Reference & Research
Like with any other project, I always start out by doing my research. I found a good amount of reference relevant for what I wanted to make; basically, anything that inspires me will go at this stage. For this project I was motivated by the art of CreatureBox, The Croods and Bastion, and as the image shows, I gathered quite a bit of real life reference as well which is something I want to stress the importance of. If you always look at images of what other artists have already created, you’ll make it quite a lot harder for yourself to come up with something fresh and original.
Concepting & Sketching
In my case I knew I wanted to make an environment and I knew I wanted it to be cartoony and involve lots of mushrooms. At this stage, you shouldn’t be afraid of making something ugly and experiment. If everything has to look pretty, there is a chance that you don’t get to explore enough and get too attached to your first idea. When doing an environment, I try to treat it as if it was a character: what did it look like a 100 years ago? How would it feel to stand in the middle of it? What is the weather like and what lives here? All of this will influence your designs.
The modeling for this project was fairly easy and went quite smoothly. As you can see, I kept my concept close in Maya to make it easy to refer back to the silhouette. I knew I wanted a lot of different mushrooms, so eventually I ended up making a small library of different, already UV’ed elements that I could duplicate and place on the rock as needed. This made it fun and flexible to work with, and since a lot of the shapes were similar it made sense to UV these beforehand.
When it comes to UV’s, I always try to imagine where the seams would be if my model was made out of fabric. I usually do my unfolding in Zbrush, but due to the simplicity of this particular model it was more convenient to keep the workflow within Maya. Since I had already UV’ed most of the mushrooms, it was only a matter of making a layout that would allow me to give the same type of fungi slightly different color variations. I collected all the big elements such as the base and rocks on one tile, all the stems on another and all the caps on a third.
Edit: With the new UV tools in Maya 2016, Unfold 3D and Smooth UV tool I find that there’s no longer any reason to unfold in ZBrush. The new tools do a great job of unfolding both hard surface and organic models.
Before I start texturing, I go back to my references and find the best ones to help me with the task. Usually, I’ll pick from both real life and some in the style of texturing I would like to end up with. In this case, I was inspired by the Summoner’s Rift map from League of Legends. I stuck to a limited color palette and focused on getting my textures to look simple and hand painted.
I went for a cartoony style of shading, using a ‘threeToneBrightnessShader’ from Maya’s Toon menu. This is a very simple shader that is easy to set up and gives a cool cell shaded look. After assigning the shader to your model, you simply have to plug your texture into both the dark, mid and bright color. Once this is done, you can go into the color balance of your texture and adjust the gain to control the light and shadow color of the shader. I would suggest keeping the mid tone the original color of your texture map.
As for rendering, I like to experiment with lots of different passes, giving myself the freedom to try out different styles in comp. Along the way, I often drag my renders into Photoshop to see if my desired look is achievable with what I’ve already got. In some cases this will save you a lot of time since it’ll give you a quick overview of what is possible.
Never underestimate what good compositing will do for your image. Not only can it save you a lot of time fiddling to get the right colours directly from your render, it can really take your work to the next level if done right. Try to avoid too many crunched blacks and whites and instead stay more within the mid tones. I personally find that it makes your image look less ‘3D’ and is more pleasant to the eye. Compositing is also the time where I start to focus on color harmonies and ultimately end up bringing all the bits and pieces together.