I figure a solid place to start with all of this is the beginning. The premise of this entire project was the create a scene that looks quite fantastical and imposing. Over the Summer when I was preparing for the project, I began gathering a load of reference for various projects, including this one. Some of my main points of reference were Exeter Cathedral and the Red Keep from Game Of Thrones/A Song Of Ice And Fire.
As it happens, I live in the midlands in England where there happens to be quite an abundance of intact castle ruins that are preserved by the National Trust and open to the public. This meant that I had access to a lot of real-world references that I could always take inspiration from, which is the most important part of any project.
If anyone is interested in seeing some of these reference pictures, there's a Pinterest Board that I've put most photo's on if anyone wants to use them at any point. Over the next few weeks I plan on adding more that I've neglected to put up.
When I was thinking of all the different ways I wanted to tackle this, I was browsing ArtStation and Google for some artists that inspired me to push my work as far as I could. I'll post a few links to specific projects below for anyone to go and have a browse - I highly recommend these guys as their work is out of this world!
Paolo Puggioni: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/xeenR
Cui Xiaoyu: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/r6y85
Shawn Kassian: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/zNREZ
Phil Liu: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/qloDL
Jen Ravenna: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/DleYy
Floyd Billingy: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/OmeRy
Karen Stanley: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/r9LaL
Paul Dalessi: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/Negb
Florent Vilbert: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/6zGwx
Thiago Klafke: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/KOoQy
Boyd McKenzie: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/ELq0n
Soo A Hong: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/ama8L
James Rosenkranz: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/r951a
Cassandra El Mhaia: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/RqrYy
Alongside all of this fantastic artwork, I was lucky enough to have a friend who kindly did a quick photobash/paintover of the Red Keep Throne Room in August to help give me a general idea of what I was hoping to achieve by the end of the project. His name is Adam Thompson (ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/admthpn ) and his work has been beyond helpful.
This was a huge help because I tend to work best when I have a concept I can directly compare and base my work off of. Another set of photos that really helped alongside this were a few shots from Exeter Cathedral, and you can see the inspiration from both throughout the project.
While my initial block-out was slightly different, it was enough to begin working on it.
I wanted to follow the Naughty Dog approach to my scene and general workflow, while also experimenting with things I hadn't really delved into before. My lessons at Staffordshire University for modules called MAGE (Mastering the Artistry of Game Environments) and ADMOD (Advanced 3D Modelling) really helped me understand the whole process of creating an environment much more. Before, I'd never heard of the idea of storyboarding a scene, I'd never considered doing a Value Pass, or a Colour Pass. These were new concepts to me, but ever since I've noticed a drastic improvement in my work from the very start. It's easier to balance albedo's, easier to get an idea of composition etc.
One thing I noticed very early on in my planning and reference gathering was that many buildings that were similar to what I wanted to create were symmetrical. This helped with the modularity, because it meant I only really had to model half of the room and then I could use smaller models and props to break it all up.
I got through the initial block-out in Maya fairly quickly. I wanted a lot of large, rounded pillars to break up the large flat surfaces and give it a more organic feel, as very early on I decided I wanted my focal point/Hero Asset in the scene to be a large tree wrapping its roots around the Throne.
The block-out for the tree was very quickly done in SpeedTree and then brought into UE4 to help get an idea of positioning, size etc. It was a lot of back and forth for an hour or so while I made sure it was still large and grand, but didn't clip through any walls or anything like that as I wanted to use it later on in the process.
To begin with, I was focusing on one or two camera angles and I wanted to get those set up in UE4 as quickly as possible. If I got my cameras set up early on, I could focus the environment around their composition and really get the most of them, which is something I've really struggled with in the past and I feel has really let some of my final renders down.
Eventually, I settled on three main cameras, which you'll see most screenshots taken from. I decided to go with a symmetrical shot from the entrance of the room, a low angle closer to the Throne and a third camera that was higher than the previous two, looking down on the scene as a whole.
Doing the inital Colour Pass was really useful as it gave me an idea of what materials I could use where to compliment what I could. Initially, I wanted the floor to be quite a dark marble and have the long 'rug' a nice pale green to compliment the bright red leaves on the tree. Having the marble floor quite dark meant that the green would 'pop' a little more and hopefully lead the eye. I noticed that a lot of similar buildings tended to use lighter stone, and once my block-out was complete, I could tell why - it helps lighten the room up considerably. It also worked out being a nice contrast to the dark floor tiles.
I wanted to get a good base for a Master Material fairly early on in the process to save me a headache later on down the line. I wanted as much as possible in this scene to be as re-usable as possible. As a result, I based my entire texture/material work off of UV's. Each model has three UV channels;
UV Channel 0: Unique Unwrap for baking and generating masks in Substance.
UV Channel 1: Lightmap.
UV Channel 2: Tiling Material UV's.
While this means I have a lot of Material Instances, it does mean that I can update things fairly quickly if I need to. With the Material Functions, I merely layer each part of the Master Material in them and then Lerp them together based off of Masks.
I have Material Functions for;
- Model Bakes (Normal and AO)
- Tiling Materials
I have plans to add in options for Vertex Painting and a few different grunges, but for now it's all fairly straight forward and simple. I also apologise for the noodles in advance.
A wonderful technique I was introduced to last year, and completely changed the way I approach my work now, was Trim Sheets. The ability to put tiling detail anywhere I want it at very little overall cost is absolutely amazing. Ever since I was introduced to the technique, I've attempted to incorporate it in some degree in each project I've worked on. With this project in particular, I wanted to keep with the organic feel of the scene as a whole. Because of this, a lot of the trim that I've used so far is floral. I gave it its own basic Master Material based off of the original so I can layer dirt and damage on it separately from the rest of the models to make sure it doesn't get overwhelmed.
I plan on revisiting the Trim Sheet as a whole so I can add some more elements that I can use to break some surfaces up. I'll be looking into that a little later on when I'm putting the final touches on models and such.
I began making progress on some modular pieces and started to play with silhouettes. I wanted to really push each and every one of my models this time around by giving a Zbrush Pass to most, if not all of my pieces in the High-Poly. Through doing this, you get a much nicer model with much better fidelity through using this method.
Very early on, I wanted to play with the organic feel of the scene. I got the idea when I was reading about house Tyrell in Game of Thrones and wanted to incorporate something like that, while also attempting to make it a little imposing at the same time. While a lot of this is going to come later on, I thought it worth trying at the very least, if only to make it a little different.
The actual models themselves in the few weeks prior to making this blog actually took a few different iterations until I was somewhat happy with them. The most notable were the large Jade pillars on either side of the Throne and the change to the marble floor. I found that once I had the vaulted ceiling in, the dark marble was sucking up all the light and just looked black. I'm happy with the change, though the floor does need some work, both in material and in the Mesh.
I've played with the lighting continuously whole I've been working on this, and while originally I was playing with Stationary Lights, I was getting some very noticeable and irritating lighting errors that seemed to be corrected after swapping to purely Static Lighting. I plan on putting in some Stained Glass behind the Throne, but I still need to set up a proper Glass Shader in UE4.
My current area of focus is the Throne and the Tree as they're the last pieces to really get out of my 'Block-out' stage, but just because a model is past that 'stage', doesn't mean it's the final one.
From this point, I'll be updating the blog each week (baring any emergencies) and any feedback or comments would be more than welcome. If anyone learns anything from my process then that's even better!