Stephen’s renders for the Soban Fleet Pack DLC have been circulating around the Homeworld community for a few weeks now, and they’re, in a word, impressive. Although he insists that he simply built upon what the extraordinary art team over at BBI came up with (and I won’t argue, they are extraordinary), I think we can all agree that his 3D work is just as exceptional. I wanted to know more about Stephen’s process and how he got his start, and he was not only awesome enough to give FoH this interview, but also to provide us with some high quality, uncompressed art! I’ll be making the full version available for download below, or you can grab the compressed JPG’s here. Now, for the interview – take it away Stephen!
Stephen, how long have you been rendering/3D modeling, and what got you started?
I started after I discovered modding and mapping tools for games like Homeworld, Half Life and Freespace back when I was around 12. I tried modeling 3D versions of my Lego ships, hoping to mod them into Homeworld, I didn’t get very far at the time, I couldn’t even figure out how texturing worked – in the end I never finished anything. It wasn’t until 2010 that I started taking 3D art seriously as a career: I took a 3 year program in college, followed by 3 years working professionally, mostly at Blackbird.
Everyone seems to have their own unique story about how they were introduced to Homeworld and what kind of impression it had on them. What’s yours?
I first noticed Homeworld on the cover of PC Gamer, at the time it looked strange, oddly bright and colorful, the screenshots kind of reminded me of Jet Force Gemini. I ended up trying the demo, the tutorial mission had a weird, mellow-adventurous vibe, from the music to how things looked and moved, half of the time I would end up staring at the units and watching them travel around. I got hooked and bugged my parents into buying it for me.
How did you end up at BBI? What’s a ‘day in the life’ like behind the scenes there?
I applied a few years ago, after the news of Gearbox purchasing the Homeworld IP and funding Blackbird got around. They didn’t have any job openings for 3D art at the time, but I sent a “general” application anyways. I didn’t expect to get hired by doing that, but I hoped to at least get some feedback for my portfolio website, which I was constantly working on. I didn’t get a job initially, but I did get a reply from their art lead, with some great feedback on my work. A few months later, when Blackbird started ramping up and hiring artists, they contacted me, and after a Skype interview and a 48-hour sleepless weekend to complete an art test, I got the job. I was hired as a general artist, to do a little bit of everything, though the majority of my work involved the terrain.
As for life at Blackbird, mornings for 3D guys start with a quick scrum meeting between the art team, we show off what we did recently, and work out what we’re doing next. If we’re making a unit or a map, we usually start with a quick sketch, [then] we make a fast & rough version in 3D, send a screenshot to concept artists to draw over, update the model to fit, and repeat until it’s finished. For lunch we have a cafe in our building, a variety of food trucks that show up, and a nearby pub. When studio-wide meetings happen, they also tend to come with free beer and pizza. At the last hour of the week on Friday, all the artists put down their work, do something completely different, and show it off to end the week!
What were some of the 3D limitation of the Unity engines and what were your workarounds (in a nutshell)?
One of the major limitations we found involved the Unity terrain system, it was blurry, ugly, and inefficient enough to slow down the game significantly. We couldn’t even have a sand dunes with tips, they would just blur out entirely. The sculpting tools were also fairly useless, Unity brushes were very small and very weak when using a high res heightmap. Our solution for terrain was build our own system instead, using a single large model, sculpted outside of Unity, and a large texture, we cut the model into chunks, combine it with our own sticker-like decal system for detailing, the difference in quality and performance was like night and day.
Being a modeler, you probably work with a variety of tools – what are some of your favorites?
I prefer to do my modeling in 3DS Max, and my sculpting in Mudbox. After I have a polished model or sculpt, I texture them in Photoshop with Quixel Suite, while using texture maps and stamps I build in Worldmachine. In the future I plan on shifting my texturing work to Allegorithmic Substance tools, where I can paint and stamp my textures directly onto the model. I’m also experimenting with Modo as an alternative way to model.
Have any advice for aspiring modelers trying to break into the gaming industry?
Just about everything you need to be a professional game artist can be found online, whether it’s tutorials on sites like Eat3D, 3DMotive and DigitalTutors, or an online school like UArtsy. Participating in a forum like Polycount is also vital; they’ll give you the critique you need to improve, answer for any questions, and [it’s an additional] way to make yourself known. As long as you’re open to criticism and willing to try new tools and techniques, your 3D skills will get to the level they’ll need to be. When I was ready to go out and get my first studio job, my biggest obstacle was a lack of experience; however, a good enough portfolio will get around that. If you want to get in a studio, Google the people who work there, find their personal portfolio websites [for inspiration], and make your stuff better. Then, put it on your own website, or make an Artstation account and put it there because ultimately, pictures will be worth more than words.
Stephen Mokrytzki of Blackbird Interactive
High Resolution Deserts of Kharak Unit Renders
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