Bringing an idea to life

Esbjorn Nord
Aug 26, 2019 · 4 min read

For some time now, we’ve been using a 3D render of a woman wearing a space helmet as a banner across our social channels. I’m an artist here at Embark and the way this image came to be is a result of some new things I’ve been trying out. So let’s explore how it was made!

It all started with a great character concept from our concept artist Robert Sammelin. In fact, it is one of the very first concepts for the game we’re working on.

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Robert Sammelin’s Original Concept

In the early stages of game development, concepts like these are crucial. They’re the first step on the journey when you take something abstract and turn it into something real. The advantage of visualizing ideas into concepts is that the entire team gets a common point of reference. That way we can start to make informed decisions about the direction of the game.

When looking at Sammelin’s concept, I figured that I had an opportunity here to dig deeper into what immediately struck me as an iconic part of the game, and create something more tangible without necessarily having to spend all that much time. After all, a helmet is a single object.

A nice thing about working with 3D already in the concept stage is that you can be very iterative in your process. Want another shape of the helmet? No problem. More screws? Sure! Another angle? Give me 10 minutes! That way you get back the time spent creating assets many times over.

So using Sammelin’s image as a reference, my fellow character artist Björn Arvidsson and I begun building a 3D model of the character.

For Björn and myself, feedback is a very important part of our work. The problem with giving feedback on 3D surfaces is that it’s difficult to get your point across with just words. So often we end up bouncing over the asset over to each other to apply the feedback directly on the mesh.

After I got the block out, I started to study the concept again. Interpreting a concept is similar to reading a book. You need to understand when the author is literal or when what you read is a metaphor. For example, is that dot on the image a literal dot on the design or does it represent a screw?

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So what I like to do when working against a concept is to not only interpret, but try to build upon the idea. Since I used to work as a concept artist, I know that concept artists rarely have time to plot out every single detail, or think too long about the particulars, so I take it upon myself to fill in the gaps.

From that point, the modeling went quite fast. I modeled the helmet, with inside and outside, body and environment in less than a few hours. I find that you can speed up your modeling speed several times over, just by being aware of where you can cut corners.

My favorite corner-cutting method is to think of the final shot as I’m modeling. With the final picture in mind, I apply a workflow similar to that of an impressionist painter, focusing on the details that I know will be in focus, and implying all the rest. Not only does this increase modeling speed, but also the final image won’t be bloated by unnecessary detail.

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At Embark we love experimenting and trying out new things. And just as I finished the model, Arnold for Autodesk Maya released its anticipated GPU rendering beta. I’ve been longing for that feature forever and was itching to check it out. The helmet I was working on turned out as a perfect asset for a try.

What immediately struck me with Arnold’s GPU rendering was its raw power. It allowed me to easily render 4K images with a strong depth of field and sub-surface scattering — effects that usually take a very long time to render — in no time at all. When using 3D for illustrative purposes, the rendering has always been the biggest bottleneck. With that out of the way, I can instead spend some extra time making the shot look good, and still be done faster than I used to.

Compositing the image

At Embark, we try to adopt workflows that allow us to be flexible in our production pipeline, and that make the most of everyone’s work. This helmet can now be used as an in-game model, a reference, or as a base to build upon further.

It’s been a while since I modeled the woman with the space helmet. At the time, we were busy testing a lot of ideas, basically throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what stuck.

We’ve come a long way in the project since. We’ve established a more solid foundation to build from, and have started to iterate on our best ideas.

For me, that means that my days consist of more hands-on work with the world we are creating. We’ll be sharing more of the progress we’ve made over the last couple of months, so by all means, keep following us for more updates!

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Esbjörn Nord: Artstation

Björn Arvidsson: Artstation

Robert Sammelin: Instagram

Embark Studios

Embark Studios is a Stockholm-based games studio, on a…

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