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Hello! My name is Felipe Alves Afonso, I’m a 3D Environment Artist from Brazil and I've always had a passion for stylized visuals. I’ve been working in the game industry for nearly 6 years starting as a 3D generalist but quickly switching to what I like the most – Environment and Level Art. I worked at several companies including Hoplon Infotainment and Kokku Games and contributed to such titles as Heavy Metal Machines, Surviving Mars: Project Laika, Sniper Ghost Warrior: Contracts and several unannounced projects yet to come.
My curiosity and love for art were ignited when I was a child, but a career in 3D art came a bit later. At first, I created drawings and even small animated interactions using Flash which fascinated me and opened a new world of content creation. Eventually, it pushed me to dive deep into studying how to produce interactive art such as games.
The Blacksmith's Shack: Inspiration
At the time of this project, I was really digging into vernacular architecture; it was impressive to me what people could do using only the natural surrounding elements, especially with the lack of machinery and, most curiously, always achieve this unique look in the end. So I decided to translate something similar to a 3D environment! Then I started searching for a lot of fictional and real-life references to try and assemble a concept by myself, but during those searches, I came across this stunning concept art by Xin Xia that fit my idea well.
I also decided to push this scene to another level of stylization, especially in terms of texturing; I neither wanted to do traditional cartoonish art with a super clean approach nor realistic. I was really inspired by Adolf Lachman (Amanita Design Visual Dev) and Oga Kazuo (Ghibli's Background Artist and Art Director) who with their own unique style know how to beautifully mix real-world references with imaginative elements, translating them into impressive stylized environments. I tried to do something on my own with these things in mind.
During the initial modeling process, I avoided small objects and focused on the big picture with a consistent scale; the blockout was done in 3ds Max, then I refined it using ZBrush. So, I sculpted it all reusing some of the rocks and wooden structures but always finishing with another pass of sculpting to keep the asymmetric style. That was the longest step as I didn't want too much modularity for the main elements to preserve this vernacular and unique look.
I really like to work in phases: first, the block and shape volume must work as a solid composition, then you add big volumes to your sculpt and so on until you reach the smallest elements.
For retopology, I just exported my decimated sculpt back to Max, then did the retopology work there. For the UVs, I used headus UVLayout to quickly unwrap and arrange my islands, then sent it back to Max to rearrange/fix the UVs' positions manually and set it all up for texturing.
For the most part, I don't have an extremely strict linear workflow for texturing because I like to experiment during the process with new materials/masks and also extract elements from other smart materials that I think might help me in the current project. But I like to follow the same phases mentioned above, beginning with the main basic color, adjusting the roughness and metallic levels (here, I like to work with the whole scene together to see how elements interact with each other), then adding some color variation and dirt layers until I reach the smallest details. I paid double attention to the last step in order to avoid pushing those micro details too much and lose the stylized/non-realistic look.
A nice tip is to observe nature and pay attention to the intersections and interactions between the elements; such things contain information that follows logic and adds to the natural look. Like a mossy cover on stones that passed through wet weather, or coal in the furnace that makes everything messy and black. I try to keep this in mind all the time during my workflow.
I wanted to add some life to the thatched roof in order to avoid the boring static look. Firstly, I made a high poly base for it focusing on the volume, refining its flow, and using the same details as in the modular elements. Then, I sculpted some bush variations to play with modularity and disguise repetition. There are basically a lot of planes animated with bones. Then, I exported all objects to Marmoset and scattered them around manually to avoid weird overlaps or a wrong flow.
Remember to always double-check if everything is working correctly when you're finished with animation.
Preparing the Renders
Finally, when the main structure was working and the props were ready to shine, I started composing the environment. I like to move between composition and lightning, I think that working on them together helps refresh the eyes and provides new insights. When I was setting up the lighting I got the idea to create a fake tree and animate it to project subtle shadows over the scene. From this new concept of trees surrounding the scenery, another idea came – to add tiny sticks and leaves that fell from the trees on the ground to give it a more natural look. Without these details, the scene would've looked too clean and lacking in the storytelling and atmosphere.
I also animated the emissive intensity of the blaze in the furnace to enliven the ambiance; I was so excited by the results that I decided to set up a dark night scene using a cold palette to contrast and highlight the complementary color of the ember.
When everything comes together, I like to add the final post-production touches: sharpen the textures a bit to avoid too much blur and maintain the consistency of the details, equalize the whole color composition, balance the contrast and exposure, and use a little chromatic aberration to break the monotonous silhouette lines a bit.