13 January 2022

Cyberpunk Alleyway – Environment Breakdown – Nixon Poon

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Introduction

Hello, my name is Nixon Poon. I’m a 3D Environment/Technical artist who recently graduated from Gnomon School of Visual Effects in California. I was raised in Hong Kong until I came to the United States to pursue college. Since young, I play a lot of video games but the climate in Asia is very academic heavy. I did well academically, and games are my pass time. I never thought I would become a 3D artist at the end. I found my passion for environments and coding, but I found it hard for me to not be curious about everything. This is why I decided that I should be heavily equipped with technical ability but as an artist specializes in Environment.
I love shooters and MMORPGs. I stare at trees while playing WoW and miss target playing COD, Destiny, Battlefield…etc. It is a medium I fall in love with. It is in the back of my head that one day I shall help bringing those vision alive.

Importance of preparation and design visuals

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I did not design the scene; I saw this work, without questioning where it is, I went right into the action. I took creative liberty mostly on the lighting. I have always loved the Cyberpunk theme environment and when Cyberpunk 2077 came out, despite the state of the game, it is undeniable that the Environment team has done a fantastic job bringing the vision.

My former teacher Bobby Rice showed me an environment and fell in love with it by Stanislav Verbitsky (https://www.artstation.com/artwork/e01D5D). I was surprised to find that it is a 3D scene, but I already started and therefore decided to challenge myself to improve upon his amazing design and vision.

Cyberpunk gives a dystopian feeling because it creates a juxtaposition between advanced to primitive. This effect looms over the unexpected audience through their beauty. Everything is a comparison, from bright saturated color to contrasting light and shadow, cybernetic technology over a simple bike, or architecture versus a place full of trash.

Thinking of a Design element

Since Cyberpunk theme gives a feeling that you are being watched in the environment. I wanted to make sure I emphasize this feeling in my work. Originally, I have no idea what I could do, but I remember a lecture about EYES once and it talks about our natural perception towards this subject matter. In fact, I took it literally and add EYES into the environment to give this uneasy feeling. I added Graffiti on the wall, notice that they are human-looking directly at you. It really helps to enhance this feeling.

Design element comes from everywhere, think about their significance and make a motif out of it. These motifs drive the mood of an environment. It gives a subconscious feeling and is effective. I encourage everyone when thinking about design, think about their symbolism and meaning, there is always a way to sneak in these aspects.

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Lighting Blockout

Description: The first stage of Block out is simple geometry, and drop a light in there, it clearly identify important parts of the scene. I made my material in substance designer and test out their reflectivity. a basic Roughness pass is also a good idea to test how lights are interacting.

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Blockout is where I spend a lot of time. It is because this stage is not just about having the basic idea but exposing more depth to the environment. I think that we should take this stage seriously as it allows us to see designs and upcoming problems. There isn’t much that I can say about blocking out other than making it simple and fast. It is in my opinion that block out can change and are only with basic shapes.

I highly suggest starting lighting the scene immediately. Drop a directional light in it and watch closely on the shadow the scene has created and find the spot your eyes immediately draw into. Base on my observation with both works I put out, I realize my eyes draw directly into the mid-tone area between the highlight and Shadow core. This is to give you an idea of where objects need to be prioritized as you should create more interest in this area. The lighting changes a lot of quality. Put a light there and observe what matters and focus on those first.

Let me share a secret, there are a lot of props on the screen that is a texture overlay on top, and they have 0 quality to them. We should seek to make everything beautiful, but prioritizing those important areas is more efficient. I not only make you a better artist but a better designer.

Technical/Shader techniques

I want to focus this article on shaders and lighting. It is because there isn’t anything unique about modeling and UV, in this situation, they are extremely basic. Obviously, it is encouraged that we have amazing UV and models. It is once again lighting will change everything, as it will cover up a ton of work you may be doing. It is smarter to put it in amazing lighting, spot those weird models that don’t look right, and then go back to change them accordingly. This not only helps the artist to focus on their task, but it also cut time by so much.
As you don’t want to lose that fire from the concept, dragging a project too long has been a major killer for great potential environments.

Anyway, Unreal Engine has an extremely easy-to-learn shader system. For an artist, we should take full advantage of it and have them work for us. At Gnomon we have a few classes that learn shader and Forrest Stephan taught me how to make good use of our node graph. I would like to show you how to take advantage of Material Functions.

Description: Here you see, all the blue nodes are material functions. This is a simple example of a material Function that consists of texture maps inside, I get the Attribute out and blend it using Vertex paint.

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They are a group of nodes that does things. I take advantage of this to make a clean graph. For my scene, I know that there is a RainFX that is an overlay effect. I suggest following this tutorial on youtube for the rain shader https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUemJLSaFxw. I use Break Material Attribute to do the minor adjustment and then recombine them. This is easy to read and efficient by utilizing Material Attribute for all blending simply because it replaces many parameters into one.

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Description: Here is how I connect my material. Instead of connecting it to a material that can only work once. I put it in a function so I can put different input in them to change their properties.

The greatest advantage of this organization is that I can expose whatever I want. I can flatten my normal, increase displacement, increase contrast for Roughness, and adjust UVSize, and all is driven inside the node. It keeps everything small.

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Description: Outside of the seemingly complex node, it was displayed like this. I can put whatever I need to adjust the texture. And everything is done inside of the function. All I need to do is make a parameter so I can adjust it as an instance. This is simply a clean way to organize your Texture Maps, however, I have no idea how to reorganize the order of the input or output.

 

Shader blending is a simple and powerful thing Unreal 4 made it very easy to do, the height lerp for example. They function like Substance Designer and can calculate the Max value between 2 height maps. When you think about the shader, it takes every pixel on the texture map, compares and returns the one with a more intense value. Max function is the most important mathematical function for designers as it allows the combination between 2 textures maps without the actual blending.

However, the Heigh Lerp node only accepts one texture map for blending. It is all it needs because it is supposed to return a mask for you to blend with. However, I think it is easier to just modify the function itself. Since Heightlerp is only a type of texture to blend with, we can change those inputs to a material attribute instead.

I went into the Function and modified it to take in a material Attribute, instead of a Vector 3.

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Description: these nodes here, change them to material Attribute

From that on, you can do lerping by simply layer then on top of each other. Think steps, what comes next and what can be the last. For mine, I have the materials, and then I have a layer of water, and then water droplets. You can see from the diagram below of my graph.

 

Here is my material setup.
Using instance value to control the material function. Makes value easily adjustable, and also makes function short and easily readable.

Lighting

There are 3 things that I will always do as soon as I want to light:

1. Put Exponential Fog in the scene, turn on Volumetric to make basic depth.
2. Cast a Directional light, set it Stationary and play with volumetric Scattering value.
3. Make a post Processing, set unbound extend true, and Exposure > Min/Max Brightness to 1.

Description: Lighting aspect, how I build an artifical scene.

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Description: The purple/pink color flood the front, the concept uses analog color for the light. I use those colors as rim lights and sidelight. The building on the back is a big example. Using different colors to convey shape and add variation. 2nd photo is the actual color of the object. They change based on light very heavily.

Lighting is very creative and we should think color by means of artificially placing them. It is not real, but if a point light can light up an area that is too dark, it is a fast way to adjust it to the maximum quality. Static lights can cast light that is invisible to volumetric fog, while Stationary light gives more depth having control on Volumetric scattering.
Pay good attention to any rim light effects, these effects, volumetric or not, add depth and dimension to your piece. Rim Light highlights a silhouette and sometimes it makes sense, it sometimes helps with the visual.

Once you bake and find it very dark, it is not the end of the world. Remember you can adjust INDIRECT LIGHT INTENSITY in post-processing. You can also add in Ambient occlusion/another layer of reflection capture, etc.

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Description: Here are the most important thing to adjust in a post processing.

Make your work stands out, is unique and alive.

When a recruiter looks at a portfolio, although they have different specifications, your environment can distinguish itself from others by making one thing look amazing: life. Consider adding something that moves, simple animation that cast moving shadows or some sort of hidden easter eggs. It sounds like a waste of time but it is a good conversation starter. I believe this is what makes art fun. Add your own personality and randomness and show that to the audience.

I will never forget that from our game lead Anton Napierala. “If there is a story, we see less of the mistakes, but when there isn’t, the only thing we see is rough-edges.”

Final Thoughts

For people who haven’t found success in the industry, think about why. I think there is an aspect of luck, however, you can increase your chance by doing something as simple as making your artwork thumbnail looks amazing.
On the otherhand, the best quality is to not give up. I came out rough as well. It is how you finish those matters, how you start, or the mistake you made along the way is expected. Please take me as an example, as I am exactly that person.
I want to give a special shout-out to my mentors that help me on my journey into the game industry, Anton Napierala, Bobby Rice, Jean Khalife, Max Dayan, Beau Janzen, and especially Parrish Baker from SCAD for never giving up on me.