The Noctambulant: Exploring Art-Deco in Environment Art

The Noctambulant: Exploring Art-Deco in Environment Art

Josh Haun shared the process of designing and creating a vintage drive-in restaurant made in Blender, Fusion 360, ZBrush, and Substance Painter.

Introduction

I am Josh Haun, and my background is a bit nontraditional education-wise. I didn't graduate from high school, but instead, tested out of it early. Then rather than attending a university, I got an AA degree in architectural drafting from a community college. At that point, having seen the direction that the architecture industry was heading in I switched course to environment art for video games. I began to learn 3D modeling and took a few online courses at Gnomon, along with self-teaching off YouTube videos. Through one of my instructors that I became friends with at Gnomon online, I went to work at Infinity Ward on Infinite Warfare and later, Modern Warfare (2019) plus Warzone. Over the last two years, I have taken additional architecture design classes online to sharpen my skills in that subject considering how architecture-driven environment art has become.

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The Noctambulant: About the Project

Before diving into the Noctambulant, I ask you, dear readers, to please watch the video below as it covers much of the building's design intent.

Assuming you've seen it, the space started as a means of learning Blender's 2.8 update, or at least that was the original simple goal. However, at the same time, I was doing architecture tours in Los Angeles with Esotouric and discovered a myriad of beautiful art-deco gems hidden around the city, 1930s architecture that is otherwise hidden to the common tourist. I began reading books on the subject like Reyner Banham's “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” and Walter Dorwin Teague's “Design this Day” both of which inspired me to create a piece that showed Los Angeles in its golden age. Both of these books were also the driving force of the reference material. “Design this Day” especially teaches the reader how to design architecture in the style of art deco and streamline moderne. Additional research led me to discover a unique chain of drive-in restaurants. Simon's drive-in locations were all over LA back in the 30s, but since have been demolished. Seeing how beautiful these spaces were, and also the unique nature of the program captured my imagination. I knew a building like this would show well as an icon of old Los Angeles. You can even see some of these types of restaurants filmed in old movies like Double Indemnity or Mildred Pierce.

Exploring Art-Deco Style

As stated before, “Design this Day,” is a great introduction to designing in the style. Visiting art-deco buildings and analyzing the characteristics is a supplement. In LA, we have the Bullock's Wilshire (now Southwestern Law School), Wiltern Theater, Eastern Columbia building, Oviatt building, The Queen Mary, LA Times building, General Hospital (now UCS Medical), or Disney's California Adventure, just to name a few. Personal exploration of these spaces leads to dreams.

With that said, the main factor to consider in art-deco is that it is a machine style. Coming off the industrial revolution, craftsmen and designers had a whole host of metallic materials, mechanical tools, and structural steel forms newly available to them. At the same time, there was a trend towards décoration in architecture fostered by the City Beautiful movement in America and the School of Beaux-Arts in France. This lead to unique hybridity where decoration and efficient building practices were married together. Many of the shapes in art- deco can be understood as decoration created by machines. Lines, circles, and triangles that are easy for a machine to manufacture. The artistic beauty and complexity then come in the way all these shapes are layered and blended together, in arrangements that follow the aesthetic rules you would see in more classical aesthetic expression. The end result is all these geometric patterns and decorative clean lines couldn't be sculpted by hand, nor were ignored entirely like what has happened in today's international style. By spending time exploring art-deco buildings you'll notice all this – floor plans, layouts, and construction techniques that draw from modernism, all wrapped in geometric aesthetic.

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I also of course must pay my due and mention Bioshock, because we can't forget the effect that game has had on how we think of art-deco in video games.

Initial Work

Coming from an architecture background I like to start in 2D. I began the Noctambulant by drawing sketches and also a basic floor plan by hand. Hand drafting can create some interesting ideas because construction lines begin to create a sort of hand-drawn grid across the paper that encourages different design decisions.

From there I extruded the floorplan in Blender to create the basic shell; from it, I then went back and forth in Blender and on paper to key in the space. The rest of my production plan followed the idea of using software that best informs the final result. For instance, lines should be drawn in Illustrator or by hand and brought into Blender, machined props should be done in Fusion 360, organic forms – in ZBrush, and hard-surface forms and masses modeled in Blender.

Modeling

The interior and exterior are fairly simple modeling-wise, nothing more complicated than extruding faces. Given the symmetrical nature of the space, I tried to mirror as much geometry as possible, and to speed up that process of mirroring I used Blender's add-on GroupPro. I like the way the add-on organizes geo within openable and closeable groups that I can then duplicate across the world axis for easy modifications and instant updates across the axis.

Exterior elements like the 3D text were great in Blender, as you can type text live and still have modifiers, materials, bevels, or fonts, all change non-destructively.

The centerpiece – the sculptured fountain – was probably the most complicated architectural piece. To achieve the basic shape I wanted, I arranged a series of boxes together and exported the whole lot to ZBrush. From there I retopologized the mesh with Dynamesh and clay polish modifiers. The algorithm automatically blended all the boxes together as one mesh and sewed nice seams between the shapes. At that point, I did some simple wear sculpting with the trim dynamic brush and called it a day, after running the sculpture through ZBrush's Decimation Master of course.
The door which was another complex piece actually turned out quite easy to do in Fusion 360. Rather than modeling based on topology, I drew the line work how I pleased, then used Fusion's fillet tools to smooth out the edges. In this context, the door was based more on a drafting workflow rather than a modeling one. Much like it would have been in the 30s.

Many of the small props were made in Blender, others, like the streetlights and soda spigots – in Fusion. Again, I feel like by using Fusion for metal pieces that are machined, you get the end result closer to how it would be built in real life. Other props like the jukebox made sense to be kept in Blender considering that it's wood. The add-ons Boxcutter and Hardops made this a quick model to blast through.

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One of the more interesting parts of the project was where photo scanning came into play. I knew I wanted realistic-looking concrete shapes, which I find difficult to get right in 3D. Plus, given the historical significance of the Arroyo Secco Parkway in art-deco, I knew I wanted it in the scene. On an overcast Saturday back last year, I drove out to the intersection of the CA-110 and I-5 interchange in downtown LA and scanned portions of the concrete overpass. Other elements like the fanned concrete barriers, came from scanning a bridge over the LA River in Canoga Park. I was even able to scan a concrete swale outside my apartment to use it for the Noctambulant's gutter.
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Finally, in regards to the car, I used Vaughan Ling's HEAVYPOLY Blender config to assist in modeling the vehicle. When dealing with smoothing out all the verts to capture the Dymaxion's elongated curves, the rapid movement of the HEAVYPOLY keybindings made the process quicker than by constantly clicking with the mouse. The rest of the vehicle involved pretty standard hard-surface modeling techniques. I used reference images for scale and shapes and constantly checked edge quality by moving reflections across the shapes through Blender's real-time viewport. Fun cheats like booleaning cylinders together with terrible topology actually works well in Blender and smooths fairly nicely, given how well the program handles n-gons.

Texturing

The texturing of this scene took place simultaneously with the modeling. Working in video games impresses the importance of textures early on, and I've taken the same idea into this. I started with Megascans for most of the materials, and the necessary changes were made in Mixer. Take for instance the exterior cladding which is a glazed terra-cotta tile. I looked at real architectural terra-cotta tiles from Gladding, McBean for reference. From there, I used a tileable terra-cotta material from Megascans and adjusted the parameters in Mixer to tile the material as a glazed black brick, similar to the old Wilshire Blvd Darkroom camera shop with its black exterior. The rest of the architectural materials were a similar process, Megascans materials with adjustments in Mixer.

By using tileable materials with simple blends, I didn't have to UV much of the scene and instead used Blender's object space mapping to automatically tile materials across the architecture.

Colors felt like a natural process that didn't require much forethought, almost as if the Noctambulant was naturally asking for a color scheme of tans with light green and red accents. Perhaps part of that is the influence of old streamlined train interiors like the 20th Century Limited or the Zephyr. I knew early on that I wanted the blues and greens of the scene to flow together like a peacock.

On props, I opted for a one-size-fits-all solution, where I simply sent models through Substance Painter with basic smart material setups. Automatic baking and the like.

Surfaces got more complex with the ground level, in both the interior and exterior. Exterior first, I pulled about 5 asphalt materials from Megascans and set up a blended material network in Blender. That way, I could specify where I wanted cracks or potholes. Using Blender's real-time texture painting tools, I painted a B&W mask for each different layer, seeing the results in the lighting context instantly. This system seemed to be ideal, in that the displacement for each material also blended with the next. On top of all the asphalt blends, I had a water layer to wet down the sections I wanted.

The interior floor was similar in the way I blended tileable materials from Megascans. However, in this case, I didn't paint a mask, I drew one. Autocad and Illustrator both have great tools for drawing lines, though Illustrator has the added benefit of the Live Paint tool which lets you instantly fill in a line drawing with color. In this manner, I drew an art-deco terrazzo floor pattern and used Illustrator's live paint to fill in the spaces to create two RGB masks. Blender can then isolate the RGB channels into B&W masks to control where materials live on the surface. Much like a real terrazzo surface, I was able to blend different terrazzo colors across a pattern with metal joints in between, then add a clear coat on top of the whole surface to seal in the terrazzo.

But that's only for the clean base material. To get wear, I did a “phantom bake” in Substance Painter where I baked an AO dirt pass with all the furniture positioned accurately on the floor. From that bake, I exported the AO mask to Blender, a mask I could use to drive a dirt layer on top of the shiny terrazzo floor.

Additional wear details came from Blender's add-on Decal Machine. A simple tool that allows you to project textures onto a surface much like Unreal 4 decals. The add-on worked great here for projecting scuff textures from Megascans onto the floor.

Lighting

Lighting was all just simple area lights in Cycles. The only specific thing I did was that I plugged in IES profiles for all particular light falloff types.

Neon lights came from an emissive material applied to the neon mesh, wrapped with a glass shader applied to another mesh.

The most difficult part of the lighting was getting the glass shaders looking good considering that glass plays such a big role in the design. In the end, I used techniques taught by Gleb Alexandrov's glass shading tutorial on YouTube, which is a great watch if you want to learn more about glass (see below). I would also recommend adding slight offsets and rotations to glass panes on older buildings like the Noctambulant because the science of glass creation and installation wasn't perfect back then. The book “Devil in the White City” has a fun chapter about that.

The inclusion of volumetric lights in the scene added to the dramatic look. I love the effect volume plays in old photos from the 1930s, and to include that effect in the Noctambulant without drastically increasing render times, I used a technique shown to me by my friend Danny Chilingaryan. You set up a basic world volume in Blender and render that on top of a version of the scene with all the meshes set to black surface shaders. That way only the volume renders, and it does so quickly – only in a few hours, compared to potentially weeks on a final render. The volume pass can then be composited back onto the final image with Photoshop's “add” or “screen” blending mode.
In the final post-process, I applied some chromatic aberration and vignette effects via Photoshop's lens correction filter and used Cycle's mist pass to drive Photoshop's lens blur filter. I achieved my final color correction in Lightroom, simply because I do a lot of photography and am used to Lightroom's tools. If you follow suit, just make sure to keep the image in 16-bit color going back and forth between PS and LR.

Time Spent and Challenges

The project was definitely a long journey. I spent about six months on it in 2019 in between my professional job. The video portion took a bit longer, essentially all through the 2020 quarantine, given the number of tasks involved with the filming process, audio, video, editing, compositing, and all the other facets.

I did not optimize the project well at all, and that was simultaneously the biggest hurdle. I owe a lot to Substance Painter and Megascans on the texturing side because those tools together acted as a type of procedural texturing system with the automatic baking and blending features. Otherwise, time management was definitely a hurdle.

Josh Haun, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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