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Benjamin Lucas shows how he worked on intricate low poly stylized environments.
Hi everyone, my name is Ben Lucas, I am a French 3D Artist, currently full-time freelancer specialized in environments and fxs for video games. I’ve been working for video games companies since 2001, which makes me quite an old man in this young industry! Before becoming independent I worked as senior artist on almost 30 projects, like Obscure, Obscure II, Alone in the Dark, Final Exam and last year’s Epistory: typing Chronicles.
I started working on PS2 projects so I’ve seen this industry evolve a lot, now most of my projects involves smartphones and VR, using such great tools as Unity or Substance. The 3D artist job becomes year passing more interesting and rewarding than ever.
Low poly projects
When I find time for a personal project, my main concern is to enjoy it and learn new things. So, I put the focus first on a cool image composition, and then the technics or visual style that I want to learn with it. It’s actually working on a motivating concept art, strictly tied to a will of going out of my comfort zone!
When I’m the art director on commercial projects it’s obviously different. I try first to come with an idea, like a “what if” question. For Epistory: typing chronicles, for example it was simply: “what if everything was paper crafted, from environments to monsters? In a world like that, how elements could appear, move and interact between them?”. It gives me the global logic of the world art, which will be the base of all the art direction answers of the project.
For my inspiration, like most of the digital artists, I spend too much time looking for amazing art on Artstation, it trains my eyes and fuels my motivation!
My first production step is blocking the main shapes with very quick and dirty geometries, to validate the composition and the scales (it’s critical for VR projects since the appreciation of distance and scale is different than in “flat” games!). Next, I begin to model my first objects in 3Ds max. I always try to push one or two reference objects to their final look to lead the art direction and technic for the rest of the scene. Then I model and texture all the other objects, from bigger shapes to smaller ones. I usually keep all my scene objects together to maintain consistency in style, quality and scale of details between them.
Building little landscapes
The cartoon environment “The Girl who found pearls on the beach” was made for an interactive VR story project running on Unity.
The client wanted a pleasant cartoon styled island, with a small city looking like Amalfi coast in Italy, unfortunately he had a very small budget (3 days of work). My main objective was to find a way to deliver it in this budget yet making something cool, keep in mind that those budget constraints had greatly influenced the method I used and I will detail for you.
Like I always do I started blocking the basic shapes with Max (a simple distorted quad with boxes) and tested the scene in VR in Unity with an in-game camera. Once the global composition and scales were good in VR, I decided to investigate on the main risk of the mission: the city, which was my greatest challenge in such a short time.
The idea was to make different houses with only one detailed side, but I still made some models I could rotate 360° to give more variety. I thought 6 unique buildings should do the trick once rotated and colored all over the city space, so I made them and their uvs, trying to get as few uvs chunks as possible since Unity Real-time Indirect Illumination system is sensitive to that. I made a quick lower detailed version of my houses for the background, to keep polycount acceptable. Next, I modeled and uvs the “special buildings”: the harbor, the lighthouse, the bar and the church, in simple geometry to be quick and stick to the “low poly without smoothing groups” art direction.
Once I had all my buildings with uvs I placed all of them by hand to get variety and a cool messy composition according to my real city reference! Next, I added vegetation and small rocks to give different colors and scales to my scene, and to create small unique places instead of just a bunch of randomly placed buildings. I detailed the ground by cutting edges and shaping sharp details.
Next step was attaching the meshes and packing all the Uvs in 3 uv sets, and then moved forward to the texturing part!
I must say that before Substance Painter had been released I enjoyed texturing, but now I really love it! It’s such a pleasure to use its masks and baking options, and to see the result in real-time. I use it for PBR badass materials as much as for simple cartoon objects, and it has deeply changed my workflow for the best!
Speaking of my texturing process, it may be surprising but all the materials of this scene are no-PBR, and only made of a base color map! On this scene, I went for the same process on all the TextureSets: Base color layer + Edges highlights + Ambient occlusion.
This process was way simpler than what I used to do usually. My biggest challenge here was to quickly paint all the base colors of the buildings, and the most problematic, the hundreds of windows of the city! For example, for the 140 city buildings I made 6 different base color layers and simply masked them by hand with “Mesh fill” selection to give color variety to my city. The windows were trickier, since painting them would have taken me too much hours to do! That’s why I modeled and gave them a specific vertex color first in max, to get their shape in a Substance Painter id map with “Vertex color” as the “Color source”. I just added a multiply layer masked with an id color selection on top of my base colors to get all my windows done in only one second!
Next, I put an additive layer based on the soften curvature map, to highlight the edges.
To make nice gradient color variation on my models I usually use a “Position” map in overlay, but it couldn’t work with my perched vertical city. I wanted a nice gradient on each building, not on the whole city! To achieve this, I used a very large scale Ambient Occlusion map, which worked great in overlay with 50% opacity.
All I had to do now was exporting my 3 base color maps and my mesh to Unity!
Since my uvs were unique I could have baked all the lighting right into the diffuse texture, I could also have calculated a lightmap within Unity. It would be the most efficient way, but my client was not a 3D artist, and would be stuck if he wanted to change the time of the day or the lighting colors. Instead of a static baked lighting I preferred letting him the possibility to make changes by himself after I’m done, so I went for a full dynamic lighting, with real-time Global Illumination pre-computed in Unity.
Presenting withe Sketchfab
I usually use Sketchfab to show my assets to my clients and get feedback. This time I exported the scene mainly for communication goals. Yet you’ll see that the Sketchfab setup stays pretty simple!
The renderer is of course put to “Classical” instead of “PBR”, and there is no specular nor reflections since I want to keep a “soft” look (anyway I didn’t have made roughness maps…). The lighting setup is only made of a simple “Arches pinetree” environment because I wanted a warm subtle skylight.
I wanted to darken this strong lighting on the occlusion areas so I put my ambient occlusion maps into the “Lightmap” channels, it’s cheaper and more consistent than using the “SSAO” post effect option.
To be fully honest my workflow was far from perfect on this project, I had room for mesh and textures optimizations and I could have made a far greater composition by adding more different props and a cool sky. By the way I made it in the 3 days of budget, the final result is pleasant and the client is happy with it, which is the most important to me!
As you see now it was a simple and fast project, but I really enjoyed doing it! Special thanks to Sketchfab, Allegorithmic and 80.lv guys, they are making our job as 3D artists everyday greater! It was a pleasure to share with you, I hope to share more with you in the future! For more of my work visit my portfolio at www.benlucas.fr!