Making of 'Retro Space Common'

Infinity Ward Environment Artist, Devon Fay, breaks down the techniques and workflow he used to create his retro-inspired spaceship common area...

This article will give you some insight into my creative process when creating sci-fi interior concepts, such as the Retro Space Common featured here. Creating believable and interesting artwork with CG can be a challenge! I believe having access to other people's processes, and seeing how they each tackle the challenge, is a great way to stay motivated and continue pushing ourselves. I will give a higher level overview of the steps taken on this image, as well as show you some of the tools and techniques used.

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I originally created this image of a retro sci-fi living quarters for a workshop I was giving on environment design and I was pretty pressed for time. I spent about 3-4 weeks in total on this piece. I didn't feel I had the time to fully detail out the scene and really achieve what I wanted from it, so I decided to spend more time and create a new scene with the same art style, using what I learned from the first one.

Reference!

I can't emphasize enough how important reference is when creating your artwork. Reference is there for you when you don't totally know what something looks like (which is probably 99% of the time). It is also there to inspire you when you aren't totally sure what to do next.

My references range from pictures of objects, equipment, and props, to screen captures of movies and games. Recently, the role of reference was defined so clearly to me: it should be used to answer questions and inform decisions.

Here is just a very small amount of the reference I gathered to prepare for this scene.

Find the crack

Let's face it: starting a large project from scratch is always difficult. Whether it's a blank piece of paper, a blank Photoshop document, or an empty Maya scene, it can be a struggle to get started. I often recommend starting by 'finding the crack'. Start with a small task, such as designing a prop. This can often add some much needed motivation and confidence to keep pushing forward. Here is the very first thing I modeled for my retro-style images: a potato/tomato plant.

The block-out

Just as important as the other first steps, creating a great block-out must happen before you are to move too far forward with your artwork. When working in 3D we should consider our block-out the same way a painter or illustrator considers their initial sketches. It helps lay the foundation of what our final composition will be as well as the look and feel of the final image. As with a sketch, our block-outs should stay as loose and malleable as possible for as long as possible. The quicker we can make changes the quicker we can get to good layout and composition for our artwork.

The very first block-out

The very first block-out

Taking the block-out a bit further after I was happy with the layout and composition

Taking the block-out a bit further after I was happy with the layout and composition

A different camera angle showing the finished set

A different camera angle showing the finished set

Modeling

When creating artwork for myself, I tend to try and model things as quickly and as easily as possible. Some may say the model is 'sloppy', but for me the key to creating an interesting piece is more about the whole and less about each individual asset. As long as the model doesn't look bad in the final image, I'm happy with it. Being able to focus on what is important for the final image is key to completing a complex image.

Little-by-little, prop-by-prop, I fill in the final scene with all finished models. I'm always going back and forth between texturing, lighting, and modeling. I adjust aspects of the scene any time a new asset comes in. This ensures that the overall composition and feeling is staying with what I intended.

Textures and shaders

The texturing for this piece was also very quickly done. I had lots of books, magazines, pictures and such to cover. The quickest way I found to handle this was similar to how I would do it for games: large texture sheets where one sheet holds multiple textures on it. This sped up my process a lot!

As mentioned, I tend to model and texture very quickly and a bit sloppily. But when it comes to my shaders, I try to slow down and really spend the time needed to achieve the accuracy of the materials I'm aiming for. I've found if you can nail the look of a shader, very little texturing will be needed overall. The shader does all the heavy lifting!

Lighting

I used V-Ray for lighting. This image was both challenging and easy to light. It's basically lit with large fluorescent fixtures. This is a pretty easy setup to achieve with V-Ray, but doesn't exactly give the most interesting look to the image. In the end, I decided to keep it because I was going for a kind of 'day in the life' feeling for this piece, and I felt the standard lighting helped reinforce that.

This is a render pass of just the direct, top down lighting of the scene

This is a render pass of just the direct, top down lighting of the scene

I lighting test from a different camera view

I lighting test from a different camera view

Compositing and Photoshop

In my process, the final compositing and Photoshop pass is very important. After working with the matte painting team at Blizzard for 3 years, I learned how powerful of a step it can be! I tend to try and get my beauty pass from Maya to look as clean as possible, but I know I will be doing a lot of color correction, photo overlays and tweaking of the final image later on.

In this step, I add a lot of my grunge, texture, and fine details. Doing it in Photoshop is much faster than doing it all in 3D, and it gives me the ability to quickly color correct and adjust layers without having to re-render over and over again.

I also use this step to add final touches and color grading to the overall image. I typically run it through Photoshop's ‘Camera Raw' functions for color grading. I also used Photoshop to add noise, sharpening, vignetting, and a slight stylized Chromatic Aberration.

A selection of render passes used for the final composite

A selection of render passes used for the final composite

Showing off some of the grunge and texture added in Photoshop

Showing off some of the grunge and texture added in Photoshop

As CG artists, 'computer graphics' is our medium. And as artists, we must master our medium before we can start creating great art. We should always be learning, practicing and creating.

I hope this quick breakdown of my process has helped you to see how someone else would approach a problem, and will perhaps inspire you to continue creating your own images and art.

The final image

The final image

Related links

See more work from Devon Fay
Check out Devon's ArtStation portfolio
Discover more free tutorials for Maya