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Team Challenge Participants
February 26, 2021

Building a stylized magical hideout

Timothy Dries
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Give us a short little overview about yourself?

Ioana Oprisan: Hi, my name’s Ioana and I’ve been in games for two and a half years. My educational background is in architecture and marketing (odd combo) and I even worked in market research for a while before I turned to games. I’d always wanted to work in games and I’ve always known my affinity lies with environment art, so I’m happy to have found a like minded community in Beyond Extent. 

Nikkita Racquel: I’m Nikkita, I have been learning environment art for 4 years after finding my love for it in my Diploma which I then took into my Bachelor in Uni. Over that time, I’ve developed my passion for stylized, hand painted texture work which is now where I hope to now take my career.

How did you personally prepare for the challenge?

Ioana Oprisan: I had a really hectic period leading up to the challenge so I didn’t really have time to prepare. I also didn’t have much experience with stylized work either, but I knew about the workflows and, most importantly, I knew what I wanted to get out of this. I also made sure to stay up to date and really take in everything that was being uploaded to our moodboard. My goals were to get to grips with Zbrush and to get an awesome portfolio piece out of it. 

Nikkita Racquel: I didn’t really do much to prepare for this project. My wheelhouse is stylized so I was very excited and confident coming into the challenge. On the collaboration front, through Uni I’ve been a part of many team projects as well as game jams so I felt prepared enough by happenstance.

How was the organisation in the team? How we're responsibilities defined?

Ioana Oprisan: We all talked about the things we’d like to do and the things that excited us about the brief so we knew who would be up for sculpting, texturing, etc and what the big hero assets would be. Personally, I think I did a little bit of everything and was quite happy to take on things that no one else could, time allowing. My biggest responsibility was the white box and modelling the environment architecture, followed by sculpting, some of the texturing and some of the lighting.

We set very light deadlines which I think was reasonable given this was a challenge made for fun and for exploration, between full time jobs and family life, people’s commitments and expectations of it would change throughout the month and that’s normal. 

Nikkita Racquel: Organisation in the team definitely could have been better. It was my first time being any sort of project manager so I was probably a little lapse in delving out responsibilities but I wanted to let people work on what they wanted to work on by choice so everyone could be involved as much as possible.

Skills and things we wanted to work on were discussed at the start of the project so it was clear where responsibilities could be delved out and what certain things the team wanted to work on.

This was our first Stylized Challenge, how did you as a team avoid the artstyles deviating too much from each other?

Ioana Oprisan: I think some of us didn’t have much experience working in a stylized style, so I do think art styles diverged a little bit. What tied all the assets together visually was that we were very consistent across our texturing along with the lighting. For example, Jacob tweaked a stone smart material to use on his planetarium trimsheet and I used the same smart material on all the sculpted stone architecture. The remaining environment pieces used the same trimsheet and the intricate floor that Derk made has a grey albedo that we could multiply with a colour in engine to make it tie in.

The windows and door used the same metal material that Jacob used on the planetarium. We would have probably had more iterations to align our styles better if we had more time. 

Nikkita Racquel: As team manager and the one with the most experience in stylized work, I with my team made sure from the start we had a strong direction in style and our overall look. We wanted a quirky, whimsical theme to tie into our chosen concept of a more celestial environment rather than the typical magical-gothic themes we’re so used to seeing.

What are some of the props you worked on? And how did you tackle them?

Nikkita Racquel: I had the approach of keeping a simplistic modelling style to help tie everything I worked on with everything else. Following the references on our moodboard and our planned overall feel, I wanted all of my meshes to have some sort of interest to them, not just the generic look of furniture pieces.

Ioana Oprisan: We had a very detailed moodboard to base our environment on, which primarily involved a central planetarium, sky dome and circular layout. Here’s the whitebox we started with: 

We agreed we wanted a more whimsical, quirky and celestial environment rather than the heavy gothic usually associated with magic so we knew we wanted plenty of light and pleasant shapes. The slight angularity in arches was influenced by the city of Suramar from World of Warcraft which is the first place I always associate with ‘good’, ‘happy’ magic. I also think they really helped to guide the eye to the dome and give the impression of ‘ascension’. Excluding walls and floors, we didn’t have too many environment pieces: 

Besides architecture, I sculpted on furniture props made and designed by Nikkita which I then passed back on to her for baking and texturing. I used Trim Dynamic to bevel edges and Orb brushes to create details. Below is a breakdown of how I used the brushes on the chair prop: 

Here’s some of the other props I sculpted that Nikkita designed: 

Below are the architecture bits that I sculpted in Zbrush:

And the door and windows textured in Painter. To try and keep it consistent with the other environment pieces, I imported the alpha from the Orb slash brush and painted a few chips here and there to break up shape. 

How did you approach the materials and texturing?

Nikkita Racquel: Texturing for me was very experimental for this project. I had never tried combining stylized PBR with my hand painted diffuse before. I normally only texture in Photoshop as that is what I was most comfortable with but since we were on a deadline, I turned to using 3D Coat instead for the bulk of my work since it gives me the ability to paint directly onto the model and used Photoshop to make final adjustments and more intricate details.

Starting with a fill layer of base colour, I worked up from there adding in my shadows, highlights and detailing using my existing baked maps as an overall guide.

I then exported my diffuse texture and took it into Photoshop for any possible adjustments it might need.

Props that I completed in Photoshop were done pretty much the same way. I exported out my UV map for the object from Blender and used that instead to make very clean fill sections that I could then select as I was working on them to not affect the rest of the texture with my changes.

I really enjoyed the overall look that it gave and I’m excited to work with this technique more in the future. I definitely could have pushed some of these further and included more detailing but considering this was my first time trying it out, I’m happy with it.

Ioana Oprisan: Besides baking, using Jacob’s smart material and unwrapping to his trimsheet I made two materials, the tileable wall stones and the stained glass for the windows. 

For the stained glass material I used Substance Designer and I tried to recreate the lovely star shape Derk Elshof used for his floor using a Tile Sampler. It’s a really basic material where the Flood Fill node is doing the heavy lifting. Stained glass is typically made of cells that aren’t perfectly planar, creating an uneven surface effect so that lights reflects at different angles. This was easy to do using a Flood Fill to Gradient plugged into a Height to Normal node: 

And to give the glass a slightly painterly effect, I used a blurred Ambient Occlusion node blended on top of a Flood Fill to Gradient before doing some tweaks and colouring it in: 

You can find the material on my Artstation to download and check out:

The wall tileable I sculpted in Zbrush basically the same as the props, using Trim Dynamic to bevel edges, Move to break the rectangular shape and Orb brushes to finish off. I made a diagram illustrating which brushes I used where: 

I then copied and rearranged the sculpt into a wall and baked it down onto a 2x2m plane and textured in Painter with our smart material. This is the material textured. Given enough time for a second pass, I would have loved to add more colour variation and more texture because right now they look quite flat and planar. 

How did you approach the set dressing for the space?

Nikkita Racquel: Ioana was really to thank for the bulk of the set dressing. She has such a good eye for it that it was easy to follow her lead and help her fill out the space. We followed a very ‘organized chaos’ type of space where it looked like it would still be functional for someone to work out of but still was very cluttered with many possessions.

Ioana Oprisan: I am a fanatic for clutter and feel that it fills out a space really well and makes it feel like it’s lived in, less like a museum. I worked on the first and final set dressing pass.

With that in mind we had the idea of stacking bookshelves to fill out the walls rather than making fixed, rigid ones that would follow the wall’s shape. I think we had three types of bookcase, three types of book and a single type of scroll, which was more than enough to create variation and make every section look different, as well as using bookstacks intelligently to fill gaps or frame things. 

How did you approach the lighting for this scene?

Ioana Oprisan: Fran did the first pass on lighting and set the tone and the colour scheme. So I followed what was already in the map with very small tweaks, mostly adding very dim lights to brighten dark areas or to make emissives pop, especially around the planetarium and the lit up floor runes.

The setup was done with only rendering in mind so there are quite a few lights in there and with raytracing on. Below is an example of the difference a very low intensity point light makes to create more bounce:

The stained glass ‘shadows’ are actually a really basic, black and white light function where the colour is controlled by the light; I found I had to tile it quite a bit to get it to look right.

The moonray effects coming through the dome is a slightly tapered cylinder with a translucent material on it controlled by a linear gradient: 

The rays coming through the windows, however, are just spotlights with very high Volumetric Scattering. Given more time I think it would have been nice to add some dust particles to give some ‘weight’. 

The lighting isn’t realistic in the sense that a single moon could not cast equal intensity light from all sides of the tower, however I feel we had some liberty given the magical context. 

Lighting was also a very useful tool for filling in gaps in set dressing, like at the top of this wall for example. 

Trying to achieve this effect looked weird using the directional light or the main spotlight, so I had to use a second one and limit it to only cast on that wall and not the dome using the 2nd lighting channel. 

What was the biggest challenge and how did you personally solve this?

Nikkita Racquel: The biggest challenge was the adversity between team members and helping to resolve that as quickly as possible while still making sure that all of the team felt like they were heard and that what they were saying mattered.

Ioana Oprisan: I think designing a large space in as few props as possible was the biggest challenge and I’m really happy with how we achieved that. We made it look full and different at every angle.

Nikkita had this great initiative to bunch small props together in different combinations so we could fill the shelves quicker. On a personal level, like I mentioned before, I wanted to dive deep into Zbrush, which meant getting used to the UI, the tablet, to Zbrush crashing and losing my work wayyyy too often and all this while making something deliverable. And the only way to achieve that was pure perseverance (and lots of manual saving) - so if you find yourself frustrated by unfamiliar software, keep going!

How did you bring it home in the end? Any last minute hiccups?

Nikkita Racquel: It wasn't as smooth of an experience as I was hoping for but in the end, we came out with a result that I think we're all very pleased with and looks spectacular.

Ioana Oprisan: The map really came together in the last few days when everyone finalized their contributions and we passed it onto Fran for a lighting pass. We had plans that involved a botany section which would have been really awesome, but we correctly estimated that there might not be enough time and that we should focus on the essentials first.

This is when I personally got really pumped and was running on pure excitement from seeing the really cool stuff that everyone had made for this in its final spot within the environment. I cannot express how immensely proud I am of everyone and everything that was made for this.

Thanks to all the Team members for taking part in this challenge

Fran Vergara https://www.artstation.com/franvergara

Ioana Oprisan https://www.artstation.com/ioanaoprisan

Abdullahi A https://www.artstation.com/abdullahi207

Derk Elshof https://www.artstation.com/derkelshof

Jacob https://www.artstation.com/jakobson

Nikkita Racquel https://www.artstation.com/nikkitaracquel


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