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Making of 'Tough Love'

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Date Added: 9th December 2009


At Slide Ltd we have a great rule: between every few paying jobs we undertake an internal studio project, in order to experiment, explore and expand without putting our clients at risk.

Our explorations for a recent project were twofold. Firstly this piece was to be a principle production illustration that would establish an art direction for an 'imagined' larger production. For this we wanted to try to create an oppressive mood, with light, shadow and detail pressing in on the characters while they stand in a 'defiantly relaxed' pose.

The second purpose was to give us a test project that would allow us to amalgamate all the new processes and techniques we've learnt over the past 18 months into a new, internal 'best practice' pipeline. As we're an illustration and animation studio this all had to be done in an animation friendly way.

This 'Making Of' article gives us the opportunity to share our results with the CG community - we hope this is both useful and enjoyable! To see more of our work, or to get in touch, please visit our website at

Concept Development

Partly inspired by the current economic turmoil, we decided to paint the portrait of a couple who have descended into criminality against the backdrop of a once prosperous, consumer-driven European country - in some ways echoing Bonnie and Clyde and their spiral into notoriety during the Great Depression of the 30s.

How would a relationship manifest in such a harsh environment, where the comforts of modern life are not there to ease the process of maintaining a loving relationship? Would couples instead be bound by a more visceral form of co-dependency?

Our first step was to gather references and create some preliminary concept and design sketches (Fig.01 - 02). This was more about a first pass at the details of their costumes than a fully polished concept piece.

Fig. 01
Fig. 02

Compositionally, we started off playing with the idea of a torn dark heart (Fig.03), conveying the cynical and slightly twisted relationship between the two characters and hinting at the environment's role in making them that way. In the early stages we jumped between 2D paintings and 3D block-outs to explore our ideas, using whichever medium was quickest at getting an idea across so as not to stagger the process.

Fig. 03

We ended up with plenty of fun ideas we would love to follow up - including a possible three-panel strip (Fig.04) telling the story of a typical day in the hood. With this conceptual framework in place, we were ready to dive in and start working up the piece.

Fig. 04


We have a robust pipeline for producing 3D characters at Slide, in many ways that is our speciality. We tend to start out with a quick concept sketch, just nailing basic forms and direction. We then try to get into a sculpting package as quickly as possible, continuing the design process by painting over screen grabs out of ZBrush or Mudbox (Fig.05).

Fig. 05

This is an iterative process, we create the paintovers then jump back into our sculpting tool to propagate any designs or ideas generated by the paintover into 3D, further refining the design and sculpt as we progress. Our reason for this is simply to be sure that our design isn't relying too heavily on 2D 'tricks' in order to work. In our experience, working at a range of studios on projects ranging from games to TV production there is always a fair amount of 'redesign' needed during the 3D phase, we simply find it more controlled and productive to treat the concepting phase as a combined 2D/3D task. This way we get the benefits of quick paintovers in 2D, while proving out that the design works in 3D using rapid sculpting.

The end result of this process is a roughly textured, full 3D character maquette (Fig.06) which is then ready to be translated into a production model with final textures and shaders.

If the character is for hi-res use (such as in this instance) we will create mid res subdiv. mesh ready for use with displacement and bump maps. If the characters target is a realtime engine then we produce a mesh with a suitable level of detail for the intended engine/project specifications ready for normal/bump maps (Fig.07).

Fig. 06
Fig. 07


After playing around with a variety of compositions, we settled on a close crop of our protagonists against their natural environment. This gave us lots of scope for background detail while still making the piece achievable in the time we had allotted for this internal project.

We dug around in our reference library to explore a gritty, distressed urban fabric, and the bright graphic elements with which a faded consumer society would once have adorned this environment (Fig.08). Graffiti, posters, tags, filth and fury ... delightful!

Fig. 08

continued on next page >

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