Long life to Embark studio and its fabulous procedural artists dream team !
Urian Adonia did a wonderful breakdown of the lovely diorama, with awesome 3d content and beautiful animations, added by Philémon Belhomme.
My name is Urian Adonia, I am a Romanian currently living in France and I work as a 3D character artist for the Canadian studio Keos Masons. I have a master’s degree in art, having spent my art school days studying traditional engraving and etching techniques. As much as I loved doing that, it wasn’t getting me nearer to my ultimate goal: video games. So, I basically decided to invest all my savings and with a great amount of help from my family, I studied 3D at New3Dge, in Paris. I spent 3 years completely broke and constantly hungry, but it paid off. After I graduated I had the opportunity to join the Ubisoft team on Ghost Recon: Wildlands and now work with some of the most prolific character artists, Marco Plouffe (who introduced me to ZBrush at school), Cedric Seaut and Guillaume Tiberghien of Keos Masons.
I usually enjoy doing more detailed characters but I also like the freedom I have while working on projects on my own and so I wanted to do something more personal this time.
Like most people in the industry, I play video games… a lot, but my introduction to them as a child was through point and click adventures, so I still have a soft spot for story-driven games, with character arcs and obnoxious puzzles. The Longest Journey is still, almost 20 years later, my favorite game.
On a personal level it is a game that influenced me very early in life thanks to its progressive views, good setting and story, good female lead and also humour so I chose to re-imagine the prologue scene, not just because opening chapters in video games are often iconic but because this particular scene also references (whether willing or not) two of my favorite literary pieces: «The Divine Comedy» and «The Aeneid».
Now, I’m not going to bore you with pictures of engravings from dusty books and screenshots of old games, but these two pictures were a starting point.
As you can see from the 1999 game screenshot there wasn’t much to work with in terms of character design. Not just that, but I am definitely not an environment artist so I didn’t feel up to the task of creating a big environment. What I felt like doing was creating simpler assets and build a small, real-time scene that would capture the iconic feel of the original game.
So let’s begin.
For this scene, I wanted to implement the familiar elements of The Longest Journey. I had a vague mental image of the main character April Ryan, holding a flute that is used to call her sidekick: a bird of undetermined species named Crow, sitting in front of the old dying tree on top of the cliff.
The tree was created from a dynamesh sphere, extracting branches with Snake Hook and adding thinner branches with the Curve Tube with a stroke size modifier to make them thinner towards the tips. The faces were sculpted asymmetrically with Clay Buildup brush and a Damstandard brush used at a low intensity to create uneven cavities. I also used the Rake brush in order to give the surface some cross-hatch texture, not because it is realistic, but I because I wanted to have a bit of an engraving feeling on the tree.
I then sculpted individual smaller assets: 3 different leaves that I baked on top of a plane, 2 types of flowers and a bark mushroom. I also implemented some fibermesh in the areas that are covered by grass.
The individual grass blades are not mine, I used an IMM provided by Nickz on ZBrush Central. These were later baked on to a simple plane and used for the low, with an alpha channel for transparency. All of these elements were placed inside ZBrush for a preview of the real-time scene.
For the rock sculpt I mostly used trim dynamic brushes for flat surfaces, orbs crack for crevices, as well as some rock alphas created by talented artists that are available on the internet and free to use.
For the character, I started out with my own basemesh. It’s almost 3 years old and the project itself started almost 2 years ago so we’re talking about very old assets.
Marvelous Designer was used for creating the big folds on the shirt, as at the time I wasn’t very confident with my sculpting skills (I’m still not), though now, I would probably sculpt them directly in ZBrush instead.
For the boots, I used a scan reference from 3D Scan Store, that I placed near the foot of my character and built the boots from scratch inside ZBrush. For learning purposes, I don’t want to use ready-made assets but I keep them on hand to get a good look at them when sculpting.
I did a manual retopology for April and Crow inside 3DS Max. For the tree, I used Zremesher in order to get a quick low-res version. This was tweaked to get a less dense topology and I manually retopolgized the faces of the tree to be animation-friendly. For the rock I used decimation master inside ZBrush, this is a static asset so there was no need for manual retopology.
Inside 3DS Max I placed the leaves of the tree by hand. In order to have the different leaves react well to lighting, I created a dome separately that would englobe the volume of the leaves and then used the «Normal Thief» script in order to apply the normals of the dome to the individual planes of the leaves and get smoother results.
For the grass, I used Hair and Fur inside 3DS Max to have some scattering.
For April’s hair cards, I made a rough blocking inside ZBrush on top of which I placed hair card IMM’s. These are brushes made by other great artists (RBHAIRIMM and M_Hair_Card).
For the actual hair texture, I generated 4 different hair strands using fibermesh (I created a plane that was masked where I wanted to « grow » the strands from). These were baked on to a simple plane. I also used the color of the fibermesh as a base for the color of April’s hair.
The texturing was done inside Substance Painter. I broke down the assets into different groups: April, Crow, the tree and the rock with the ground.
For the texturing of the tree, I mostly used smart materials created by talented artists over at Substance Share: Rock_Cliff_Stylized_Mossy, Ground_Moss, Ground_Leaves. I also used Substance’s Physics brush in order to simulate water flowing down the rock and trickling on the tree trunk.
Real-time Marmoset scene
The most important part of this project was the final presentation. Here is a breakdown of the Marmoset scene.
Building up the lights
I’m usually unsatisfied with using HDRI lighting only as I almost never obtain the light I want for my scene. So for this particular case, the HDRI I used has a limited effect on the scene and was actually positioned to highlight the water flowing down the rock next to the tree.
I also wanted more vivid colors for this scene and one of the things I enjoy doing is using complementary colors in lighting. So in this case, I used two main lights: one spotlight of pale orange hue that illuminates the central part of the scene and a directional light of pale blue color coming from above used to draw attention to the character. I applied a black and white texture (not mine) inside the gel slot of the blue light in order to fragment it and achieve a light that looks as though it’s passing through leaves. This creates nice shadows on the ground.
A fog was then applied for atmospheric effects. I order to simulate rays coming from above I used multiple spots drawing attention to the face of the tree, and lastly some simple Omni lights for glow coming from the flowers.
For the animation part, my boyfriend helped me so I’ll let him explain some things.
Hello, I’m Philémon Belhomme, Character Artist at Shiro Games in Bordeaux. I live with Adonia and that was what led me to work with her on her «The Longest Journey» homage.
I handled the rigging and the animation.
The main challenge of this project was to animate all the scene in a short time. I didn’t want to work on it more than one or two weekends. That lead me to use quick methods.
A complex rig doesn’t make any sense when we have only one idle to animate. Thus, I decided to use the auto Rig « Rapid Rig » of Dustin Nelson (in its basic version).
I only took the time to add some extra controls on the eyes and a complete Foot Roll, generated with the Riham Toulan’s script.
Crow & tree
I think I’ve never done a rig as simple as these ones: no controllers, only a simple bone hierarchy where all bind pose values are put in the joint orientation, to keep the rotation channels clean.
For the tree, the aim was to obtain a quick result. Given the amplitude of the movement, only a few bones were enough.
For this kind of animation, I don’t work with a succession of key poses, but only with Maya‘s Graph Editor.
Almost all character’s moves are animated with this curve.
To do this, I find the ideal pose, then I choose a frame count which defines the shorter curves loop
(in this case 60 frames). I can then add some move variations with different loop lengths by using it as a multiplier. 60/120/240 frames etc.
I animate the pelvis then I go upwards in the hierarchy.
For this purpose, I use my previous curve (with infinite loop) on each attribute, then I offset them one by one while checking the result in the 3d view.
As long as the multiplier is maintained, no matter the curves’ position, the complete animation will loop.
Once the breathing is good, I add some details which give life to the character, like the eye look, and head/torso movement.
I used the same method for the other characters except that the Crow’s curves look like this: