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The Making Of "Yuki Machi"

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This post is part of a series called Productivity and Building a Better Workflow.
The Making Of "Brooklyn City"
Modeling Tips & Tricks For New Artists

This is a walk through from start to finish of how I made my "Yuki Machi" scene. This tutorial is intended for beginners and students who are making the switch from creating and building assets to creating whole scenes and environments. I’ll take you through the processes and techniques I use and show you the challenges l face when making larger sets.

Software Used:
Autodesk 3D Studio Max
Adobe Photoshop

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Where does it all begin? No matter how big or small the idea is it doesn't matter, it's how well it's executed that matters to the viewers. So how did I come up with this. I first start all my environments by making a list of positive and negative feedback I get from my peers on forums on past projects. I read every single comment and try to understand their point of view. Even if you don’t consider the comment correct, that individual took the time to express a concern, and I would like to know why. Previous to this environment I’ve made about five other scenes, one of the best ways to learn is to learn from your mistakes. I use the list below to guide me and help me to decide what type of environment I’ll work on next, creating the same environment over and over again won’t get you very far. Spice it up and try something new and different. So this is a list that I’ve made (Figure 1). After taking all this info, I decided to reuse assets from an older scene I’ve made previously and create something on a larger scale. The basic idea was to combine the Greek architectural elements and mix them with East Asian temples, and to melt it together I would add snow. I loved looking at Greek architecture. The “grand” feeling drew me in. So when you create your scene or environments have a strong theme or underlying message in it. Don’t just create a New York alleyway, tell me something about it. How do you want the viewer to feel? What emotions do you wanna showcase? What's the real story behind the scene? Placing props together in a scene is something anyone can do, telling a story is your goal here.

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The Big Picture

At this point I started prototyping the types of buildings and structures I wanted in my scene. I focused more on looking at Greek architecture and converting it to something more Asian. This is where I ran into my first road block. I realized looking at the wires frames of all these buildings, I didn't have an idea of the entire scene! just bits and pieces. I didn’t clearly define the objectives for the entire scene. I got a good theme Greek + Temple + Snow, but I didn't have a concept or big picture. So it was time to get back to the sketch book and draw. Draw and iterate. I try to keep the ideas of the prototyped buildings out of my head, so they wouldn't influence me when I was creating concepts. I re-focused and looked at more Greek art, watching videos, looking at more pictures. When creating any concept, I always go back and refer to the elements and principles of design. Below is the art principles I learned in high school.

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Block Out:

So I’ve finally come up with a idea I really liked. In the concept posted in Figure 5, you'll see that I’ve come up with this large gateway entrance with three large scale statues that are samurai warriors. I’ve also blocked out ideas from some more buildings.

So learn from my mistakes. Work on the big picture first and worry about the little tiny details at the end. Don’t rush into something that you can’t handle or something that you don’t fully understand. You should have a clear picture of what you want and don’t want. You should always define each next action step, so you can quickly get to your goal more easily. Never guess or make up stuff as you go along. Also go back and look at your reference materials.

So I just have this cool idea and I wanna tell everyone this cool idea. I often post on as many forums as I can to get feedback on what people think. I really want them to know the vision and goal I’m aiming for.

Now I jump into 3Ds Max and block out 80% of the scene with just primitive shapes or existing assets. I also try to lock down the FOV (Field Of View) and camera position at this point too. After this I replace all the boxes with models and assets that I’m reusing from my previous environment, and block in any new ones like the large door way. (See Figure 6) As you can see, the entire scene is not blocked in, but the main idea comes through. Large gateway, surrounded by larger temple structures.

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Time to Improve

So at this point I do tons of paint overs on my screen grabs. I just drawing out crazy ideas to see what might work. In Figure 8, I’m thinking of ways to improve the overall scene. I keep on looking at more Greek architecture, more scenes with snow, more Asian influenced buildings. So in the image below you can see I really needed to plan where I wanted the snow. How snowy will this scene by? Is it in a snow storm? Has the storm just passed by? How am I gonna show that people live in this place? At this point I double check my composition and start planning out my lighting. I want to create something interesting with the lighting, so I choose to place the lighting coming from the far left hand side, at a 45 degree angle facing the large doors.

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Now that I have the majority of my structural elements and props in my scene. The camera is locked down 100% and everything so far looks good. Now it's time for texturing. For beginners trying to make larger scenes, it's extremely important to understand the tech/engine/renderer you're using to make the most out of it. For example in UDK (Unreal Developement Kit) there are shaders that you can setup to place snow on top of objects based on whatever axis you choice. This can save you tons of time down the road, but in my case I decided to hand paint the location of the snow on each of the props. Another thing to start testing is how the textures look in the type of lighting setup you've got in your scene, in my case I have a strong blue ambient light. As you can see in the picture below the difference in the blue ambient light and the white ambient light. It's important to start testing the look of your diffuse, spec, and normals maps as soon as possible.

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Now another road block. I was beginning to realize that my first few attempts of blocking out the light direction wasn’t really working out. There wasn’t anything interesting going on with the lighting. It was basically the same setup as one my past scenes and I didn’t want to make the same thing over again. After trying to spin the direct light source around a few times. I ended up placing the main light source behind the main gate entrance. This gave more of a silhouette type feel on the focal point. I knew that I could fix any minor problems in post with all my render element passes. But even after testing this new lighting setup, I didn't like the “one” light source idea. So I went on to Cgtalk and looked for some inspiration. I found some other environments of temples (various kinds) and noticed that they have some kind of candle lighting in the scene, but my scene was too big for something like that. So I took the standing lanterns I made for my previous scene, and added some glowing lights and placed them close to the entrance gate. This helped the scene in two ways. One creating a more interesting focal point, the gate isn't in total darkness caused by my the main light source coming from behind. Second it helped create a sense of life in the scene, as if people still lived there.

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So everything is locked down now. Lighting is pretty much set, all the smaller props are placed in the scene. It's time to render. There are a few different render passes I make when doing a scene. There is the list of all are pretty standard stuff: Z Depth, spec, direct light, bounce light, diffuse, AO, object ID, material ID, Alpha, shadow. Now it's time to fix all the small problems that I didn't fix before rendering. I don’t make a list of them, I do paint overs on the final render and circle areas I don't like.

Snow. One thing I completely missed until now was adding another layer of snow falling from the sky, something that would make it feel “not too frozen in time”. So I go back to Google and look for better reference. Then I remembered the scene in Uncharted 2 with Drake walking though some snow, I liked what I saw and wanted to create that. Great! now what? I still ran into more problems after that, was I going to do a paint over or render this using PFlow? So something I didn't plan out enough is how long and complex this would be, I tried to get PFlow working without realizing that I had no idea what I was doing. So I continued on with this approach until I realized I’ve wasted about a weeks forth of time, on something that probably would take my about one or two days to paint by hand. Well, lesson learned. Plan complexity, and time estimates and add a due date. Define the next action steps to help you plan ahead.

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Matte Painting

I’ve only been doing matte paintings for a few of my scenes, and at a small scale. Less then 15% of the screen is the sky on the previous scenes I’d made, so doing matte painting wasn't a challenge until I came to this one. The first thing I did was block out where I wanted the main large clouds to be. The big problem I face with any matte painting is to unify the entire image, help bring everything together and add anything that's missing in this final painting. The entire matte painting took me about two whole days to complete.

I’m not gonna go into crazy detail about compositing since there's TONS of tutorials out there, but just a few things I do a little differently. First I take the Diffuse layer and fix any errors and then duplicate it twice. One layer will be blurred by 20% and set to screen, the other will be unsharpened masked and have the opacity to to 15%. I like the effect it gives the scene.

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Looking back at the final product I write down the positive and negative comments that I get on the forums.

Lack of snow detail, including placement and realism of the snow.
Lack of depth in the clouds - clouds don't scale down in size as they get further away from the viewer.
Needs more unique building shapes in buildings and bridges
Sense of life in the scene could have been improved - add figure into scene
More stylized direction

Largest scene created to date.
Reuse of past props / assets created
Good composition
Interesting idea
Good use of colors

Creating any scene is always a learning experience. Listen to all the feedback you get from your peers, cause they're the ones who’ll be the most honest with you. If you have any questions about this tutorial please email me at Hiten@hitenmistry.com :)

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