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Dammit. Not again. This is path tracing not Ray tracing. Ray tracing is practically an hybrid scam. This is the real stuff, the stuff from Disney and Pixar movies. Stop helping Nvidia sell ray tracing. It's not good.
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We’re publishing our interview with Raphael Tavares, where he gives a little glimpse into the production of the ‘Old Victorian Room’.
My name is Raphael Tavares and I was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I am currently a materials artist at Blue Sky Studios. My latest film credit is Ice Age: Collision Course but I also worked on Epic, Rio 2 and The Peanuts Movie. My job consists of creating procedural / painted materials for characters and sets. I have the opportunity to work with an amazing team over at Blue Sky, and they have taught me a lot of what I know today.
I really enjoy playing volleyball, playing with my kids and when I get some free time, I play some Overwatch. Every day, after the kids go down, I have the opportunity to work on some personal projects. That gives me the time to try something new and to learn a different skill set. Lately, I have been learning how to build real-time environments.
When I saw the amazing work that was being done by artists like, such as Clinton Crumpler, Rogelio Olguin, Koola and Joakim Stigsson in real-time engines I was really impressed. I couldn’t believe that was running in real-time. Also, all the improvements that Epic is making in Unreal made me want to learn that tool. One of my main reasons to use a game engine is the ability to “walk” around my work. Even though it’s still a virtual set, I can put a character in my scene and experience it from different angles without having to wait for a render.
Old Victorian Room
I figured that the fastest way to learn Unreal would be to take an online class. Luckily I was able to get in Clinton Crumpler’s environment class, which focuses on the process to build an environment from start to finish in 10 weeks.
My wife played a big part in making this environment. She loves the research stage. We do Google searches together and discuss what we like and don’t like about them. This project was based off an old mansion in Belgium. Coincidentally, a week before I started this project we went on a family vacation to Belgium. I wished I’d known about this mansion earlier so we could have visited.
I picked this particular environment because it needed to be something contained that I would be able to finish in a reasonable amount of time. Having photographs of the actual room gave me a great starting point and was a big time saver.
My main goal was to learn the process of creating environments in unreal. I was surprised by how much I learned in just 10 weeks. During that time I had a lot of help from Clinton and my classmates. It was hard at first to have to deal with techniques that I never had to before. It took me a while to understand how to prepare a model for proper normal map baking. I still dont understand it 100% but it is a lot better then it used to.
After the class was over I met Rogelio Olguin, and he helped me bring this environment to the next level. I am a big fan of Naughty Dog, so I was trying to learn as much as I could from him. I am very thankful for Clinton and Rogelios’ time, support, and notes.
Having an actual place in mind helped me a lot during this process. I was able to find many pictures with different lighting scenarios that inspired my final project. I don’t consider myself a great lighter, but luckily I work with amazing ones. I talked to several co-workers that are also photographers, and they gave me great advice on how to approach the lighting in this scene. I read and watched a lot about cinematography and how they approach different scenarios. Some of the techniques used in film don’t work because the player can look anywhere, so I couldn’t use all the tricks you can in film. Roger Deakins’ How to Train your Dragon was a great source of inspiration. I love how he uses shadows to shape his scenes and help with the composition.
Some advice that I learned while lighting this environment was to squint at your image. When you squint, you remove all the unnecessary detail and you make sure that the core blocks are working on your composition. It’s also important to always check your values. A great tip I learned from my friend Brent LeBlanc is to take a screenshot of your scene, bring it into Photoshop and add a layer filled with black. Set that layer to Hue and play around with levels until you find an interesting balance between lights and darks.
I think my main challenge was the toolset. I’m not saying that Unreal is bad, but because I’m so new to it, there was a lot of basic information that I didn’t know originally, and that took a while for me to figure out. The epic forums were very helpful when I needed to find solutions to my problems. The process should be a lot smoother when I create my next environment, and I’m sure I will have plenty of other challenges.
Most of the set was approached in a very traditional way. I started building modular pieces, trim sheets, the main tileable materials, and then, moved on to props. On the assets that needed unique normal and AO maps, I would bake them in Marmoset 3. I am really impressed with how fast and intuitive their baker is.
I took props that had a lot of ornate detail into Zbrush and used that as my high resolution mesh for baking. I used a lot of painter and designer to develop my materials. I wish I had more time to create more materials in Designer, but there was so much I didn’t know about the whole process that I had to move on to other things. Now that I’m done, I will focus a bit more on just materials and get a little better at that.
Substance Painter helped me get a lot of props done really fast. I was able to create a wood smart material that worked on most cases. I just had to tweak a couple handles and paint some other details. That gave me extra time to spend on the other aspects of the pipeline.
My biggest challenge was all the ornamental pieces. I had used Zbrush before, but mainly to sculpt displacement maps for characters. I had very little knowledge of Zbrush for environments. I realized that I picked the wrong era, so I had a lot of catching up to do. I have learned a lot, but I still need to improve a great deal more. I have been looking at Dannie Carlone and I am really impressed and inspired by his sculpting skills.
I got a lot of great advice from the polycount community regarding the carpet. In the end, it didn’t end up being that hard to make. At the time I was playing Uncharted 4 and got to the scene where Drake was shooting targets in his attic. I really liked the way those carpets were laid out in that scene. The final assets gives me a lot more room to work with shadows and add interest shapes to the floor.
I was telling my classmates about some of the folded fabric and carpet that I had in my scene, and they told me to look into Marvelous Designer. I was really intimidated by that software, but after watching a couple tutorials I was able to created some basic fabrics. Since I was on the trial, I had 30 days to do everything that I needed in Marvelous. Luckily I was able to learn and get all of those fabrics out within that period. I got the texture pattern from a carpet website that I can’t remember the name now. Its just a basic rug color map that needed some cleaning up. Then I brought it into Unreal and did final look dev there. After a couple notes from friends and a lot of trial and error, I was able to get to the final result.
I started by creating a couple tileable materials to install on my block meshes. I also did some simple master material to test the Normal and AO bakes.
I am really impressed with what some of the material nodes in Unreal can do. I had two types of dust pass on all my master materials. One was based on the world Y-axis and mixed with a grunge and the other was done by using an AO pass that Unreal does when baking lighting. Those two passes helped integrate everything together.
Vertex painting was very helpful as well; I used it heavily to control areas where the dust would appear. This enabled me to remove dust on the floors and walls as needed. I also used vertex painting to separate new and aged versions of my tileable materials. Finally, I used decals to break the repetition and add extra history to the textures. The color palette was a combination of my original reference and the show Bates Motel. I really like what they have done with that set. I also looked a lot at The Order: 1886 for ideas. I learned a lot by reading some of their published articles regarding their material pipeline.
The wood floor and the different plaster materials for the ceiling and walls were the main tileables I used. I also created a wood smart material in painter, and that saved me a lot of time.
The first time I heard about Allegorithmic was watching a demo of their FX brush. I was really impressed, but what convinced me to completely switching was the procedural workflow of Designer and the company’s customer service. For me, if a company is willing to understand and hear its costumers it will go far. My father-in-law is an engineer, and he always says that if he knows he has to do something multiple times he will write a program that does that for him. There is still a lot that is unique for each asset, so its not a one size fits all situation. But being able to get your ideas out fast, and avoid some of the repetitiveness of texture painting, it will result on a much better final image.
During the whole process I left my auto exposure set to one. That means regardless of where I went in my scene my lighting didn’t change. This enabled me to maintain my darkest areas.
I started by placing my sun light with 1 bounce. I tested with more bounces but my scene got too bright, and I was losing the contrast that I wanted. Once I got that main light shape from the window figured out, I started boosting other areas of the room and faking some of the light bounces. I place some spotlight pointed towards the ceiling to represent light that was bouncing off the floor and also added a couple point lights around so my dark areas didn’t fade to black. I also added some fog. That helped lift those dark areas a bit more and add a general low-frequency noise that helped break up the detail. Towards the end, I brought a screenshot to Photoshop and created my LUT and started messing with post-processing. That part was very fast and intuitive.
The whole thing was a challenge to be sincere. I didn’t think I could go this far. Having mentors was very important. They helped me see things that I would not have see otherwise. I made so many mistakes, but luckily I was able to learn from most of them. There was a lot I didn’t know to begin with, and I still have so much to learn. But that’s what makes it fun, right? If an artist is not being challenged he or she will get bored, and that’s bad for creativity. Challenge is important, not only in art but also in life; it helps you grow.
I think I was able to fix some of the mistakes I made, but there are still a ton that will haunt me forever. Friends, mentors, forums, and tutorials were a huge help. My wife is great at telling me when something sucks, or when something is good, or when to stop playing Overwatch and get back to work. Learn how to take critiques and be humble about it.
One piece of advice that I would give is to be patient with yourself. The artists that you admire didn’t get there in a week; it took them years. I bet if you ask them, they will probably say they still have a lot to improve. It’s the blessing and the curse of being an artist– you are never there. So we have to learn to enjoy the process. Enjoy the friendships, frustrations and finished projects. Keep working hard, every day, one step at a time. Every once in a while you will stop, look back and see how far you have come.