Creating the Environment in Videos – Part I
Playsense Agency CG Team Take – Part I: The basic techniques, approaches, and instruments
In videos, environment is everything you see in the frame besides the protagonist: a forest, a city, clouds, castles, houses, etc. It’s these objects that set the mood of a frame. The holistic picture is formed by the way the light is falling and the objects are arranged. It is important that environment creation doesn’t take too much time: a project may require a real lot of frames, and it makes sense to think of optimization.
Together with Alexey Kozyrev, CG Video Supervisor at Playsense, we’ll tell about how the process of creating the environment is organized at the agency. In the first part of the article, we’ll touch upon the basic stages of environment creation. In the second part, we’ll use a real case to show the Playsense CG team production pipeline.
What problems do CG developers encounter?
One of the key problems with environment creation is the lack of rendering capacity. If we had a task of fully recreating a photorealistic environment while having an unlimited rendering capacity, we could make every object unique and deliver a 100% believable environment. If we could render a beach with trillions of unique sand grains, we would definitely make it this way. But alas, that’s not possible so we have to trick the viewers’ perception and ‘cheat’: use textures, special techniques, and cards. Because optimization is everything. But we’ll talk about it later; let’s first explain how the work on environment is set up.
What are the main stages of CG environment creation?
When you begin a project, always start with the reference material. This is the basic stage: if you want to create an environment the viewer will believe in, you need to study how such an environment is formed, and collect lots of reference material. Ideally you should visit the places you want to depict (of course, sometimes that may be complicated). To process the reference material, we at Playsense often use the PureRef suite. Collecting pictures on Pinterest is an option, too.
Some people skip this stage, and in our opinion that’s a grave mistake: you can’t simply compose a credible environment inside your head, especially if we speak about a realistic world with formational physics.
Before moving on to sketching, one needs to consider several important things.
First, it’s composition, the basis of it all. As the rules of composition go, you should start with defining the focal point. You should define straight away what will be the main and the secondary elements of the environment you’re creating: what the viewer must be focused on, etc.
To cut it short, symmetry is bad. It can very rarely be found in nature. Even manufactured objects tend to have some irregularities.
You should consider eye focusing during frame viewing. You can use the perspective, wires, roads, etc. to steer the viewer’s focus towards the protagonist (or even some object which is the most important entity in the frame).
The human brain is wired to structure everything around: it’s the convenient way for it. And because of it, you should purposefully and constantly undermine and challenge the patterns it creates. The simplest rule here is “big, medium, small”.
The “big, medium, small” rule is applied this way: take three identical rocks or fir trees and combine them in such a way that their perceived size is different (big, medium, small) while doing your best to avoid any repeating patterns.
To grasp composition better, you can refer to “Pictorial composition”, an online course by Nathan Fowkes, where the basic principles of the subject are explained in simple terms.
Anyone who works with 3D environment should learn to create sketches; this can help convey your ideas quickly. 99% of sketches may go into the bin, but the remaining 1% may become the foundation of an interesting project. It’s just awesome when people can set the mood, express the atmosphere for the frame, and arrange the composition with several touches. You should invest your time into learning how to sketch: it will pay off in the future, allowing you to work faster.
On this stage, the first scene prototype is created (within 15 to 20 minutes) out of the simplest geometric shapes: cones, cubes, spheres, etc. You can use it to test your hypotheses. Concerning animation, it’s on this stage where you can assess (for example) whether your heroes can realistically manage to successfully leap where they should. Also, you can even place the basic lighting on this stage if you wish.
Sometimes blocking can be very intense, geometry-wise. Below you can see the pole position for “The great race” video. We assembled it very quickly. The background is all boxes.
Essentially, this was a kind of kitbashing: we had a large library of in-game models we could use. So we could assemble the scene using (practically) real geometry. The benefit of this approach is that you can transfer this prototype down the production pipeline for further use: e.g. to your animators (so that they choose the camera views) or into further development (so that the production assets could be generated), etc.
The next stage is called visual development. It’s especially important if we’re dealing not with a photorealistic environment but a stylized one. On this stage, you (together with your art director) define the visual code and the techniques you will employ for creating the environment. We also apply the shaders here. As the Playsense team is large, this is usually done by multiple people (but you can manage it on your own still). Every asset is rendered separately; for that purpose, we have a selection of HDR maps helping to trace how glares and shading work.
Here’s a visual development case related to this Darkfire Heroes video. We were setting up the atmosphere for the environment, looking for the mood defined by the art director and the video director with the help of the treatment and the reference material. For that, one needs to put together the basic setup or the master lighting, to express the atmosphere which can be ‘cloned’ for all other frames. It’s also advisable to consult the game’s guidelines as it’s quite possible that these contain descriptions for the tone and the style together with examples and references. The guidelines are good at helping you explain to the viewer what to expect once they get into the game.