For this image, my idea was to do an homage to a painter I admire called Claude Lorrain, and to do it in a classic sci-fi way, taking inspiration from artists like Syd Mead.
To me it all starts with a story and gathering references. I first spend a decent amount of time just searching for images and identifying what are the key elements I want in my illustration. I’m also thinking about the story. Claude Lorrain has a very recognizable style, with those big classical architectural elements in the foreground, so that’s one key element that I wanted for example. I’m looking to do some kind of resort hotel that would mix classical architecture with modern elements, and even possibly an alien creature that would be a servant or host to the human visitors. I also wanted a vehicle that would clearly contrast with the ancient architecture elements.
If I had one advice at this stage, it would be to avoid looking at too much obvious inspirations. Instead, try to go one step further. If you a have modern artist that you admire, try to see for example what inspired him or her in the first place too.
Next step is going to do a scene blockout with primitive shapes. As I said, the composition is a key element I want from Claude’s paintings so at this stage, I already have a pretty clear idea of what I’m going for and I can immediately jump into Maya.
I’ve set up a simple dome light with an HDRI for the lighting. I’ll change the sky at the very end for something more interesting but this works just fine for now. I also really want to have that water, all the reflections will make the image a lot more interesting. When you look at films, the floors, streets etc are often wet or glossy and make the shot more interesting to look at and don’t bore the audience. The water is made of a simple plane with a water material and normal map.
Now that I have my blockout, I can start detailing and texturing. I like to texture my assets as I model them. For the architecture, I’m going to model everything in Maya aswell, then take a few assets to Zbrush to add some extra details, especially for the elements that are close to the camera. Even in Zbrush, I keep it simple, I just break some of the edges, add cracks here and there etc.
I’ve created a few different materials that I’m going to apply on the various assets. I like to use tileable textures as much as possible. Doing UV’s can be a long and boring process and I don’t like to spend time doing that, I’d rather overpaint and correct what needs to be corrected in Photoshop when it’s possible. I’ll use Photoshop and Quixel to create my textures.
For trees and vegetation, I’m going to use Speedtree assets and Maya Paint Effects. There are a lot of already made assets available on the Speedtree store that will work just fine here. The only thing I need to do is export them from Speedtree to Maya, then convert the materials for my render engine, which is Redshift. If you’re using V-Ray for example, Speedtree has a preset that will already setup your V-Ray materials and save you some time.
I’m using Maya Paint Effects for the vines. It’s kind of an old tool inside Maya but I still find it very useful and easy to use, as you can really paint the vegetation on the geo and decide easily where you want it. The little downside of it is that your geo needs to have UVs. That being said, they don’t need to be perfect. We’re not making a production asset, but a model that will work just for the final image.
Just a quick tip : you might want to use proxies for the trees in order to keep the scene as light as possible.
Concerning the vehicle, I took inspiration from Syd Mead and other sci fi painters like John Berkey, Chris Foss or Peter Elson. I kept the overall shape extremely simple, it’s basically just an egg. The chrome material helps it have that “old fashioned” look in my opinion. I kept the modelling very simple. I started with a simple shape in Maya then took it to Zbrush for some very quick cutting and detailing. A few hard surface alphas and the default Zbrush brushes will work well enough.
I’ve also continued adding other elements like carpets and flags using Marvelous Designer. In order to do that, I take my 3D model on which I want the carpet from Maya to Marvelous Designer, then create a simulation and tweak it until I’m happy. I then export the carpet to Maya. The great thing is that Marvelous Designer will generate UVs and it will therefore be easy to create a texture in Photoshop.
I always do characters at the end of the process. I just feel like it makes more sense since it’s more an environment piece, but that’s just my way of doing this, I don’t think there is any specific rule here.
When the characters are humans or humanoids, I like to use Daz models or other stock assets as a base and work on them with Zbrush and Photoshop. In this case I used stock assets and created the alien-like creature with Daz, Zbrush and did the clothing in Marvelous Designer. So I’d first pose my character in Daz, then sculpt on top of it in Zbrush, then create the clothing in MD. If needed, I could come back to Zbrush to sculpt on top of the clothes too.
Once again, I like to keep everything simple even if I use several different softwares. There is no super advanced modelling or sculpting techniques used here, I want the model to work for the shot.
After doing a few more tweaks and lighting, I’m ready to render. I only use a beauty pass. If this was a production matte painting for example, I’d render various passes and rebuild the image inside Nuke or Photoshop in order to have maximum control, but in this case, I feel like it wasn’t needed. I’ve rendered the scene without the background so I can put another sky in Photoshop.
A quick tip : try to render your image at twice the final resolution. I usually work in 4k or more for something like a final full HD image, or another aspect ratio depending on the project. That way everything will compress nicely when scaled down, especially if you overpaint in Photoshop.
And finally I can do a little bit of post work in Photoshop, like replacing the sky, do some little overpaintings and color corrections. I usually use tools like a gradient map in overlay or soft light mode in order to slightly color grade the image. I’ll also add a film grain and slight chromatic aberration. They key is not to overdo it.
Additional tips : you don’t want your image to have everything in focus. A real camera will create some depth of field, so try to set that up in your 3d scene. You can render the DOF or you can recreate it in Photoshop for example using the Z-Depth pass along with the lens blur.
That’s it !