Sam Gao talked about his fan art environment based on Overwatch’s location Hanamura as well as painterly stylized art on the whole.
Hello, My name is Sam Gao and I am from China/Australia. Currently, I reside in Sarasota, Florida, finishing my BFA in Game art and specializing in environment art. What attracted me into game development is the whole package of experiences. I enjoy almost every aspect of game art including character, VFX, sounds, and game design. Environment art is the combination of all these things and that’s why I am fascinated by it.
About The Project
This project started as a cherry blossom themed environment with Mountain Fuji. Later, I transformed it into a Hanamura fanart because I was inspired by Overwatch’s interpretation of this classic imagery and the story’s hint at its fictional historical past that I would like to explore.
I completed this project last year and in retrospective, there are several things I would do differently now. I will point them out in this article as well.
I grew up watching animes, from classic Ghibli’s films to more modern ones and it is still the biggest source of inspiration for my art. Therefore, when I see a bright breathtaking image with cherry blossoms it brings instant gratification. Hanamura not only has those elements but also follows the art direction. It motivated me to play the game and has become my favorite in-game location.
3D art takes a long time. I prefer to start production with a detailed blueprint that includes mood, story and elements (subject matters) by reference gathering, sketches and writing.
References should give you information that you are unfamiliar with, from basic color and shapes to form and structures of the specific objects.
After knowing what direction the scene is going to, it is helpful to do a simple sketch. This allows you to commit to all the elements of interest, plus some composition ideas.
Story is probably the most helpful tool. You do not need thousands of words to explain all the details, however knowing a simple script so you have something to fall back on when making design decisions is very helpful.
Painterly Stylized vs Hand-Painted
There is a common misconception when it comes to approaching a “painterly” style 3D work. Many people think it is all about the hand-painted textures and brush strokes. The truth is, the technique of how to approach certain things is not that important. It is a way of thinking when constructing an image. Treat a 3D scene as a painting. Think like a painter. See things as shapes and colors composing the edge quality and layering details.
Art Directive Balancing with Realism
A common critique about composition is “I don’t know where to look at. Where is your focal point?” So it is helpful to have a point of interest that leads the eyes. However, all that overwhelming feeling and not knowing where to look is more close to the real-life experience. That’s why in many situations people say, “this environment feels so good and immersive, but the screenshots are not doing it justice.”
Tips for Texturing
Texture serves two purposes: coloring the model and enhancing the readability. In this case, the color and values are more important than the per-pixel details. I usually try different gradients to make sure they all work together in the composition before diving into Substance. Always work from big to small.
Tips for Vegetation
Vegetation is a more challenging part for this style, because of the dark pockets created by contact shadows. Those dark pockets help to achieve a realistic look of foliage, however, in a painterly stylized work the dark accents need to be constrained just like our highlights. There are more complicated ways to solve this problem by using a light vector to cancel the shadow through Blueprint. But in this case, I used emissive light which is more intuitive but doesn’t work with all lighting scenarios. This method also helps you fake the subsurface color which sometimes can be tricky to get right. I will share another method specifically for trees in a future article.
I have a basic directional light and a skylight. To achieve the bright feeling I exaggerated the diffuse, indirect light boost, and bloom. Control the brightness through exposure and indirect light setting instead of relying on the intensity.
Another approach goes “use lighting to let the texture breath” which basically means using lighting to wash out a part of the noise. In traditional painting, the surface details mostly happen at a tangent, then fades out into the highlight and shadow. Again, this idea might not work for other styles.
Things I Did Wrong
Rocks are the parts that I wish I did differently. Spending time to design the hard edges and the silhouette is extremely important, especially for stylized rocks. My suggestion would be to block out the design and the edge flow with polygon modeling and use ZBrush only to add the secondary details and keep those edges that have been established.
Another thing is don’t put too much gradient on the grass. Let it blend into the ground texture naturally, screen space AO would take care of the gradient.
I captured an in-game screenshot to set the location, however, in the painting from the animated short, there were multiple mountains in between, so I added those in.
Sam Gao, Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
Landscape Auto Material by VEA Games is a flexible auto-painting material for Unreal Engine 4 Landscape component. When you are drawing the topology of your landscape, proper material layers are drawn automatically!
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