Making Of 'Blast Core'
Hi, everybody! I'm Matt Burdette, an environment artist working in San Francisco, and in this Making Of I'm going to walk through the process of creating Blast Core, which is a CG project I put together last winter. It was inspired predominantly by techno music and Werner Herzog documentaries.
Every project is a huge learning experience for me, and I learned quite a bit by doing this one. It's probably all a lot of stuff you already know, but just in case, I'm mainly going to try to cover all the major steps, tips, tricks, work-arounds, and what-have-yous that helped this piece come together.
For Blast Core, I really wanted to create a piece of fantastic machinery that also had very direct analogues in realism. Specifically, in the case of the laser drill, I saw the opportunity to combine a few different pieces of actual real-world hardware into something not very real-world at all. While I generally do a few little cursory sketches on the backs of late night diner napkins, the most formative part of the process winds up being just collecting an obscene amount of reference from a multitude of places and then kit-bashing styles together. For Blast Core, this was definitely the way to go: the tripod legs being reminiscent of surveying equipment and industrial drilling rigs, and the actual drill device pretty much being directly influenced by an exposed jet engine.
I'm also totally fascinated with Antarctica as an environment, and how research outposts are set up there. It reads to me as being the closest real-world example of a colony on an alien planet (Fig.01 - 03).
Blast Core was an exercise in being fast, so I used a lot of different tactics I've learned through friends, websites and work buddies. First and foremost, one I found hugely important was modeling with the Smooth Mesh Proxy mode in Maya. Smooth Mesh Proxy is enormously powerful in that you can create really nice, high detail geometry with clean, continuous, edge loops with really minimal effort. A simple box, for instance, begins more or less as a rough sphere with Smooth Mesh, and then by controlling where edge loops are placed on your cage mesh, you can make the edges as round or as tight as you want (Fig.04 - 05).
It's awesome! It also makes it super-simple to UV really high detail models later, as all you really have to do is UV unwrap the low poly cage mesh. The UVs are then preserved when you convert your mesh proxy into actual polys (although UV'ing was not done on this project - more on that later)(Fig.06).
The only real trouble I had with it was increased render times when I tried to actually have the Smooth Mesh converted at render time. This was pretty effectively handled by just converting the Smooth Mesh to polys once I was finished modeling (although, it's important to remember to keep a back up of your Smooth Mesh hidden away on a display layer, just in case you need to come back to it).
Also, the Make Live function will make your life (no pun intended) much, much easier in terms of adding new primitives to your scene. "Live" surfaces will become snappable - new objects (and even old objects you move around) will adhere to the surface. This is ridiculously useful for doing things like the details on the drill mechanism and the wires/hoses. It's useful for pretty much anything that requires you to add geometry detail to a weirdly angled surface (Fig.07 - 08).
I wanted to use this project as an opportunity to work out a cool ice material for the ground plane. I'm sort of a total geek for ground surfaces. Lots and lots and lots of ice reference photos got me on the track of doing a surface that was a bit of a composite of sculpted, smooth reflective ice as well as a snowy, chipped diffuse ice.
After sculpting out the terrain with just a really heavily subdivided polygonal Plane, I started testing out roughness and reflectance values for the ice and snow materials, adding roughness and Normal maps, and then putting it altogether with a VRayBlendMtl using a tweaked out grayscale version of the ice diffuse texture as the blending mask between the two materials (Fig.09 - 11).
The shiny ice material was also a nice chance to play with a subsurface material, which is something I don't usually get a chance to noodle around with, since I don't make candles or snails very often. I don't think I really used it to its maximum Hotness Factor in this example - there is much I still need to learn about it - but it did give a nice ambient blue fill to the ice surface.
I did originally try to use a Displacement map to give the ground a nice, genuinely perturbed surface. It wound up eating way too much memory though, and destroyed my computer if I tried to render at high resolution. I should probably buy more memory.
Speaking of buying more memory! Due to the considerable hardware limitations of my home computer, the only real way I was going to be able to render out a high resolution image with all the proper rendering bells and whistles enabled was through the command line. So, for much of the rendering process my desktop looked like this (Fig.12).
In actuality, not only did this free up a boatload of memory that would normally be hogged by Maya and the open scene file, but this helped me keep good track of how the render was progressing and how badly it was crushing my computer. Having the Task Manager open to the Performance tab right next to my render console means I can watch the consumption of my precious RAM as well as CPU load on the fly. It's super useful.
There were also a few housekeeping things I did (and try to be diligent about always doing) within my Maya scene that can only help you out in the long run. Using Display Layers goes a long way in terms of keeping performance within Maya manageable when you have an enormous amount of geometry detail. Rendering your layers out in passes is also a classic tactic that is wise to do, although I did not do this on Blast Core.
Delete anything you don't use! Geometry that isn't visible within your camera range, materials and textures that aren't used on anything, lights that aren't lighting anything - kill it. Extraneous junk in your scene file is only going to bloat the file size and bog you down when it comes to rendering. The Hypershade has a cool little tool for this (Fig.13).
I typically like to be a CG purist and make my final image as close to what was rendered in Maya as possible, with maybe slight color correction and image tweaks at the end. For Blast Core, I did pretty much none of that.
All my texturing I did straight in Photoshop in post. To get separation between each object, I rendered out an RGB mask for the main geometry and then separated them into layer groups in Photoshop. I then just used different types of tiling textures blended over top of the rendered geometry, with small slight tweaks and details painted in by hand (Fig.14 - 16).
If you've made it this far, thank you for reading! I hope this tutorial was informative, useful to you and perhaps gave you some insight on some different tactics you can use to totally cheat Maya and work around issues and hang-ups that may arise while doing the old CG. I hope we both grew as people from this; you having read it and me having written it.
I love doing this, I love talking to people who love doing this and if you have any questions or comments you should absolutely feel free to drop me a line - I will answer to the best of my ability (and Google's).
Buenas noches, friends.