Making Of 'The Courtyard'
My name is Anthony and I've been working in the film industry for close to five years now, and quite recently in the video game industry too. I'm a matte painter/concept artist and these days that means you have to be able to model, texture, light and render in 3D as well. So this piece is a good example of the matte painting production pipeline you may come across in either the film or game industry.
The idea behind the piece came from two things. Firstly, I love old architecture and churches, and after looking at some photo references it wasn't hard to get inspired. Secondly, I wanted to create a mood with the piece. As artists our job is to tell a story using the core elements of image creation: light, color, composition, contrasts etc. My goal was to create a mood that could create several different storyline possibilities with those two concepts.
References are an artist's best friend. When it comes to creating your artwork, having good references is essential, especially as a matte artist in film. I had the image I wanted to create in my mind, so I went hunting for photos that would help me translate that idea to a final image. These included ideas I wanted to include in my image or useful information like exposure, texture and lighting (Fig.01).
I knew that the courtyard would have repeating architecture so I modeled two cross sections, one with slightly different design features than the other to create a repeating pattern often found in courtyards. The model was relatively simple; there was no complicated modeling. I always approach this stage with the idea that it will serve as a base for me to paint on. I model knowing what I'll be adding in paint, which is important because it stops me from spending too much time and over-modeling, and lets the textures do a lot of the work for me (Fig.02).
I did spend some time modeling the stone ground of the courtyard because I really wanted it to feel real. I wanted accurate shadows in the crevices and spec on the edges. There are many ways to do this, but I wanted a quick solution and that was to model a set of stones and create different patterns by rotating them a few times to create a few different sets. Then I duplicated them around the courtyard and took time to make sure that they intersected properly near the edges of the architecture (Fig.03).
Again, I wanted to make this process quick and simple. I used a brick texture from CGTextures.com, and added dirt and grime to give a really weathered look. I created a few different tiled versions of the brick texture, and varied patterns and dirt to avoid obvious repetition as it would be applied to everything in the scene. I also used normal maps and spec maps on the brick texture so that the brick would pick up a subtle highlight kick in some areas. That type of detail really adds to the realism in the lighting stage (Fig.04).
Mapping was kept simple too, and since there was a lot of repetition, it made my work a lot easier. I used the auto-mapping, then moved and sewed UVs. Again, I kept this stage simple and mapped to the camera to save time (Fig.05).
I used Ivy Gen to create the ivy in the scene. It works best with very low poly geo, so I exported a really basic representation of my geo as OBJ files and imported that geo into Ivy Gen (Fig.06).
Because Ivy Gen can only handle a few light pieces of geo at a time, I had to export different parts of my set at a time to get good ivy growth. This ended up being a long process, as I had to generate the ivy multiple times for the FG pillars and BG pillars, and each had to have a different growth pattern so that it would look natural and not duplicated. I played around with the settings a lot to finally get the look I was after.
When I was happy with the look, I saved out the ivy as an OBJ and imported it into my Maya scene. The imported ivy came with three shaders for the geo, two for the leaves and one for the bark. You can also map two leaf textures of your choice with an alpha to the generated cards on the ivy (Fig.07 - 08).
I used a V-Ray dome light with a HDR image for the sky and a V-Ray rectangle light for a subtle amount of light coming from the left side of frame to carve out some shapes with shadows and add depth. I also placed cards around the scene to act as "blockers" and cast shadows where surrounding buildings in the environment would be (Fig.09).
I used V-Ray to render the scene. I rendered a beauty pass, reflection pass, AO pass, and alpha mattes for different parts of the scene that I wanted to control in Photoshop. Pretty simple stuff. Again, these were the only passes I needed to paint with. There are way more passes you can break your renders into, but for my case it was not necessary and would've been excessive (Fig.10).
One note here on rendering an AO pass with the imported ivy. Since Ivy Gen exports out the ivy I generated with cards to represent the leaves, there was no way for me to render my AO pass with the ivy in the scene. To get around this, I used my alpha mattes for the FG and BG ivy, and painted out where the AO was over the top of the ivy in the painting. To compensate for it, I increased the sampling rates in the V-Ray GI and shadows to keep the occlusion from the ivy in the beauty render (Fig.11).
Paint Work - The Fun Stuff!
Using the mattes that I rendered out, I adjusted different parts of the image to get the right exposure and color based on my reference images. These were done simply with adjustment layers at the top of my layer stack so I could adjust it at any time (Fig.12).
I added textures to add weathering and break up edges to help take away the perfectly straight edges from the model. I also added highlights to help separate edges to help the forms read better. I painted a stronger sky light influence by lightening up the top facing faces on the architecture. This again helps convey form in the structures. A good thing to always keep in mind is that even though you light your scene in 3D, it doesn't mean you can't make it stronger. Depending on the mood and stylization you want in your scene you can push and pull the light with paint and adjustment layers, along with passes, to help you get there (Fig.13).
I added vines to add detail in some areas and help take away the repetition of the architecture. I try to follow areas with detail with areas of no detail to create a contrast and not overload the image with excessive noise. I also try to keep all the detail in the focal point, which I wanted to be the statue.
I used my reflection pass for the ground and painted it in with an alpha mask and kept it very subtle. This gives the ground a wet look, and adds another opportunity to introduce some spec hits off the wet stone. To add even more interest in spots I painted puddles and used the reflection pass to tie it into the painting, again keeping most of the detail near my focal point (Fig.14).
On a separate layer, I painted puddle shapes with a darker value and screened the reflection pass over the top of the shapes with a clipping mask, so the reflection only shows up on the shape layer and nothing else. After some balancing of the reflection, I painted out stone shapes from the puddle layer to break it up and sell the fact that the water is at different levels on the stone ground. I also brought back some spec on the stone where the puddle ends so that there is separation between the puddle and the stone (Fig.15).
I added some spec to the vines and ivy to give them a wet look, as if it had just rained. This helped to tie everything together and create an overall mood. It also gave me a chance to add some low-lying mist and helped separate the FG pillars and the statue from the back wall, creating depth in the image.
For the statue I simply searched for an image of a statue that fit the mood that I wanted and color corrected and painted the lighting to help it sit in the environment. I added highlights to tie it into the wet ground and ivy. I also lightened the top faces that are influenced by the skylight and painted occluded areas, keeping it generally light by the skylight (Fig.16).
Summing this project up, it's important to always have an idea that you want to convey. This can be anything from lighting, mood, contrasts etc. Always look for references you can use from real life that will help you convey that idea and help serve as a springboard in creating your image. This will help ground your image in reality, no matter what the subject matter is. My goal was to create a mood, and I used 3D as a base to realize the image and painted on top of it to take it exactly in the direction I needed it to go to convey that mood. There are many ways to do this as an artist, but the most important thing, and what will make your image successful, is the feeling you convey in the image (Fig.17).