3D Artist Rex Lucila shared an enormous breakdown of the Adeline environment, thoroughly explained the modeling and texturing processes, and gave some important pieces of advice on lighting environments.
Hello! I’m Rex Lucila. I am a Jr. 3D artist from the Philippines and an alumnus of Vertex School’s Game Artist Bootcamp (specializing in Environment Art). Before Vertex, I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture. The architecture industry was not for me though. One of, if not the only thing I enjoyed was the 3D modeling and visualization. Over the years, I would slowly research and explore other career paths along that vein. It was when I played Uncharted 5 and Horizon Zero Dawn that I fell in love with the beauty and immersion of game worlds. I then realized that I could be a 3D Artist. I still wasn’t fully convinced yet, so I still kept going with college.
After graduating with only a year of work experience, I was no longer happy where I was. I tried my best to push through, but it had taken a toll on my mental health. I quit and started learning 3D modeling, lighting, etc., on Pluralsight. To test my new skills after a few months, I worked on 2 projects – Wall-E and Count Dooku’s Lightsaber. I was satisfied with the result though it felt too slow. I wasn’t getting where I needed to be at a reliable pace. One thing lead to another and I stumbled upon Vertex School. The thing that stood out to me about their Bootcamp was that they let us choose what to specialize in – characters or environments. Aside from that, it was only 9 months; long enough for deep learning but short enough that I could start applying for jobs within a year.
My Pluralsight journey was roughly a year and a half, resulting in 2 good-but-could-be-better projects. Meanwhile, under Vertex School, my skills massively jumped in just 9 months. And here’s the plot twist – I got a job 3 months before graduating! With each term, I posted my works on many platforms and groups outside of ArtStation to increase my exposure – Facebook, Instagram, and Linkedin. At the time, it felt pointless because of minimal likes and low engagement overall. It paid off in the end though! It was in one of those Facebook groups where the recruiter found one of my works, and eventually my ArtStation portfolio. And that is how I became a Jr. 3D Artist working with assets in Augmented Reality (AR).
Studying at Vertex School
The Bootcamp is split into 3 terms, 3 months each. Term 1 has us focusing on developing our foundation skills – 3D modeling, sculpting, texturing, lighting, presentation, portfolio-building, etc. It was here that I learned the most. In just the first month, I tripled my knowledge about game art in an instant! For the capstone project, I wanted to go for something challenging, so I picked a Piano Accordion. Challenging, but worth it!
For those taking the environment specialization, Term 2 was about creating a modular corner building. Here, we were encouraged to experiment a lot to help expand our skillset to prepare for Term 3. My project was set in Amsterdam. The more I worked on it, the more ambitious I got, and the bigger the scope of the project ended up becoming. Again, I wanted to challenge myself. The result could have been better, but it was still worth it.
Term 3 was the most flexible of all. We could choose our project. We could design our scene or find a concept art as a base. This was where we would do less experimenting and focus on creating a beast of a portfolio piece. Although, the approach I took yet again was to challenge myself. It was the final capstone, the cherry on top of my future portfolio, so I took a high-risk, high-reward approach again. The process didn’t go smoothly as planned, but I surely grew and outdid myself despite that.
Studying the Concept Art
The concept I chose was titled Workshop, created by Xavier Ward. It’s as if I always find something new when looking at it. The first thing Jacob suggested doing when I decided to do this was to have backups if I were to push through with this concept. Break the scene down into different levels and plan out camera angles that would frame the scene in different sizes. My ultimate goal was to do the full concept, but if I couldn’t finish it, then I could frame it in a way that shows the scene to be smaller.
After that, I would start studying the concept and break it down. Luckily, Xavier’s ArtStation post had some background story to his concept. So now it was time to start researching. First was the setting of the scene. It had a steampunk aesthetic to it, but if I were to break it down further, it seemed to lean towards dieselpunk, a subcategory of steampunk. After a bit more digging, I roughly established the scene to be in the Victorian era during a world war. This helped me find more accurate references moving forward.
Now that the general period and location were established, I started gathering references for the assets themselves. For the architectural assets, I searched for manors (and castles when I had a hard time looking for stone walls). I also explored the Victorian Era for furniture. When I was searching for them, I came across the ‘cylinder desk’ design. It wasn’t in the original concept, but I added it to give a bit more flair. That prop was actually what solidified my 2nd camera angle (the cluttered scene). Finding references for all the props was a grind, but Jacob would always say that planning for everything goes a long way (or something along those lines). I tried to collect as many references per prop, and because there were a lot of props, I created separate PureRef files to keep things organized.
Blocking Out the Scene
The original concept art has only one angle. That meant that the main camera angle was set already. The entire scene would be created around that one shot. So first, I started blocking the sizes of the architectural pieces to get a feel for the scale. I adjusted my perspective camera settings (focal length) in Maya so I know how the blockout would look in Unreal. It was useful because I could make changes to the mesh in real-time rather than keep moving between Maya and Unreal. I wanted to get the camera angle as close to the concept art as possible but since the concept art is 2D media, discrepancies in perspective and scale were encountered. The wheelchair was my main focus for the scale and proportion since it is the most reliable when it comes to real-world dimensions. My first iteration of the scene blockout was bigger than the final output. In terms of scale, it looked good in general but I decided to shrink it down a bit eventually. I wanted the lab to have less than ideal space for the wheelchair to move around. Plus, a smaller scene meant less clutter to fill it with! It took a bit of trial and error, but I was able to get the blockout where I wanted it.
Once that first camera angle was set up, I would bring them to Unreal, assemble them, and copy the camera angle. I assign all my materials a simple medium-grey color so I can see the highlights and shadows properly. Now I started doing block-out proxies for the hero props and other big assets. The blockout phase was important not just for scale, but it makes it easier to put updated meshes into the scene and see how it looks. While I was doing this, I also started doing a quick lighting pass. It was important for me to do a good job at lighting this time around because that was the biggest issue in my Term 2 Capstone. I would keep making adjustments now and then as I worked on each phase of the project.
As early as this stage, I started looking for extra camera angles now and then. Those extra angles helped me see the scene more as an environment rather than a painting. As the scene developed, I would find a few more nice angles. Sadly, there were a few shots that I loved but didn’t make it to the end.
The Modeling Phase
Now that I blocked everything out, it was time to start the grind. Due to the sheer amount of props in my scene, I went for a mid poly workflow for everything but the Automaton – block out, low poly, mid poly, UV, ready for texturing. But there were 3 props that I struggled with in the modeling phase – the automaton, blueprints on the drawing board, and the carpets. Coming from an architectural background, I have an affinity for dimensions and details, like hard surface modeling. These 3 props have their forms of organic-ness.
I started with the automaton which was the main focus of the scene. It was hard to determine the actual shape of it, so I had to look for lots of references on mechs and drones. Because it was vague, I had a bit of freedom to construct it. Due to its roundness with details, approaching it was tricky about the topology. I decided to try out using NURBs. I only used it to get the base shape, then I adjusted the topology later on. The legs, although much more in my wheelhouse, took me a while to do as well. I took a while to figure out the moving parts, so again. I just made one leg, then duplicated them around. I made sure to adjust the pivot points properly of each leg part so I could tweak each slightly.
Next was the blueprints on the board. I wanted them to weigh them hanging. When I tried modeling them by hand, I got close, but it was still off. So I tried something new again. I tried making them through nCloth simulations. I did have to do them in batches because my laptop couldn’t handle multiple simulations at the same time.
The carpets were approached with nCloth as well. This was trickier though because I need to get some nice folds. Simply falling wasn’t going to do it. What I did was add some transform constraints to some vertices, essentially like I’m holding the rug as it slowly falls. Then, I would remove those constraints mid-way, watch the rug land, and hope it creases nicely. This had a lot of trial and error. Once I got a nice base, I just extruded them, did a quick auto-retopology on it, and cleaned it up. And there you go!
The texturing and pre-texturing stage was actually where my timeline got disrupted. It was around this time that I was offered the job. I was honestly dazed for a few days because it happened so fast! Also (in other unrelated events), I would go on to get sick for a week and have a few minor recurring health issues making it hard to work consistently. Given the situation, I had to cut corners at this stage, mainly focusing on what was most prominent in camera shots.
The order in which I did the texturing was going from big to small. I did the first pass on the tileables (walls, floor, and arch) and also the automaton. They weren’t detailed yet since they just need to set the base quality for the rest of the props. After that, I drew a board, rugs, and a bookshelf, which took up a lot of camera space. Just like that, I would move on to smaller and smaller props until I textured everything I needed to.
The floor used Quixel textures to save time. I didn’t even put much detail or variation on them since the props drew much more attention. The weird thing is that the wall, archway, and window arches use the same texture but are applied differently. Initially, I planned on Quixel tileable for the wall, but I found it easier to make my own so I could easily implement them onto the arch and windows. So basically, I textured the arch first and made it a smart material. After that, I would bake a trim sheet, apply that smart material to it, and then put it on the walls and window arches. It was a roundabout way to do it but it works!
The majority of my props used metal and wood. Rather than starting from scratch, I used Painter’s smart materials as a base and made my adjustments and details. Then I would just create the variations by pushing and pulling the parameters to match the prop.
Another problem I encountered was the carpets. They were too detailed for me to redo from scratch. I looked online for free carpet textures. I found a nice albedo on textures.com. It wasn’t ideal for UVs, so I brought it into Photoshop to straighten it out a bit. Then I added some quick details and texture variations, and voila! The same was done for the books. Though much easier to do from scratch, the books needed more work with the placements on the scene rather than the textures themselves. I created blueprints to create different arrangements and stacks. I then arranged those blueprints doing my best to blend them and hide the fact that those are a collection of blueprints.
Vegetation is what gives this scene life. This was yet another challenge for me since this was my first time doing my vegetation using Quixel as a base. Luckily, Jacob used to be a vegetation artist! Based on the location of the scene, I tried to find the specific types of plants that were depicted. Those ended up being (1) birds of paradise, the one in the foreground, (2) money plant, the hanging vines, and (3) moonshine, the potted plants. Next, I grabbed Quixel plant textures that were as close to my references. I then brought them to photoshop where I stitched the specific leaves I wanted to use into a single texture map.
Once that was done, I exported the initial texture and brought it into Maya. There I would slap it on a plane, then make a low poly mesh for each leaf. I then did simple extrusions and made some nice bevels. The normal in the edge bevels of Quixel textures aren’t so great, which is why baking a high poly was important. I also made my high poly vines that I would bake onto a plane. After baking and applying the textures in Painter, I brought the new baked texture into Maya again on my low polys to see how they look.
Finally, I made variations of each leaf. It’s a bit of an extra step, but I used a bunch of deformers to make the mesh variations. I chose this method over manually pushing and pulling the mesh to avoid accidentally stretching the textures. Plus, I love nondestructive workflows! After creating the variations, I started piecing together the vines. I put 2 overlapping vines at angles to each other, then stuck the leaves to them, rotating and scaling them appropriately. And voila, my vegetation was done! I could have made more variations, but I think for the size of this scene and the limited amount of time I had, it sufficed. Vegetation workflow was (and still is) a daunting task, but it was a fun learning experience.
Lighting an environment is tricky. I have redone my lighting too many times for me to count. I had some references that I had to work toward, and it took many tries to get close. For the mood of the lighting, I didn’t match the concept one-to-one because I wanted to portray it differently. Since Adeline herself isn’t in the scene, that itself creates a sort of tension. Where is she? Is she dead/missing, or did she just leave? The overall mood I went for had the airiness and joy of spring, but also the loneliness and somberness of winter. Going a bit deeper, given Adeline’s situation, I wanted to show both hope and despair. Later on, I would just push these moods through my cinematic.
Moving on to set up my lights. One invaluable piece of advice from my classmate Aaron Hawkes (check his stuff out, he’s insane!) is to bring out the details in the shadows with this simple trick. What Aaron does is start by lighting the entire scene as flat as possible. It only has to be bright enough to see details. This makes it so that any shadows will have detail no matter what. Once that was done, I started on my key light, ie the sun. I had 2, one was dimmer with an extra bounce to imitate real lighting. I then put more fill lights on so that the lab had no harsh shadows since there are so many windows there (although looking at it now, I missed some pretty noticeable dark spots. Oh well!). I made sure to make the automaton a bit brighter since it is the focal point. Rim lights also helped to separate it even more.
The exponential height fog not only added a lot of depth to the scene, but it also allowed for the god rays because of the scattering. I created a rectangle light with the same angle as the sun key light. Then I adjusted some of its settings (and the height fog) so it would scatter much more than other lights.
At this stage, there are a lot of lights, and adjusting could be tricky. One key piece of advice is to adjust lights individually, so you can see how it affects the scene. I would also view it in Detailed Lighting mode if working with the colors or temperatures. Speaking of colors, I opted not to use temperature for my lights. I wanted to give it a bit more of a punch by assigning colors manually. I used a slightly orange-beige for the bright lights, while I used a blue-slight purple hue for the shadows.
When the quality started picking up, I would put screenshots of my scene next to other reference scenes for a quality check. Using a zoom-out or squint method helps to see if your work is good enough to blend in with the greats! And one last piece of advice. ALWAYS check your work on other devices. Different screens will display your scene differently. For the longest time, my scene was still so dark because my laptop screen displays it brighter than my phone.
Several times during the lighting phase, I would redo my lighting and start from scratch. Once, I tried to do a completely different lighting scenario – a night scene. I liked the first pass I made, but it gave off a very different mood than I was planning for. It strayed a bit too far from the original concept, but I guess it does work as a bonus shot. Still, I wonder what it would have looked like if I had developed it further!
As I worked on the scene, I would occasionally play around with cameras and see what angles look good. So by now, I had already settled on a few shots for the final presentation. The first is the beauty shot, the 1:1 copy of the concept art. The second one that was decided early on was the Automaton close-up since that is the hero prop and not having its shot would be a disservice. The last shot was the improvised one of the three. I wanted to focus on the drawing board since I considered it a hero prop as well. I tried looking for another angle, which resulted in the shot with the phonograph and desk. The desk was scrapped before, but this shot gave it a reason to exist. I added 2 additional shots to showcase (most) of the props I modeled.
After getting high res screenshots from Unreal, I brought them to photoshop for presentation. I decided not to do any post-processing because I might go a little too far and butcher my hard work on the lighting. The only thing I did was add the white borders with the curved corners. I set it up as a portfolio signature aesthetic of sorts so my project thumbnails could stand out just a little bit on ArtStation.
As an extra push for the scene, I also made a cinematic for it. I found some nice royalty-free music that fit the mood, then trimmed it in Davinci Resolve. I imported it to Unreal so I could do a raw blockout of the shots using Sequencer. Then I found other passing shots to fill in the gaps in the cinematic. I then rendered them, brought them back to Davinci Resolve, re-timed them to the music, then sprinkled some movie magic to create the cinematic. I finally felt relief and satisfaction when I put the ending text “3D Art by Rex Lucila”. It was like seeing the future where I could finally work on a AAA title and see my name there.
I speak for my classmates as well when I say that Jacob was tremendous help as a mentor. He would always help us break down our scenes and give us honest, constructive feedback. There’s not much to say. He was an incredible guide to us. Jacob won’t always know the best approach to some topics, but he always works to point us in the right direction. In that sense, we’re both learning something new, which is refreshing. One thing I slowly picked up from him was that attitude of always learning. He’s always trying new things. Trying something new and failing is still a success.
My colleagues were also a big factor in my growth. It was interesting to see so many different backgrounds (not just nationalities) and age groups come together and work towards a common goal. From the very beginning, they would always inspire me to improve. Some had a lot more experience and artistry than me, and I strived to be like them. Others had minimal or zero experience, but they kept improving with each week, which moved me to do better as well! There were just a few of us left by the end of the program, but we still kept cheering each other on and giving feedback.
After Vertex, I became a 3D artist working with AR. It’s not the industry I had in mind, but I still enjoy it very much! My goal is still to work for video games. I am still not sure what kind of artist I want to be - environment, technical, weapons, lighting (surprisingly). But I’ll figure it out one day as I continue to learn in my free time. One of these days, I’ll start working on a new project and maybe even try learning some basic coding en route to exploring tech art. Wherever the wind blows!
Back when I was in the architecture field, I had a very disinterested attitude toward learning. I would study and research, but only for the sake of requirements or simply going with the flow of peers. I never actually wanted to learn for my benefit. But when I made the shift to 3D art, I started doing all that on my own. And that was amplified tenfold under the guidance of Vertex mentors. There are so many things now that I want to explore. Now more than ever, I am willing to go out of my comfort zone and challenge myself in my career. This mindset shift is more precious to me that my growth in technical skills. It is no exaggeration that my experience at Vertex was life-changing.