Using Voxels for Simple Dioramas
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Thanks, Allar! Good luck with your new project!

Who just carries around $250.000 worth of files on a portable hardrive without any backups.. The bug is stupid, but this guy is a moron.

by Michael Allar
5 hours ago

Michael Allar here. Thanks a bunch for posting this, I really appreciate it. I'm also the guy who wrote that Confessions article that was posted here on 80.lvl as well.

Using Voxels for Simple Dioramas
26 July, 2017
Interview

Gabriel de Laubier showed how he works with MagicaVoxel.

Introduction

My name is Gabriel de Laubier, I’m from Paris, France. I studied at Estienne School of graphic design, but while I was studying I became passionate about 3D and started to teach myself Blender. When I graduated I worked as a freelancer in graphic design for a year before getting more clients in 3D work and I am now working full time as a freelance 3D generalist.

Currently and since last year I’ve mainly been working with Vida Systems as lead artist. Among other things, we are providing 3D content for the Google Expeditions platform, a program that offers VR and AR educative experiences for K-12 students. From time to time I also work for agencies, on 3D visualisations and animation, motion design, or VR experiences for their clients.

I’m also an illustrator for Première magazine (a cinema magazine here in France)… in Voxels. For each bimensual issue, they interview a director on a famous movie scene and I illustrate it in Voxelart. The illustration is also published on Sketchfab.

Voxel Art

I think I discovered MagicaVoxel when I was studying. I tried it a bit and found it very fun, but didn’t give it another thought. Later on I stumbled upon the work of SirCarma, and decided to look further into Voxelart. I thought it would be an interesting way to approach minimalism. The first pieces I did were voxel portraits of Rock bands and Superheroes. I loved the challenge of making pop culture icons recognizable with such little detail. I totally fell in love with Magicavoxel and discovered Sketchfab at the same time. The two go perfectly together and I immediately started getting ideas for other pieces.

Production

MagicaVoxel is really interesting to work with because you can get a result so quickly. No need to setup complex UVs, textures, and materials, it’s so flexible, like having a magic box of legos. In one minute you can get a recognizable character, refine it and tweak the color palette until it’s just right. You can even export it to Mixamo and it just works.

For simple assets, MagicaVoxel is enough, but on complex scenes, I will often build the assets separately and combine all the elements in Blender. I also like to light and make the scene there as it offers more possibilities.

There are several interesting ways to work with the software. You could either choose to work on your scene as a whole and practice compositing and color palette, or you could use it to make assets very quickly, for prototypes or to build the scene later on in another software, or even in Magica itself using the pattern brush.

Dioramas

I work pretty differently depending on the type of project I’m doing. For a personal project I can focus on the challenge of the process without worrying too much about the final result. But if I’m aiming at a complex scenes with creative constraints, I have to plan ahead.

For a personal project, I like the challenge of having a constant level of detail throughout the scene, meaning that if you use a 3×3 cube to make a face, you can’t cheat and make the glasses 9 voxels wide. Since you only have a very limited level of detail, you have to decide what will be the smallest thing in the scene you want to be recognizable, and adjust the scale of the scene to that element. For example I like my characters to be 5 voxels wide, and so the scale of the scene has to adapt to that. I will often start with the focus point and build the scene around it. I love the freedom of sculpting and refining the scene and see it take shape. It’s a very interesting creative challenge to have to improvise with the medium’s limits. Once again, the magic legos analogy comes to mind.

On the other hand, for a voxel movie scene for example, there is much planning ahead. I start with blocking out the scene with simple cubes until I find the right balance. Each detail I want to show has to be visible and clearly recognizable, so I plan the position of each asset in advance. Then I make each piece separately, import everything in Blender, and add bevels and PBR materials before the lighting.

The best way to cut down time is to know where you are going and actually not rushing the process. You don’t want to spend time doing 100% of an asset before realizing you have to change it because of another piece in the scene.

The pattern brush is also a very powerful tool. It allows you to use a separate asset as a voxel or a color brush, making placement of instances very easy, and you could paint a whole brick wall from a small pattern without making everything by hand, but still keeping control to add some irregularities.

Colors

Colors are very important when working with minimalistic shapes. The palette has to be right, and the colors must define the shapes clearly to make the scene readable. Since the shapes are simplified they can be hard to read, and colors can restore alot of the clarity to the scene.

MagicaVoxel has a great way to manage colors. You have a color palette with 255 adjustable colors. Once you have your shape, you can paint using either a cube brush or a regular drawing brush, defining a color for each voxel. With the pattern tools, you can draw a pattern and duplicate it, using it like a brush as well. But the most handy part is that you can adjust the color palette after painting, adjusting all the colors of the scene at once. This is very useful to try completely different moods on a scene or test the readability with different palettes. Or even try random colors!

Light

MagicaVoxel offers simple tools for lighting (a sky and a sun lamp), both of which can be baked, and emissive materials for the internal renderer only. I like to work on the lighting in Blender, since it offers infinite possibilities. Like the colors, the lighting is very important for the scene’s readability. I like to play on a warm/cold contrast, for example with a warm light source casting sharp shadows, and softer blue lights to contrast with it. When I’m trying to replicate the lighting of a movie scene, I try to simplify it as well, keeping in mind that the eye will make out the shapes more easily if the lighting feels natural. Strong light sources with defined shadows and clear contrast will help defining those shapes.

Using the voxel content for games

This type of content is very useful to the game industry for several reasons. First because it’s a very accessible tool. Anyone can make simple assets, and it might help a developer who doesn’t have time to learn multiple complex 3D softwares, focusing on the gameplay instead. It’s also a wonderful tool to introduce even younger aspiring artists to 3D creation.

It’s also very useful for prototyping and game design. It’s perfectly suited to make tiles, well defined obstacles and enemies with consistent scale.

And then it’s even a great tool for a final product. Of course the success of a game like Crossy Road comes to mind. Several artists choose to work exclusively in voxels, like Zach Soares, with great success and surprising creativity and personality in a medium with so many constraints.

Of course it’s not suited for everything, and it’s a peculiar aesthetic, so ideally it has to be a conscious creative decision and not a choice by default.

I’ve mainly seen it used for gaming, but it would be very interesting to see it used used in ads. As for film, I’m convinced there are some amazing things to be made. I have a few ideas myself, but it might take a while to actually start working on it.

 Gabriel de Laubier, Digital Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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