Reflective Evaluation – Creative Decision Making

This post acts as my 500 word reflective post on my creative decision making, as required in the project brief.

As a concept artist, it’s essential to be self-critical. I am constantly evaluating the work that I put out and thinking about how I can tweak it to improve it, or how I would produce a better result if tasked to do it all over again.

Throughout the past 3 months I have spent a huge amount of hours working on my craft and meeting the milestone goal deadlines that I’d set for myself for this project. As I was right at the start of the pipeline, a lot of the decisions made by me had a large impact on the creative aesthetic of the project as a whole. Of course, with my designs there is room for interpretation, and Lee and Joe both take liberties where and when is needed to ensure that the final result looks good in engine.

I’ve made a series of creative decisions and judgement calls about the best way to present the various designs that I’ve done for the project. At times, such as with the Demon Crypt, a very fast concept sketch is done based on a rough 3D model and paintover.

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This serves it’s purpose as it is an informative drawing about the structure of an interior, and is not meant to be a piece of key art, or to set a mood. Joe had already got the materials for everything in engine, so it was a matter of showing those existing assets in a new arrangement.

At other times I have developed a more cinematic style, such as with early concepts for the island which utilised more dramatic lighting

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I’ve also done detailed schematics and breakdowns, as well as material indications for something like the Ballista piece, which was a complex mechanical structure with moving parts. This gives Joe a very clear overview of what to model, and eliminates any questions about the design.

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Lastly, the most detailed overview that I can give is actually a full 3D sculpt of the concept, complete with a paintover to showcase the materials, like I used with the Plague Wraith.

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My original goal with this project was to utilise the skills and software knowledge that I had developed over the course to produce concepts to the best of my ability. Despite this, I did actually end up utilising some new software – Marvelous Designer as I knew that I wanted a fabric simulation for the robes of the Plague Wraith creature for realistic looking folds in 3D. I made took an objective decision that it would be a worthwhile investment and luckily I found it very intuitive to use and did not waste much time figuring out how it would be incorporated into my workflow.

The method of execution and presentation is dependent on the needs of the artist it is being handed off to, and so a critical decision  is made as to the best and most time efficient way to do that. Within a real game studio setting it would be highly unlikely that each concept was given the opportunity to be developed to a very high standard as there simply isn’t the time or the money available to do that in active production.

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A note on team work

As this has been a group project it has taken a lot of co-ordinated effort to pull it all together and I’m proud with the result that we’ve managed to achieve.

Fluid and flexible teamwork have been pretty essential to this project, and I’m pretty happy to say that it’s largely been a success. There have, of course, been very minor problems with miscommunication, but they have had no bearing on the overall project and are minor enough so as not to warrant mention.

Communication – we have a Facebook group chat which is useful for text updates and sending screenshots that we have used every day throughout the project, and we have also have a Google Hangouts where we have spent many of our evenings working together. The screen-share option in Hangouts is very useful for obvious reasons, anyone with a technical question can be helped very easily, and it also enabled me to view Joe and Lee’s live execution of my concepts, which I could comment upon.

A note on team dynamics – Lee has fallen into a role of being project co-ordinator, which is natural, as the project was his idea to begin with. His management style has adapted to our group dynamic – he is fairly hands off for two reasons – firstly he trusts me and Joe to do our jobs, and also he has his own workflow to manage (as well as working freelance himself).

My direct involvement with Lee has been general thoughts and discussions about world-building and art style, as well as working on the Elf character, which went past the concept stage as I then went on to assist with the texture and alpha creation for the armour.

Outside members – Lee is in a better position to comment on the roles of Jan Kaluza (Technical Artist), Matt Jenkins (Character Rigging), Adelaide Coldham (Animation) and Sanna Kempe (Assisting Game Artist), although I have worked directly with Sanna on game assets where I sculpted the high-poly versions and she got them down to being game ready.

Honestly it’s been delightful to work with everyone – all the team members have been highly professional, and most importantly, very enthusiastic about their work.

I cannot comment on professional dynamics within a game studio, as my own personal experience has been from a freelance perspective, but I’d imagine that, as with other types of businesses, the management styles, corporate structure and production pipeline all vary pretty widely dependant on studio size, the type of game being worked on, and general scope of the projects.

Reflection – Identification & Evaluation of New Learning

This post acts as my 500 word reflective post on my new learning over the module, as required in the project brief.

Now that Lee and Joe have finished with the final version of an actual playable demo of the game – I’m excited to say that after all that hard work it’s available for download here!

It’s probably a good time to look back over my individual methodologies and analyse the effectiveness of those… Examining the Learning Outcomes that I had from the Practice 2 Media module, I would say that many of these lessons have been worked upon throughout this project.

Time management has been a big thing for me throughout the whole year, and in particular this last term as it’s seen the most amount of hours per week consistently put into it. I have a part-time freelance job in Graphic Design, and work at least 2 days a week doing that. Although there has been some raised eyebrows about that in the past and whether I would be able to keep up with the demands of the course, I can honestly say that it’s been a fairly welcome change to have that variety (and also not be massively stressed about a source of income whilst studying).

Project Planning – The Gantt charts that we set at the start of the project with our pre-production folder has been largely adhered to, with a few exceptions. I have reached all of my project deliverables, apart from one – the Dragon Harness, which was swapped out for a Ballista design (full explanation of that here). There was a lot of built in time towards the end of the project where I had anticipated for doing support work for Lee and Joe, and we utilised all of that time pretty efficiently. It also afforded me some extra time to go through everything and get it all into my project presentation sheets, which was also one of my project deliverables.

3D & 2D Techniques, I feel that I’m at a point now where I can comfortably hop back and forth between the two simultaneously, for example doing WIP paintovers on active production models (as blogged about previously), and I feel that as the end of the project got closer I was much more fluid with this. In particular my work with the Plague Wraith I felt was pretty fleshed out and took advantage of almost everything that I’d spent the year learning. I would say that it is one of the stand-out pieces in my portfolio because of this.

Using basic blockouts has also been integrated much more into my style. Whilst ZBrush is fantastic for those organic shapes, it’s great to be able to block out large architectural forms for when it comes to more environment centric concept art. Although my work on the modular designs for the castle relied on some base shapes pre-determined by Joe (thanks to a modular grid system to ensure that everything snapped together)

Digital Painting I feel has also improved, I started the module with a 30 day challenge to paint every day, and did a series of self-developmental studies that had no-relation to the project, but was part of the ‘sharpen the axe’ mantra written about previously. I’ve noticed that I’m less reliant on line work in my concepts (unless it’s been the strictly instructional work like with the Elf Armour breakdowns where that style is beneficial), and am a lot more confident in describing form with colour & light.

Critical self-awareness – As a critically self-aware comment on myself, my work is not yet at the standard that it should be for a professional concept artist.

That is a fairly bleak sounding self-assessment, but I believe it to be a fairly honest interpretation. To have not yet reached a bar where I would consider an Art Director would look at my portfolio and want me on their team is not an analysis that puts limitations on me, or in any way brings down the work that I have done this year, as I believe that having taken the time and effort to really focus on my craft I have improved a huge amount.

I feel that my latest work is beginning to do that, in particular the Plague Wraith designs I believe are starting to be of a professional quality. I feel a few more months of working on building up a portfolio of similar work utilising the same techniques will eventually get me to that position.

This makes me a more effective practitioner because I am honest with myself, my current level of ability and will not have my ego harmed by job rejections. I know there is more work to be done, and that there always will be no matter how good I get.

 

The Reference Debate

It seems that the following image by artist Jack Stroud has attracted a lot of attention recently on social media:

jack stroud ref

(Stroud, 2017)

Culturally speaking, there seems to be a lot of ‘demonisation’ around using references in illustrative work. I think it comes down to people not really understanding how the process works, and seeing it as more akin to ‘tracing’ than anything else.

I personally feel that it is true that you get to a stage with drawing skills where studying a photo it looks so close to if you had actually traced it (I know for myself that is the case with certain subjects, less so with portrait faces).

I think it’s key to consider that as long as references are used correctly (and that is another subject of debate) i.e. they are used as an element to inform a larger piece.

I’ll refer to a blog post I made back in January where I discussed my process for creating a similar image. These big cat studies were done from photo references as structural sketches to understand the variety of feline forms:

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After this informed study session I was able to utilise these references as I had built my mental ‘visual library’ and could then create the following hybrid design that doesn’t conform to any existing species – but looks like it could.

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Again, these are older images by me now, but I feel they address the study/reference/memory debate quite well.


Image Bibliography

Stroud, J. (2017). I’m here to tell you the truth about referencing in art! IT ISN’T BAD. YOU CAN’T LEARN WITHOUT STUDYING.. [image] Available at: https://twitter.com/PetrichorCrown/status/895386350605799428 [Accessed 15 Aug. 2017].

The Forefront & Personal Reflection on Development

So what exactly is the forefront of Concept Art?

There is a very high professional standard set for artwork in this industry (not just concept). Breaking in and getting a job you have to be better than, or equally as good as someone already in employment, and you are competing with people who do this day in and day out.

Throughout the course I’ve taken this as an opportunity off full time job in Graphic Design to hone skills and in doing so I have learnt a variety of new techniques and programmes. Ultimately my job is design and ideas, so I have been working on improving presentational skills to showcase my ideas as clearly as I can.

I would argue that ‘The Forefront’ of this is basically the front page of ArtStation:

artstation front(ArtStation, 2017)

And to compare that to my own portfolio on the website:mine

As a self reflective comment, it’s not hard to look between the two and honestly and frankly say that my work is lacking in quality in terms of the top industry professionals. This is no surprise to me, and is absolutely fine. It’s a long road, and as much as I want to be up there on the top, the reality is that there’s a lot of work separating me from there.

Without wanting to be too depressing, the consistent improvement that I’ve made in the past (that is pretty evident when scrolling back through my Instagram, where I keep a daily post and have done for the past 502 days, at the time of writing.)

So who would I consider to be at the forefront?

Artists tend to rise to popularity via social media and online exposure to their work. The large bulk of concept art is never really shown to the public for good reason (studio secrecy, NDAs etc), and so we are exposed to the most prolific artists with an online presence because of the nature of the internet. So there are many top tier industry professionals and art directors that don’t need an online presence because they are already very well known within their own studios or respective fields. They already get consistent work on the back of years of experience and so do not need to worry about self-promotion.

Obviously each artist has their own speciality – so this ‘forefront’ would depend on the field of concept art (games, film etc. and even deeper into that – creatures, characters, environment, props etc.)

It’s slightly unreliable to say that it’s just the front page of ArtStation, by its very nature (user generated likes) is going to be slightly generic, as it showcases a ‘hive mind’ mentality of very high quality art that can have a tendency to fall into ‘tropes’ – i.e. really well rendered anime girls, toaster head mechs & zbrush alien busts. As such, the only real way of identifying concept artists who are at the forefront is by looking towards those willing to share their techniques. Websites such as patreon, gumroad, twitch and youtube have played an important part in education about concept art, as well as online courses such as Learn Squared. Artists such as Anthony Jones and Jama Jurabaev (to name just a few) are ones who share techniques and push the forefront.

Processes and Technologies at the Forefront

Nowadays, there seems to be much more of an emphasis of 3D in workflow, tools such as ZBrush, 3DCoat, Modo, Keyshot used to create images, and photoshop used to overpaint and present. I believe that this is, in part, due to a shift towards more powerful computational power available to average person, which has brought not just 3D packages, but also rendering ones, into a wider commercial setting.

Ultimately these are still just tools though, and what should always take precedence within my field is good, clear, well presented design – and that can be done with pencils, markers and copier paper.

Current Debates and Ideas Affecting the Forefront

One big issue that I feel the industry can have is with creating original designs. I can understand why this is an issue – studios may not be too keen for their designers to really ‘push the bar’ and create something that may be considered too ‘wacky’. Sure it might be original to have a Dragon that breathes bubblegum instead of fire, but it’s a difficult idea to ‘sell’ to your audience. At the end of the day, this is the creation of a product, and products need to sell and be understood by their target audience, thus there tends to be a lot of cases where designs are ‘played safe’.

Design trends are very much prevalent, and there are a number of generic ‘tropes’ within concept art – crashed spaceships, spiky mountains etc. One obvious parody example here from the anonymous artist known as ‘Mr Concept Art’:

mr concept art(Mr Concept Art, 2017)

This is an obvious parody of the designs that many artists in the community were emulating using photo-bashing techniques to create sci-fi military near future soldiers.

How the forefront you have identified relates to commercial or usual practice (think about change and the adoption of new methodologies).

I have largely already covered the commercial practices of this field, but to recap, 3D skills much more prominent in concept art pipeline – many job listings have this as an “added bonus”, or even as an “essential skill”. I believe that this just highlights the importance of ‘sharpening the axe’ through continued progression and self-investment.


Image Bibliography

ArtStation. (2017). ArtStation. [online] Available at: https://www.artstation.com/ [Accessed 15 Aug. 2017].

Mr Concept Art (2017). Toaster Heads. [image] Available at: https://www.mrconceptart.com/ [Accessed 15 Aug. 2017].

Cinematic Presentation

I did initially want to pose the Plague Wraith so that it was in a more dynamic position for a cinematic keyframe paint up. I just thought I’d write a post detailing the why that idea was abandoned.

I did a rough test pose of the ZBrush highpoly mesh using a ZSphere rig just to figure out if there would be any hiccups along the way. I only spent an hour or so on this, but it was time well invested as it highlighted some problems that I would have further down the line.

Putting this model into keyshot, duplicating it and rendering:

POSED - PAIR

So it’s a rough pose, there are tome ugly creases that I would take the time to sculpt over (particularly on the neck) if I was to have taken this forward. At this stage that’s a minor issue as it is just a test.

There were three factors that prevented this dynamic pose – the first one was artistic decision, the second was technical and the third time related.

From an artistic point of view, I wanted the Wraith to be more of an ethereal being, whereas this pose implies a lot of weight and movement, much like a velociraptor. I always had the idea of the creature sort of floating slowly through the fog, more akin to the dementors from Harry Potter, something slightly less physical (despite my attention to the anatomy of the creature).

From a technical point of view this would have meant re-running the fabric simulation and getting that correct again. Usually this wouldn’t have been enough to stop me from figuring out a solution, and I know that I probably would have, as Marvelous does support a pose function whereby I could have re-ran the simulation and added a ‘wind’ effect to make it look like they were launching themselves forward.

I did have a fine amount of detail that I had added in ZBrush afterwards though, the burlap texture, as well as stitches and buttons that had all been carefully placed that had it turn from the smooth fabric (left) to the final (right)

Ultimately with all these factors combined it was enough for me to decide that I could make the default pose work in a cinematic mood that would portray the mood that I wanted the character to evoke. I think it was successful.

 

Analysis of Workflow – Zbrush rendering and final compositing

So although I’ve been using KeyShot for WIP renders throughout the whole of this project, I was getting frustrated with some of the ‘cons’ that I’ve detailed in an earlier post. The time taking for it to generate high-resolution images was becoming more irksome, and I was spending more time playing with settings than doing my own artwork.

I had watched a tutorial video about nice presentations of WIP sculpts in ZBrush that had some good information in it, particularly the ‘render passes’ option that I was unaware about. I realised that I could use the information here, and combine it with my photoshop skills to create a final concept image, it just took a few extra steps from what the video provided as a decent base to work upon.

Render passes from Zbrush:zbrush render passes

Depth – assigned to ‘Alpha1’ under the ‘Channels’ tab in Photoshop, can be used to inform the ‘lens blur’ effect, as well as some other features.

Mask – assigned to mask out the black area so that I can change background easily.

Render – basic render of ‘Basic Material 1’.

Shadow – set to blending mode multiply at 50%, can add colour to this in PS to add richness to the shadows.

Chrome/Metal – basic renders of some different materials, in PS cranked up the levels to only show white and used them as highlight/specular layers.

Clown – really useful one for masking out each individual element quickly with wand selection tool in PS, made it easier to assign gradient masks and photo textures accurately.

Rim – assigned a new material with a rim light effect to overlay/blend in with the PS composite.

Theban – a flat colour render that just shows polypainted info. I made an alpha for the symbols and applied it to the cloth subtool in zbrush, then with the flat colour render it only shows up the black (and it conforms to the folds and form of the fabric). Then in PS I can use that info as another mask and paint on a gold material.

The final result (with some overpainting and atmospheric fog)

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I feel that this was a really effective process that was fast and easy to accomplish. As I had already invested a fair amount of time into creating a nice detailed sculpt that I was happy with I wanted more control over the final presentation aspect. I’ll definitely be using this method in the future for more polished pieces.

This method of ‘render stacking’ is fairly common industry practice in concept art particularly, where ultimately it’s about the design, and so the production of a 2D end image (utilising 3D techniques) is justifiable. I’ve found some examples (one from as far back as 2010) that show although this is not a new technique, for concept art it is still very much a stable and reliable one that many, many artists at the forefront utilise.

passes_render_reduzido(Athayde, 2013)

image_03_passes(Collings, 2010)


Image Bibliography

Athayde, D. (2013). Passes for BPR Render. [image] Available at: http://www.zbrushcentral.com/attachment.php?attachmentid=348100 [Accessed 15 Aug. 2017].

Collings, N. (2010). Making Of ‘Orc Maori’. [image] Available at: https://www.3dtotal.com/tutorial/zbrush/character_creation_orc_maoari/orc_2.php [Accessed 15 Aug. 2017].