to put headphones on and just drift away to the sounds that may exist in the space I’m about to create.
Before, I’d waste a lot of that creative energy researching references and comparing similar existing artworks for too long. Spending hours looking for every single reference I’ll ever need. By the time I’ve gathered all these images, that spark of creativity has already vanished and I have no idea where to start. I wasted it. It’s definitely necessary to gather references but I overwhelmed myself with too many tasks I’d have to deal with in the future and trying to process the future problems I might run into.
Anyway, as the Artstation challenge began I couldn’t think of anything that resonated with me. I had no idea what I wanted. I just knew what I wanted to feel. Going through many iterations I just couldn’t establish the feeling I was looking for. I settled on using a concept as a stepping stone to build from.
I spent many days playing with shapes, light, and color. I just couldn’t find a combination I felt good about. As the deadline soon approached I realized I didn’t have much time to dwell on things anymore. I made the decision to only focus on creating and also spend very little time on things my audience wouldn’t see. I wasn’t making a game so things like polycount, UV space, and texture resolution wasn’t a worry.
In the end, I just wanted to deliver something interesting in the form of an image and video eliminating the time-consuming tasks no one would see.
To quickly illustrate my asset workflow, take this boat as an example (images below). I made a basic shape in Maya, sculpted the high poly from it in ZBrush, used Decimation Master to create my low poly for baking, and finally UV Master to unwrap it. I think rocks are a perfect asset to try this high to low poly baking workflow on.
In order for UV Master to do a decent job, you need to separate parts of your mesh by polygroups. ZBrush will generate UV shells from these groups if you check the polygroup Icon. And like I’ve mentioned before, I wasn’t making a game so optimization wasn’t something I prioritized. Working this way felt really good because it allowed me to keep the creative momentum going by not having to worry much about the not-so-creative tasks.
This workflow is super fast and great for testing quickly. You can easily texture whatever assets you need in Painter, save the smart material, and bring in a more optimized version later with the texturing already done.
If you want to work in games professionally, it’s very important that you understand how to optimize assets and textures for performance.
For the tree, I used ZSpheres to layout the main form and refined the shape using the standard brushes that come with ZBrush. Nothing too crazy. Foliage is something I’m still practicing so until I have a better grasp of creating plants I won’t talk much about my process yet. It still needs much improvement and I don’t want to share any bad techniques. But, here’s a quick example of what using ZSpheres looks like.
Trickiest Part Of Production
The trickiest part of this project was settling on the best composition and lighting combination. With the right angles, shadows, and lights you can really get away with using a small number of assets.
And as you can see, I went through many changes with this scene.
It’s pretty difficult to know so early on in the process whether or not you’re going to end up with what you planned for. There are always unexpected decisions that need to be made. Even triple-A companies with hundreds of employees make mistakes. Take the time to understand what went wrong and apply it either immediately or on the next project.
Lighting and FX
My lighting is just some point lights, a directional light for highlights, and a skylight for fill lighting. I emphasized certain lights and colors to capture attention where I want viewers to look. With the adjustment of post-process settings and color correction, I was able to really bring this scene to life. I also didn’t bake any lighting. All my lights were set to movable.
Also, I knew I needed to add some kind of moving element to the scene to make it feel alive, so I made a firefly emitter. They’re really just spheres floating around with an emissive color shader. The portal in the center of the image is also just a plane with an emissive color shader. Very simple.
During the production of this, the most valuable thing I learned was to trust myself. Before, I’d spend a lot of time looking for examples to somewhat give me verification that my ideas are valid. If I didn’t see something similar to what I had in mind, I thought it might be a stupid idea and wouldn’t risk the failure. Now, I understand failure is an absolutely necessary part of growth and nothing to be afraid of. It’s important to extract the knowledge within them.
Giving up and failures are so close in relation that it’s easy to associate them together in a negative way. The best way I’ve found to get over these feelings is to just focus on yourself and do what makes you happy. Fall in love with your work first, always practice, and I promise you’ll get to where you want to be.
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