29 November 2021

Fire Extinguisher – Prop Breakdown – Miles Rogers

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Introduction

Hello everyone! My name is Miles Rogers and I’m 3D Environment and Prop Art student from St. Louis, Missouri. My biggest passion in life is telling stories through interactive worlds, especially through video games. In this article I will be talking about my process for creating my latest prop, taking it from blockout to final render.

Reference Gathering and Ideation

When starting a project one of the biggest things that determine whether or not I want to see it through to completion is if I can find a high-resolution, high-quality reference. It’s important during the ideation stage not to fall in love with any particular idea, since the ability to find references can make or break a piece. Luckily in my case, a fire extinguisher is a very common item and will have lots of images available across the internet.

For the next few days, I spent my time searching Google Images, PicClick (a very good eBay listing aggregator), and various other websites and forums looking for something that would inspire me and provide a good primary reference for my project. Within only a few hours of serious effort, I was able to find a fantastic, high-resolution listing that had lots of interesting wear, grime, and sticker peeling. While my quest for reference was far from over, this was a big moment in the project.

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One final thing to note is that it’s a good idea to look for more references during the later stages of development. In almost every project there will be an area you need to model but your reference doesn’t quite capture. Instead of guessing, finding more references will give you better results. YouTube videos can be useful in cases like this as they often will show the weird angles that auction site listings and Google Images fail to.

Blockout

A blockout to me means getting in all the basic shapes and forms in a way that can be quickly iterated on without worrying about topology. Many beginner artists tend to oversimplify their blockouts, which makes things harder down the line when something inevitably has to be adjusted. Sighting proportions tend to be a lot easier when more of the object is actually there, as a lot of them play off each other. For this project, I even went as far as blocking out the stickers, since they were such an integral part in judging if I had accurately represented the length of the tank. When finalizing my blockout for this project there were a few areas I missed that I had to go back and fix in the high poly. I feel like I can do a better job of cross-referencing details at the end of each phase in the future.

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This is also a good time to mention the importance of soliciting peer feedback at every stage of the process. There are many game art-oriented Discord servers out there with critiques channels for you to post your WIPs. The barrier of entry for getting professional-level feedback is lower than ever nowadays and by immersing yourself in such an environment your artistic growth will skyrocket.

High Poly/Sculpting

For this prop, I opted to use Sub-D modeling in Maya for the high poly. While it may be easier as a prop artist to use a tool like DynaMesh in ZBrush to avoid worrying about topology, I tend towards Sub-D for personal props like this. The main advantage is that your mesh will be serviceable, which is very useful when you are receiving feedback. For example, if someone points out an edge is too sharp and will not be readable when baked down, you can slide your holding edges back instead of having to export your mesh to ZBrush, re-DynaMesh, and re-Decimate. It’s also just good practice for any jobs where you may need to use it in the future.

My first pass went pretty quickly as I already had most of my shapes blocked out. I did, however, want to get into ZBrush and sculpt the sticker peeling details in the high poly. Usually, I’d just do something like this in Substance Painter but I wanted to make use of the mesh map data that comes with a bake.

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While I was decently happy with my results, sculpting is definitely one of my weak areas and something I need to practice more and develop in future projects.

Low Poly and UVing

The low poly stage of this project was pretty straightforward. In my opinion for a hero prop such as this one the goal of this stage is to create a low poly that looks good (will bake well, describe all necessary information, have no faceting, etc.) without using more triangles than you need. Plus, it seems a bit silly to be extremely conservative with polycount and then apply a 4k texture, especially when polycount is becoming less and less of an issue in current-gen game engines.

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It is also extremely important when optimizing your asset to understand the concepts of polygon density and triangle overshading. Polygon density is similar to what I mentioned earlier about not using more triangles than you need to eliminate faceting except on a smaller level within the model. You want to give larger elements more polygons and smaller elements less as a general rule, but you still want it to always look good at reading distance.

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Triangle overshading is an issue that arises when you leave long, thin triangles in your low poly. This happens because of the way that GPU rendering is handled: processing all of a model’s data 2×2 quads. Because of this, it can actually be cheaper to add an extra triangle to get rid of long, thin ones. While the impact of doing so is pretty minimal, especially in deferred rendering, it’s nice to show that you understand this concept in your portfolio work. If you want to read more on this concept and how GPU rendering works in general, I highly recommend this article on GPU Performance for Game Artists on FragmentBuffer.

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A helpful visual for how triangle overshading can be wasteful, courtesy of FragmentBuffer.com

As for UVs, it’s generally just a matter of getting them done. Just put on some music or podcast and do what you’ve got to do. Some general guidelines for successful UVing are to square them off when possible and to make cuts at roughly every 90-degree angle in the model. A common misconception about low poly models is that you have to harden every UV border edge. A good rule of thumb is that every hard edge needs a UV seam and but not every UV seam needs a hard edge.

I’m not too proud of how my UVs turned out in this project, and in the future, I’d like to be more conservative with the number of UV shells I use. For packing, I used UVPackMaster in Blender. It always does a great job I cannot recommend that tool enough.

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Texturing

Texturing is where the bulk of the work for this project went. One of the main things I wanted to try out with this project is stencils and I have to say I’m completely sold on the workflow. I created my stencils for this project by taking an image, either from the real world, online, or my ref (do this only if it’s high-res enough), applying a black and white filter, applying a curves filter to crunch out the values I wanted, then painting over any artifacts with the brush tool.

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Since these stencils are derived directly from the real world, they are a great choice for adding large-form, intentional detail to objects. When I was first starting out I would oftentimes slap on a bunch of grunge and smart masks and call it a day, but when I started cross-referencing details with hand painting and stencils, my texturing improved dramatically. I encourage everyone to check out Rick Greeves’ tutorial if you’re interested and want a better crash course on the workflow.

Another tutorial I can wholeheartedly recommend is Jason Ord’s Substance Painter: Pushing Your Texturing Further. Since watching this tutorial, a lot of things about texturing started to make sense that didn’t before. And if you bought an ArtStation subscription to watch the other one, you have access to this one too.

For this prop I started by blocking in my basic colors and roughness values until it felt semi-correct against my reference. Then I went for a micro-breakup pass where I made variations to the albedo, roughness, and (very subtly) the height. I tend to like most of my detail to be in the roughness, so when cycling through my channels in Painter I want my roughness to have about 3x as much visual interest as the albedo channel. After that I applied all my stencils and macro detail. It’s during this stage that props will really begin to come to life and it is crucial that you give it the time and attention it deserves. Overall, I felt like my texturing pass came out looking pretty decent, although I feel like I could have been even more intentional with my details.

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Presentation

After seeing many of my peers and people on ArtStation doing renders with softbox lighting as opposed to my usual go-to three-point lighting setup, I figured I’d give it a try for this project. The setup was very simple, consisting of a few area lights to act as fill lights and a key light over a mesh backdrop. RTX in Marmoset 4 tends to wipe out your roughness if your illumination is primarily coming from your HDRI or a soft light source, so it’s very important to make sure your key light is the most prominent in your setup.

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When it came to choosing angles, I just messed with it until I found a few that looked cool, loosely basing my choices on the rule of thirds.

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Towards the end of the project, I decided it would be fun to include a clean version of the fire extinguisher with an advertisement mockup just for fun. I almost scrapped it but ended up keeping it since it was just a fun addition to the ArtStation upload.

Conclusion

Overall, I would call this project a success. I really enjoyed it from start to finish and it was a great learning experience. I hope everyone was able to take something away from this article and if you have any questions feel free to shoot me a message on my ArtStation.