The aim of this image was to produce a concept visual of a steampunk robot design. I had an idea for a janitor who worked in the engine room of a titanic steampunk space cruiser. His sole task was to turn giant pressure valves and carry heavy machinery.
I wanted to turn around a first stage concept visual as quickly as possible, but make sure the image still suggested the right atmosphere, lighting, personality and texture. Concepting is all about presenting ideas as quickly as possible. There is no real point laboring over a high-end production model at this early stage as a design will be subject to constant changes depending on the art director's tastes. However as a concept artist you need to make sure that your design looks as polished as possible within the tight deadline. I set myself a realistic deadline of two days for a full color visual.
To achieve the image I used as many shortcuts as possible to get to a presentation visual I was happy with. As this is a hard surface character, 3ds Max was used to block in the geometry and set up lighting passes to be composited and painted over in Photoshop.
Over the years I have accumulated many bits and pieces of 3D geometry from various projects. It's always good to keep an archive of these bits and pieces. Bolts, robot fingers, heads, pipes, shoulder armor etc. They are essential for putting together ideas without the labor of building geometry from scratch.
From this archive it was possible to construct a rough model of the robot. First I concentrated on the overall silhouette and proportions of the character then worked down to the shoulder, forearm, legs, feet and body. Based on my original idea I created a bulky, top-heavy character. I parented the arms, body and legs to separate helper objects so I could easily tweak the size and scale until I was happy with the overall proportions. The hands in particular were pushed to be as large as possible. Rather than going for complex exposed mechanical parts I concentrated on simple armor-like forms that would cover the underlying mechanics. Lastly I work out the smaller details like pipes and tubes down to little nuts and bolts.
The overall idea was that he is a character with huge upper body strength that doesn't really have to walk very far. The face was adapted from an insect-like head that was used on an older project originally modeled by Warren Lancashire. I wanted a simple, expressionless head that would show the character as a drone-like worker.
Once happy with the overall proportions and basic model a stance pose was created that assumed a dynamic low 3/4 camera angle to best sell the concept.
The lighting rig was a simple three-light set up: a key light from above, and two split directional lights. One red light to represent a glow from a furnace and a blue rim light to give some atmosphere, contrast and help pick out the form.
The material setup was pretty basic. Cebas Finaltoon was used without outlines to get an illustrative base render with shadows using only the key light. For these materials I only concentrated on the basic color scheme. All the surface detail would be painted and composited in Photoshop. I was just after a good base render to inform me of the lighting and shadows at this stage (Fig.01).
The next step was to render all the passes needed to composite the final image. These included the main base render, a flat diffuse color pass that would double up as a material selector with the Wand tool in Photoshop, an AO pass to help define the geometry, the two directional light passes and a Specular pass to help define the shiny surfaces. These passes were then layered up with the blending modes shown in Fig.02. The base render was the bottom layer with a normal blend mode. You can change the opacity of each pass and experiment with different blend modes until you get the look you want.
Once all the layers were composited in Photoshop it was time to begin the paintover. The first thing I looked at was experimenting with some color correction. For example, changing the lights from blue to green and generally just tweaking the color of all the forms until it looked right. With the diffuse pass layer acting as the selection layer you can quickly mask off areas and try out as many variations as you need until you get to the one that works best. It is always good in a production environment to give options.
Once happy with the palette I made a quick key of the main colors that would identify the character. In my opinion it is best to keep your overall palette simple, with perhaps one main, dominant color and two support colors. It's a tried and tested principle, but it helps create an instantly recognizable design (Mario, Superman and Buzz Lightyear all have simple but instantly memorable color schemes).
The next stage was to add a bit of texture to the surfaces (Fig.03) including rust, wear and tear metal grain. For this photo references from cgtextures.com were used. Steel, brass and distressed metal paneling textures were placed over areas of the model using Overlay blending mode, again adjusting the opacity channel for more subtlety. I used the flat color render pass to select the areas to mask depending on which texture I was working with.
This part of the process is where the paintover began, using a mixture of the Clone tool, Eraser and Brush tool to paint in areas of detail. I was always looking for the overall effect rather than precise high frequency detail due to the quick turnaround. The Hue and Saturation were regularly adjusted on each overlaid texture until the balance was right. To follow on from the texturing a more general paintover process was used to pick out details and emphasize the overall form. Some parts of the Specular pass were erased if a more matte surface was required.
Once happy with the overall paintover the final stage was to add a few techniques to help the image pop. I decided to use a red fog to further enhance the atmosphere and to give the image a greater impression of depth. The arm furthest away from the camera was masked and desaturated with a red hue to match the fogging effect. This exaggeration of the depth is quite a stylized technique but I was going for a more illustrative style rather than photoreal (Fig.04).
Finally, to help push the character image off the background I selected the silhouette alpha of the character, made a new layer under all the render passes and filled it with the red fog color, applied a Gaussian Blur filter and set it to Screen blending mode. I added anamorphic lens flairs to his shoulder light and antenna that I had rendered from After Effects for a previous project. Again these were just Screen blend layers.
For final presentation purposes I was inspired by the covers of model kit boxes, particularly Tamiya kits. It is important to clearly label your images in a production environment to help with archiving. Also if the image gets on the web it's important to have your name on it so it doesn't get orphaned (Fig.05)!
From the outset I wanted to see how quickly I could transform a design idea into a finished visual and use the 3D tools as efficiently as possible before compositing in Photoshop. The most important thing during this process is to not get side-tracked by the tiny details and keep focused on the overall impression. One of the hardest things to decide was when to stop. Collecting a 3D model archive was essential for creating the image quickly. Also having a clear idea of what you want to achieve at the start is vital, however be prepared to adjust things if you think of a better shape or color scheme along the way.
I hope this Making Of was useful to any 3DTotal readers wanting to incorporate 3D renders into their concept art. Or for anyone who, like me, likes big steampunk robots. Thanks guys!