The Croft Antiques Shop

Environment Breakdown

Balazs Domjan

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Balazs Domjan

Prop Artist

Introduction

I’m a self-taught 3D artist with a genuine passion for the world of technology and gaming.

Throughout my journey, I've honed my skills and expertise in the fascinating realm of 3D art, constantly seeking innovative ways to bring imagination to life.

My Goals When Making This Scene

This is a re-imagination of my first scene. I was never truly satisfied with how the lighting turned out, so I wanted to see what UE5 could bring to the table this time.

Although this was not enough of a reason for me to relight the scene; I wanted to further the narrative as well. In my opinion, storytelling is often underappreciated, and it deserves more attention.

The original scene told the story of Lara Croft’s grandmother, who moved to Asia to explore the continent.

As she kept finding more artifacts, she eventually established an antique shop to share her discoveries with the world. The scene shows a snapshot of one of her days in the shop.

With this new iteration, the story progresses. Lara’s grandma retired, and she’s not running the shop anymore. Now it’s young Lara’s turn to take over the store. As she steps inside this little haven, she’s blown away by the charm of all the ancient artifacts.

This is the moment when her love for tomb raiding begins – the feeling I also wanted to invoke in the audience.

Moreover, I also wanted to introduce new focal points that showcased details overlooked in the original scene and explore fresh angles for existing shots.

I believed that this would help deepen the narrative, allowing the audience to connect with Lara’s journey on a more profound level.

I love composition, and I truly believe that that’s one of the basic pillars of environmental art (and art in general).

The principles I follow when creating compositions

There are several ways to create compositions, and I personally always believed in learning and focusing on the basics. Among the fundamentals are such things as lights and shadows, perspective, hierarchy, rule of thirds, shapes and silhouettes, and color.

Let’s look at a few examples of those on a few renders.

Lights and shadows can help create contrast and emphasize the shapes and silhouettes. Perspective guides the viewer’s eyes with intention, leading them through a carefully crafted narrative.

Hierarchy ensures that the elements within the composition are organized in a manner that reinforces the desired focal points. The rule of thirds also serves as a guiding principle in achieving balance and harmony (or imbalance, if that’s our goal).

And when it comes to colors, they help with the emotional narrative/resonance of the artwork by evoking specific moods and feelings in the audience. In essence, understanding these is a way to unlock the full potential of visual storytelling.

I love using extra wide aspect ratios and long focal length cameras, as those give the most cinematic looks. The deliberate choice of an extra-wide aspect ratio allows for a broader canvas, expanding the visual horizon for a more immersive experience.

Likewise, the long focal length adds another layer of cinematic effect by bringing distant elements closer and enhancing the perception of depth.

At times, I find myself moving things around with a clear vision in mind. On other occasions, however, I follow a more spontaneous process, when I just keep rearranging the objects until the visual harmony clicks into place.

I like to think about this as a ‘muscle’ which you can train.

By constantly practicing, you gradually develop the skill to understand the principles that contribute to the creation of compelling and aesthetically pleasing compositions.

Analyzing the renders of the Antique Shop

The main shot serves as an introduction to the entire scene, providing a comprehensive view of the shop. My intention behind this approach was to set the stage for the unfolding narrative.

While some might view the abundance of details in this shot as potentially overwhelming or indicative of poor composition, it was a deliberate artistic choice on my part.

Rather than following conventional norms, I embraced the idea of creating a visual canvas where numerous smaller compositions coexist within the broader context.

Each element within the frame, despite its intricacy, contributes to the overall visual narrative. That turns the image into a mosaic of mini compositions, each playing a unique role in conveying the essence of the scene.

The purpose here was to create a sense of clutter within the composition, offering a glimpse into the overall mood that’s present in the shop.
I decided to show a little bit of everything, but nothing explicitly, to maintain an air of mystery.

This raises the audience’s curiosity as they find themselves drawn into the scene, eager to delve deeper into the narrative. The curiosity rises from the anticipation of uncovering more, encouraging spectators to want to see more and find pieces of the visual puzzle.

This also mirrors young Lara’s reaction when she stepped into the shop for the first time. She was also overwhelmed by the sheer number of items, and then she started exploring them one by one.

This creates a shared sense of discovery reinforcing a connection between the audience and the protagonist.

 

The incoming sunlight creates a bright spot on the left in the image. In most cases, that’s where the eyes of the audience draw first. But then by following the contours of the counter, the viewer keeps observing the image along its shape.

At the curved section of the counter, the image deliberately appears cleaner, and that makes the spectators pause.

Here, four candles come into view – three smaller ones and a larger one purposefully placed to avoid repetition. These candles cast a rim light on a dragon statue, introducing a touch of complexity amidst the relatively clean surroundings.

The dragon figure, with its illuminated edges, stands out a little, creating a contrast with its environment.

Adding to the composition, the curtains in the background act as a frame around the statue and candles. This framing effect subtly draws attention to the focal elements, contributing to the overall visual appeal.

In summary, the play of sunlight, the counter’s shape, the arrangement of candles, and the framing effect of the curtains work together to guide the viewer’s attention through the image, offering moments of interest and visual engagement.

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I tried to create a distinct separation for the counter from the rest of the environment giving it enough space to stand out. The aisle/corridor in front of it acts as a visual separator by providing enough gap that emphasizes the counter as a focal point.

Furthermore, aligning the direction of the wooden floor with that of the counter creates a flow, guiding the viewer’s attention toward this central element.

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To make the scene appear more compelling and convincing, I introduced elements that break up the straight lines and add a touch of diversity.

The deliberately placed side tables, rugs, and a collection of smaller items not only serve an aesthetic purpose but also contribute to the creation of a more lived-in and dynamic atmosphere.

By breaking up the rigid lines and introducing these nuanced details, the counter becomes integrated into a more organic and believable setting, enhancing the overall realism of the scene.

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I already had this shot with the tiny Chinese lion in the original scene.

However, this time, the lights are more refined, which brings the lion into sharp focus.

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First, I wanted to turn off the other light that lights up the entrance on the left, but just slightly lowering the intensity made the image more balanced.

The lion is still the focal point and the dominant character in the image, but subtly lowering the brightness of the lights on the left side (the doorframe and rim light on the articles there) gave me the contrast I was after.

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The process of refining the lighting went beyond just simply adjusting the intensity. More contrast was created with temperature as the dynamic interaction of warm and cold tones further emphasizes the lion’s presence.

So even though it is a relatively tiny figure, it still commands a lot of attention in this image.

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One more aspect that added to the contrast was the lion’s organic shape.

The figure is surrounded by straight lines which creates an environment without similar shapes fighting for our attention.

The 2 shots above are perfect examples of how much impact lighting and camera focus can have in defining the focal points. In the first image, the camera’s focus is set on the counter, setting the stage for a detailed exploration of its contents.

The out-of-focus lantern on the left side acts as a visual counterbalance to the cluttered counter, introducing a subtle harmony to the composition. But despite that balance, the overall atmosphere still creates the feeling of unrest, creating a sense of narrative tension.

The subsequent shot, however, undergoes a transformative shift as the lantern takes center stage. Now in sharp focus and radiating warm light, it stands in stark contrast to the cold illumination that permeated the previous image.

This deliberate play of temperatures serves as a visual metaphor, symbolizing Lara’s grandmother’s departure from the shop (characterized by the cold lights), to young Lara stepping inside of it, who now fills the space with a warmer, more inviting glow.

This duality in lighting not only underscores a thematic shift but also conveys the subtle nuances of succession and continuity within the narrative. This is a visual language symbolizing the passing of the torch from one generation to the next.

I could write an entire book about the 2 images above (pun intended), as they contain numerous storytelling bits.

The carefully chosen shades of slightly desaturated brown and red not only inject warmth into the scenes but also provide them with a vintage aesthetic, evoking a sense of
nostalgia.

As the narrative unfolds, capturing the aftermath of Mrs. Croft’s discovery of what appears to be an ancient dagger or arrowhead, her quest for knowledge is triggered.

The focal point of these images is the open book, with an illustration resembling an ancient Chinese arrowhead. Placing the actual tangible artifact alongside the book adds a layer of intrigue, one that suggests a connection between the drawing and the historical relic.

This intentional ambiguity creates a sense of curiosity, prompting the audience to explore the images further for hidden details and clues.

Adding depth to the narrative, a stack of old books lies beneath the main one, each bearing the marks of time through well-worn spines, faded covers, bookmarks, and traces of hand-written notes.

These elements tell us about Mrs. Croft’s relentless pursuit of knowledge, hinting at additional relics she may have sought in her explorations. The old paper sheets scattered beneath the weight of those books extend this layer even further, making the viewers ponder the stories behind each worn page.

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Revisiting the shots of the shogun helmet presented an intriguing challenge. I already had 2 compositions in my original post, so this time I wanted to find a new perspective that hadn’t been explored yet.

This time, I placed the helmet on the right side of the image on purpose, while the object itself is facing the right as well.

This intentional change from the expected placement introduces a subtle element of discomfort because when the helmet is looking right, we instinctively want to see what’s in front of it.

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The framing of the scene further enhances this feeling, placing blurred objects close to the camera, which together with the wall and the white vase on the right create an upside-down arch. These additional elements provide the overall image with more visual interest, and that way it makes the composition more balanced.

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The negative space around the helmet ensures that it remains a focal point, as it is surrounded by an atmosphere of ‘visual calm’. Reducing the noise around it allows the intricate details of the oriental headpiece to take center stage without being overshadowed by surrounding elements.

Since the goal here was to accentuate the helmet’s prominence, the addition of the 2 tiny lions on both sides of the helmet could be considered a not-too-ideal choice.

While they provide an additional layer of symbolism and detail, there is a potential increase in visual noise around the centerpiece. However, since without the lions, the final image appeared too minimalistic to me, I decided to keep this composition.

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Besides the helmet, I also added other objects to the image to sprinkle splashes of red here and there. Beyond simple aesthetic appeals, these red accents function as visual anchors.

My goal with this was to balance the overall color palette and not have the helmet be the only red spot. That would’ve created a sharper contrast in the final image than what I was after.

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This render of the blue dragon can be considered another example of my pursuit of a “discomforting” composition. In this portrayal, the statue in focus is positioned facing the left while it is also purposefully placed on the left side of the image.

This, again, introduces an intriguing imbalance, similar to the one with the shogun helmet.

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To further the visual tension, I added a fair number of objects before the dragon which introduced numerous straight lines surrounding the figure.

This amplifies the dramatic impact of the composition, as the dragon’s dynamic form challenges the rigid lines around it. This interplay of form and shapes helps the statue stand out from the crowd and win the viewer’s attention.

The only tiny adjustment I made to slightly reduce that contrast is that I added another one of the same dragon statue to the right, not too far from the main one.

However, to avoid a double composition, I hid that new statue almost completely, leaving only the tip of it peaking out from behind other objects.

Colors, in this particular composition, have more significance, since the blue dragon serves as the only source of blue tones within the frame.

Contrary to my approach with the shogun helmet, where I added hints of the same color, the restriction of color here emphasizes the dragon’s significance.

This creates a sharper contrast and makes the dragon the undisputed focal point within the composition. This image is almost monochromatic, which creates a sense of isolation and focus on the dragon’s presence amidst its surroundings.

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Revisiting this scene gave me the opportunity to this specific prop into the limelight, one that I didn’t showcase earlier.

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As we take a look at the composition, we can identify a few lines that define a visual journey. The objects form three distinct frames within the composition.

The initial frame on the right, which the viewers would most likely look at first, directs their focus toward the artifact, positioning it as the primary point of interest.

The subsequent line is elegantly composed of three objects, each increasing in size as our eyes ascend from the bottom to the top. The ensemble of these objects is then encased by the third frame, defined by the edges of the table, serving as a visual containment that further emphasizes the central focus.

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Within this carefully arranged image, the main object on the right assumes a pivotal role, occupying the focal point of the composition. Its elevated position suggests a sense of superiority, as if it were an overseer, casting its gaze downward upon the surrounding items.

This intentional positioning further accentuates the significance of the artifact by providing it with an authoritative presence.

And, of course, the audience is invited to interpret this without it being explicitly expressed.

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This image also contains a detail that I decided to put more emphasis on this time: the elegantly crafted legs of an ornate tray. While I was trying to find a nice angle, I wanted to avoid creating a triangle composition with the three legs.

So, in the pursuit of a different visual narrative, I chose to shift the camera ever so slightly to the right. This seemingly minor adjustment introduces a noteworthy change, unveiling the corners of carefully arranged books that would have otherwise remained hidden.

The juxtaposition of these two elements, the angular books and the curved legs of the tray creates an interplay between different types of shapes.

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In essence, the books, with their straight lines and defined shapes, present a contrast to the tray and its organic, curved legs. This interesting presentation of contrasting elements not only adds visual interest but also creates a dynamic interplay between order and free-flowing elements.

The harsh lines of the books and the softer, more organic curves of the tray’s legs make this image an example of composition where shapes have more significance.

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An exercise I like doing is drawing lines (in most cases) along the edges of objects to examine a composition. This tool helps me identify the visual elements at play within an image, thus seeing the dynamics that shape its overall aesthetic.

Horizontal lines provide a sense of calm, while vertical lines add tension to the scene. In the case of this image, the lines are more similar to horizontal ones, providing the scene with a sense of tranquility.

I also added those red lines to mark the rule of thirds to see how much the image follows that structure. Observing the image through this lens reveals that several white lines either intersect or come close to the points of intersections.

We can also note that the focal point, represented by the fish figure, aligns with the left third of the image.

The orientation of the fish figure was also intentional. Positioned to face right, it almost appears as if it was looking right at the books. At the same time, however, the corners of the books on the right all point toward the left where the fish figure is situated.

This creates a visual dialogue that tries to show us where we should look, and guide our eyes toward the focal point.

Closing thoughts

In conclusion, by revisiting my original scene I was aiming to address my dissatisfaction with the lighting, while at the same time, I also wanted to further the narrative and create new shots. Going through this process reminded me of the importance of storytelling in environmental art.

Going back to the basics and using composition principles (such as lights and shadows, perspective, hierarchy, rule of thirds, shapes, silhouettes, and color) is the way to create compelling visual narratives.

In my opinion, the thoughtful choices in focal points, camera angles, and lighting techniques contribute to an immersive experience just as much as beautiful modeling and texturing work.

In my eyes, the new iteration of my scene feels more immersive and compelling when compared to its predecessor. However, it’s important to mention that I do not diminish the value of my earlier work.

That piece represents where my skills were 3 years ago and it serves as a reference point for the progress I’ve made since then.

Thank you for joining me in this little exploration of my creative process. Feel free to share any thoughts or feedback – I’d love to hear from you. Thanks again for reading!