Create an atmospheric sci-fi city – part 1: inspiration and blocking out

Why Oris City?

This project came as a product of me writing a series of short stories that are connected to each other. The idea was to create the narrative and then to create a series of images that would visually describe the world that I am trying to create.

oris city scene model render cyberpunk cityscape
Final render in native 10K resolution

Reference images and inspiration – broad overview

Because this project was going to be massive I created a huge reference board in a program called Pure Ref. I divided the inspiration into several categories such as film references, real life buildings, real life props, inspirational artworks that I found online, and so on. For each section that I needed to model, texture, or light, I had a separate category of reference images. This made the process very straight forward and I was able to find what I was looking for in no time when it came to the actual production.

reference board pure ref inspiration research imagery
Reference board

Reference images – deep dive

I didn’t have any 2D concepts for this project, so I was relying on real  life photos and imagination to come up with designs on the fly, in 3D. That is why it was crucial to get good references to fuel my imagination, and to provide me with enough information, so that I could do interesting and functional designs. One thing that really helped me was the story that I already had written. I had very specific descriptions, so I made sure that every detail I placed goes towards supporting the story.

reference imagery research visual concepts 2d

Don’t be afraid of the empty scene

Starting a massive scene like this can be overwhelming. There are so many things to consider that is easy to get intimidated and confused. That is why I like to keep things simple. When I start at the beginning, I use human scale reference of 180 cm and I start placing simple geometry like cubes and cylinders to get the ball rolling. I usually make primitive shapes that are roughly windows and doors size, and I start duplicating them and placing them on the simple meshes to give me some sense of proportion.

blockout start beginning design 3d modelling sculpting
Blockout start

Refining the block out

When I start to get some sort of idea of the space, I go through my story and highlight the text where I have descriptions of the area, or specific buildings, and props, and I start blocking them out. Because these stories are connected to each other, and I already have several artworks from the same universe, I started extracting props and buildings that were similar in style that I could reuse. 99-percent of them will be changed drastically by the time I’m done, but it’s good to have a base that is already the same style.

blockout kitbash render props building rendering models
Blockout kitbash

Blocking plus, the never ending story

So, because this is such a massive scene the blockout itself took almost 2 months to complete. And I use the term blocking loosely here, because some of the buildings that were story points got refined quite a bit in the blocking stage, because I was sure what I was going for. That is why I like to refer to this stage as Blocking Plus. The scene was becoming gradually more and more complex, so I decided to split the buildings into separate scenes so that I could work on each of them with ease.

detailing blocking 3d model rendering modular pieces cityscape

Making generic reusable assets

After I split the buildings into separate files, I took a little break from the main project, and I went on to create a lot of generic assets that I could use to scatter on every building. These assets included many different types of air conditioners, antennas, pipe clusters, fences, and so on.

reusable assets separate files blocking scattering building types
Props

Another perspective

To wrap this chapter up. When I was working on the composition I moved the camera a lot, I did many iterations, moved buildings around, tried a few different HDRIs from very early on to help me make up my mind. But I tried something different for his project that I don’t usually do. I took the blockout and I exported it to UE4. I set up few collision parameters, and I was walking through my imaginary city. It was the coolest thing ever, and it helped me realize the scale and complexity I was dealing with.

Unreal Engine 4 Scene demo

Top tip 1 - Large scale projects are just projects!

Don’t be intimidated to start large scale projects just because the time it takes to complete them, time will pass anyway, you might as well spend it doing something that you will be proud of.

Top tip 2 - Do your research!

If you don’t have a concept that you are trying to follow, make sure you write a short back story of the piece you are trying to create. Then, based on that, find as many reference images as you can. This will save you lots of headaches further down the line!

Top tip 3 -  Blockout is key!

Make sure you spend your time during the blockout stage. Don’t rush this! Set your camera as early as you can and start building your scene from the camera POV. This will ensure that you don’t waste time detailing areas that won’t be seen!

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