Tips on Making Perfect Stylized 3D
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by Horea Kaii
29 min ago

Happy this was in here. The shaders matters so much for this part.

by Joaquín Otazu Zunzunegui
2 hours ago

Amazing work sir! Congratulations

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Tips on Making Perfect Stylized 3D
26 May, 2017

Jessi Ruselowski gave a couple of tips on modeling and texturing very unusual stylized cartoony 3d scenes.


Hi! My name is Jessi Ruselowski and I’m an Environment Artist at ArenaNet, residing in Bellevue, Washington. Originally I hail from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I took classes at Washtenaw Community College, and I fell in love with 3D. From there I learned about Gnomon School of Visual Effects, put together a portfolio, applied, and was accepted into their 3 year Entertainment Design and Digital Production Program. I graduated from Gnomon in the early fall of 2015. Between my time spent at Gnomon and ArenaNet, I worked on a variety of projects, such as post-visual sequences for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Cars 3 movie poster, and conceptual design for Fantasy XV game cover art.


Now that my intro is done, let’s get down to the nitty gritty! I’m very passionate about stylized pieces, and they are something I love to work on. Despite my current occupation being a game artist, this tutorial is about my work I’ve made during my personal time, and I will run you through my process of finding fun concept art and taking it to a rendered and composited finish. I’ll be working in Maya (Vray/Arnold), Mari, and Nuke.

When it comes to choosing concept to work with, I’m a huge sucker for lighting and color. Lighting makes everything 100x better, and always presents a fun challenge. I’m also looking for stories to be told, something unique. You’ll also notice I love vertical pieces, …I love them a lot.

For this particular tutorial, I’ll touch on 3 different concepts that I’ve chosen to recreate into 3D, 2 are currently finished and one is a WIP.

These beautiful concepts were created by (left to right), Jenya Tkach, Amin Faramarzian, and Goro Fujita.

When starting a piece in 3D, the toughest part is probably setting up your camera just right. You have to determine what your focal length will be, what size do you want your final image, what your film aspect ratio will be, do you want to render out a moving pass? How do you compensate for the concept artist’s perspective. Hopefully the artist you pick did a decent job of laying out perspective, but it’s super important to spend the time in the beginning to try and block it out as best you can.

Create a brand new camera in your scene, label it ShotCam and off you go! Load in your designated image plane into your shotcam, drop a cube into your scene and find something basic in the concept to use as a guide for your cube, and to start the process of setting up your camera/blocking out your scene. Be sure you move your camera around, and not the cube. Modeling off axis is a pain in the booty. It’s easier to move your shot camera around, to find that sweet spot. The focal length of the camera is important, the smaller the number the more distorted your cube will become. The larger the number, the ‘flatter’ the image will appear.

In the end I decided an 80mm focal length was a good distance, and I always like my images to be at least 2k in size. So I set the longer length of the concept (in this case the height), to 2k, and then gently massage the width pixels into a place where it perfectly encases the concept art in frame. I then block out more large pieces to keep checking that my perspective and placement still match up and it makes actual sense in a 3D space (in case I want a dramatic camera move down the road).

When you’re happy with your camera settings… LOCK THEM DOWN! Nothing sucks more then moving your perfectly placed camera (though your bracket keys are a nice camera move undo hotkey).


I learned some scripting while at Gnomon, and scripting can definitely be difficult, but also can be super beneficial. I always liked having a viewport of my Shotcam alongside the perspective view, so I could zoom around to my heart’s content, while always referencing back to the shot cam and how my scene was aligning.

Mel Script:

setNamedPanelLayout “perspe/cam”;

lookThroughModelPanel SHOTCAM modelPanel4;

Just paste this into your script editor, then select it, middle mouse drag it to your shelf to create your very own button!

As long as you name your camera SHOTCAM, or replace that part of script with your designated camera name, it should create the same double panel for you.

Another tool I use a lot when modeling my scene, is the camera pan/zoom tool. I use it to zoom in super close to my model/concept to see how close I’m matching to concept. When you have your camera selected, it lives under ‘View ->Camera Tools -> 2DPan/Zoom tool. I set this to a shelf button too because I use it so often.

Mel Script:

PanZoomTool; ToolSettingsWindow;

I’ll keep blocking out my model with super simple geo until a good 80% of the main shapes are in the scene, I’ll throw in a general light, usually an HDR of some sort and then the key light, to try to start to mimic the lighting set up and continue to get an idea of where things are placed spatially in the scene.

Once I’m happy with how things are laid out in space, and my blockout, I’ll start to go back through and model pieces to finish, while at the same time, applying a generic coat of coloring to start to get a deeper feel for the scene, while always zooming/panning in and comparing how my models are lining up to concept. I feel like this part is so crucial, a lot of people choose a concept because of how it makes them feel, but then they tend to lose the magic of the concept because things are just off. The pose is wrong, the perspective is wrong, the lighting is off, the model isn’t quite right. It’s almost like taking a weed wacker to a topiary. For example, modeling the house from the movie ‘UP’, there might be 12 railings in the banister, but then a 3D artist creating fan art, only makes 10. It’s simple details that can make all the difference, especially when applying for jobs and standing out from your peers. Don’t get me wrong tho, if the concept is vague, there is your chance to design and try to enhance the piece as well, but never detract from the overall feel of the art.



Once everything is modeled to finish and has a basic color texture on it matching the concept, I’ll do my first lighting pass. Typically it’s fairly generic, generally the ‘big’ lights that I notice. So for this goblin scene, fireplace light, top down light, the candle light, and HDR color with value pumped beyond 1, to generically fill the scene with a bit more color. I’ll then proceed to work on texturing and will come back for final lighting pass after my textures are relatively finalized.

I love to texture in Mari, it’s projection painting but with a lot of similarities to photoshop. I’ll texture in Substance Designer/Painter too, but coming back to Mari can be like a breath of fresh air. Their projection painting is great and it’s so easy to never worry about your texture seams. Sometimes I feel a bit restricted in Painter and want more of the fluidity of Photoshop, and Mari helps fill the gap.

Mari you just drag and drop the (highrez) image you want to texture with, and doesn’t even have to tile. There is edge masking, so you can paint the image you want without fear of stretching along the edges. There is also blending modes, and adjustment modes you can run on your layers, as well as masking. I love to do the bulk of my texturing in Mari, but sometimes at the end for fun and ease, I’ll pop my textures I made into an Allegorithmic program and add a little extra spice into the mix. Substance does have some great generators!

When it comes to shader builds in Maya, I’m definitely all about the blending materials. No matter if it’s Vray or Arnold, they have great shaders that allow for blending. This shader build (made in Arnold during a look dev class at Gnomon), has a lot of general maya utility nodes that I took advantage of.

Concept credit: Creature Box.

I was blending between different colors of sands with ramps using surface luminances, to drive the way the sand looked in the light, while masking out between the dark wetter sand fading to the dry sand, and adding an extra ‘wet’ spec at the end. I love to make complete materials in their own little bubble, and then blended those materials into one big happy family and lots of programs give great functionality to that. Even Unreal Engine has great material functions to help keep your material blending tidy and relatively neat.

Once your materials are set, it’s time to take another pass on lighting.

I’ll look at a concept and try to point out where light sources might be coming from.

Then start to build up your lighting. Lighting is soooooooooooo important. Even something terrible can look a lot better with interesting lighting. Lighting is more than just…plopping a light into a scene. Lighting helps tell additional story and emphasizes the mood. It dances across surfaces and effects the diffuse textures, it plays and mingles. It highlights surfaces, creates volume and depth, and even the shadows create shapes to play with. It’s fantastic stuff. If you want your art to look awesome, take a hot moment, and watch a tutorial about the basic 3 point lighting setup. Also keep in mind, color theory, warm light, cool shadows. All of this is sexy good stuff, and will make other people consciously or subconsciously ‘ooooo’.

Now… moving right along…I used a lot of area lights for this particular scene, and even a vray light material (again with a value above 1) to pump up the back of his jacket. You can also use light linking, where you just want a light to affect a certain thing. For example, his pants weren’t getting enough light, so I shoved a light underneath the desk and linked it, so that light would only light up his pants and nothing else. Light-linking can be dangerous and shouldn’t be used all the time, it can definitely break things, but can also be super useful. The menu to light link can be found under Window -> Relationship Editors -> Light Linking. I suggest you are tidy about your scene and are labeling both geo and lights, otherwise you’re in for a tough time! This point in time is where I’ll start to break things off into separate rendering layers with in maya as well.


Setting up render layers can be super useful, especially when it comes to lighting. It played a big part in the Goro piece I put together, in which I lit the robot and cat, in the scene, but then made their own render layer and added in some extra lights to really help make them pop, without that extra lighting messing with the rest of the environment. This is also dangerous because if you get carried away, it can start to look like those elements no longer belong within the scene. They are also great because Vray has object properties under (Create ->VRay-> Object Properties), which lets you set things to not render out on certain render layers, but still keep other things like shadows. In the image below, I set the main characters to not render in my Main_Scene Render layer, but to still keep the shadow the robot casts on the wall. Visa versa, for my Main Characters, I kept the reflections and color from the environment, but just not the environment itself. This leads to easier compositing later on.

When it comes to rendering, set up your render elements (Diffuse, Spec, Refraction, Reflection, GI, Zdepth,Material/Object IDs, etc). It really depends on how much control over your final composite you want. You can also composite in whatever you want! If it’s just a still image, Photoshop works just great! If you’re going for a camera move, you might want to cuddle up to Nuke and let that keep you warm.

Obligatory look at my node network that you can’t make heads or tails of!

But in all seriousness, for this particular composite, it was more about the atmosphere and compositing the paper back in, so I didn’t do a complete breakdown of render elements. But I still rendered out certain masks, atmosphere/Zdepth, and the papers, and created candle glow (always safer to do that in post).

So here is a slow close up scroll of my nuke node network if you’re curious as to what went on in there. I tried to keep it tidy, but sometimes you get so into it… a hot mess ensues.

Now, at the end of the day despite all the 3D software, you definitely need knowledge of traditional arts if you want to pursue a career in this field. You don’t need a bachelors or a masters in it, but there are a lot of basic concepts you should be aware of, that will help push your art in a forward direction. Lighting/color, anatomy, composition/focal points, driving the eye around the art piece, just to name some. Do you have to be awesome at drawing on paper? No. Does it help? Of course. The more care to detail to you take to your work, the more unique and outside the box you are, the more reference you pull up as you work, the more you’ll be noticed and stand out from the crowd. My boss at my current job said to me I had the ‘weirdest portfolio he’d ever seen’, (I was told this was a compliment), and was pointing out all these small details that he enjoyed in my work. So pushing your artistic knowledge, your eye for detail, and general prowess will only benefit you.

I hope this was helpful in your future endeavours of tackling someone else’s concept art and taking it finish, as well as generally furthering your career as an artist. 

Jessi Ruselowski, Environment Artist at ArenaNet

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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