After coming up with the initial idea for a scene, I like to first do some work on developing the overall look and composition of the image in Maya. The aim of this phase is to block out the shapes, camera and lighting early on and get these elements working together nicely.
This part is the equivalent to a 3D sketch for me, and although many of the elements will be replaced later on, I find it valuable to work out the composition and experiment a bit with a simple version of the scene.
Also I find that by working like this, I have a better idea of my scene before getting into final details. That way I can better choose which areas benefit the most from extra attention to detail, and avoid wasting time creating things I later find I don't need.
Part 1: Drafting the Shapes
First off, as I'm making an indoor scene, I block out the walls with a basic elongated cube shape and create a new camera positioned inside it.
Next I create some basic poly shapes as a quick way to visualize the main forms inside the room (Fig.01).
At this stage I already have a few ideas for the objects I'd like to see in there, such as a black board, desks, chairs and toy boxes. I quickly make some basic low poly representations of those objects as a starting point to work out the overall weights and masses of the scene's composition (Fig.02).
Usually I just start with whichever primitive is closest in shape to what I want to make, subdivide it a bit, then move points and extrude faces until I have a reasonable representation of the shape I want.
I like to stay low poly for this stage so that I can play around with scale and form pretty quickly.
Once I feel like I have a decent arrangement, I usually add some lighting to start to get a feel for what part the lighting will play in the composition.
Although a lot of artists I know prefer to leave lighting until the latter stages of a project, I firmly believe in lighting early. The reason for this is that having a decent idea of what the lighting is doing can be a big help when it comes to working on other parts of the scene.
If you were to fully model a scene and be tied to a layout that you don't want to change, it can be harder to find a light angle that gives the perfect shading to the scene and draws attention where you want. It's nice to establish your lighting early and then have the chance to work objects, layout and camera into the lighting, rather than the other way around.
At this stage I'll use a simple lighting setup to allow for quick iteration and fast render times (Fig.03). Later on I'll replace most of this lighting with something a bit more complicated, but at this stage I'm just trying to work out a light angle/color and intensity combination that gives the best shape and shading to my quick geometry pass.