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For our second blog post in this series, the team reveals some sources of inspiration behind The Blacksmith, share key concept work, and offer fascinating insights into the art production process.

The Blacksmith character

As described in our previous blog post, at the Unity Demo Team we align our content production to certain development goals.

With our technical goals in mind, we approached the character creation of the Blacksmith with a list of objective requirements, which we believed this character should adhere to.

For example, in this project we did not intend to work on skin shading, but instead wanted to focus on using the built-in PBS in Unity which was under development. Therefore we did not want the character to have realistic human skin. We also preferred to avoid dealing with hair, because writing a hair shader wasn’t a goal for this project.

We also had to consider what kind of environment we would need to create for our character.  We already had the environment from our earlier Viking Village demo, so, for the sake of saving production time, we wanted to re-use some resources. We therefore decided to keep the character within the same theme. This brought us to the idea to explore Nordic mythology for interesting characters and stories.

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Concept art: Early sketches

By now you may have figured out which literary source gave the initial spark for the idea of a blacksmith: the poem Völundarkviða in the collection of Old Norse poetry called The Poetic Edda. There are also interesting treatments of a blacksmith in the Finnish epic poetry of Kalevala, which includes some overlapping themes. Thinking more about the importance and mystical power of the blacksmith in Indo-European myth and folklore, we really liked how different elements mix to create a controversial figure with both appeal and a distinct dark side. We thought this was truly interesting, much like many of the existing villains in film and literature who inspire us.

concept_smith_02

Concept art: Explorations

We worked very closely with the concept artist, Georgi Simeonov, on the visual development of the character. He supplied many interesting ideas and explored different ways to suggest hair as part of the silhouette of a human figure, by using details like leather straps and a hood.

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Concept art: Explorations

Developing the character, we explored and re-interpreted the rich treasure trove of themes that the mythological material presented. It informed many decisions about character design, art direction, and story. An additional source of inspiration were other deep and intriguing literary characters, such as Morpheus from The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and Judge Holden from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

Here is the final approved concept sheet for The Blacksmith’s lead character:

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Concept art: Final concept sheet

We contracted Jonas Thornquist for the modelling and texturing of the Blacksmith character. He did an amazing job of interpreting the character in 3D and supplied us with this reference render from VRay:

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The Blacksmith – Reference render from VRay of the high poly model

The Challenger

We saw the potential of making a nice short film, and therefore decided to scope up the project a little. So we dropped some of the initial technical limitations which affected the main character, and decided to add a second one.

The antagonist in our story is a seasoned, veteran warrior. His design combines some Viking  themes with decidedly anachronistic elements. We worked with Sergey Samuilov on the concept and character art.

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The Challenger – Reference render from Marmoset Toolbag 2

Environments

We had the Viking Village environment still in production and, of course, wanted to use assets from it, but it was clear from the onset that they will be re-arranged in a different way. In The Blacksmith, we were going for a more dramatic feeling. The environment had to sustain the story of our movie and tie well with our characters’ personalities and backstories.

We made some illustrations that helped us to communicate the idea, both inside the team and to other teams within the company.mood_thumbsMood boards

We did very little work on concepting the environment. We got some quick thumbs and sketches to explore some ideas, and then quickly moved into Unity where we iterated until we reached a version that was OK.

environment_thumbs

When it came to the creation of the natural assets in the environment, we worked with Terragen master Martin Huisman to generate procedurally the highly detailed relief on the rocks surfaces.

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All the rocks in this image are instances of one asset, rotated and scaled.

Production process

The initial creative process was completed with a storyboard. For us, it was both a way to develop ideas and to communicate them to the production team. One of the benefits of working in Unity is that we did not need to lock the storyboard early in the process, because a realtime engine allows changes of cameras and editing until very late in the project. With very little effort, we were able to try out multiple modifications and adaptations of our initial ideas, make editing re-arrangements and even slight storyline adjustments almost until the final delivery date.

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Storyboard: early version

The stages of production following on from the storyboarding looked roughly like this:

First, we did a shot prototype of some crucial moments. We had an animated (2D) storyboard to help us get a first feeling of length and rhythm, as well as identify what additional tools and shaders we’d need to develop so work on them could start.

From there, we moved into Unity, prototyping the environment with placeholder assets, including early versions of the character models. We used this both for look development and for a 3D previs, which guided the actors during the motion capture session.

After the shooting the animation was post processed, implemented into Unity, and aligned on a timeline, along with some iteration on the cameras. In parallel, the artist started replacing the placeholder assets in the engine with the ones which were being created in the meantime. He did this while simultaneously working on the lighting setup and the post effects.

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Anatomy of 1 shot: storyboard; 2D animatic; motion capture with realtime preview; 3D previs; final in Unity (Scene view); final in Unity (Game view)

This was a period of intensive stress, put both on Unity’s graphics systems and our own additional shaders. While Unity 5.0 advanced through its beta cycle, we fed back to Unity’s development teams about the integration issues, bugs, inconsistencies, and stability issues we hit, and requested some workflow- and performance-related improvements.

The final stage was dedicated to iterations and gradually polishing the animation and art, as well as fixing the remaining bugs on the custom tools and shaders, to get the project into its shipping state.

In the next blog post in this series, we’ll move on to looking at creating The Blacksmith from a more technical perspective, starting with scene set-up, shading and lighting. So be sure to check back at our short film’s special page soon.

11 Comments

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  1. Unity really needs standard skin shader with SSS and a standard hair shader with anisotropic reflections.

  2. What is the point of create that great concept art for the blacksmith character if the 3d modeler just use a simple human body?, the “modeler” need to learn something from Zelda concept art, the final character is the same of the concept art, no difference, is not an interpretation, if you do a concept art is to do the 3d model exactly like the concept. The face and the colors from the concept art are more interesting than the final character.

    1. Veselin Efremov

      June 23, 2015 at 11:39 am

      The concept art is not step ‘One’. This is very important to understand.
      If I were to show you the original description of the character that the concept artist was directed by, you may say “But why did this artist change some things, it’s not exactly as the words and reference images say!”
      Working with talented people is not using them as tools. Everyone can bring something to the table. Sometimes you may want artists to blindly follow exact orders, but I’d rather use their creativity and talent, too.
      The face, for example, since you mention that. I basically told the concept artist not to bother much with drawing it, as I wanted that to come from the person who would actually build it. The direction for the concept was very vague – “make him a bit younger”, “no beard”, “less deformed”, etc.
      The creative/art direction job was to communicate the idea and make sure everyone understands the character, not tell them how the wrinkles around the eyes should be exactly.
      Of course, this is different from project to project. To go to the extreme, if you’re making Tetris, you’d want the models to match perfectly the concept.
      There are also some technological considerations. Polygon and bone budgets, simulation issues, readability against background and in specific shots, matching with the other character and so on.
      And, of course, in the end there’s personal taste and preference.

  3. Shungokusatsu

    June 15, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    Very nice post!
    Make the game please!

  4. GREAT POST!!
    As a filmmaker studying Unity, I really enjoyed both the short film and this post!

    Thanks!!

  5. This was highly insightful. I’m very curious about the motion capture setup.

  6. Is it OK that 3D model differ from FINAL concept a lot ? :)

    1. I think so :)
      If it looks good, who cares that the concept art was different as long as it evokes a similar feeling? And I think the character model does that in spades.

    2. in most cases the concept art is MUCH BETTER than final
      model!
      if the illustrator was also the 3D artist and wanted to model just that way/stylized like that,this would not happen!
      take a look at back to the future the game concept art,the 3D models are an insult to the illustrator work.

    3. I totally agree with the comments regarding the model vs. the concept art. Concept art always look cooler and personally I cant stand studios that allow the modeling to not match the concept exactly. This is just laziness and I have seen it first hand my entire career. I’m a stickler for nailing the concept on the head, unless the AD requested otherwise.

  7. Harshal Kolambe

    June 15, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    Awesome is the only word… well thanks this link.. will like to learn more about this…
    ARe we getting any playble?