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A couple of days ago architect and 3d artist Sarah Wang has shared her amazing environment, created in a rich and detailed Victorian style. The scene is based on the concept art by Titus Lunter and features a whole bunch of various assets, cool lighting effects and very cool decorative materials. In this little interview with 80.lv Sarah talked about her pipeline and shared some advice, which will definitely help young artists to approach such huge environment productions.
I am actually pretty new to game industry. I was working as architecture designer and architectural visualization render artist for two and half years, however, my true interest is game art. I have been a big gamer since I was a kid. To achieve this goal, I took some time to focus on individual classes at Gnomon Visual FX School, and also learning daily from my husband who is working in the game industry. Since then, I have become very familiar with game industry art workflow, such as maintaining proper pixel density, layering PBR materials, creating reusable tileable textures, UV map tricks, etc. I have learned from many professionals and am continuing to adopt their techniques into my workflow.
Having graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) through the Master Degree – Architecture Design program I have gained strong experience in architectural design and rendering plus lighting experience. I have a good sense of realistic space which I gained through 7 years of studying architecture and 2.5 years of working as a professional architectural artist.
Creating the Victorian Environment
It is not a replica of real room. The idea comes from the abandoned royal family home. It was made as if it were for a game, so it might be a little dramatic. I made up a little story to narrow the concept style to the French revolution mixed with an early Victorian era. My story, in short, was this: a wealthy family living in the countryside of England collected and brought decor and furniture from a an auction of a palace in France. Eventually the last living heir to the English family died while overseas. The home was abandoned as it was, untouched, and unbothered other than by nature itself. The house was rarely seen or inhabited by any other person again.
The idea started in my game prop class at Gnomon, the teacher was showing one of Titus Lunter’s concept pieces as example. So I start to search for more concepts from this artist, and I fell in love with the Victorian room concept at first sight. I liked the lighting and dramatic mood a lot. Also part of me wanted to challenge myself to do Victorian scene, which is one of the hardest styles to model , in my opinion, with its semi-organic shapes repeated in a luxurious fashion. Together with the foliage, I thought it would be a pretty well rounded exercise to display the different skills that were essential to environment artist. Instead of making this scene as one piece for my portfolio, I tried to break it down to different categories like destruction, ornate wood and stonework, fabric, character modeling, foliage etc.
Environment Production Breakdown
The main stages of production were making props to enrich the scene. After asking for permission from Titus Lunter I started with blocking out the scene and setting up the main camera to match with the concept. Since I can’t have the exact scale of the room or use a floor plan, matching the camera to the concept is the best way to keep things tight. Also, having an architecture background helped a lot interims of maintaining scale and proportion.
After I got the general block out completed with simple cube geometry I created a kind of “art sheet” to further define my work flow, such as creating modular pieces, tileable textures, and basically figuring out which parts can be reused, maximize UV space, and what props are going to be unique pieces. And then from there, I just follow the order of biggest to the smallest as to what I will complete.
In UE4 I like to see my lighting preview without the detailed props (I’ll use some stand-in cube geometry to start). It’s good to get some decent lighting in early on so that I have an idea of what the direction will be before I add in the more complex assets.
My goal is to become an environment artist working in the game industry, so a general knowledge and control over the style and continuity of my art is crucial. Honestly, there was so much I didn’t know going into this and I had to learn a lot while working. As I was coming to the end of this project, I felt confident that I could achieve the look I wanted. One of the biggest challenges for me, and probably all environment artists, was that it’s almost impossible to get the reference exactly the way you like it whether you are gathering photo reference or finding textures to use. Almost every time I was creating an asset I needed to redesign something from references I found to make those props and textures ideal. The chair, for example, was combined with a couple features from the right-side image below to match my environment.
In terms of modeling, I don’t do anything different from what most students learn in their 3d courses; block out the big shape in Maya, if there is a complicated décor piece I will use the Maya tool “Quad Draw” to get the general shape figured out as much as possible since it will save sculpting time in ZBrush.
The main principles I stick to during my modeling is being patient and smart about how to reduce the amount of work.
Creating tileable decorations or texture trims will save time and UV space.
Building the Materials
I mostly used Substance Designer and Painter to generate textures. It definitely enhanced the production speed. The crucial part of maintaining my materials is creating my own material library. I can mix and match the materials I already have so I can make the scene look cohesive and keep all of the assets within the same style. Using “smart materials” in Substance helps a lot even though they still need a lot of tweaking, depending on the geometry they can certainly reduce the time it takes to recreate matching material types on multiple assets.
The grey spheres and square icons are materials I created for this scene.
Production of the Vegetation
Flora are always difficult because I want it to look lush and organic but I also need to be smart with my polycount to make them practical. For the tree, I divided it into three parts, the main trunk, the medium-sized branches and the smaller branches with leaves. The main trunk is a unique sculpt, the medium-sized branches are modular, and I made reusable 2D alpha planes for the smaller branches with leaves. For the bushes, depending on the size of the leaf, smaller ones will be 2d card, bigger wide leaves should have some curve to their geometry. Many of these smaller leaf materials can be combined into one large 1k or 2k map to reduce the number of textures needed. For the leaf textures a subsurface material will help to achieve the realistic look with the proper lighting.
Composition of the Scene
I think in most production studio cases, artists will import reusable props one by one at an origin of 0,0,0 for another artist to find in a library and reuse somewhere within the game. However, if you are like me working on a solo project, you already know your whole plan and it will be faster to position props in Maya. The biggest problem for me was still the positioning since it was impossible to get everything into Unreal with one import. So it’s hard to match the prop when I have to import them separately, the X,Y,Z coordinates won’t match. But with some effort, I can still get them in the right place. Having used 3Ds Max in the past I remember there was a plugin that solved this issue which I have not figured out a solution for in Maya..
I chose UE4 mainly because it was freeJ to use and also it’s one of the most widely used third party engines for game studios. Might help for the job hunting.
Dealing with Lighting
Lighting is always pretty hard for artists in general, I think, however having done architectural rendering in my previous career I learned how to position the light in different situations. It does take some time to learn lighting, and the only way to learn is by doing. The main rules are creating contrast but also not over blooming and leaving dark corners.
I try to get a basic lighting pass to work first.
Next I go into a detailed lighting pass for each asset, trying not to destroy the overall contrast.
I baked the light maps in UE4 after having made sure each group of assets had some sort of lightmap UV set. For the stained glass, I had to create the pattern by myself and then follow the thread on a UE4blog called “Material Editor – How To use Colored Translucent Shadows”
Honestly I am still in the learning phase myself. I think setting specific goals and planning ahead will help a lot, it is almost more like setting up your learning goals. Think about “what can I learn through doing this piece or scene?” And “how long the professional production time will be?” For me, it took about three months (minus a wedding, a honeymoon and visiting family for the holidays) to finish this one from scratch. So that’s one big challenge, I guess you could say, it’s really hard to get back on track after a long vacation.
The most important thing I keep in mind is how much I want to work in game industry. I still remember that I wrote in my Myspace blog “my dream is working for Ubisoft and to go to E3” when I was a high school student in China. It’s always my dream even after I chose a different major. So I think motivation is the key to push me going forward and to over come all kinds of challenges.