Gnomon Creating a Sci-Fi Alleyway

Creating a Sci-fi Alleyway. Detailed Environment Techniques with Devon Fay  – great inspirational tutorial on the gnomon workshop.

What a beautiful piece of art Fay’s “Sci-fi Alleyway” is. I love this feeling of rain-slick, beaten up alleyways filled with old tech and Japanese references. The image has really stuck with me and I can’t help but think of it when I look down narrow alleys in Belfast. Even during the weekend, I saw a poster in The Ramen Bar in Dublin and immediately thought, sci-fi alleyway!

This is the VR (or AR?) dream.


Summary of my notes from the tutorial:

01 Refine your idea

Define your idea. Find as many references that you can, e.g. stills from movies, images from real life culture. Pick some shots/photographs that you like and do block out studies of these to get inspiration from how they’re constructed. Start to narrow down the themes that you like and want to see in your final image. Photobash/create concepts of these themes.

02 Blocking

Use a human model for scale and start to block out the composition that you want. This will require a lot of iterations of how walls and blocks are placed. Bookmark the possible camera angles that you want. Constantly consider how balanced the composition is and other compositional aids.


03 Finishing the blockout

Research the different construction elements of your scene. Try different blocked constructions in different layers. How is the place lived in? Consider story.

04 Find the crack:props

Jump into something that’s doable like a chair. Make quick concepts. Keep a constant eye on composition as the addition of detail might unbalance the scene. Consider how much time needs to be spent on an area. Will this be visible in the camera? It’s not one prop but the culmination of all the props that make the environment feel like a real place.

05 Detailed prop creation

Examine lots of references. Reuse old models that you’ve created.

06 Initial lighting set-up

Fay uses VRay. Use the optimal settings for speed. In Vray you can save irradiance maps instead of re-rendering these every time. For speed you can choose to only update this before bed at night.

07 Scene modelling

All the little details will make your scene seem real. Reuse materials and textures from past work as much as possible and from references that you’ve already gathered. Think of having a range of materials. Overall composition is more important than making a single prop perfect.

07b Storytelling

Keep thinking about the weight of areas in your composition and how the relative amount of detail draws the eye. Keep your environment functional for your characters. If something is off then maybe the character is explaining it through an action e.g. reaching a high shelf with retractable arms. Always consider the story aim. Is it about a particular character or is the story about the place? How do the characters live in this scene? How is this world inhabited? Continually ask these questions. Consider how depth is created with overlapping objects and avoid tangents.

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08 Tools and Scripts

Useful scripts: chain creator, wire creator, zoomerator, spPaint 3D, rock gen

Fay uses Marvelous Designer for cloth simulation and Quixel Suite for texturing. Quixel suite uses maps for creating masks.

11 Custom photshop textures

Cut out bits of textures and reblend them together edges, adjustments and cloning.

12 Texture sheets and tilables. 

Create a texture sheet for assets that appear a lot around your scene for example large sheets of sticker, logos etc. By working this way you only need to use one material for all your stickers and only need to adjust one material. Look for materials that you can download online and dissect why they look so good.

13 Final Lighting

Tweaking passes is a lot faster in Photoshop. Fay also renders the lights into separate passes.

14 Putting it all together in Photoshop



Modeling: Standard Measurements

Week 05

This time around, for the apartment blocking for the animatic I looked up some standard measurements for floor to ceiling height and door height.

Room height should be between 2.4m to 2.75m which I found here:

Height and size regulations for rooms:

Information on doors:

Habitable room and ceiling height:

When I was creating the measurements of the last apartment that I blocked I made the ceilings taller than this but I suppose measurements can change depending on the architectural style,  like high Georgian ceilings.

Level Design in a Day: The Level Design of Gone Home

Johnny shared this talk with us from GDC: Level Design in a Day: The Level Design of Gone Home

I admit that I haven’t put much thought before into designing for environments which are interactive and explorable. This is a new challenge for me and it was interesting to see how the layout of an environment needs to be considered in order to control the flow of user experience. I’m looking forward to seeing how our team of story, level, art, code and sound designers will be dealing with this extra layer of consideration.

Using the level and environment design of Gone Home as an example:

  • The space is designed so that it feels non-linear and real, even though a birds-eye view reveals that the layout could not exist in real life.
  • In a real house layout, the progression of the player is more difficult to control. Many doors would have to be locked. Gaynor shows his own example of a central hub where the player can branch out from. Also consider what is visible to the player from the central point alone.
  • Look for house plans with interesting and surprising layouts e.g. sprawling Victorian houses that fill the landscape that they inhabit.
  • What is the player experience/flow that we will have to build for?
  • Fill the grey box layouts with furniture, textiles and other paraphernalia that creates a lived-in feeling.
  • The taste and furniture needs to represent the taste and financial position of the owners, all the way from the creation of the house to modern day.
  • Make large spaces more intimate. Pull the spaces in. (Craig says this in relation to the bedroom example).
  • The bedrooms show the characters distilled.
  • What kind of doors fit with the architectural style?
  • Symbolism and allegory.
  • Research technology of the house’s era e.g old victorian heating system. Educate yourself and know specific search terminology. Take a field trip for research.
  • Library – go there for more unique references that everyone else won’t find through google.
  • Think of how the floor plans and angle of hallways can add interest to your rooms.
  • Do even more research than you think is needed. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
  • What can you get away with on the macro versus micro levels? Create a layout which makes sense functionally e.g. the foyer leads to the stairs which leads to a hallway which leads to a bedroom. If the kitchen leads to the bedroom the player will start to question the layout and reality of the house.
  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. A teenager’s bedroom is ordinarily very cluttered but you need to consider the rendering constraints when trying to replicate this impression. Abstract the feeling from the space and strip the scene down to what is needed to create this feeling. The more simple an image is the more you can project your own vision onto a space. Think of the simplified language or symbols needed to get the idea of a character space across.
  • Buy old magazines from ebay for research. Do I remember seeing these things growing up?
  • Do you want to use very obvious symbols or more subtle ones? For example, Victorians attached different meanings to flowers which Craig took into account when she was designing some of the motifs for the environments. Not all players are expected to pick up on such subtle symbology.

Mike Hill Industrial Design in Entertainment

Week 02

I though that this talk by Mike Hill has important teachings on how we should approach designing environments (and characters too) for 13 Songs. It may seem obvious that we should design with purpose but sometimes it’s easy to fall into the routine of designing just to fill a page of variations.

Mike talks about taking design/entertainment beyond simple gratification. He draws comparison to the experiment involving a rat which can press a button to stimulate its own nucleus accumbens (pleasure centre) and the media experience today e.g. mindlessly scrolling through a facebook feed for gratification. Go beyond this.

“it can produce insight in the audience through story empathy and drama.”

e.g. Compare the experience of the Transformers films to that of Blade Runner.

“We must encode our designs with information that enhances the narrative.”

Principle: You don’t put a hard corner in somewhere that will hold a lot of weight. Lesson: nature is the ultimate engineer.

Study the principles behind what happens e.g. Hill learned from Discovery Channel – not necessarily from engineer books. Emulate the work flow that you’re trying to create e.g. of engineers.

In Silence of the Lambs, the chair that Clarice sits on to interview Hannibal is designed to fit her state of mind. It is collapsible and similar to a school chair: it supports the scene’s dynamic where Hannibal is placed in a position of power above her. Lesson: think of how the prop design supports the emotional language of the scene.

In Contact (1997), in the scene where Jodie Foster’s character is approaching the (space?) ship/vessel and safety chair, the design language of the scene; from the tunnel she walks through to the chair, supports the unconscious thought that she is walking to her death. Sub-conscious associations can also be made between her armour design and a saint’s/martyr’s e.g. Joan of Arc. The scene could be viewed as her walking the plank above a writhing tentacled kraken. The chair she sits on is designed for every need of the shot e.g. function, subconscious associations of death and taking away power, being able to see a first person POV shot looking below etc. When it releases her it looks like an angry jaw letting go.

Design towards symbology and metaphorical references. Make it work but also lace it with meaning. The shape language is meant to represent something: an emotional journey.

First you make a good story AND THEN you make concept art to support it.

What we think is cool as concept designers can actually undermine the story and actors of the scene. Hill looks at Event Horizon as an example where this happens.

We are not designing for ourselves. We are designing to contribute to an emotional symphony. Tuning the instrument is the ‘making sense’ part and playing our piece is the ‘designing for emotion and story’ part.

FZD Visual Library

FZDSCHOOL (2012) Design Cinema – EP 52 – Visual Library


At the moment I’m struggling with designing an interior shot of a Beak’s house. I’m thinking that it’s probably at least partly because of what Zhu talks about in this video – the importance of developing your visual library. I’m guessing that being more observative and mindful of what I see/experience on a day to day basis would help a lot also. Google images can only take me so far.

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FZD Designing to Spec

Zhu(2015) Design Cinema – EP 84 – Designing to Spec

In this video Zhu talks about the importance of design versus just making a nice drawing – design should come first.

This concept art project will be a good challenge to design under the restrictions that we have set ourselves while still creating interesting design solutions. Feng also stresses the importance of being able to adapt real world references into your work.



FZD Environment Thumbnails

FZDSCHOOL (2014) Design Cinema – EP 78 – Environmental Thumbnails

This technique is similar to what Conann showed us last year with finding shapes in paint. In this video Zhu lays down lots of photos randomly to create a chaotic board of colour and values. He uses this as a base to find settings/environments. He then uses the lasso tool to block in shapes and paints them as structures into the environment that he sees. The idea is to create a new idea from chaos and mistakes so as to get you out of comfort zones – a pipeline is good for reliability but sometimes you need to experiment. Use contrast, shape and patterns. Making mistakes is fine in the design phase, free up your thoughts. Capture the idea first and then clean things up with fundamentals.

Don’t ever let your moral drop. Mistakes pave the way, every stroke you make on the page is allowing you to improve. Don’t compare yourself to others.