I was so inspired by water tanks in childhood; whenever I visited aquariums, I always found myself attracted to that one tank that was dirtier than the rest and in which a poor fish was trying to live. I always spent time observing the movement of water and its whirling effects. So I approached this project with the goal of creating a cool, dirty, flooded bathroom, in which a fish is trying to survive, in-between some leaking water pipes. Even leaking pipes blow air into water, which make sweet bubbles! This concept clicked straight away, and I started scribbling down some notes for the process ahead of me.
I decided that I wanted to make the image in the style of a portrait photograph - the kind that you mount on your wall. I was sure from the beginning about the concept and so I was ready to get to work!
Setting The Foundation
Before making any moves, I prefer to always start by making a little production chart for myself with a guideline for the project, which can help me to focus my time between personal and office work deadlines (Fig.01). Usually I spend two or three hours on my personal work each day. This is why I assumed I'd spend almost two weeks on the "Say Cheese!!" piece. I then started to make a rough list of the production stages that I thought would be involved in the creation of the entire scene, estimating the time as perfectly as possible.
After my rough calculations, I started to make concept drawings and considered adding lots of objects to the scene (Fig.02). I was thinking about adding more than two fish at one point, but it made the scene much too complex and unbalanced. I decided to spend more time on the concept design part than originally planned, in order to forge a clean, concise idea. I find that having a good concept gives me a greater understanding of the composition and camera view required in the 3D scene.
Every photographer's challenge is to show the intention behind the content they capture. In this piece, I tried to be precise and aimed for a fine layout setup where I could apply the rules of real photography to my 3D work. After coming up with a rough concept, I started to make an asset list of props, background elements, and rigged characters using my production guideline to help me in this part of the process.
After the concept phase, I really needed real life references to study the water effects, bubbles, gravel, dirty tiles - and more importantly the fish. I gathered all possible references from the Internet and even re-used some from my personal reference library. I found some very good references for the fish's eyes, and these drew me towards experimenting with them. The key to any character art is to understand the entire anatomy of your subject first and foremost. I therefore researched the anatomy of fish in order to better understand them, and thus be able to model and texture my character.
Modelling Incorporated with Dynamics
During the modelling stage, tricks and shortcuts are a major weapon to reach deadlines and keep to your timeline. I really love the modelling phase!
All models were created in Maya, and minor tweaks were done in ZBrush. According to my modelling list, I made the props first, because the background setup needed to be given priority. I made very simple and low poly tiles and the floor in a short period of time. Then, as per my references, I modelled the pipes as accurately as possible, keeping things simple according to logic and the desired composition (Fig.03).
After completing the modelling of the basic scene I then decided to make the gravel, which was tricky! I decided to disperse it through dynamics, and so made a small emitter, "particle setup" which could help me later on. With the collision detection of each object calculated (pipes, floor and tiles), gravel was placed perfectly across the floor and even along the pipe. To produce a natural effect, I used a Random Transformation (rotate, scale) script for the gravel, and had a result in just a few minutes (Fig.04).
The water level needed the right amount of attention to make it look amazing, so I made a pond fluid and a wake emitter for the waves. Once I was satisfied with the volume and level of water I converted the fluid into polygons for the purpose of Mental Ray shading (Fig.05).