Stylized 3D Content Creation with Maya and Photoshop
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Great work Gabe!

Incredible job, love the breakdown and can't wait to see what you make next!

Stylized 3D Content Creation with Maya and Photoshop
8 November, 2016

We were lucky enough to talk to a young CG Artist from Denmark Emilie Stabell about her incredible masterpiece called ‘The Journey’. It is an amazing piece of stylized art made of more than 200 assets, which took more than a year to create. 



My name is Emilie, and I’m a young CG Artist from Denmark. I took my Bachelor in Arts at The Animation Workshop in Denmark and am currently employed full time at Media Molecule in the UK.

Like most of my other friends, I did the rational thing and went to high school so I’d have something to fall back on, in case this whole art thing didn’t work out. After 3 incredibly long and boring years (studying international economics, yikes!), I finally graduated and was free to pursue my dream of becoming an artist in the games industry. Luckily, I had spent most of my classes in high school drawing, so I had a solid portfolio that got me straight into The Animation Workshop. Since then, it’s been all about the art and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve had a lot of doubts entering this industry due to the harsh competition and massive talent out there, but once you get to experience the fulfillment of getting to do what you love for a living, there’s really no going back.


At the moment, I’m having a great time as a character and environment artist at Media Molecule which is truly a unique studio. The people who work there are extremely passionate and it clearly shows in their work. We’re currently creating Dreams for PS4.


I’ve had my eyes on the concept for a while, but had never thought about the idea of actually bringing it to life in 3D. It seemed too big and too complicated to do. What made me change my mind was the sudden realization of the fast paced tendency in the industry. A lot of the art I see is made with speed and efficiency in mind, often playing on the latest trends in films and games such as fan-art or the usual themes that is guaranteed to give you a lot of likes. I wanted to challenge this tendency by making something so elaborate that time and speed could not be a deciding factor. I knew that it would take me a lot of time to do, but that was okay – good craftsmanship does and should take time. I also don’t think we should be so scared of going off grid to practiсe. Not everything needs to be about following the trends online, and not everything you make needs to be posted in the first place. Even though it is a difficult mindset to retain, it is liberating to create in your own pace without the constant pressure of having to please a crowd.


I approached the project by breaking it down into small, very simple tasks. If I had simply begun modeling the whole thing in one giant scene, I would most likely have lost my overview and my sanity. Breaking it down into all the different assets seen on the concept and making one at a time, helped me keep my motivation throughout. Each asset functioned as a miniature project meaning that I didn’t have to do all the texturing or modeling at once, but got to keep it fresh by returning to each step of the pipeline for each new asset.


My workflow was very simple. I used Maya for all the modeling, Photoshop for the texturing and ZBrush when I needed to project from the concept. Since I had a limited amount of render layers and only a few elements to tweak in compositing, I quickly assembled everything in After Effects and rendered out to premiere. Polish on the final still images was also done using Photoshop.

The hardest part, by far, was keeping at it and not giving up on it halfway through. When I had done roughly a third of the work, I had a period of time where I really had to push myself to keep going. The sheer amount I knew I had left to do, made it seem like I would never finish. This is exactly where me breaking the project into smaller parts became so important – without this type of workflow, I am almost certain that I would have canned the project long ago. Hence, I want to stress the importance of planning, folder structure and consistency. They are your best friends when doing something of a larger scale.


Stylized Textures

For my textures, I would start by projecting from the concept and on to my geometry in ZBrush. I would then open your newly exported texture from ZBrush in Photoshop. In Maya, I’d take a UV snapshot of the assets UV’s and set it as a layer on top of the ZBrush texture. I then create a mask for all UV shells and group them into appropriate subgroups.This approach will allow you to create clipping masks for each group so you don’t have to worry about ‘coloring within the lines’. Another important thing to note is to always make your masks a couple of pixels wider than the actual UV shell, otherwise, you might run into issues with Maya displaying black edges around the seems.


For the painting, I begin by applying a flat base color to everything using the Paint Bucket Tool. Next, I quickly paint some rough gradients and color vibration using my “Awesome Paint 1” brush (it really is awesome). At this stage, you shouldn’t worry about precision at all as it is simply about applying some nice gradients and bold colors. Once you have something decent, it’s time to switch to the smudge tool using the “Smudge Blender” brush. This brush is optimized for the tool, so you won’t get any of the lag you’d normally experience when using smudge.Furthermore, it leaves behind a bit of texture creating that nice, painterly effect. From here on, it’s a back and forth process between painting and smudging until you’re satisfied. Lastly, draw the inner lineart as we’ll apply an outline as our final step.


Note that you want all the layers you paint on to be ‘clipped’ to the mask at the bottom of your group. This will keep your structure simple and easy to navigate in. Use your ZBrush texture as a guide to where the details are positioned on the model.


As for the final outline, it’s a simple Maya Toon Outliner applied as part of the shading.


For a more detailed walk through of how I created my textures, have a look at my tutorial here where you’ll also be able to download my brush pack.

Final Scene

When I had modeled, textured and positioned all my assets according to the concept, it was time to build the surrounding scene. I started by setting up a camera with a simple 180 rotation around the model and continued to build the environment from there. This was also the point in time where I started to think about how the environment would be supporting the narrative and help enhance the original concept. I designed and modeled a few scenic elements, such as a pirate flag, a sunken ship and a chunky, rusty metal piece sticking out of the sand. I wanted to hint at a story of “A group of brave explorers on the hunt for treasure, that are traveling across a vast dried-up ocean in the hopes of discovering the ancient secrets of the pirates that once sailed the seas.” This may not be noticed by the audience, but helps me as a creator to inject a sense of meaning and history into the scene in the hopes that it will resonate with the viewer.





Rendering, in this case, was a simple task; since the information is kept in the textures, all of my materials are surface shaders and there are no lights in the scene whatsoever. I split the scene into the appropriate render layers and rendered everything using Maya Hardware 2.0.In After Effects, I applied the subtle effects of the flags blowing in the wind and the dust in front of the turtle. For the still images, I used Photoshop to do a few final tweaks before the project is all done.



The hardest part was keeping at it and not giving up on it halfway through. When I had done roughly a third of the work, I had a short period of time where I really had to push myself to keep going. The sheer amount I knew I had left to do, made it seem like I would never finish. This is exactly where me treating each asset as a separate project so important – without this type of workflow, I am almost certain that I would have canned the project long ago. Hence, I want to stress the importance of planning, folder structure and consistency. They are your best friends when doing something of a larger scale.




At the beginning of the project, I set out to hand paint every single texture without the help of projection whatsoever. This meant saving out my texture to match it with the illustration, literally hundreds of times before I would finish a single asset. I continued with this workflow for quite a while, until it became too cumbersome and slow for me to find enjoyable. I had been holding off from projecting as I felt it would be like cheating in a sense, but quickly discovered that the amount of painting I would have to do, was no less than before since the quality of the projections were very poor. It worked as a good guide for painting without removing the challenge.


I definitely learned a thing or two about patience and persistence. I learned that I am capable of pushing myself further than I was aware of and I got reminded that hard work indeed does pay off. From a technical standpoint, I learned a lot about texture painting, simply from the huge amount of textures I created during this project.


When creating something highly stylized, one of the key things I focus on is silhouette. It is very important to keep the design simple throughout and nail the bigger shapes and sizes before I add any detail to the model. This approach will make my model look very “naked” for a while, but will in turn force me to look very critically at my shapes and proportions. It is in these very early stages that I’ll have to decide what type of stylization I’m going for, whether it be chunky shapes and hard edges, or a more rounded and soft look. Ultimately, I want every single decision to feed into the final vision of what I’m creating. Stylization has to be applied across all stages and is not a layer that can be applied at the end. Once I’m happy with the overall silhouette and shapes, it is times to add the bigger details to the model. And by big, I mean very big, such as blocking out any hair, key accessories or props that is needed for the design to communicate clearly. This is the stage where I aim to start seeing some appeal and personality coming through. Once I’m happy and feel like I can start to get a very clear sense of “who” or “what” I’m creating, I can slowly start to add all the sexy details that will make the design pop. From there, it is a careful balancing act between adding more detail and letting other areas breathe to give justice to the bigger shapes in the design.

Emilie Stabell, Artist at Media Molecule Ltd, Sony

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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