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Venice Radioactive: Stylized Diorama Breakdown

Arianna Querin talked about her stylized project Venice Radioactive made in Maya, Substance Painter, and Redshift.


Hello! I'm Arianna. I work as a Junior Environment Artist at Blue-Zoo Animation Studio and I started to work there right after I graduated in 3D Games and Animation from Middlesex University in London.

I am at the beginning of my career so I didn't contribute to something huge yet but I've been keeping myself busy with side projects or doing some freelancing as I believe that the opportunities come from a lot of practice.

Since I was a kid, I always got fascinated by video games graphics so at some point I decided to leave my insecurities and follow the direction of my youth dreams. The question I used to ask myself was: would I ever be able to get a job in a creative industry?

I then realized that all the best professional people have started from zero, the trick is to keep learning through personal works!

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Venice Radioactive: Start of the Project

Venice Radioactive's idea was born after a trip to Portugal even if it sounds weird. The goal was to make a nice portfolio piece, thanks to which I could grow technically and learn something new.

I've always thought that the best projects have something that connects them to the 3D artist. I chose Venice because it is my favourite city in Italy and the mood is dystopian as it shows a projection of the future that will come if humans don't start to respect the environment more.

The first thing I did was search for primary references of the city and understand how the structure of the Venetian houses works and how the materials look. Then I decided to add a diver with the radioactive suit to contribute to the storytelling of the composition. I used Miro Board to organize the images I liked since I wanted them to be all together in one space.

Then, I brainstormed with Francesco Guarini and he did the concept. He currently works as a designer at Blue-Zoo. I worked closely with him to get the right design and create a silhouette as appealing as possible. Here are his beautiful early sketches.


Most of the hard surface modeling was done in Maya. I usually model individual props and import them in the assembled scene to keep a sense of order. I tried to keep a homogeneous topology, especially for the assets that needed to be sculpted in ZBrush. For example, the bricks on the main building were sculpted as you can see in the following image.

Since my computer is not so powerful I had to strategically split the high poly geometry into 3 different pieces. That worked well with the bake in SP.

The character was done in ZBrush. He is a deep-sea diver with a radioactive suit. I wanted to add some storytelling so I imagined this little guy diving into the radioactive sea and catching some weird fishes. So, I added such fishes hanging on a rope behind him.


For this project, I didn't want to keep a very low poly topology since I wanted to work with Redshift subdivisions. So I still worked with a clean topology and UV set. I never use automatic UVs but certainly, ZBrush UV Unwrap can save time. For example with the house, where the surfaces are straight, "polygroups by normals" was the perfect tool to split the UVs in the right place. They were then optimised with Maya. 


For the texturing process, I’ve just created PBR materials with Substance Painter. I usually start with smart materials which then I customise with masks and colour variations. For the rust effect, my favorite mask generator is mg dripping mask and I always like to multiply a baked ambient occlusion on top to make the contrasts stronger.  

For the character, I was more careful to add detail. Roughness plays an important role so I made sure the suit had that glossy material while the dirt was very rough. Also, the dirt on the reflective blue glass gave extra detail. The base colours of the deep-sea diver are complementary, blue and yellow, and that gives it some visual interest. I like adding a stylised light filter in a low opacity overlay which gives a nice gradient to the asset.

For the walls, I used 3 UDIMs and baked the high poly model with the brick details.
I eventually added some scratches with a height map. For the walls, references played a huge role as I've been able to see how the paint layers work on the walls of Venice in real life.

Preparing the Renders

It was my first personal work in Redshift.  I set the main key area light coming from the left side. The fill lights with a warm value are on the right side. Then I placed several blue rim lights on the back of the building, playing with the light spread. The edge of the whole house was a bit hard to illuminate since the roughness level was different and some elements ended up being overexposed, especially water reflections. So I turned off some lights on the overexposed geometries from the light-linking menu.

The light in the lamppost was done with a physical light mesh which gave incandescence to the bulb plus a point light with the transparency parameter set to 100. This last parameter allowed the light to get through the glass.

I also used a very soft dome light to get a global illumination. I made sure that elements with light sources were positioned in different heights in order to achieve variety and make the observer move from one spot to another.

For the water, I used a Redshift Material, adding a noise bump and playing with the refraction and transmission values. At the beginning I wanted the water to be acid green. Then I realised that black would have helped the model to pop out. It also gives a petrol/dirty look which emphasizes the storytelling.

For the post-production, in Photoshop, I just added some more vibrance, a slight noise (1.6px), and applied an Adobe RGB (1998) colour profile. 


With every mistake I made (and there were a lot of them) I learned different lessons. For example, in the lighting process, I placed some Maya default lights. Well... if you’re planning to use Redshift, use just Redshift lights to avoid artifacts! That way I lost a lot of time to replace Maya lights with Physical Redshift lights. Then I also left on the visibility to a rim light which then showed up in the turntable video. I had to remove it in After Effects with the aid of an ID colour map. The lesson I learned here is to always get a preview render of random frames before launching the final batch render. It would have saved me a lot of time. Rush was my enemy in this case!

Also, for the ambient occlusion make sure to have enough samples otherwise it looks super grainy. Avoid my mistakes guys!

When I create dioramas I make sure the silhouette is interesting and also there is a focal point. In this case, the character is small – to fit the size Comp – but also plays an important role as it draws attention to it. Another thing I learned is: always show your work in progress to people even if they don’t know about 3D. For example, my father suggested adding an antenna on top of the building... I followed that and it helped to break the silhouette even more! So don’t be scared to go further from the initial concept and ask for more eyes to see it.

Arianna Querin, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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