Monica Bauer render
Image of Environment Artist named Monica Bauer

Meet Monica Bauer

I’m Monica Bauer. I’m currently working in Seattle, WA focused on props and environment at Creative Labs. We are a studio under HTC designed especially for creating 3D environments for the Vive VR headset. Before I joined Creative Labs,  I went to university and got my degree in Biology and held a day job in clinical laboratory science. Outside of work, I was drawing whenever I had the free time to do so. After spending my twenties in a field that didn’t make me happy, I decided it was time to spend time doing what I wanted.  In January 2018, I quit my job and downloaded Zbrush, Maya, and Substance Painter. In October of that year, I took the Environment Artist bootcamp at the Game Art Institute and not long after, took up a position at Creative Labs.

Experience At GAI

After going through countless Udemy courses, Youtube videos, and forum posts, I realized I was stalling. I spent nearly a year working on my own without any real guidance. I knew the workflow of game art development but honestly, I was nowhere near the quality that someone would want to pay me. I started researching schools. Places like the Art Institute and Gnomon followed a strict academic plan that, while excelled at teaching, were exorbitant in cost, required travel time, and did not give sufficient one-on-one time that is necessary for improvement that is critical for being hired. 

The Game Art Institute on the other hand allowed me to work at home.  While it gave me structure through bi-weekly meetings, I was allowed to keep my own schedule. GAI also allowed me to learn only what I wanted to learn. I didn’t see myself as a character artist so I (fortunately) didn’t have to learn about anatomy.  I was assigned to a wonderful mentor that I still keep in touch with today. The most valuable asset I got from GAI was the connection I was able to make with a professional senior-level environment artist from a studio that I admired. 

GAME ARTIST BOOTCAMP

Project: Turtle Fort

My course final for the October 2018 Environment Art bootcamp was taken from a concept by Mark Gibbon’s for a part of  World of Warcraft: Cataclysm.  I’ve always been taken with the fantasy of the game and its bright, outlandish worlds and this concept in particular allowed me the opportunity to build a story as well as explore materials that I’ve never attempted before.  The big challenge for me at the time of this piece was the leather tent cover. Because I wanted the covering to be made of skin, I had to take into account how light would affect skin or more precisely, how searing hot desert sun would interact with stretched, tanned and leathered skin.

Monica Bauer render

PROJECT BREAKDOWN

Perfection is not achievable,

but devotion and time will get you close enough.

Getting Started

As with all my projects, I collect references. I look for real-world examples of the materials and objects I want to create. Cartoony fantasy environments not dissimilar from World of Warcraft or League of Legends can be particularly challenging to feel believable, making it all the more important to collect lots of references.

For inorganic things like weapons and storefronts I prefer blocking out Maya but in this case because of all its organic shapes, I opted to block out the fort directly in Zbrush. Initially, I had just built the fort itself and I hadn’t intended on building an entire environment with foliage and rocks but as the project continued, I felt it necessary to tell a story rather than simply present a prop.

monica setup 2
monica setup

Block Out Stage

For inorganic things like weapons and storefronts I prefer blocking out Maya but in this case because of all its organic shapes, I opted to block out the fort directly in Zbrush.   Initially, I had just built the fort itself and I hadn’t intended on building an entire environment with foliage and rocks but as the project continued, I felt it necessary to tell a story rather than simply present a prop.

monica block out

High Poly

For the tent, I relied heavily on custom IMM tools and Michael “Orb” Vicente’s free brush pack. I made particular use of the stitch brush in combination with the Damien Standard brush that comes default with Zbrush.  I would start by drawing the lines using the DamStadard, drop my stitch IMM in, and then return to the base “cloth” layer with the Clay Buildup brush to “scoop” out material to give the illusion of pinching.

monica high poly 1
monica high poly 2
monica high poly 3

Low Poly

Low poly work is done typically in Topogun and then baked in Marmoset Toolbag. I strongly recommend learning Toolbag’s baking capability. Not only does it remove the “Exploded model” workflow entirely, it allows you to tweak your bakes on the fly with no cage meshes needed.  Alternatively, other baking tools can include xNormals (free), Knald, or Substance Painter’s in-house baking.

monica low poly
monica low poly 2

Texturing

All texturing was done in Substance Painter. Nothing extraordinary here, just standard Substance Painter workflow.  One thing to note on this piece is that while Blizzard and Riot do utilize a handpainted texture workflow involving painting the textures by hand, I wanted to go through the PBR route because a) it is quicker and b) I wanted to familiarize myself more with the program. This means that while I wanted the main focus to be the diffuse, but I also wanted to incorporate roughness and normal maps as well.

Setting up SSS material in Toolbag

 This is not any different than creating an SSS material for a character’s skin, which you can easily read up about here. In regards to the scene itself, these are the settings I used for the canopy material. It is important to note that in order for SSS to be visible, you should place a light behind the subject, which you will read more about in the next section below.

SSS settings

Lighting a scene in Toolbag

lighting up a scene 1
lighting up a scene 2

These are the lighting settings I used for this scene in particular. I really wanted to highlight the subsurface scattering of the tent canvas, so lights 1 and 3 are set directly behind the tent. The rest of the lights are used to light up the scene. For example, light 4 acted as a pseudo sun, casting bright yellow light across the environment in addition to the directional light 5. While it is easy to go overboard here, always keep looking back at your references. I had a lot of trouble trying to not blow out the entire image by adding way too much light.

lighting a scene
lighting

The backdrop ( 7 ) is a simple mesh with a basic blue material applied. This helps me control the global illumination as well as create bounce shadows. Note: ALWAYS use Global illumination (Under the Render section) and when you’re ready to start capturing images, set Voxel Resolution to High and Shadows to Ludicrous (if your system can handle it)

Setting up cameras and fog

fog
fog 1
fog3

Fog is one of the most important settings for environment art. Not only do they set the mood for the scene but they carry your lighting across the scene as well. You can see in the example above how the backdrop goes from a bright blue to a blue-grey gradient. Keep your dispersion level low, it’s not necessary for every scene to look like Silent Hill. 

For Tone mapping, I enable the “Hejl” setting. This is a personal preference. However, that doesn’t mean I won’t go in and adjust the final result in Photoshop.

Follow Monica Bauer:

Artstation

Twitter: @potato_motato

Monica Bauer render

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