The process: Phantom Manjitou

Making Of / 23 March 2021

Check out my original post in 4k here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/Pog6rr

Phantom Manjitou - Main Shot

For this blog, instead of focusing on the typical "making of" details I'm going to highlight my idea flow and iteration. I had no real plan going into this piece other than experimenting with lighting for fun. This may be all over the place but I hope you get something out of it at least?

At some point while admiring random concept art pieces I was inspired by the amazing Wouter Gort's https://www.artstation.com/wokkie clean background designs done for Amazon Prime's Undone. Particularly the image below:

The simplicity and lighting motivated me to do something similar in Unreal Engine 4 as a lighting study. My intention with concept art pieces is never to do an exact one-to-one recreation but to be inspired by certain unique characteristics. As I start a personal art piece, sections of interest begin to evolve and take a life of their own.

Modular kit parts are always fun and quick to work with. Early base coat pass:

I like to establish a decent approximation of what my lighting will look like early on. While I wanted to have my "sunset" piece be the main shot, I also wanted the flexibility to have a day/night scheme should the project take me there later on. I remembered Tim Simpson's (Polygon Academy) UE4 Lighting Presets 3 Pack https://gumroad.com/polygonacademy?recommended_by=search#vqTZo and I used his day and night lighting presets as starting points which I would then refine to fit my needs better.

Upon further iteration this scene started developing into something more temple-like which then unfolded a narrative. It just so happens that I'm a fan of Yoshimitsu's (Soul Calibur, Tekken) unusual outfits and quirky personality so this became an unexpected fan-art opportunity to pay homage to the leader of the Manji Clan. I remembered a buddy of mine, Abraham Valdez made a pretty badass Yoshimitsu high-res character awhile back https://www.artstation.com/artwork/baON5g and I asked for his permission to use his character in my scene, I made a few tweaks and chose to only use a silhouette so as to keep the focus on the environment and not the character.

I knew at that point that I'd want to have a bunch of nuanced and not-so-nuanced references to Yoshimitsu's many distinguished iterations, some of which I love and some which I find ridiculous. While on my reference gather I found the image below  which seemed quite fitting for what I had already started. I recalled first seeing this concept piece in the amazing original Soul Calibur on Sega Dreamcast.

Concept featuring Yoshimitsu from the original Soul Calibur:

Side note: I believe Soul Calibur was the first time I played a game that had an absurd amount of official and fan art unlockable in-game, I spent many hours drooling over all the amazing work that just infused so much personality into what was essentially just a fighting game so if you happen to be one of those artists, I bow down to your greatness.

Refining colors/materials and starting to add some secondary details:

As with any personal project I do, time is very limited. I took advantage of Quixel Bridge/Megascans excellent library of materials and some 3D models as well. Most of my time was spent in Blender and Unreal Engine 4.26 with minimal time in ZBrush, Substance Painter, Marvelous Designer and Photoshop. I initially did experiments with ray tracing but my PC was chugging quite a bit and it got to the point where it was no longer enjoyable experimenting so I opted not to go the ray traced route for this scene.

I find that foliage and fabrics add a bit of organically flowy chaos to otherwise sterile scenes. I used Jakub Ziaja's Procedural Ivy Generator https://www.unrealengine.com/marketplace/en-US/product/procedural-ivy-generator to quickly give me organic fluff on areas I deemed interesting.

Close-up experiments:

Once my main chunks were in place I started doing things to enhance the atmosphere more. This meant adding anything from fog cards, wind chimes, candle flames, butterflies, wind-swept leaves, anything to help add a sense of living motion to the scene. I iterated on things as I saw fit, took a break from the piece to try to get some fresh eyes on it and started really honing in on things that annoyed me and refining things that I liked about the piece.

Near-final pass on corrections and polish:

I knew due to time constraints some finer details would need to be handled in post and since my goal was more about the composition and lighting working together I was okay with that. For my alternate shots I tweaked with lighting and heavily leaned into LUT work in Unreal experimenting with extremes. Thanks for reading, stay safe out there and keep on makin' dat art!

Phantom Manjitou - Alt Shot

Phantom Manjitou - B&W Shot

-Alexander Alza-

Bonus spoopy shot:

Check out my original post in 4k here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/Pog6rr

Realities of a Busy Artist

Article / 15 March 2021

A Quick note

What follows below are solely my opinions.

Allow me to start this by saying I'm one of the lucky ones. I get to create art and support my family by doing so. In today's circumstances I know I'm extraordinarily privileged to do what I do so if you're reading this please understand that I'm not naïve to today's climate and that I am merely expressing a sentiment that I'm sure other artists in a similar position may share.

My day job keeps me creatively satisfied. I have had times in my career in the game industry where that was not always the case. Regardless I'm the type of person that craves learning new things and creating/expressing myself through art. Like many of you this means that during whatever spare time I may have I enjoy working on personal projects. If you're reading this I assume you are like me and have numerous personal projects that are abandoned at some early stage. 

All images shared on this post are from personal works in progress, they may never be completed or look totally different once they are. Lets dig in...

Our situations may be unique

I happen to have a wife and two young kids. As a parent I want to devote time to the kids as  they are only this young once and as a husband I need to try to make time together with my wife without the circus of distractions. This typically means that whatever spare time I have is dedicated to me and the wife watching something on a streaming service at some late night hour when the kids are in cool-down mode or asleep. On top of that you can toss in the numerous games that have been proverbially gathering dust on my backlog and suddenly there aren't enough hour in the day.

Feeding your brain the creative product of others is inspirational fuel that creates a spider web of ideas and considerations. By absorbing creative media you may be pleasantly surprised by things you may not have seen coming or further intrigued by problem solving how you would have handled something differently. Either way it's good creative juice for the brain and that's why, along with common sense things like a sensible diet, exercise and getting enough rest, absorbing media is crucial to evolving your own output.

Portfolio sharing platforms such as ArtStation are great for showcasing and inspiring people in the creative fields. Naturally you may find yourself a bit intimidated sharing your work when you see masterpieces being posted on a daily basis. Please understand these amazing works don't happen overnight. Artists dedicate time and go through numerous iterations before posting something they can be proud of.

Acceptance and silver linings

I happen to be in the game industry but in any technical field knowledge is ever-evolving. If you aren't keeping up with latest trends and techniques it's easy to slip into an out-of-touch funk. I'm writing this blog because I assume I'm not alone in feeling the pinch of living somewhere between advancing my personal art/skills and enjoying my family, friends and activities. If you're like me and have chosen the family life or perhaps you have other life demands or hobbies that occupy a substantial amount of time then we can relate! I'll share with you some of the tactics I've used to at least subdue the itchy anxieties of not flexing the personal art muscles as much as desired.

Mind Games

First, I try to remind myself is that the ideas in my mind or that one concept art piece that lit a spark, whatever it may be is served better by sitting in my brain and marinating a bit longer. Yes, this is more of a mental trick I tell myself to feel less helpless but it can also be beneficial. I may not be able to "put pen to paper" but I can casually gather up more supporting art references on my smartphone and continue the pile up of idea refinement. 

Small Moves

Personal projects are a liberating free-for-alls for me without the constraints of budgets and other factors you would need to consider in actual playable game environments so this shouldn't be adding stress to your life. Easier said than done if you're obsessed with art as I am but it's okay to nibble away at a project. A couple of hours late night on a weekend here and there may be all you need to feel like your personal projects have forward momentum. 

Trust the Process

In my particular case I relish environment art so I'm looking for a total picture of composition, lighting and story-telling. You will notice in some of the images I'm posting here some popular Megascans assets that I use to save time since time is of the essence. If you can quickly throw together a rough composition without having to reinvent the wheel, I say you use that to your advantage. I've also on more than one occasion reused assets I've previously used in other personal pieces. There is nothing stopping you from swapping out assets later on in the process so don't feel some ethical responsibility to start everything from scratch. Remember, this is supposed to be fun!

Also, take screenshots at the end of whatever you determine to be a session. Save all of them as evidence of how far you've come in such a ridiculously long time once the project is "done". 

So when do you call your personal project done? 

We've all heard of the Finished, not perfect mantra so try to keep in mind that this is about your personal growth. As tiny and incremental as you may feel your progress to be, it is still growth and as long as you've learned one new thing from your personal work or even if you just feel creatively fulfilled then you should be proud and satisfied with the journey you've taken.

I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers, I'm just sharing how I've managed to cope with my predicaments. Do you have ways of dealing with the pressures of being a voracious artist with not enough time on your hands that you'd like to share? I'd love to hear how others cope with this dilemma.

Show your work!

If you remain a bit self-conscious about sharing work that you may feel isn't up to par for professional eyes to see you should still post it privately, or not publish it but keep a gallery view of your works next to one another. I promise it becomes fulfilling to see how far you have grown over time as an artist.

I often have artists in school reach out to me to get critiques and feedback or just to explore ideas of where they could push their art. As an up-and-comer I would have loved to have access to an industry veteran for such feedback so I do my best, time permitting, to respond to these artists and give constructive criticism at no cost or recognition. If you're interested in getting critiques you may reach out to me on ArtStation with details as to what you're looking for and a link to your work if you don't have an ArtStation portfolio. Please be patient if I don't immediately respond.

Thanks for reading. I hope everyone stays safe and has productive rest of the year.

Keep. Making. Art. 

-Alexander Alza


Terrain experiments using Instant Terra Pro

General / 04 June 2019

*Full disclosure, the following is strictly my opinion on my short time with Instant Terra Pro. No one is compensating me or nudged me into doing this post.*

I recently had the opportunity to take Instant Terra Pro https://www.wysilab.com/  for a test run so I figured I'd share some of my experience as well as post some of my experiments here for anyone interested.

Instant Terra Pro uses a node-based system to generate and conform your terrain's topography.

In order to get a decent base starting point I went to this site https://terrain.party/ and looked up Mount Rainier. I honed in on section with interesting elevation and then exported out this height map:

For the purposes of these experiments I ONLY wanted to use the above height map as my masked source. Instant Terra Pro allows you to paint your own height map in the software itself, obviously the painting tools aren't as robust as your Photoshop options however they are suitable enough to get a decent starting base going.

My typical node graph looked something like the image below. Amidst further experimentation I got a little more complex but it's mostly just blending previous nodes with new ones. If you're familiar with Substance Designer or Unreal Engine's material editor you should be pretty familiar with this workflow.

Here is what I would call your "standard" example with some hydraulic and mountain erosion:

Here is an example of something a bit more stylized, heavy on the mountain erosion node:

On this sample I'm using a curve on the mask to flatten away the edges and create an interesting layered effect:

This is an example with exagerrated cellular noise forming peaks and valleys:

Here is a more subtle sample mixing all three available erosion types:

This is a delicious oatmeal cookie? using a half-sphere slope to control the elevation perimeter:

Here is a sample blended using a Difference node which essentially flattened all my elvation:

Lastly here is a sample where I inverted my mask and made things look like a stylized crater:

Once you have something you're happy with you can export the mesh, mask (height map), normal and color texture if you desire, that way you can either implement exactly as is in your game engine or import your height map info to properly tesselate in your desired engine's terrain tools.

Among some minor gripes, such as not being able to control light direction in real-time and lack of proper 0-1 UV unwrap on meshes, my biggest gripe would probably be with the color map output. It is essentially an altitude based gradient color. There are some handy presets for different themes (arctic, desert, etc.) that you can customize. Still it would be handy to be able to generate a mask at the very least from the 3 available erosion nodes, (hydraulic, rock and mountain) to give you a bit of a start when creating a material or painting the mesh. 

Fortunately they have an official forum where they are open to suggestions so if you decide to try it out and have some gripes feel free to let them know so they can make the best possible product!

...and here's me quickly throwing a mesh into Unreal Engine with a LUT for a beauty shot:

If you have a free moment and want to play around with Instant Terra (they have a one month free trial) check them out here:

https://www.wysilab.com/

They also have an educational version for schools/students and feature very easy to follow videos and documentation for total noobs to it like myself and a responsive forum in case you have burning questions.

Thanks for reading if you've made it this far! Keep making art!

-Alexander Alza-

Bonus content:  

Lágrima - a work in progress - Entry 02

Tutorial / 04 December 2018

This entry covers a quick tip for creating a decorative window.

Greetings!

Been super busy with stuff but I managed to find a tiny bit of time to put together a decorative window element inspired again by the original Vladimir Ishelin concept but with my own flavor thrown in.

OG inspiration...

There are numerous ways to approach modeling an object like this however I wanted to take a new approach so I started with creating a black and white mask by frankensteining some existing alpha masks from one of Jonas Ronnengard's collections. Once I was happy with my positive/negative space ratio I brought this alpha into ZBrush...

Once imported, on the Alpha tab I went down to the Make 3D section, you can play with the MRes (resolution) and MSm (smoothness) and MDep (depth) to your delight.

Click on Make 3D and then create your Dynamesh in the viewport!

At this point I added some alpha/heigh mask details and cleaned up some unruly geometry before exporting it as my high res mesh.

I then used the decimation master to lower the poly count while still maintaining my important silhouettes and peaks and valleys and exported that as my low res mesh.

Since this mesh will primarily be seen from the front the UVing was a super quick planar map from the front. I love using Marmoset Toolbag for baking so I took my meshes in there to bake the necessary maps to use in Substance Painter.

Once in Painter I used a mixture of materials that played nicely with my baked maps to give me the desired look I was going for. This is more of a middle/background asset so I didn't want to go detail crazy as most of it would be lost due to distance.

I certainly could optimize this asset more but I wanted to go for a more streamlined workflow and this will do nicely for now. I will also use this piece to create other accent pieces by using some creative cuts or modifiers.

Hope you enjoyed this lightning quick blog entry/tutorial! If you have any other hot tips using this workflow please leave a comment as sharing IS caring. Until next time people!

-AA-

Lágrima - a work in progress - Entry 01

Work In Progress / 03 September 2018

This entry covers inspiration, intention, and workflow.

Hello people! 

Hope everyone's in good mental and physical health. I must first say a huge thanks to everyone that took the time to like/share/comment on the social medias regarding my previous art piece Jezero and the subsequent blog entry I did on it. I've gotten a ridiculous amount of positive feedback and I'm super humbled by it all. Hugs not drugs.

Browsing around ArtStation as I tend to do, I stumbled on this really interesting concept art piece titled, Chapel sketch by Vladimir Ishelin: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/mrKmd This piece tickled my fancy in numerous ways.

1: I loved the colors and verticality of the piece.

2: The scene is small, manageable and very modular which works great with my slim-to-no time to work on personal art.

3: I've been curious about creating assets that I can sell online.

I wanted to use this new scene, which I've tentatively titled, Lágrima, as a starting point for creating a hopefully visually cool environment where all assets in it will be available for purchase.

As evident by the concept these jars are used quite frequently so I didn't want any bold details on them to avoid blatant repetition. Additive, more unique details may be introduced later and peppered in to break monotony where necessary. I only made a single candle and tweaked it to get three variants without looking like I'm warping the UVs too much.

Workflow:

- Create low-poly base mesh in 3dsMax and unwrap UVs.

- Create mid-poly from low-poly with support loops blocking in secondary shapes.

- Bring mid-poly into ZBrush for detail pass which results in high-poly.

- Bake high to low using Marmoset Toolbag 3.

- Bring baked maps into Substance Painter and export results as diffuse, normal, and RMA maps.

- Apply textures to low-poly mesh in Toolbag and arrange as needed for scene.

More updates coming "soon". I welcome any thoughts or critiques whether you're an experienced seller or new to art. Thanks for reading and don't forget to chew your food thoroughly.

Forever Yours,

Alexander Alza

The Making of Jezero

General / 15 August 2018

I recently wrapped up work on a personal project I titled, Jezero. If you don't care about the behind-the-scene stuff and just want the visuals check out my official post here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/d1vee

This small scene was a fun way to test myself using primarily only Quixel Megascan textures and Marmoset Toolbag 3.04 to render.

I've always been fascinated with space exploration. Mars-related discoveries have been in the news as of late and I stumbled on the concept image below:

As with most of my personal work, concepts are a good starting point but I tend to iterate, stare at the image forever, think of a deeper purpose to the scene, until ideas pop into my head and suddenly a minimalistic, clean concept turns into something a bit more detailed and hopefully provocative.

My goal at the start was to keep this scene quite small and have my final output be on a square aspect ratio. However as interesting details kept popping up I felt like the square ratio was forcing me to shoehorn in certain details that may best be left to the peripheral edges of the composition, translation: I needed more horizontal room to let the image breathe.

Modeling this scene was quite liberating as I was mostly just using my imagination to create interesting shapes to compliment the core composition - that being the circular window with the mother and child near vanishing point. Other than a couple of items like the stroller and portable generator/pump looking machine I didn't really seek out reference. I absolutely used and abused Marius Silaghi's Quad Chamfer Modifier in 3dsMax to achieve smooth results on my hard surface corners. I used Zbrush to clean up some geo and stamp some details and I used Marvelous Designer for literally one single mesh.

Textures were mostly sourced from Quixel Megascans. I only used a handful of materials and changed their color or gloss a bit in Photoshop to give me a small selection of materials that still felt congruent. This project was about getting great results with great speed and Megascans delivered what I was looking for here.

The giant Mars texture was projected on a sphere and the thin atmosphere of Mars was simply an additive alpha halo plane wrapping around the circumference of the planet and turned to billboard depending on the angle of my beauty shot.

What this scene boils down to is composition (interesting shots) and mood (lighting). I don't fancy myself a lighting expert but with Toolbag's easy to use lighting and post process options I experimented with a few lighting schemes to the point where I got different enough results. Toolbag's global illumination and reflections are not only beautiful but instantly gratifying to visualize. Post process in Toolbag was fun to play with as well. I typically used an existing preset and then adjusted curves and values to my delight. I adjusted bloom, barrel/pincushion, fog, depth of field and vignette values on a per-shot basis. After getting good results I decided to experiment with of all things the stock filters that come with your iPhone's image editor to give things an extra pop. Lastly I brought those results into Photoshop where I would add lens flares and watermarks.

My made up backstory for those that care...

With goals of establish long-term colonies on Mars, privately funded vessels carry pre-screened men, women and children to ensure the most varied gene pool possible on select locations of the red planet.

This particular travel vessel, the Sipiran of the Simbal class features modules with artificial gravity mimicking that of Earth and Mars. The Sipiran vessel also features numerous hydroponics and chemical lab research modules. The final destination of the Sipiran is the newly-established colony site at the Jezero crater in the Syrtis Major quadrangle.

Again my official ArtStaion post of Jezero can be found here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/d1vee

If you've made it this far, thank you for reading my blog entry on The Making of Jezero and keep making dat art!!

Mom and child characters courtesy of https://secure.axyz-design.com

Signs and labels mostly internet image search, all other textures sourced from Quixel Megascans