Going in, I knew I wanted to surpass my last project to reflect my growth as an artist. I eventually recognized a gap in my portfolio: the absence of wood as a featured material.
Wood has always held a special appeal for me due to its unique characteristics, and I realized that recreating it convincingly would be challenging.
This realization, combined with my somewhat old-fashioned musical preferences, inspired me to consider recreating a church organ, with my final choice being the Dominion model.
Interestingly, this specific organ had recently undergone restoration by Rodney Jantzi, who generously documented the process online through an extensive and useful collection of photographs.
- Autodesk 3ds Max
- Topaz Gigapixel
- Adobe Substance 3D Painter
- Marmoset Toolbag
- Adobe Photoshop
The initial phase involved creating a blockout, during which I established the primary shapes and set the proportions.
However, due to the absence of a comprehensive model sheet or orthographic view, there were instances where I had to extrapolate and rely on my judgment to ensure that the overall shape and silhouette appeared accurate.
Even during this early stage, I made it a point to work with simple meshes and no unnecessary geometry to facilitate iteration and allow things to be subdivided properly.
The transition from the blockout to the midpoly stage was blurry, as each asset would gradually get refined over time. I achieved this by subdividing the curves and maintaining sharp edges, primarily using 3ds Max’s Turbosmooth modifier with the smoothing group option enabled.
To ensure a good export over to ZBrush, where both bevels and carvings would be made, I made sure that the curves had ample resolution to avoid the jaggedness that DynaMesh can sometimes introduce.
In ZBrush, I chose to import each piece individually. In hindsight, I could have imported everything simultaneously, but this might have impacted my computer’s performance.
There, I worked on what would become the highpoly by dynameshing each piece at a reasonably high resolution. Using the “polish” slider, I essentially melted my assets.
This step effectively added bevels to the edges, while the dynamesh gave me the resolution to carve the numerous ornaments featured on the organ.
Fortunately, a combination of brushes, including orbs, dam standard, and slash brushes, facilitated the creation of most of these ornamental details. Both normal and radial symmetry saved me a lot of time and streamlined the sculpting process.
In general, the sculpting phase proceeded rather smoothly, given that a substantial portion of the work had already been completed in 3ds Max.
Since I felt more proficient in the latter, I aimed to minimize my reliance on ZBrush. I also recognized that the texturing process would ultimately conceal many of the sculpted details, so I didn’t overly concern myself with precision at times.
Subsequently, I decimated all of the assets and exported them back to 3ds Max for the purpose of comparing the highpoly and lowpoly versions.
To make the lowpoly, I simply lowered the number of subdivisions of each asset and cleaned up any artifacts that could have arisen from boolean operations or similar manipulations.
I managed to bring the polycount of the organ down to around 68k triangles, which I deemed reasonable considering the nature of what I was making.
Uving & Baking
Early on, I noticed that the organ features three main segments, each with roughly equal surface area. To ensure a high texel density, I therefore divided the model into three distinct texture sets.
For precise control over the organ’s UV mapping, I manually unwrapped each asset individually, strategically adding seams and maintaining sufficient spacing between UV islands.
This “padding” ensured that sharp corners would appear smooth after the baking process. To optimize the use of UV space while maintaining uniformity, I employed UVPackMaster.
Once all objects were appropriately named and matched, I transitioned to Substance 3D Painter for baking. Thanks to the non-destructive workflow I employed, the lowpoly and highpoly silhouettes matched almost perfectly, allowing for the use of a tight cage, which significantly decreased the risk of artifacts.
However, some imperfections did arise, particularly near concave corners where the cage occasionally intersected. To address these issues, I manually corrected the normal and ambient occlusion maps.
To further refine the bake, I conducted an initial pass with the average normal option disabled to prevent warping the details on flat surfaces. Subsequently, I conducted another pass with this option enabled and applied it solely to the sharp corners.
Recreating wood as a material presents a lot of challenges due to its intricate grain patterns, directionality, and the nuances of manufacturing conventions.
To ensure realism and save time, I opted to texture the wood using scans of wood veneer that I discovered online. I unearthed various walnut images, which I desaturated and equalized using Photoshop.
To meet the demands of the high texel density I had planned for, I also leveraged Topaz Gigapixel AI, a powerful image upscaling software.
With these grayscale wood sheets at my disposal, I embarked on the process of aligning them across the model to correspond with the organ’s construction, often utilizing tri-planar projection techniques.
To introduce colors, I primarily relied on the gradient filter, which enabled me to input specific hues based on the underlying image values. Additionally, I added anchors at the top of the layer stack, allowing for the easy recall of specific patterns on other layers.
This approach enabled me to manage the albedo, roughness, and, on occasion, height attributes in separate layers, facilitating fine-tuning as needed.
Achieving the desired weathering effect was a meticulous process, carefully aligned with the mood and narrative I aimed to convey.
During my examination of aged wooden furniture, I observed that the surfaces darken as you approach the edges, a principle I faithfully adhered to in order to maintain consistency throughout the entire structure.
The wear and tear on the organ was also influenced by its handling, which led to the incorporation of scratches and veneer damage around the base and the keyboard.
For the pedals, I used photo scans sourced from the organ restoration images and complemented them with roughness and normal maps produced in Photoshop.
In stark contrast, most of the decorative elements demanded some manual effort, requiring each design to be redrawn by hand and meticulously projected onto each individual pipe and surface.
Following the application of these details, I introduced general wear and grime to the entire organ. The objective here was to achieve abundant roughness variation, focusing it primarily within the cavities.
As a finishing touch, I applied a relatively dense layer of dust, imparting an authentic, aged appearance to the organ. Throughout the texturing, I kept painting in detail manually, and I believe this made a big difference in the end.
Props, surroundings & story
With the organ nearing completion, I shifted my focus towards creating a small environment and story that would complement the neglected appearance of my prop.
I envisioned a theatrical and dramatic setting that would align with the nature of this prop. To gather inspiration, I delved into the world of art history, specifically examining early still-life paintings.
Among these, the 16th-century Vanitas paintings captivated me with their visually striking compositions and profound meanings.
These paintings are renowned for featuring human skulls, cluttered desks, and rich symbolism, all intended to provoke contemplation about life’s inherent meaninglessness and mortality.
Consequently, I embarked on a quest to find and model period-appropriate furniture and props of various shapes and sizes, enabling me to construct a composition that would effectively draw the viewer’s eyes toward the organ.
The most complex items, like the withered roses and the skull, were either purchased or found on Megascans, while my own props were modeled and textured using the same aforementioned workflow.
The sheet music and letters were textured using a custom atlas.
The rest of the environment, mainly the walls, floor, and ceiling, was assembled around the existing props and a camera angle I had set early during this project.
Overall, this phase involved extensive exploration and experimentation, and I struggled to find a compelling result.
With the valuable assistance of my friend Linus Alstergren, we eventually settled on the current setup and devised a lighting scheme that created a spiraling composition.
Lighting & Post-Processing
Over time, I realized it can be futile to try and control light. Instead, the ideal approach often involves relying on as few lights as possible to achieve a realistic and natural scene.
In this particular project, I used an HDRI and a single directional light originating from the window on the right. Effects such as volumetric lighting and god rays were subsequently added during the post-processing stage in Photoshop.
To enable my post-processing workflow, the initial shots rendered in Marmoset Toolbag were intentionally dark. This allowed for subsequent artificial brightening to be applied without risking overexposure or clipping.
Additionally, I made extensive use of Photoshop’s Camera Raw Filter, which offers a comprehensive suite of tools for image editing. I highly recommend exploring the “texture” slider and the Smart Sharpen filter, particularly if you find that some details may have been lost in your raw renders.
You could easily spend a lifetime tweaking renders, a process made all the more difficult when “tunnel vision” comes into play.
Sharing progress pictures and seeking feedback from fellow artists can be invaluable in overcoming it.
For all the sweat, blood, and tears behind this project, I like to think that I was able to go beyond my previous portfolio piece. While my skills may have been refined through it, there is no secret: hard work and perseverance made it happen.
With all that said, I would like to kindly thank Games Artist for offering me the great opportunity to break down this project and you for reading this article!