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Hello! I’m Ben McDonald, I’m from the UK and I’m in my second year of studying (Ba) Games Art at Staffordshire University. I’ve loved art and video games ever since my dad introduced me to Tomb Raider on PS1. When I finally got a computer at around 10 I remember creating levels with a tool called Tomb Raider Level Editor and showing them off to my family.
Despite this, I didn’t know that making games was something that was available to me. Instead, I spent both high school and college preparing to apply for a degree in architecture until I was told by a peer that my local university is very well established in games development, had some great connections and a huge range of courses. I took the next year to study a foundation diploma in fine art and refine my traditional art skills before starting my degree.
I had no 3D knowledge before I started my university course, so I’ve only actually been doing 3D for just under 2 years now and I’ve loved every minute of it.
I’ve always loved exploring the worlds of games, and especially the way they make me feel. I knew that I wanted to be a part of this and that I wanted to be able to create experiences for people all over the world. It would be my dream to work on a AAA open-world title and be a part of crafting one of these worlds!
Lost Temple Ruins: Starting Off
When planning this piece, I took into consideration a couple of key skills that I wanted to learn. Foliage, exterior lighting, and mood. I wanted to create an atmosphere and a believable 3D space. For this, I had to go back to something I was passionate about, Tomb Raider. After watching the 2001 movie, I decided that I would use the Khmer architecture of Cambodia as an inspiration for the ruins of this lost temple. Despite there being so many amazing concepts available online, I wanted to create an entirely new world of my own, how I had envisioned it. As a result, I didn’t use a set concept. This allowed the development of this environment to be much more organic. It was tough at first I admit, but the further I got, the further I was able to mould it towards my vision.
We all know reference is an extremely useful tool in our arsenals, I mean how can you create something without knowing what it looks like? I believe that as a student, reference is more important than ever. I usually use PureTef to gather research however, our university recommended using Miro for this assignment, and it was super fun to use! I collated all of my references into one board and split this into different sections. I made sure I had a reference for everything I wanted to include initially, and as each stage came along I’d update my board with new references.
My final reference board:
It’s common at university for the module to ask for a reflection comparing to industry standard work at the end. I used this idea to instead compare my work to industry standard from the very beginning. I wanted to know the difference between my work and the industry-leading artists as I progressed, and use this to drive the quality of my own work as high as I could take it within my personal timeframes. I gathered references from similar environments created by some awesome artists, and used this as my “quality reference”. This was an invaluable stage as it resulted in me leveling up my own skills very quickly. I know for a fact it’s something I’ll now do on every project and is a step I recommend everyone to perform!
I bought and used a reference pack by Alexander Sköld that contains over 900 HD images of the Khmer ruins. These proved to be invaluable for the creation of the temple. To make the temple creation as simple as possible I took one of the references for a temple entrance and broke it down into some of its key components. I used this to quickly create a dirty blockout of the core pieces I’d need and assemble these together.
I took each of these into ZBrush and sculpted the high poly versions for baking. These were each to be baked into individual maps. This isn’t an optimized workflow for sure, but this provided me with the highest quality results that ultimately would produce good artwork.
I only ever use a small handful of brushes in ZBrush, I find this allows me to keep a good level of consistency within my sculpts. These are:
- TrimSmoothBorder with a square alpha: this allows me to easily add some natural edge break-up and helps to define flat surfaces.
- Clay tubes: I love using this to build up shapes and forms!
- DamStandard: I use this for lots of purposes but mainly for defining forms and edges.
- TrimCurve: This is great for blocking out rocks!
- Crumple: Another of my go-to rock brushes! This is great in addition to TrimSmoothBorder to generate some really natural edges to rocks. Also works great for adding some breakup to foliage.
- OrbFlattenEdges: This is part of the Orb pack and helps to flatten geo but retain the edges.
- OrbCracks and OrbSlashCurve: Great at making cracks.
I highly recommend the Orb brush pack for all artists who use ZBrush, they’re fantastic!
When sculpting my assets, I always use my mouse first and focus on the largest shapes. I zoom out often and ensure that my asset can be read at a similar distance it will appear from my cameras. This means that I can get the most out of each asset, and ultimately save on iteration time. Using my mouse means that I’m much freer and I know that I can’t add any unnecessary details at this stage as I don’t have the control as I would with my tablet. After I’m happy I’ll then get to work with adding further details with my tablet.
Some personal takeaways from creating the temple kit:
I textured all of my temple kit within Substance Painter using the same smart material. This allowed all of my textures to retain the same level of consistency, and it made everything much faster too! I created a really quick material within Designer and mapped this to my mesh using a tri-planar projection. I then added some red color variation and some lighter colored lichen to the mesh. These were both done by hand using paint input on a mask. I did this as I wanted to ensure my details didn’t tile too obviously, and it allowed a much more organic look. I primarily used the dots erased, mold, and pollock (from Photoshop) brushes for these.
The noise overlay was simply just a fractal sum base plugged into the height. For the moss, dirt, and dust I used the legacy mask builder generator. This is a great generator and is one of my favorites within Painter. There are a lot of parameters that allow for complex generation. I’ll often use these in combination with other generators and then take a detail pass where I paint out / in areas of the mask where it makes sense. I wanted to make sure I didn’t add too much moss in this stage, as I knew I was going to be adding some further moss in the engine through a z-up shader.
A quick breakdown of my texturing process:
The whole scene only contained two variants of rock. I sculpted a larger rock and a smaller one and ensured that all angles of the rock had a varying silhouette. This was so I can quickly bash these together to form larger rock structures. I used a couple of decals I created to add some quick color variation across forms, detail normals, and pixel depth offset to blend these rocks together.
Rock wall assembly:
The foliage was a difficult aspect of this environment for me. I’d never properly approached it and it took a couple tries to get right. I eventually settled on a workflow that worked out pretty nicely and used this for all of my assets. I sculpted my atlases in ZBrush at first, then used polypaint to quickly “blockout” a base albedo. I exaggerated the colors and normals of the foliage as I wanted these to really pop in the scene.
I bought these into Substance Designer so I could bake my maps and add any final adjustments. I’d then pack my ambient occlusion, roughness, and opacity into the red, blue, and green channels respectively. I used Maya to assemble my atlas together and then used a combination of hand placement and UE4’s foliage tools to scatter the foliage around my scene. I split my foliage into a number of texture atlases which in hindsight could have been reduced to just a couple. This is a lesson to keep in mind for next time.
Banana Palm and Taro ZBrush blockout and polypaint :
I found lighting the scene quite difficult as this was my first time handling an exterior scene. However, I used a bunch of resources to help me learn. Tim Simpson's video on lighting for his Artstation challenge came as a big help! I took a lot of inspiration from both the Uncharted and Tomb Raider series’ for the lighting, so obviously taking the time to check and compare my reference was crucial. I knew from the start the lighting would indeed be difficult, so I blocked it out from the beginning and iterated on it many times throughout to match the feel of the environment as it grew.
I also found it super useful to regularly make the scene black and white to check values and ensure that the right places stood out. In addition, I also performed squint tests regularly to ensure that there’s a good amount of color variation and a clear distinction between forms.
Black and white & squint test:
My lighting setup was pretty simple in the end. I had a main directional light, exponential height fog and a skylight to do my heavy lifting. Then it was a matter of adding bounce light and figuring how to catch the details of my sculpts. An important note for the bounce light was to ensure that cast shadows are turned off and that the color matched that of the surrounding objects. I used a number of spotlights that were slightly warmer or cooler than the rest of the scene to emphasize some of the details here. These were used primarily on the roof of the temple, and the roots growing down the rocky pillar.
I also used DFAO within my scene to create some really nice AO. A green tint also helped to push the colors of the foliage a bit further too.
Distance Field Ambient Occlusion settings:
Lighting setup, detailed lighting, and lighting only:
I had never understood the true power of polish until I reached this stage of my scene. It’s the small aspects that sell the atmosphere. I used Epic's Blueprints demo project for a couple of blueprints that would help tie the scene together. These were the light beam, dust, and butterflies. Just by adding these, I had breathed so much more life and motion into the scene than just some foliage moving in the wind. Taking the extra day to tie everything together is a killer key to turning a static image into a living environment.
I’ve found that there has been a number of key factors to improving my own skills over the last few months:
Firstly, I think it’s essential to have a place where you can go for feedback. There are plenty of discord servers that have helped me to grow as an artist, namely ExperiencePoints, the 021-Space, and my university community. It’s very important to surround yourself with like-minded individuals as their feedback is always invaluable.
Secondly, and I’ve said it a lot through the article, is to simply learn to fail. Most certainly as a student, you’re going to get things wrong or something won’t look great. This is fine. You should accept this and use it to grow. Improving as an artist takes a certain mindset, distancing yourself from your work, and evaluating what you can do better the next time this problem comes along.
This scene began its life as one of my second-year university modules in line with other modules, so I probably spent around 2 or so months total on this scene. Since it was submitted I spent some time polishing and pushing it as far as possible. This really makes a difference and I’d advise all fellow students to go above and take pride in their art! I learned a lot while making this and I look forward to making my next project.
I’ve learned that taking care of your own mental health is incredibly important no matter the workload and I couldn’t have got this far without my partner or family. I’d also like to take a moment to say thanks to two good friends of mine, Alfie Summers and Jose Paredi, as this piece wouldn’t be what it is without them.
Thank you so much for reading my article! Huge thanks to 80LVL for giving me the opportunity to write this article. I hope something here has helped or inspired you. Please feel free to get in touch with me.