Tools at the forefront: KeyShot 7

Having just watched a promotional video of the new features in KeyShot 7 there was one in particular that caught my eye

Configurator/Presentation Mode (2:23 in video)

(Luxion, 2017)

With my own workflow incorporating a lot more 3D elements, and one of the core aspects of my job is to provide variation, the ability to create these variations quickly using PBR render qualities is going to be a huge time saver vs taking screenshots of each element and manually compositing them together to scrutinise them.

So, that’s one of the new features that I’m excited about, and can easily see me using it in my own work – for example, if I continued work on the Plague Wraith and sculpted x10 different masks and x10 different texture patterns to go on the cloak, then this tool could be utilised to quickly showcase a presentation sheet of those variations in 3D format.

This brings me on to an evaluation of Keyshot, as I’ve recently (with the last renders for the Plague Wraith) opted for the in-programme BPR render that comes with ZBrush, for reasons that I’ll detail in another post. I think I can summarise fairly bluntly in a list of pros/cons:

PROS:

  • Unarguably fantastic looking results (thanks to some advanced ray-tracing), picks up information from HDRi spheres so you can preview model in a set environment (e.g. if you imported an HDRi sphere from game, then it would be a more accurate result of what something would look like in game)
  • Comes with a library of physically accurate pre-made materials (I’m not a technical artist, so this is a huge aid)
  • Fairly intuitive and easy to learn
  • Works with a wide range of 3D formats

CONS:

  • Time! This is a pretty big one – it takes a while to create good quality images, especially as the resolution gets higher. May affect deadlines.
  • CPU intensive – rendering takes a lot of horsepower, so it’s not really suitable for laptops/working on the go. Even with an i7 5960x (8 core, 16 thread) processor I find it to be slightly too slow for my liking.
  • Laziness – I noticed that my tendency to rely on the huge library of pre-made materials was limiting my options, and although I made some efforts to learn and tweak settings (see earlier post on the wraith skin translucency), I don’t quite feel the same ‘tactile’ sense of creation as when painting.
  • Not game engine – despite the ‘cheat’ workaround of importing an HDRi from a game, it still doesn’t represent the same materials/qualities that you’d get from an in-engine screenshot.

There are a few other minor pros/cons that aren’t really worth mentioning, but ultimately it comes down to a suitability score, it’s down to the artist to take on board this information and learn about new tools, at which point they can make an educated decision as to what works best in their workflow.


Image Bibliography

Luxion (2017). KeyShot 7 Top 5 New Features. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hnTRR7OkWw [Accessed 15 Aug. 2017].

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Plague Wraith Breakdown

So I thought I’d present the reasons behind each of these breakdowns as they are presented in my production artefact and justify the need for each of them from a concept art point of view, and as well go a little bit into the production process.

Initially we have the cinematic paintover and close-up shot that showcases the mood that I want for the character, as well as surrounding VFX (fog). The close up on the face highlights the different materials as well as shows the dead, blind eyes more clearly, suggesting that this is a character that relies on other senses

FINAL PAINTOVER

Then for a more instructional overview there’s the different layers of the costume that show the structure without the added ‘noise’ and confusion of the pattern. Artistically it works as a finished piece, but the purpose here is to show structure.

CUST 2 FRONT

Next showcasing the design from the back, in particular the feathers on the cloak and where they insert in. Also the rear anatomy. Again, this is a structure overview. For me the best part about doing these concept sculpts is really the ability to get every angle shown very easily – something that it pretty time consuming in 2D, especially when doing strict orthographic views when everything has to be correct. There is the trade off that there’s less flexibility for exploration in the early stages – I think that for that 2D will always be king, but once you do have a good idea of the design, this is by far the most efficient way to showcase it.

CUST 2 BACK VIEW

Detail on the mask, just to show the different materials – old cracked leather with tight stitching.

MASK DETAIL

Then the breakdown of the relationship between the mask, the proboscis, and the underlying anatomy. This would be for an animator to take a look at, just to show how I would want it to coil up and flick out when ‘tasting’ the air, perhaps as an idle animation.

CUST 1 PROB EXTEND

Finally, comparing to my original 2D concept. There are some very minor changes (in the structure over the shoulders), but all in it’s pretty close. Ultimately it’s just another tool that is communicating the same design, it just does it a lot more clearly.

COMPARE TO CONCEPT copy

One tweak I did have in the process was to change the hands (from bottom left) to match the 2D concept (top left), and the image on the right is the result of that. I still prefer the immediate threatening aspect of the silhouette in 2D that I couldn’t quite replicate, but I feel that I got close enough. I think that’s just the nature of working in 2D/3D is that not everything will work as well as it does in one medium vs the other, but it’s a compromise I’m fine with.

20620825_10154773245527011_2146509008817264369_n

There are a few parts worth mentioning that went into the production that I used to speed things up. I’ve cited these in an accompanying annotated bibliography to my artefact, but I can cover in more detail their use in the production process here.

I used a modified base skeleton for the internal glowing effect that I got from here. Proportionally almost the entire thing was changed – I altered the skull by removing the jaw and re-sculpting the nasal cavity, the rib cage was tightened and brought up, the arms were elongated, the ulna/radius gap was greatly exaggerated, the fingers were lengthened and claws added, and the feet were modified to bird feet by moving/pulling the human bones into the correct shapes. All in it looked very different from the original, but that still provided a very strong base to work on top of.

mcwyn0nz52xy

I also used a raven skull as a pendant that was a free download from Quincy Robinson, available here. This was a great time saver, as it was a small ornamental piece that doesn’t really add a huge amount to the overall design, but I feel it is a nice aesthetic touch.

Lastly, the feathers were assets included with a free tutorial on feathers in ZBrush from the fantastic Pablo Munoz Gomez, who which you can see here – again, these were modified slightly to fit the model (warped into place).

I can happily justify the use of these assets as this is not a production model, and it is simply to showcase a design. If I was a strict 3D character modeller, then of course I would be making these elements manually. However, as a concept artist it is important to take shortcuts where you can as the design is king, and time is tight. These are presented within an academic setting so they have been properly attributed where they need to be, but they are part of a design that is transformative of the original, much like using photo textures in a painting.

Analysis of Workflow – KeyShot materials

One of the things that I really wanted to achieve with this concept is the skeleton shining through effect that I had in my original 2D concept

02 ANATOMY

After much tinkering I was able to replicate the effect in KeyShot, although I still will need to adjust the hue of the skin to be more yellow.

skin translucency

One thing that is being annoying is that when I put the cloak on the character, this translucency is lost because it’s covered up. It may be the case that I just rely on a 2D paintover when I come to the final presentation.

I’m beginning to not like KeyShot for this, as I feel a tendency to be lazy and rely on the huge library of pre-made materials. In a way this is limiting me, as I find I’m making selections from a series of pre-made effects. Tweaking some of these settings and making my own skin material has been good, but I’m not a technical artist and I don’t quite feel the same ‘tactile’ sense of creation as when painting.

A quick overpaint (and anatomy exploded view) gets a little closer to what I want, including the darker ends of the limbs to really accentuate the sharpness of those edges, as silhouette is so important in a game when the player has to make a snap decision about something.

Wraith 2.1 renders

I think that ultimately this may convince me that KeyShot is perhaps not the best tool to render this model, although it has been very useful in WIP production, the times for renders and my over-reliance on the stock materials have not been helpful.

Production Process – Sketchbooking

So I’ve been on holiday this week in Sardinia, and have been thinking a little bit about the flexibility of my production process whilst sketching by the pool!

Although I brought my laptop with me in the event of last-minute emergency work that may have needed to be done, it went unused and I just worked out of my sketchbook.

I think it highlights the importance of the core drawing skills to the job. Although these are rough sketches they communicate enough for Joe to model, as he already has the materials etc. already in the game engine.

Being comfortable with a sketchbook and being able to iterate quick ideas will always be a core part of the concept artist role. I think all else considered, all of the 3D tools and programmes that I’ve put the effort into learning over the year are much for presentation (which is obviously important), but my usage of them is around those design principles of shape, form & balance that is also described much more quickly (personally) in 2D.

Analysis of Workflow – Game-Ready Asset Creation

So with this project I’ve been assisting with the creation of in game assets – as my familiarity with ZBrush through my own personal development has vastly improved, I’m now more able and confident to flesh out my concepts in 3D. I feel that this is a pretty useful skill that I’ve developed over the course.

I don’t hugely enjoy the process beyond the initial sculpt – at least until it gets to the stage when the model can be imported into a piece of software such as Substance Painter. I have gone through the entire asset creation process a few times (in earlier modules, with the Dunkleosteus and the Carnivorous Fungal Colony), and I feel that, as a concept artist, it’s very important to have at least a familiar knowledge of the pipeline. It means that you can design with the potential technical restrictions in mind (e.g. level of detail).

As such, I’ve assisted this asset creation process by doing the highpoly sculpts in ZBrush, and then handing the file over to be technically handled by (in both cases in this project this has been by our friend and fellow artist Sanna Kempe, who has been assisting on the project). I’ve then had a nice detailed highpoly model to do some renders and paintovers of that I can add to my portfolio of work as ‘concept sculpts’, and it’s also good to then show a literal translation of my work.

As a concept artist one of the key aspects of the role is creating clear designs for a game, and I have done that with orthographic views and sketches from front/rear/side etc. (like I had done with the Elf Armour) but these sculpts remove any doubt/room for interpretation when I want something to be described really clearly.

As Baj Singh (Lead Character Artist at The Creative Assembly) has said: In most companies, the sculpt is only 50% of the job” – so it I, as a concept artist, can do the first 50% of a character artist’s job, then I become a more valuable asset to a company as it means I’m a more multi-disciplined artist. During crunch time I’m able to take an active role in their pipeline (as concept art is mostly done in pre-production). I can imagine this being a particularly useful skill in smaller companies where staff are more likely to take on multiple roles outside of their original job-description to get a game shipped.

I’m emulating the workflow of many professional artists at the forefront, most of which I have mentioned in this blog before, such as Peter Konig – who has done similar work on the game eVolve – see below image, where he worked on the highpoly sculpt for this character, as well as the original 2D concept art.

peter-konig-behemoth-evolve(Konig, 2016)

So, that said, I have been working on production highpoly sculpts for a few different assets in the game, one of which is a stone Dragon Bust for Joe to use around the city, and across the bridge area. Here is my initial highpoly sculpt:

20247550_10154733204857011_5922870668361040911_o

And here it is having gone through re-topology, textures and made game ready by Sanna Kempe:

sanna model(Kempe, 2017)

Of course, once that’s done, Joe is able to import it into his environment and begin placing it around, as well as doing extra work to it such as using his materials to paint snow on top of it where necessary.

(Hobbs, 2017)

We also had a similar process for my Gargoyle design where my highpoly sculpt (bottom left) was taken and reworked to become game ready by Sanna.

(Kempe, 2017)

And you can see that in game, in an early WIP development image from Joe:

in game screenshot joe

(Hobbs, 2017)

So basically my ability to work this way with others would hopefully put me in a better professional position than others who may not be comfortable with working in 3D. Although it tends to be the case that larger studios have very dedicated teams working 3D and may not need the extra help, certainly in smaller studios or indie teams, this is a useful skillset to have.


Image Bibliography

Hobbs, J. (2017). Orloth Screenshots. [image].

Kempe, S. (2017). Dragon Bust. [image] Unpublished [Accessed 15 Aug. 2017].

Konig, P. (2016). Evolve Behemoth. [image] Available at: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/Rzzwy [Accessed 15 Aug. 2017].

Project Evaluation – Fitness for Purpose

My speciality within the Games Art spectrum is as a concept artist, and as such, I’ll be evaluating it on the basis of its effectiveness within an industry standard.

First and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s fairly difficult to actually get a view into what concept artists working actively within game studios actually do day-to-day. This is down to a few different factors:

  1. Studios don’t want to show off early development versions of their titles – this is understandable, they want a tight control of the ‘feel’ of the game and to make sure it gives off the correct vibes to potential customers, so as to avoid being accused of false advertising. If there was a grand epic scene that was concepted and it was shown around the internet, with lots of fans and enthusiasts getting excited about it, only for the scene/level to be cut due to budgeting or time constraints then there would be understandable issues.
  2. Studios don’t want to give away their ideas. The mantra usually goes something along the lines of ‘ideas are cheap, execution is key’ and whilst this is true to a certain extent, there are certainly competitors who are making games within the same genre (e.g. first person shooter games, developers such as Activision making ‘Call of Duty’, and EA DICE making ‘Battlefield’), and so they’ll want to keep those ideas from other companies vying for a proportion of their market share.
  3. It often doesn’t look very pretty. The bulk of concepting work is iterating and generating multiple different ideas for how things work/look/act/fit together and so there’s a lot of sketching involved as opposed to the highly polished finished product that we, as consumers, are used to seeing. Studios don’t want to release that work as it may lead to preconceptions about the final product, and early ideas may not be representative of that, and certainly not in terms of quality.
  4. Concept art that is released to the general public tends to be something slightly different. Either it is not actually concept work, but more marketing illustrations developed to encourage ‘hype’ for an upcoming game, or it is very late stage concept work that has obviously taken a huge amount of time investment to get it up to that stage.

So it then begs the question – if we, as a general public, are fed something that isn’t actually ‘true’ concept art (for the reasons listed above), then how am I meant to evaluate my own work against an industry standard? Unfortunately that’s where things become tricky.

Ultimately my content creation process is very much in a supportive role – my ideas are nothing without the execution of them, and as such I have to get active feedback from my peers who I’m working with on this project – Lee Devonald (Character/Technical Artist) and Joe Hobbs (Environment Artist).

As I have noted in my production document, the final deliverable for me will be a production document full of my concept designs and processes. Therefore the effectiveness of this could be judged as how religiously the final product adheres to my original concepts.

But this is difficult to judge as often times there are problems with regards to performance issues, as well as artistic nuances that don’t quite make sense that arise when in 3D when in engine that are either completely non-apparent when concepting in 2D, or not something that is obvious enough.

There’s also the factor to take into consideration that the work that I’m doing is “more of a set of guidelines than rules”, and due to the iterative and interpretative nature of our workflow (Lee and Joe, and any 3D modeller, will always add their own touches and tweaks to a design to make it work best in engine), it’s not fair to objectively judge my work on that basis.

Ultimately I’ve produced a set of core ‘ideas’, some of which will be more closely adhered to than others, and their effectiveness can be judged on a series of factors

  1. Originality of design – although as a side note, different for the sake of being different doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good design. A bright pink dragon that farts rainbows and breathes bubblegum instead of fire is an original idea, but it’s not suitable within the tone and overall setting of the game. It’s important that my designs are within the expected ‘realm’, but not lifts from other games. This can be tricky with prop elements like barrels and crates, but those are secondary detail items.
  2. Clear and concise breakdowns for production modelling – as much as loose paintings and ‘speed art’ are popular showcases, they don’t communicate a whole lot of design very clearly.
  3. Artistic execution – the presentation of the ideas is obviously extremely important as my whole job is the visual communication of an imagined aesthetic. This is an objective measure, but there are multiple sub categories within this (light, colour, perspective, anatomy – the list goes on).

Target Audience

So, for the reasons listed above about the public facing concept art (and why what we see as a general audience is skewed), my target audience is different from Lee and Joe. Whilst they are creating content that is public facing, my behind the scenes work is production based, and so I hope to use it in my portfolio to get a job/secure freelance contacts. Thus my target audience is HR managers, those involved in the hiring process, as well as Art Directors and people within the creative field. I need to be able to demonstrate a professional capability to those people.

Target User

The target users of my work are Joe and Lee, as they are actively using my designs in their workflow.

How my work will be disseminated/distributed

As detailed in my project proposal, I’ll be compiling my work from the module within a ‘Production Document’ – of which there will be 2 edits:

  1. Version A: Showcase a highlighted reel of work from the module that is the best, and final designs for everything, and a comparison to the in game assets (by Lee and Joe) where applicable.
  2. Version B: All work for the module, which will be presented at hand in, concisely edited together. This is a more in-depth version that is available upon request, should someone hiring wish to see more into my workflow.

This will either be hosted online on my portfolio website (ArtStation), or compiled and saved as a pdf document and emailed to prospective employers.

I will look at the possibility of printing and binding this document to send out to studios as a physical self-promotional piece, but that is not an academic focus, as it’s another piece of admin to manage before the hand in that it non-essential.

An Evaluation of my Learning Process

At this stage in the course my learning of new techniques is fairly limited. I’ve taken the modules leading up to this one to hone new skills in software, in particular introducing and improving my proficiency with 3D tools in my workflow.

As such, I do not have a main goal with this module to learn, rather I see this as an opportunity to put those acquired skills to the test and push myself to achieve more and produce a higher level of quality work.

That said, there are some innate learning processes that as a concept artist one must keep up with.

There’s an old proverb about two lumberjacks – they both decide one day to have a wood-chopping competition and see who can collect the most wood. They both set out and the first lumberjack goes hell for leather, and keeps looking over his shoulder at the other one. Every now and again the second guy goes back to his camp for 10-15mins at a time. Surely, thinks the first lumberjack, I’m going to win this competition – I haven’t taken a single break all day, all I have done is work, and this guy keeps going backwards and forwards.

At the end of the day it is the second lumberjack who has much more wood in his pile. The first is dumbfounded – “what did you do? I kept seeing you going back to camp and taking breaks all day – how did you end up with more wood than me?”

The second man looks at him and says simply, “I was sharpening my axe”

Although it’s a cheesy metaphor, it does illustrate the point fairly neatly that it’s important to stay ‘sharp’, and for me, that means maintaining a few core principles:

  1. Keep studying – I’m constantly drawing, every single day I post an image on my Instagram account. This keeps my drawing skills honed, and also my knowledge of anatomy, perspective, colour, light and the rest of the fundamentals.
  2. Keep building my visual library – I could write a whole blog post on the visual library (and probably will), but I constantly have documentaries playing on a second monitor next to my work. Often times it’s about a related subject – so for this current project I’ve been watching a lot of medieval documentaries and talks about castle defense and weaponry, but it’s often unrelated information that my brain picks up interesting facts on. Recently I watched about 6hrs worth of videos about crustaceans – whilst not directly relevant, as a concept artist with a particular interest in creature design, that sort of information and learning picked up in the background is invaluable.
  3. Reading! This is one of the best ways to maintain an active visual imagination, as all of the effort that goes into reading is put (for me at least) into visualising the fictitious worlds that these stories are set in. I actually listen to a lot of audiobooks, so I can get through them at the same time as drawing, and I find this to be a great extra stimulant.

So for those last two points, my learning process is very much done via. osmosis almost. I surround myself with visual information and absorb much of it passively. This obviously doesn’t work for specific types of learning – e.g. learning new software skills, but for design and iteration where much of the work is left to your own imagination, it’s very good to have a big backup of all that ‘stuff’ in your head.

…plus, it comes in useful during a pub quiz!

The first point covers an active effort on my part to sit down and study a given topic – for example this post on 28th June where I just decided to study crows for an evening:

19477503_10154659065527011_3524578779511859363_o

Looking at those forms and shapes gave rise to a more developed creature design. It’s not a crow, it’s based on a plague doctor from medieval times, but there are the same/similar ‘shapes’ – the talons and the beak.

tudor-morris-d

So I think that’s a fairly concise look into what I consider my learning process – it’s a constant and ongoing quest for me that is not restricted to the technical skill of drawing/presentation of ideas, but rather the expanding of my overall knowledge to combine new shapes and forms into original designs.