Photogrammetry at Embark (Part 1)

This is part of a series of posts that describe how we work with photogrammetry at Embark. It’s the first of three entries. You can read the second post here and the third post here.

Behind the scenes footage from our photogrammetry trip to Tenerife.

A of few us on the art team here at Embark recently came back from a full week of nature photogrammetry on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. So, in the spirit of transparency, we thought it might be interesting to explain why and how we at Embark work with photogrammetry.

In fact, we’re going to do this in three separate posts over the next few weeks.

I’ll start with an introduction, and then one of our environment artists, Pontus Ryman, will go into some detail on how we organized our day-to-day work on Tenerife. After that, Robert Berg — or pixelgoat as some of you might know him — will let you in on how we take scanned assets into our game world.

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In case you’re unfamiliar with photogrammetry, let’s start with a brief explanation: at its core, photogrammetry is the collective name for the process of reconstructing 3D models from photographs of real-world objects.

It entails getting out into the real world to take hundreds of photos for a single object. Specialized software then identifies similar features across multiple images, and with millions of identified features, a highly detailed 3D object is produced.

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The technique has been around for decades. However, in the last few years, it has really started to gain traction within game development. My first encounter with photogrammetry was back in 2011, and at that time we mainly used it to scan real-life actors to create highly realistic game characters.

I gradually started adopting photogrammetry in other areas of content creation while working on a number of AAA game productions over the following years. In late 2013, seeing the great potential of this process, I was part of one of the first big-budget projects that committed to using photogrammetry on a much larger scale.

If you take a look at my ArtStation page, you’ll find a few examples of photogrammetry used in environment art production for a number of games I’ve worked on throughout the years.

Back in the early days, photogrammetry used to be quite tedious. The software we used wasn’t as mature, nor particularly well suited for game development. It took quite some time, through a period of extensive trial and error, to land on a workflow that was viable for production.

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These days, there’s much more suitable and accessible software available, and processes are quite solidified to produce consistent results, to the point that artists at home can now toy around with the same tools and workflows as big-budget studios.

I personally think photogrammetry can be really useful to improve an artist’s workflow, especially if the ambition is to create game worlds based on — or at least somewhat grounded in — reality (there can be some very creative use cases regardless). Not only does it let an artist reach a high fidelity of realistic visuals, but it also increases the speed at which it takes to build content.

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I’ve been building games in the industry for almost 15 years now, and the rate at which processes and tools are evolving is accelerating fast. The introduction of photogrammetry to my own workflows was an exciting change in the way I created and thought about content creation.

Using photogrammetry for our first game at Embark was a no-brainer. Our ambition is to create a grounded, believable world at a high fidelity. However, our team of artists is far smaller than the massive team sizes of traditional AAA studios.

Being a smaller team means that we need to rethink how we work with photogrammetry. To reduce or eliminate time-intensive and mundane work, we try to automate as much as we can, and make use of procedural tools when possible. So far, we’re encouraged by the progress we’re making. Some tasks that used to take days are now down to hours.

Before reaching production, we first set out to validate our tools and technology, to test our ability to create the size and complexity of the world of our ambitions. This first technical test (video below) proved to us that it was entirely possible to create a large and varied world with a team of our size, and allowed us to take the next steps in realizing the beginning of our exciting game world.

The Spanish island of Tenerife, situated in the beautiful and volcanic Canary Islands, served as the perfect location to fulfill our visual ambitions. I’ll let my team members tell you more about our work on location, but in the meantime, here are a few interesting statistics from our recent trip.

Trip facts:

7 days
90km of hiking
749 unique scans
115,000 photos
1 sprained ankle

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Esbjörn Nord: artstation.com/esbjornnord
Pontus Ryman: artstation.com/spitfire51
Robert Berg: artstation.com/pixelgoat
Andrew Hamilton: artstation.com/andrewhamilton

Embark Studios

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