Monthly Archives: February 2016

A Very Bad Week

Well, this week has been pretty disastrous and the time has flown by. Nothing’s actually gone wrong with my uni project, fortunately, but I’ve been on a weird crash where I just can’t work. I guess I’m all ‘burnt out’, as everyone likes to say. I am completely and utterly GUILT-RIDDEN for my lack of motivation. I’d say I’ve done maybe 3-4 days of work? It makes me just want to tear my hair out. I can’t describe the frustration I feel aaaah!

The flat’s a mess, I haven’t left been outside for 7 days, I haven’t got dressed, and can’t sleep. I’ve been picking on my boyfriend, and dropping work to sit browsing Reddit on my iPad (it’s become a glorified portable Reddit browser) instead. I’ve ignored messages from friends online and have felt too ill and unwell to go for lunch with a friend. Even right now I’m writing my blog to avoid work, having just spent the day traipsing round Leicester town center in a bid to find a mother’s day present and get outside, despite this irritating cough-cold-thing I can’t shake.


Hand-painted silk 1920’s house coat with metallic thread embroidery. Who needs a degree, right?

Today, I’ve tried to turn this nasty rut around by cleaning the flat, doing laundry, buying myself a pretty new vintage kimono-thingy, and trying to get through all those stupid ‘life things’ we all seem to have. I’ve re-scheduled my FMP to take into account all these bad, lazy, whatever vibes, and I’ve got plans to take a break and visit home next weekend.

I’m hoping it doesn’t affect the final product of diorama number 2 too much, but I’m feeling pretty uncomfortable about it all. I think the transition to a totally new piece of work after spending 5 weeks fretting over something else has just knocked it out of me. Zero motivation. I’m literally so so disappointed in myself it’s unreal. I hate it.

Anyway, here’s how it’s all gone!

Because this project isn’t a concept art project I’ve been quick to get myself to the final thing. I didn’t have a super strong image in my head of what I wanted the Dragon Garden to look like as a diorama; it’s such a huge area that I was finding it extremely hard to condense it into a small enough space. I quickly realised that I’d have to cut out a lot of elements from the book description and limit myself to the main features; a stone dragon, trees, lush swampiness. Because of the size of the assets (a dragon’s head is the ‘length of a horse’), the diorama is going to be much larger size-wise than the Fool’s Room, however the nature of the assets- foliage- means they can be repeated around more than in the FR where all assets were unique. I’m using that to reassure myself that I’ll get this done in time.

1- Asset etc ideas2- Early sketching

Like with the Fool’s Room, I started out reading the book excerpt and listing assets I imagine would be in there, from sounds to animations and so on. I then very, very quickly did some doodles to imagine how the diorama could be laid out. I didn’t want to do the whole disk thing that you see with so many dioramas- I wanted it to look like it had been torn from the world. I considered using the sleeping dragon as a sort-of podium for the whole diorama to sit on, but it just felt wrong.

I jumped into 3D to play around in there with the assets I had decided to include; dragon, trees, stone pillar, water, foliage, rocks.

3-3D Blockout Concept Progress

Blockout process.

I wanted to have some sort of height variation in there, again to avoid the ‘disk’ feel and create a focal point. I felt really limited with ways I could combine such huge assets to create a nicely composed scene. The blockouts quickly developed from being one sloped plane to being two tiers separated by a small cliff or rock area. The dragon nicely contained the top area if it curled round it, and led the area into the lower areas of the diorama. By the time I was at the later blockout stages, I’d set everything up so there were two good camera positions with appealing compositions, and I was starting to feel better with where it was going. I took screenshots of what I had and went into the painting stages.

5- Concept Progress

I didn’t mess around with in-depth concepting, as I was beginning to develop an idea in my head that I wanted to go with. The book excerpt speaks of willow trees, and I really wanted to include it in my diorama, but quite early on I was realising that it just wasn’t working. It would dominate the diorama and ruin any compositions I tried to create. It also was taking away from the feel that this diorama is supposed to be set in a forest. I went back to the excerpt and decided to use evergreen trees instead, drawing from the trees in The Witcher 3 as inspiration.

I came to a final concept relatively quickly, and decided to work on my painting skills a little, so I went into a bit more depth with rendering than I should for a concept;


Final concept.

Now I’ve begun making the actual base for the diorama. I’ve done it in Zbrush, which I’m still a little iffy with. Unfortunately there’s not really an alternative. I’m relatively happy with how it’s going, but it’s leaning a little closer to clean-stylised than I’d like it to (I’m not very good at sculpting in the definition required to make something more realistic). Hopefully going in with the lichen, grass, moss, leaves, and other dirty goodness will help improve that in the future. And I guess I’m always bound to dislike a project in it’s super early stages.


So to round up this week, feeling very meh about everything and finding it so hard to motivate myself to work on this diorama at this stage. Not really liking it so far, but obviously it’ll get better (if I can make myself work on it). I’m hoping I’ll be back in the flow of things next week. I’ll probably make the effort to go into university for a change, as I’ll be needing a lot of critique and eyes on this one anyway.

Thanks for reading! Any crit is super useful.

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Post Mortem; The Fool’s Room

While things are quiet with diorama number 2; The Dragon Garden, I thought I’d make a post about what I’ve learned from The Fool’s Room, what I’ll be taking forward, and my plans for polish time. I’ll do another, final post mortem, at the end of the project. It’s always good to sit back and consider things at regular intervals until then though. There is definitely a lot I want to mention to perhaps validate some of the choices I’ve made, and to reassure you that the mistakes you probably see will be fixed (hopefully!).


So… there is is as it stands… I feel ok about it. I mean, it’s probably one of the best 3D pieces I’ve produced, but I’m not overwhelmed with pride at it for some reason. I’m super pleased with the overall atmosphere. Playing with settings I’ve never used before really helped to push the project in the direction I wanted, and I wish I’d known about them for past projects. There’s still a lot to do though and things that just feel off right now, but with 4 weeks after the completion of my 3 dioramas scheduled for painting and polish time, I’m feeling confident that I can implement these changes with ease (timewise, at least).

What I’ve learned on this diorama is going carry through to my next two, and I know for sure that I’m really going to improve my workflow as a result. Not only have I learned soft skills such as time management, but also how UE4 behaves, certain sneaky tricks to make things look better, improved lighting, how to make materials I had been scared to attempt in the past, making tilables in Zbrush… so much. Members of Polycount have been particularly helpful with their critique.

Whereas in past projects I always felt like I was being brutally beaten over the head with my inability to manage my time, and that was the main thing I was learning/struggling with, for this diorama time has been well planned and I have no qualms about getting things done. Rather, I feel like this project has, finally, become a journey for my skills as an artist. I’ve gone from the badly lit, early stages of my diorama, to something much more satisfying even with all it’s current problems. Finally finally, I’m learning the ins and outs of softwares, creating better textures, better lighting, even better concept art. It’s great.

There’s a lot I’m really happy with. My favourite bit, of all things, is the top of the diorama around the window frames. I just love the way the AO and the different forms have created just the exact feel I was going for when I decided I was going to go with this art style. I probably sound crazy. But it just looks perfect. Exactly what I wanted. If only I could recreate that everywhere else.

The main thing I’m unhappy with at the moment is the overall brown-ness of the scene. With the brown wood, ceiling, walls and floor, and also the shutters, table, various other bits, it’s a bit overkill. This is one of the big things I hope to at least slightly change not only by modifying the materials themselves, but also by perhaps adding some ivy climbing up the diorama sides for more colour, and adding a tapestry or two to the wall. This will hopefully bring back in the subtly colourful feel to the scene that I wanted to achieve, rather than it being a brown canvas with a bit of colour thrown in there.

While I’m super happy with a lot of stuff, it feels like there is even more I want to rectify. I’d feel ok about handing this in as it is. But only ok, and I want to be so proud of myself when I show this at degree show and hand it in to be marked. There are a million niggly things I want to deal with both as a result of my own judgement and from critique.

Here’s my hilariously long list;

image1 (1)

Some things are more important than others, some things are a maybe. There are a few things that I need to do before I start making all the other more cosmetic changes on my list. For instance, there’s an asset (the doll) that is currently untextured. So that’s my priority. There are a few things I want to test but I’m not sure how they’ll look, tessellation on the walls being one of them. I’m not sure if  it’ll improve the wall much, but if it does I’ll stick with it because that wall texture is still looking flat and it annoys me. Fire in the fireplace and lighting the candles is another example, as if they’re there some would say I might as well use them to their full potential. The reason I haven’t added fire to either if because the scene is day-time so I thought there wouldn’t be any need. I still feel that way, but it’s always good to just see what I’m missing out on.

The main things I want to get done to improve the scene are;

  • More ivy,
  • Add wood edges to the windows so the lead isn’t directly meeting the stonework,
  • Fix seams on the cut-out edges of the diorama,
  • Add dirt/dust alphas in on the floor at wall intersections,
  • Put some stones under the beam/wall intersection to improve the transition between them,
  • Window handles,
  • Herringbone texture from fireplace on alcove back,
  • Cut into the stone wall on the edge of the chimney breast where that ugly straight edge is.

They are the big, potentially more time consuming ones that I feel it is important to work on. It’s perhaps 4 days work? Maybe less? Then I think I’ll feel less uncomfortable when people are looking at my diorama and I can see all these errors and oh it’s so horrible hoping they don’t notice too. After all that will come the sound effects, which I’ve already found and I need to perhaps edit a little and put into engine. Hopefully it won’t be a total mission, but I’ll be factoring in plenty of time just in case.

If I get all the main important things done for all 3 dioramas, I have some assets I would also like to make to improve storytelling in the scene. The Fool’s Room is a tough one to create a visual story, I found. It’s a room that is only entered once, and for the briefest period. The character you are following, FitzChivalry, literally enters the room, stays a moment, and leaves again. The room is also shown so early in the books that all the weird and wonderful things you learn about the occupant (the Fool) have not yet surfaced. I wanted to add some easter eggs of some sort to make the scene more interesting, particularly for people who have read the books… but it’s a difficult diorama to do this in. All the same, there are a few things I have thought of; a jester’s hat and sceptre, as the occupant is the king’s fool. This would just lay down the foundations a little better for who lives here. And then also perhaps a weasel hiding in the rafters or some such (don’t ask how it got there), as one of the more secretive characters has a weasel who roams the castle.

Ultimately, I’m really happy with where this is going. Just a few bits to do and I’m sure I’ll feel much better. It’s going to be good to not have to look at it for a while first though. Maybe I’ll see even more problems to fix in 10 weeks time!

For now, onto the next diorama.



Beginning to Drag

Well, this week has been really quite calm. I’ve done a good deal of polishing, revisiting, and modifying. And procrastinating. Everything has gone pretty smoothly. It’s been nice… but what’s this?

Ah yes.

Boredom. I’m getting bored.

Just in time for finish, I’m beginning to get bored with this particular diorama. I’m ready for the next diorama, which I begin on Monday. I still have a few bits to do on my current one, but as soon as I hit Sunday evening I will stop and move on, no matter what I’m doing. I will go away from this diorama, and return to it in 10 weeks time, when my other two dioramas are at the same stage. This means I can return to it with fresh eyes and a fresh mind and complete it with enthusiasm (in theory).

So, here it is as it stands;

This week I’ve been making various little assets and additions, as you can probably see. In comparison to my concept, you may also have noticed that I’ve moved around some of the assets. Admittedly, this was partially procrastination, but also it was an effort to achieve more balance in the scene in terms of colour, composition, and general distribution of assets and areas of interest. Here is one of my crazy annotation things to show what I mean (please note I know absolutely zero serious art theory and have no idea what I’m doing, I’m just going off what feels right!);

I don’t really know what I’m trying to accomplish by doing that. But I’ll leave it there to confuse your eyes. My initial concept had a whole load of plants in one corner, but in the actual 3D diorama this just felt too unbalanced, so I moved the large potted plant to the opposite side of the diorama. This mirrored the green of the flowers and plants on the right, and brought more balance to the colour frequencies around the scene. It also added some interesting leafy shapes for the eye to look at when placed in front of the darker window, instead of just the plain up-and-down rectangle of the window alone. Additionally, I had more interesting light falling on the plant than if it was shoved in the corner. I put yellow into the plant pot to mirror the yellow of the newly-added sunflowers on the mantle. I changed the pink flowers in my concept to sunflowers after getting some critique suggesting it, as they reflect the bright and sunny atmosphere of the room better.

I also edited the roof beams, which I had been putting on hold for a while, to create a more rounded frame for the whole scene. I like how it worked out and think it’s a little easier on the eye, with more swooping curves to lead your gaze about the piece. I’ve done a whole plethora of tiny edits in response to my own gut feelings and also crit from tutors, industry guys, and internet people. I’m not sure I can run through them all, so the last thing I’ll mention is that I’ve swapped out a few materials here and there to improve the overall feel of the scene. Namely, I’ve made the window seat wood rather than stone, and added a wood back to the inside of the alcove above the fireplace (though not sure this is a very realistic or suitable material for right above a fire!). This just adds a little more to look at, and creates colour and texture variation that I didn’t initially have. However, I still need to try and create a little more colour variation in the wood/stone (and this came up in crit too).

Speaking at length of critique, I’ve had tooooonnes this week, both verbally from tutors, and in emails, and on forums such as Polycount. Honestly it’s a little overwhelming and I’m not looking forward to dealing with it all. I won’t go too in-depth, but I definitely have a lot to consider for when I come back to polish;

The above is the crit someone very kindly gave me on Polycount. I’ve compiled a check-list of things to deal with, if possible, when it comes to polish time. I’ve appreciated all the feedback I’ve had, and particularly on Friday I had a really really useful chat with Mike Kelly, a tutor at uni who gave me a feedback session. He showed me how to use my normal map to generate a ‘cavity map’ and overlay this in Photoshop, and also how to create some top-down lighting using the green channel of the normal map also over-layed in Photoshop. It’s a similar way to how textures are made by artists at Blizzard for World of Warcraft. It helped to add depth and form to some of my textures, and it’s improved how I feel about the diorama a lot.


My stone brick texture now. I’m really proud of how it looks even just as a texture sheet, haha. I almost feel like it would hold it’s own better in a non-PBR diorama!


A before and after example of adding a cavity map overlay in Photoshop.

For some reason I’m super tired writing this blog, I guess because I’m recovering from a cold, so the last little thing I wanted to quickly mention is that I’ve now played about with Widget Blueprints, and have created a very simple and minimalistic HUD. If you can even call it that. It is displaying the title of the project and diorama, instructions for people having a go at degree show, and options to view other dioramas and quit, etc. I just wanted something very plain that gave the work some context, had my name on it, and made the project feel like more of a full, navigable ‘game’ as opposed to a set of separate maps in UE4. It also means I won’t have to babysit my work at FMP, and for the most part people should be able to work it themselves.


Nothing fancy, but it was something new and interesting to learn, and I’m always totally up for that. You lose the white text a little at the bottom, but grey text looks strange so a bit stuck there.

So on Monday I begin the concept of my next diorama… Yet to decide whether to go with creating the Dragon Garden or the Fool’s Tent next. I can’t say I’m looking forward to starting from scratch aaaall over again, but it’s just that first little hurdle of making a start, and then I’ll be good to go! For my next diorama I think I will try to bring down the workload a little, and make it smaller or just have fewer assets. I think, though, that the Fool’s Room was probably going to be the big one in terms of unique assets and I might have it a little easier on that front now anyway.

We shall see, we shall see.

Oh how wrong I’ll turn out to be.

I’m a poet.

I didn’t know it.

Time for a career change.

Lol bye.

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Coming Together.

I can’t believe how fast the time is flying by on this project. After I post this, I will be getting on with my last week of work on this diorama before I move on to the next one.

Here it is so far;
This week has probably been the bumpiest of them all so far, as I’ve been trying to make a few untested things work, and dabbled in animation and blueprints which are always a cause for stress. Fortunately, Dom Mathuse in my year has been ever so kind in helping me create blueprints to meet my needs. So I want to give him credit for reducing my stress levels by about a million when it came to making the fish swim on a spline in my level, and making the Wind Directional Source actor have more strength variation. Thankyou Dom!! I’ll talk more about those blueprints in a bit.

First, here’s a shot of my time schedule so I can talk through what I’ve done this week day by day;
In terms of timekeeping, I’m actually back on schedule pretty much completely now despite getting ill with a cold. I’ve constantly been evaluating and re-evaluating my schedule at the end of each day. With each evaluation, I’ve considered whether assets are unnecessary or no longer would suit the diorama. I’ve also been modifying my time schedule on the go. These actions have helped to keep my stress down and myself on schedule quite nicely. Should I reach the end of the week and realise I should have kept something, I can easily add these things in my allocated polish time later.

Assets in the list on the left that have a blue bar are assets that are currently not factored into my 5 week schedule due to time limitations (such as the candle stand), or I may consider removing from the scene (such as the loom). I will be evaluating this list at the end of the 5 weeks to see what I would like to add during my polish time. Green assets are complete, and orange means incomplete assets for that week. So I’m doing pretty good.

I think for this project I have done my best job of time-keeping on a project at university so far. I’m really glad that all my self evaluation and attempts to rectify my timing problems have paid off.

The first half of the week went really smoothly, and I found that by Wednesday I had some spare time. (I had decided to do much less than my original plan due to showing a Level Designer from Codemasters around university after a lecture, and feeling too ill and tired to complete my to-do list.) I decided I would try and implement a blueprint that I had read about online to improve the appearance of the wind in my diorama. I’m using a Wind Directional Source with APEX cloth assets to create the wind, however despite having a series of editable variables to change the wind behaviour, it wasn’t meeting my needs; the wind would only appear to blow at one strength. This looked really silly, but I learned that it was possible to use blueprints to change this, using a workaround for a bug that was affecting Wind Directional Source actors.



I spoke to Dom Mathuse about this, and he helped talk me through it and create exactly what I wanted in less than half an hour. The wind now blows on a timeline and varies from very weak to much stronger over the course of about 50 seconds. It looks much more natural and adds a lot of movement to the scene that I didn’t have with just the standard actor.

The following day I decided to add the fish to the level. This was a very stressful day indeed, as I felt tired from the cold and was trying to deal with animating this tiny fish that wasn’t doing what I wanted at any step of the way. Firstly, I encountered a bug that wouldn’t allow me to use a skin modifier with my mesh. I battled with it for about 3 hours before finally realising what the problem was (which was not my fault, but this stupid bug). Then I had to try and work out how to go about animating this fish. I considered creating a spline in 3dsMax and animating along this, but with my limited animating experience I didn’t know how to move it along a spline and then have an additional animation of the fish swimming on top of that.


I crawled back to Dom for help, and again he talked me through it. I created a looping swimming animation for the fish, threw that into UE4, and he showed me how to create a timeline and a spline within UE4 for the fish to wiggle its way around. This one took a little longer with a few hiccups, but once again Dom did it and I have exactly what I wanted. The whole animation sequence looks a little retarded at times, but overall, as a tiny building block, it’s great. The addition of a second fish helps distract from the derpiness of the animation a little.


Feeling oh-so much better with two of the most stressful and frustrating elements of my diorama out of the way, I continued the week feeling much calmer. I made some flowers to decorate the scene, both for the vases I had made and for floating the fish bowl, as mentioned in Robin Hobb’s writing.
CaptureI’ve done a lot of fiddling with lighting and post processing this week, from bloom to ambient occlusion to global illumination and much more, but I finally feel that the atmosphere is where I want it.

For this final week, I’m going to be working to continue adding assets to the scene, and I will be also adding music and hopefully limited camera movement for when the file becomes a playable game. There are a few things that I will not have time to get finished (blue bars on my schedule), but they are the smaller assets that I will as a result have time to add during my polish time. I also have a few things I will need to polish or implement, but I’m not worried at all about getting this diorama finished in time for my hand-in deadline any more.

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Making Compromises.

Having ended up a little behind schedule last week, I spent some of this week frantically trying to catch up and get back on schedule. This namely involved finishing the windows that I had made a start on so that most of the room itself was complete, bar the roof tiles and the tear-away area below the floor.
I feel that I have rushed quite a few of the assets and textures so far, but have every intention of coming back round and improving/tidying/fixing these things in the future. This may be at the end of the current 5 week period if I have time, or during the polish time I have allocated to myself after all the dioramas are done. In the screenshot above, you can see at the bottom that there is now a ‘To Polish’ section. Here I am listing everything that I feel could use a little TLC down the line.

Once again I feel that I have bitten off more than I can chew with this project. I have too many assets to create in the given time, and I am finding that I’m rushing things a little despite my intention from the outset to not rush things; quality over quantity. This is mostly down to my choice of texturing style. I am Zbrushing most of my assets, in addition to creating roughness, metalness, albedo, etc. maps. Because I am not hugely strong in this method of creating assets, I’m finding that things aren’t looking how I want. The wall texture is a good example of this. Part of me wishes I’d chosen to just hand-paint things. However, I’m still really enjoying the challenge and learning new things, and I still feel that this style better suits the atmosphere I’m trying to create.

Going back to the windows in my scene, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the glass and lead turned out. Like I did with foliage, I used The Witcher 3 as a big source of inspiration for my creation of the windows. Several times, I’ve stopped to marvel at how well done the glass shader is in particular. It really drew me into the game, and I wanted to try and create something at least remotely similar.

I sculpted the lead in Zbrush to create the effect of strips that have been melted together, and then created a basic shader in UE4 for the glass using various documents and tutorials online. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Since UE4 has updated to 10.2 transparent materials have become much easier to create thankfully. There is a secondary plane in front of the glass material which I have added a dirty mask to, which gives the glass another dimension of realness. That’s still a placeholder though and needs updating.

Factored into my schedule this week was also various drapery assets. I made these using the cloth modifier in 3dsMax, which I am very comfortable with using. I’ve found that it doesn’t suit certain things that I’m trying to create (or, more likely I don’t understand it fully). For instance a blanket on the window seat looks very odd when made using the cloth modifier, and so I’ll be coming back to that after some consideration.

The curtains were relatively easy to make, and they also blow gently in the wind thanks to the APEX plugin for 3dsMax which is supported inside UE4. It doesn’t fully do what I want, as the wind is not gusty but just a very slightly fluctuating strength, but I think I may be able to improve this with some Blueprint work later down the line. The curtain movement is the first step in creating the dynamic diorama I am aiming for, and I really want it to look how I imagine.

Though the actual creation of the drapes and rugs went smoothly, the texture creation was something that stopped the progress of my project for a while. In Robin Hobb’s description of the room, the curtains are described as being ‘woven in geometric patterns that somehow suggested fields of flowers beneath a blue sky’. I tried to stay true to this by researching weaving patterns and such, so I could create a texture that actually mimics real life weaving techniques. This quickly became difficult when I got down to actually trying to make the texture though, as it looked very messy and unpleasant, particularly with a normal map applied. I feel that even in more realistic games, fabric has to be stylised to an extent or it begins to look messy and fake.

Next, I tried to create a more stylised geometrical texture;

This just looked like something from IKEA though, and looked really silly in the scene. I was very unhappy with how it looked. After some consideration, I decided to create something much more abstract. Though it wasn’t true to the book, it was easier on the eye and sat better in the scene. The same went for the other fabric designs around the scene. Since I want the whole diorama to be very soft, having strong geometrical patterns and stand-out designs on assets would detract from this feeling. I guess it’s just one of many artistic compromises I’ll have to make to keep my scenes successful.

Overall I’m pretty happy with where my diorama is going, however I can still see every little rushed thing and it’s all blaringly obvious to me. I’m also not 100% sure if everything is sitting together right yet, so if anyone has any comments or critique I’d be very appreciative. I’m happiest with the atmosphere so far, which was the main intent of this project so I can’t complain too much. I’m just hoping I’ll be able to put my finger on what doesn’t feel right eventually, and then I can look into fixing it as soon as possible.

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