Hello, my name is Damien Peinoit, I am a generalist artist specializing in the creation of full CG environments. I am from France where I began working for games and advertising companies. On the side, I developed my personal portfolio which gave me the opportunity to work on AAA game trailers and сinematics. I became a dedicated Environment Artist which led me to work for prestigious companies like Blur Studio or ILM. I’ve been working on such projects as Love, Death & Robots, Aquaman, Halo & Halo Wars cinematics, The Division trailer, the upcoming Jungle Cruise movie and many more!
As most CG artists, I got into this industry because of gaming. I remember creating my own levels with the Duke Nukem level creator and also working on mods for Half-Life 2 for fun. But there are two things in particular that totally inspired me to get into 3D: the first Wipeout game cinematic and all Diablo 2 cut scenes. I was so blown away that I was sure I wanted to do that for a living.
Important Aspects of Environment Art
I am pleased to see that more and more people are getting interested in Environment Art! It’s an important part of storytelling for animation or an illustration. I would say that the most important things for it are the composition and the scale. You can basically separate the environment creation stages into two groups: modeling, sculpting, and texturing are in the ‘scale’ group, while lighting/lookdev/colors are in the ‘composition.’ Both work in tandem and if one is off, your final product might not look believable enough to tell your story.
Be curious, watch what others are doing and get inspired, read books about photography, try online challenges as they are always a good way to improve your skills by getting feedback. Don’t be shy to share your work with people, that’s the only way to make progress. Then you have to be aware of new technology, try new things. And of course gather references, references and more references, they will help you understand the shapes and how objects are working together, how lighting is reacting, bouncing.
Knowing all of that will make you faster over the years and more efficient for the most important process: the blocking. Every project you are starting needs a blocking, at least boxes that represent objects, a ground and a basic idea of your lookdev/lighting. Don’t underestimate this step and if you’re rushing it, you can’t expect to finish your project nicely.
Scale, Color, Composition
I always say that the most important skill set for a Generalist or an Environment Artist is to be a good problem solver. We are dealing with so many assets that many people rely on us in the production, and if something is wrong you have to be able to fix it.
First, let’s talk about the basics, the scale. I still see a lot of pictures, especially from young artists, with very bad scaling, like a gigantic car in a small street, a 3-foot door in a house, etc. Unfortunately, the list of examples if large. The main idea is to always start by blocking your scene with a human-size ratio. I usually start with a 1.80m or 5’11 tall box or biped. Then, I start building my environment based on that. For example, I was working on a gigantic spaceship for Halo Wars cinematics, and the spaceship was literally the size of the Eiffel Tower. As you may guess, such things can easily make things messy and give you a terrible headache. That’s where problem-solving comes in handy (using normal maps instead of modeling, using multiples texture scales to make the size look more real, optimizing with Proxies, actually optimizing a lot!).
Only after the scale is right, there comes the composition and the color theory. You can have the best lookdev and lighting but if your characters look too small or too big it means you failed. People will only focus on that.
I study a lot of compositing and color by watching movies and reading books. I am a huge fan of Darius Khondji, the director of photography on most of David Fincher’s movies. His work is a very huge inspiration. You should all watch the movies Panic Room, Se7en, Delicatessen... For me, this is a good example to follow, because everything he’s showing on screen has a purpose. This is where the real work as an environment artist is. You don't just throw stuff in the room to make it look cool, but you must have something to tell your story and help the audience feel the atmosphere.
Knowledge is meant to be shared right? In my Arch classes, I basically cover most of the aspects of being a Generalist for environments and I want YOU to be able to work on your own shots or animation. I want people to have access to good quality tutorials and if I manage to help someone improve I would say mission accomplished.
About Asset Production
I don’t really have a specific approach for creating assets, I visualize what the client needs and just proceed. Do they need a cliff? Let’s create cliff modules and put them together like lego instead of one single huge mesh. By doing that, I will have better texture resolution and mesh details. At the end of the project, that cliff’s pieces will go into my library and for the next project, I can re-use them by changing the shape or the texture.
I worked on so many projects over the years that I’ve been able to build a huge library. And the idea is to make your library accessible. You don’t want to waste your time modeling the same tree over and over again. I am using a very cool script from the genius Neil Blevins, it basically allows me to create my own model database that I can simply drag and drop into each project. It works perfectly for personal stuff but when you work for companies and they don’t have a library, you will have to start from starch. But by doing it over and over again you will become a pro. Co-workers used to call me the Rock generator. It must have been for a reason!
Anyway, my advice would be not to collapse object stacks, keep the history and save assets on the side. The idea is to save time by slowly creating your library so for the next project you will be able to focus more on the lookdev. When you have final objects that can be used everywhere like pens, furniture, rocks, street parts, etc. it would be a good idea to proxy them so that you will 1) save space on your hard drive and 2) reduce your render time. And it’s a process you won’t have to do again as well so it’s a win-win. You want your objects to be easy to use and READY to render. It might seem like a lot to create but believe me, the amount of time you will save over the years can be extremely huge! It could be a good idea to invest a little money for a NAS or in an external hard drive dedicated to only storing all of those assets.
I combine Substance Painter with procedural textures. I personally use a lot from CG-textures and it’s not that expensive. I unwrap and use UDIMs for hero assets or anything close-up and for the background elements, I use the Triplanar methodology. You can watch one of my free tutorials about the process below. It will speed up your texture workflow quite a bit!
When I want to create my own textures, I paint them or combine a few of them using Designer. I am also just starting to look into Substance Alchemist, and it looks very promising! Unfortunately, I don’t get a chance to use my own textures often. When I see what some artists are capable of doing in Designer it makes me rethink the way we do modeling and sculpting.
When I am pretty close to finishing my scene’s blocking, I start working on the lighting at the same time. It helps determine what will be in the light/dark and which part of the model I have to detail.
As you can see in my Arch project, I did two renders: one in daylight and one at night. My initial idea was to involve an open portal, and I realized a night scene would portray the colors more vividly. The lighting was easy to switch because the scene assembly was already done. You have to be aware of lighting, how it affects the colors in your scene and how they work together. The night lighting has a more frontal direction and atmospheric fog to help build the night mood.