Tequila Sunset

Environment Breakdown

Jonjo Hemmens

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Jonjo Hemmens

Senior Environment Artist

Introduction

Hey everyone, my name is Jonjo Hemmens, and I’m a Senior Environment Artist at That’s No Moon.
I previously worked at Rocksteady studios and Creative Assembly on Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, and on Total War WARHAMMER 3

The last scene I worked on was my Hemlock Forest piece which I completed about 2 years ago, It felt like a pretty big gap for me (considering I’ve only been working in games for about 4 and a half years) so I felt like I’d learned a lot and trained my eye since then.

I took a bit of a break from scenes after this as the project was quite exhausting, and worked on some swords to sharpen up my texturing skills, but the call of working on an environment again was too strong.

Project Goals

I first played Disco Elysium back in late 2020 and had a wild experience with the game. The art style, world, and characters had me incredibly captivated and kept me coming back daily until I reached the end.

The game has a big impact on my perspective of games and of the world in general, and since then I’ve replayed the game with the final cut another two times to see the parts of the game I missed on other playthroughs. 

Before this project, I’d never “really” done any fan art before. I’ve referred to games and movies in my work before and even made a high poly of a T-45 Power Armour from Fallout when I was a student, but nothing resembling proper fan art.

With how Disco Elysium influenced me creatively over the past few years, I could think of nothing better to contribute to.

I wanted to create an environment from the game and have a cinematic to show off the scene with some of the game’s music.

I wanted to get plenty of references in for fans of the game to enjoy, but also make sure people who were unfamiliar with the source material could at the very least get an idea of the location and the game from the piece.

I usually make scenes with a first or third-person perspective in mind, so translating the scene into a new perspective would provide a new way to experience this location and see parts of the room that were not previously visible. 

 

What to recreate?

At this point, I needed to decide what exactly I’d recreate from the game.

There are a bunch of beautifully iconic locations but I needed to find something that would have a small enough scope and something that hopefully most people who had played would recognize.

After starting a fresh game to reference, gather, and figure out a good location, I realized I didn’t have to look far. 

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When you start the game, you find yourself in a trashed and dingy room, completely naked and heavily hungover. The room is scattered with empty bottles, trashed furniture, a filthy bathroom, and most importantly, your clothes.

After you dress yourself, you can leave the room and start learning about the world and your place in it. To keep things simple, I’ll refer to the room as the detective’s room throughout, even though it’s not called this in-game. 

This room fit the criteria I’d previously set myself. It’s a very recognizable area of the game, as you not only start here but also return here to go to sleep most nights.

The size of the room was perfect, and the only scope issue I could envision was the large windows, but I could always work around this with creative camera work.

Blocking out

At this point, I started to collect reference shots from the game and break down a rough asset list of things I might need to make. When it comes to personal art, I usually don’t care much for documenting or writing big documents for my work, I just want to jump into 3D and explore. 

As soon as I started blocking the scene out, I realized my biggest problem would be translating the orthographic game reference into a 3D perspective. I tried something a bit wild.

I assumed the main character, Harry, would be roughly 1.85m tall, and I made an elaborate measuring tool by using his standing body to try and get an idea of how large the scene was.

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This wasn’t the most accurate way of measuring, but I didn’t have an exact scale on anything really, so it provided me with a good way to get at least some sort of measurements into the blockout.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the ceiling needed to be higher, and the room width did need to be tightened a little bit just to get this feeling closer to how I felt it was supposed to look. 

I also decided to block in a good portion of the props early to get a feel for how much work the scene was going to need. Having the larger props helped me re-adjust the scale of the room based on how large these real-world assets would likely be compared to my human scale. 

Because the game is from an orthographic perspective, the side of the room with the front door is never visible, and therefore I had to figure out what would be there.

I ended up going for a couple of shelves, a knocked-over side table, some travel cases, and a bin. Then I threw up some paintings a bit later. This side of the room doesn’t really have any of the exciting assets, but the room had plenty going on already, so this wasn’t a problem. 

I spent more time on the blockout than I normally do just to ensure the scale felt right, and I only ended up changing things very slightly as the project went on.

Some assets needed to have their scale changed, to be moved slightly in favor of the first person perspective, etc. but because of the early time investment, I probably stuck to the blockout more on this project than any other scene.

Props

After blocking out the scene, I realized I’d need a lot more assets than what I could see in my reference. As you play through the game, you collect a tonne of items, ranging from books and tools to alcohol and drugs, and I wanted to get some of the more recognizable items in for two reasons.

Most importantly, the scene needed extra assets to fit the new perspective.

The scene works great from a distance in an orthographic view, but for a first-person perspective, I’d need a lot more assets scattered around for story telling and detail.

Secondly, assets would help give people unfamiliar with the character a good idea of who he is through what kind of objects we see scattered around. It’s also fun for fans of the game to see all the assets they’d collected in their playthroughs scattered about.

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I built a list of assets by hopping onto the Disco Elysium fan wiki and pulled a bunch of interesting items into my reference board. I wanted to pick items that would tell the story of the character.

The police tools like his pen, badge, flashlight, crowbar, and clipboard were intended to be laid out on the table in the room as our character’s investigation area, and help flesh out his role in the world as a detective.

The books were intended to show the characters’ more scholarly and intellectual side, and I picked a range of different books from the game and showed a handful of the different concepts the game explores.

The drugs and alcohol were hopefully quite obviously there to show the character’s descent into addiction and chaos. 

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All of these assets on top of the rest of the large pieces of furniture and structure for the room did prove to be a lot. To maintain motivation to get through these, I scattered the asset work throughout the whole project so I wouldn’t be on any single task for too long.

I’d jump from tilables to shaders to props which helped avoid burnout or boredom from doing too much of the same task. I also allowed myself to do some stupid stuff like overly modeling this lighter just because I felt like it.

Occasionally going off course to do something you think would be fun for a project can be good to avoid burning out, especially when a project could last the majority of the year.

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I found a lot of inspiration in the texturing style of Death Loop as it felt like it was the most visually similar, in terms of style, to what I would imagine a Disco Elysium project being done in first person to look like.

Death Loop’s assets have a beautiful painterly quality to them, and I found myself collecting a lot of references from both Maxime Goichot and Yannick Gombart’s ArtStations to fill my reference board. Both are such killer artists, and had some beautiful assets to refer to.

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I did try to integrate some of Disco Elysium’s painterly style into my assets by using a paintbrush tileable I made based on the heavy brush strokes you can see on the walls in the room.

I think this was a pretty good call, but I don’t think I pushed it as hard as I could have in some places.

Honestly, overall, I feel like my texturing stylization fell a little flat, and it could have been pushed further in a lot of places, though it was a bit of a struggle to find my feet with it, and as I kept making assets, it became harder and harder to go back and restyle all of the older props.

In hindsight, I think I really should have nailed the style on the first few assets before pushing on other assets. I feel like on the first asset I put together, the style was good, but it didn’t translate across all materials.

Either way, I’m still mostly happy with how the assets look, but the texturing definitely could have been pushed further. 

During my studies of Death Loop and Dishonored assets, I found that they mostly focused on Albedo, then Roughness. Normal information mostly came from the bakes and you wouldn’t see much of it being used.

This allowed for noisier and more detailed albedos which is where a lot of the style comes in. I decided to mimic this style, and I think the clock demonstrates that well.

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To achieve the painterly look, I painted in edge wear with Painter default charcoal brushes to add, and the Photoshop Kyle Watercolor brushes to tidy up.

This combined with a healthy amount of edge-wear masks, and a brush mark tiling mask I created was pretty much the core of the look for most non-metal materials in the scene.

Using this tiling brush mark mask on most of the assets did help add a bit of gentle stylization across the board, and keep a level of style cohesion.

I don’t feel like I pushed this hard enough for some assets, and I could have integrated more global painterly elements into the assets to push the style further.

Breaking out of my more realistic style wasn’t particularly easy, and although I do have regrets that it didn’t exactly go the way I’d planned, I still gained a lot of valuable experience from my efforts and I’m excited to see how I can push this further in future projects. 

Tileables

Getting tileables that fit the texturing style I was going for and fit the semi-realistic was incredibly challenging. It took about 3 attempts to get it right, and in the end, sourcing normal maps from Megascans and blending them into my texturing was the way to go.

My first attempts involved a lot of brushstroke details and lacked any indications of what the material was. I felt at that time that adding too much noisy detail that you might see in something like wallpaper would break my attempts at stylization.

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As the scene progressed, I introduced scans into the material. I started with a wallpaper material for the base, then layered in a mix of other plaster wall albedos which helped achieve some albedo variation and help give the material a weathered look.

I also pushed the intensity of the normals on the wallpaper to help contextualize the splitting and peeling decals scattered around.

Despite leaning much more into realism, the painterly decal layering helped pull this material back into style, which probably became the most successful example of achieving the intended style in the scene.

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From the game’s perspective, you don’t get any indication of what the ceiling material might be made of. I started by just throwing my initial wallpaper material up there to see how it felt.

With the floor, walls, and ceiling being white, it was extremely bright and it didn’t match the mood of the scene.
Unfortunately, my reference didn’t help much as most interior rooms similar to the scene, like bedrooms and living rooms, have white ceilings.

This works for most living spaces and isn’t something that feels too off, but it didn’t help achieve the mood I was looking for.

I found this wood floor material in the Megascans library and decided to give it a go. The room has a lot of wooden and brown furniture, like the record player, sofa, and table, which helped tie the materials together and introduce more contrast to the scene overall.

The wood planks helped reinforce the dingy and trashed atmosphere, but I needed to make some tweaks to the albedo and roughness to help it fit in with the scene’s style.

I washed out some of the noisier details, then pushed the albedo variation of the planks by playing with individual luminosity and adding color overlays.

I blended in my brush tiler too which helped tie it in with the other materials, and modeled some planks slightly popping out to break the 2D look of the ceiling. 

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The floors were generated using a fairly simple graph in Substance Designer. Instead of building my masks in Designer, I made a tiling mask in Photoshop and then used a color to mask node to split the blue and white tiles.

After that, it was your usual flood fill and slope blurring until it was done. I made a low dirt and high dirt variation so I could blend between 3 different types using vertex painting.

This helped break up the tiles in quite a subtle way without the floor feeling overly damaged or apocalyptic. The floor was made up of multiple meshes so I was able to switch parts of the floor out with damaged versions that had exposed plaster and shattered tiles.

If this were a more realistic project, the broken tiles would be far too much damage, but it felt appropriate considering the stylization, and the themes of decay seen in the game.

Decals

To get the scene looking grungy and weathered, I needed quite a lot of decals to sell the look. For the wine spill decals, I could find plenty of spills, but I wanted something a bit more visceral and thrown.

For example, just to the left of the light switches, there’s some wine dripping down the wall after a bottle had been launched in that direction and landed on the radiator.

A few years ago, my friend Jason Ord had been making some blood splatter decals for a personal project which he created using soy sauce and taking high-resolution shots of the results. This ended up working nicely, so I was very grateful to be able to borrow them from him for the project. 

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For the torn bits of wallpaper, I grabbed some torn paper decals from Google images and overlaid a concrete material to give the impression of an exposed surface beneath the wallpaper.

This was a really simple method, but gave a really good impression of depth. Up close it might not hold up too well, but at the distance we see it from it does the job nicely.

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After the success of the brush tileable on my assets, I made a brush stroke decal using similar brushes in Photoshop to use on the walls and ceilings just to break up the surfaces and introduce that style onto other surfaces without the hassle of adding it into my tiling materials.

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As work on the cinematic progressed, I started working in quite a few close-up shots to show off some of the smaller assets.

With how close we get, it was suggested by friends I work in some dust and cigarette ash to help ground the scene in a little bit more realism. This also really helped to mask some of the resolution issues like on the table here as it wasn’t built to have a camera this close.

This combined with a bit of DOF blur on some of the extreme close-ups, like on the drugs in the cinematic was effective.

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Collaboration with Jean Zoudi

A short while before I’d started working on the scene, Jean Zoudi released a piece of Disco Elysium fan art showcasing the main character, Harry Du Bois.

As you can see, he did such an incredible job at capturing the characters’ likeness and bringing the character into a more realistic style with first-person game art workflows.

I was blown away by the detail and love that he put into this work, and it inspired me to give my project a similar level of love. 

About 6 or 7 months into the project, I had been given some great feedback by a friend, and decided to condense all of the detective’s gear on the table.

This would help give the area more focus, and it would also help viewers unfamiliar with the game to understand the character. One of these items was the character’s police badge.

I messaged Jean to see if he would be interested in letting me use his character’s portrait on the badge as a cool nod to his project.

We’d never messaged before, but to my complete surprise, he responded to my request by offering me his full Unreal scene with the character in so I could import it into my project and have Harry exist inside his room.

I’m still shocked and flattered by the trust and respect Jean had for someone who was very much a stranger at that point, but it’s been one of the most rewarding collaborations I’ve ever had. 

Getting the character into the scene took a bit of work, and unfortunately Jean lost some of his source files, so re-posting the character was limited to what I could do in Maya with Quick Rig and I only really had a couple of facial poses that Jean had made for his post.

That said, this wasn’t too much of a problem really, and I feel like what was there was more than enough for the scene. I think getting the character moving would have been a real ordeal and probably not worth the effort, especially considering how expressive the character already was in still form.

I’d never really had a “proper” character to show off in any of my scenes before, so figuring out how to take an attractive shot of Harry did take a bit of time to get right.

I had made a very rough Viking character using a base mesh for my snow siege scene back in 2019, but having something made by a specialist was a completely different experience.

I think this is a great before and after, showing the benefits of playing with camera angle and focal length. I also had to tweak a few things like the fresnel on the jacket and the opacity strength on the eyelashes as my lighting setup was very different to Jean’s, but for the most part it was a very simple integration and only required a couple of edits. 

I feel like introducing the character breathed a whole new life into the scene that as an environment artist, we struggle to do. The scene very much lacked a focal point throughout its development, and there is no better focal point than a character.

Incredibly grateful to be able to collaborate with Jean on this one, and hopefully we’ll be able to do so again in the future. I think the experience gained in introducing a character into my work is so valuable, and I’d recommend more environment artists to try it if the opportunity arises.

Lighting

The lighting in the scene went through many different iterations. With a largely open window on one side of the room, I had quite a rough time trying to find a lighting angle and time of day that worked nicely.

I also found it difficult to get lighting that suited the mood I wanted to convey. I would say the lighting in the scene went through more iterations than anything else in the scene, and I probably didn’t get it right until the last third of the project.

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The lighting I ended up settling on is supposed to convey a mid-morning during winter, the perfect time of day to awaken from a strong hangover. The scene did end up a lot brighter than I originally planned as you can see in the iterations above.

I planned to have something a bit moodier and darker to convey the hopelessness of the character and the awful situation he finds himself in. Though this doesn’t fit the overall vibe of the game, I decided to go back to something more evenly lit reminiscent, and accurate to the game.

By keeping the lighting more similar to the game, it would allow players to recognize the scene more easily and allow them to align their feelings and experiences to the game with the scene.

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In the game, the room makes use of the light coming from the spinning fan and also has some of the wall lights turned on which adds some cool lighting opportunities, but for the time of day I was going for, I didn’t need any additional lighting so just decided against using these in the end and keeping the lighting simple.

I did end up adding a few point lights just to help light a few areas and assets that were overly occluded.

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Cinematic

I decided to create a cinematic because I felt like static renders wouldn’t entirely do this scene justice. The first thing the players see when they appear in the game is the necktie, swinging around on the ceiling fan, and it’s probably the first thing the players interact with too.

For a cinematic, I needed to get this spinning and swinging, which was pretty easy to do in Maya. The movement helped add some life to the scene, and I decided to go a step further and get the record player cassettes spinning too.

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I wanted the opportunity to make the most of some of the excellent music made for the game by Sea Power. I decided to go for Whirling In Rags, 8 AM for the song choice for a few reasons. Not only is it a beautiful piece of music, but it also really captures the game’s atmosphere and energy.

The song is also played in the hostel you’re currently staying at throughout the mornings, so it’s one of the songs you will hear the most in the game. 

With the music and movement sorted, the rest is just setting up a variety of shots to show off assets, harrier, and the room from angles we don’t get to experience in the game.

There are also a good few easter eggs for fans of the game to discover. I didn’t put a particularly strong structure into the cinematic, I just focused on what shots felt right in sequence and tried to match the transitions up with the music where I could.

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My sequencer setup is very straightforward. I decided to simplify things by splitting up each shot into its sequence, then putting all the sequences into a master sequence which gave me a quick way to see how the whole cinematic felt and re-order shots without too much hassle.

Although I’m not doing anything particularly special here, I’ll drop my MRQ settings in case anyone is interested. There are a lot of good places to learn about this stuff, I picked up most of the stuff I know about the MRQ from William Faucher’s YouTube channel.

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Conclusion

For my first proper fan art project, I’m really happy with how it went. Although I don’t feel like I nailed the style I had originally set out to achieve, the overall project still has a fairly consistent and good look and does share the vibe and look of the original room in the game.

I think the collaboration with Jean was a huge boon to the project too, and I think I’ll look to do something similar if I ever intend on doing another fanart-type project.

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The reception has probably been the most interesting part. A few articles were made about the interesting project, but the best part has been the reception from fans of the game.

It seems like they’re getting a lot of joy out of seeing the art and space re-imagined, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to connect with an audience outside of Artstation with my work. Definitely would like to pursue this in the future as it’s really rewarding. 

Anyway, I think that’s about all I’ve got to share for this project. If you’ve got any further questions, reach out to Artstation!