My name is Felix Voigt and I am currently studying "Animation and Game" in Darmstadt, Germany. I am interested in Game Art since about four years ago and have since explored the many different fields of this craft. Nowadays I am focussing on Environment Art, because I love creating interesting sceneries. This post is about a piece I recently made and I want to share some of my workflows and thoughts with you.
My overall goal was to create a surrealistic environment, which seems cold and strange, but could possibly exist on the surface of an alien planet. It should look interesting and beautiful, but also somewhat uncomfortable. Therefore, I have decided to not include any man/alien-made structures or objects. I wanted to show the loneliness of this untouched and foreign place. Though my goal was to achieve this certain feeling, I also wanted to work on my skills in environment production. My focus lied therefore on colors, textures and materials in this one month.
As always, everything starts with the search for references. I needed to have a concrete image of the final product that I wanted to achieve of the atmosphere and the materials. This step is super important, because if you do it right, you have a much lower chance of getting any wonky results. I did this regularly after finishing a new part of the environment. I reexamined what I had finished and what my scene was lacking. It's also very important (even if you make a project by yourself) to get critique and opinions from other people, because there is always something you did not see. Overpaintings are also a nice way to test things, by yourself or maybe by a colleague or a fellow student.
Materials and Landscape
So, with all that in my mind, I started my production and dived right away into World Machine. It is a handy tool to generate realistically-shaped, procedural landscapes and in combination with Geo Glyph, your toolset is becoming even bigger.
Now I've started with one of my main aspects in the scene: the landscape material. At first, I made some sand, dirt, and gravel for the trenches and then moved on to the stones, inspired by some places found in Iceland. I created the stone in Substance Designer, which is one of my favorite tools. Working with it feels natural and straight forward and you have a good control over the texture, details, and layers. The landscape overall is very arid, but the forms should show, that there was once water or another liquid, that formed and eroded the land. I tried many iterations and approaches in Substance to this material but was never satisfied. My stone materials just never showed this naturally eroded flow I wanted to achieve. Therefore, I tried an unusual approach and made a height map in World Machine. There I had perfect control over erosion and weathering effects and could then built my texture on top of that inside Substance.
I liked the product I was heading for, but there was still not enough color contrast inside the picture. I needed some rhythm and something interesting in my scene. After a lot of thinking and discussing with my colleagues, I decided to make some sulfur and sulfur smoke. I found some excellent references, like the Dallol and Ijen volcano. To reduce draw calls, I tried to merge textures where I could, like putting simple greyscale textures into a separate channel, instead of using a single texture for it. Skipping the blue channel of normal maps and recalculating it inside the shader is also a good trick.
The scene still looked a bit empty and I needed to get more rhythm and harder shapes in the picture. So I started producing some stones to place them in the scene. My workflow, therefore, was pretty standard. I've started with a sculpt and retopology in Zbrush, baked in xNormal, and textured in Substance Painter. More interesting here are the materials I made. To create a nice highlight on the gray stone and a good contrast to the sulfur, I placed a height-based fade which merged into a more turquoise and grainy material.
My lighting was simple in this scene but had nonetheless an important impact on the atmosphere. I played around a little bit and finally decided on a morning sun, as the light in that time of day is bright and powerful. Because of this, my setup consisted of just a directional light and an atmospheric sunlight. For the sky, I relied on a simple atmospheric fog and an exponential height fog.
Now the main part was done, but it somehow did not feel ready yet. First I created the sulfur smoke to get some movement in there, because I also wanted a short video. As I made the cameras for most of the shots I realized that the sky, which made up a large part, was still very empty. To create a point of attention, I made an asteroid belt, which cut through the uniform sky. Last but not least, I carried about post processing and made the picture clearer and highlighted the yellows and blues. Making a LUT inside Photoshop and exporting it to Unreal is, therefore, a very handy trick.
I felt satisfied with my final result, because I pushed my artistic boundaries a bit further and got the scene I was looking for. Here are the most important things I paid attention to:
- even if you work on a solo project, get the opinions of other people, friends or even from online forums
- also in terms of futuristic settings: try searching for already existing reference material, you won't believe what strange places are existing on this planet
- think about what you want to achieve, what ideas and feelings you want to deliver to the viewer
- always know your tools, as it is possible to use them in a different way, to approach the results you are looking for
- manage your textures as good as possible, as they are crucial to your performance