Abel Dopazo is an Environment Artist currently working on Forza Horizon 4 at Playground Games. After studying a college-level 3D course in Spain, he moved the United Kingdom to further his studies. We decided to speak to Abel about his career, and his recent personal project, Forgotten Temple:
Tell us a bit about why you wanted a career in games?
As a teenager I was always drawing my own ideas for characters and concepts for stories I had in my head, but it wasn’t until the summer after last High School year I found out I could make a career out of making art for games. At the time I wanted to be a concept artist and I pursued studies in that field, along with animation as it was of the curriculum. 3D was part of the course and I actually loved it even more.
In particular environments allow me to focus on creating the atmosphere I’d like to present to the potential viewers/players, so that was what I chose to go with.
I really like your environment art portfolio. Could you tell us more about how you have studied environment art and would you recommend anything to new beginners?
As I have mentioned, I have taken some courses but nothing serious or particularly notable, the really thing that matters is that newcomers have the right mindset to be constant, be active online asking and giving feedback, absorb as much knowledge as you can online, join groups of like-minded people that will help each other push to achieve your goals.
No course or degree is going to get you a job in this industry on its own. While timing, contacts and a stroke of luck can influence the outcome, the only thing that matters for studios is your current skill, your ability to work in a team, and your attitude.
Know what you want, figure out what you really need to get there, make a plan, talk to as many people as you can that are going through the same, and put all the time on it you can.
Your Forgotten Temple project is superb, why did you choose this idea and was there anything that inspired you?
It started out as a playground for me to try stuff I hadn’t had the chance to work on before, experiment new techniques, and have fun with it really. It is in fact a quite old scene I have recently picked up again to toy around with.
If you’ve seen Forza Horizon 4, you can probably tell it is quite different in its visuals; I wanted to try to work out something more fantasy-like this time. Inspiration was drawn from games that have a realistic base but are stylised for dramatic effect, such as Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider.
Can we talk about the pre-production of the project? I’d like to ask what research was undertaken? Did you need to learn anything extra? How did you plan such a complete final piece of work?
Pre-production is, in my opinion, the part of the process that is often neglected, in particular artists that are just starting out, thinking they’ll figure stuff as they go. While there are certain things that will evolve during production, it is important to sit down and plan everything carefully, being realistic about what level you can achieve, set deadlines you can meet if you need that, an art bible you’ll use for reference of different elements. Study your references, take notes, plan ahead.
If you do this properly, the rest will be focused on execution, so you’ll go straight to the point, and you’d have maximised your efficiency.
Personally I like to spend some time getting familiar with the subject I am about to tackle, without necessarily thinking about it in 3D. In this case, this meant reading Wikipedia articles on Ta Prohm, Cambodia in general, its flora, possible elements I could use for storytelling purposes, etc. The most important in my opinion is to analyse the reference and extract what makes it recognisable, so when you replicate it in 3D, people subconsciously see its essence and feel natural towards it.
Here you can see some of the references I used for the temple:
I decided to have some fun and add a fantasy twist to it, so I took this is inspiration, credit to Veikka Somerma.
Using the Cutout filter in Photoshop in several images to get simplified values, then overlap and average them, gets you a good overall colour palette to start with.
What about the base mesh? How did you create a base mesh for such a complex model? Where did you begin and what were the key stages of the development process? Did you face any challenges?
The models are divided into two different types.
Modules, the stone pieces that were low poly modelled, separated from each other, in a way that I won’t have a ton of pieces to make, but I can use as construction pieces to create different shapes. Most of these can be rotated 180 degrees to face the other way, so that way if they are textured appropriately, you technically have two variations of the object. This helps break the repetition that happens when you duplicate an object across a bunch of times, it becomes very noticeable.
Unique pieces, also known as hero assets, are one-off models that have more presence in the level. In this case the best example is the big set of roots in the corner. These were blocked out using splines until the main volume was appropriate, then sculpted in ZBrush, and baked down to a decimated down version (after some good old topology cleanup.)
If you notice, there is not a lot of detail on a small level, only main shapes and some accents here and there. This is because I planned ahead to use tileable materials from Substance Designer as detail textures, scaled across the mesh, and other roots too. This keep things visually consistent across similar assets.
What I baked down to texture maps from the high poly was Normals and AO, and for the final touch, I brought these models into Substance Painter, and used a Smart Material I created that would allow to tint the whole model with subtle changes of colour, brownish gradients from the bottom from the dirt, etc. This, overlaid on top of the tileable textures, helped break repetition up.
The models themselves aren’t really complex, the real challenge here was to make modules work with each other and hit the right spot polycount wise, to make it read well at a certain distance but not let it be too high poly.
I really like how detailed the modelling is, were there any key stages to achieving this? Did you model and sculpt the each modular piece? Did you face any issues during this process and how did you overcome them?
I took pictures apart trying to decide what could I make as a separate piece, so that it wouldn’t be too big (and require a high resolution normal map) and could be used as many times as possible. I used very blocky, low polygon models to see from several angles if the silhouette was interesting , if it represented the reference accurately, and if it matched what I had. If all of that was correct, I would take it into ZBrush, and sculpt on it.
Now here is the thing. Due to all pieces of stone being the same exact material, you would expect it to have aged and worn out the same way, so I could use the same brushes and techniques across all assets. That way the result is consistent and believable. Here are some examples:
As you can see, most of it is pretty subtle and I am mainly attacking the edges with a Trim brush, since that is what breaks the silhouette making it interesting. Most of the surface detail you see is not actually going to be that visible at all since after losing some crispness in the bake, and adding the detail normal for the stone will make it almost go away. Almost but not quite. It still brings subtle variation.
I think there is an interesting opportunity here to automate this process. the chips and cracks are pretty standard and I would like to experiment with Houdini to do this process for me (or at least get me most of the way there), making edges attract the chipped effect, etc. There is something to be done there for sure.
Your foliage is very detailed. How did you achieve this?
For the vegetation that is going to be closer to the main area, I modelled some simple leaf shapes and sculpted them in ZBrush, then baked down to planes, and textured in Designer. Then arranged into more complex plants. I used textures.com to get reference for the leaf shapes when modelling them, and that’s where I got the main textures for the background, less visible trees. (These were planes that contain the texture, cut out with some parts extruded like trunk and branches to give it some volume. The ferns you see in the image below were also alpha cutouts from pictures).
I have to say, the texturing is very well done. What decisions did you have to make the ensure this level of detail was achieved?
I created several smart materials in Substance Designer and Painter that, once ready, I could chug onto modular pieces, paint a bit of moss out here and lichen in there and be ready very, very fast. One step back and 2 steps forward, as they say. One of these is the stone material, that contains tileables from Designer, several layers of dust, mud and coloration, 3 layers of lichen and 1 of moss (which contains two different tileable materials from Designer, some accents and parameters)
Here it is, after dragging and dropping onto the modules that are placed at the sides of the stairs:
I might clean this up and release it for people to use or modify for their needs, so stay tuned if you’re interested!
I also created a simple tool in Designer that would allow me to create decals for lichen and moss, using the same tileables as on the modules, so I could place them in between pieces and make them feel more unique.
Apart from that there is nothing too fancy going on, mostly base materials made in Designer. The ground is 2 materials vertex blended, and a third on top that shows only roots.
Also, the roots can be vertex painted with the tileable moss, for added detail on certain spots.
Tileable material I used on the roots:
Animation: You’ve clearly gone above and beyond with this project so tell us more about your decision to animate and what key processes and considerations were made to do this? What software did you use? What challenges were faced and how did you overcome them? What research was made? Did you need to learn anything in particular?
I decided to animate it because it would be a bit of a waste to only take pictures since it’s a 3D level, and also because due to the tight space and the verticality of some elements, it was hard to get everything into a shot, hence the camera floating around with a wide FOV showing things from different perspectives.
I also wanted to see if some sound would help it feel more lively, and easy to feel immersed in.
From a technical standpoint, it was just a chance to fiddle with Unreal Sequencer, since I had never used it before.
Here are some work in progress shots:
First Paintover I did to study the direction I wanted to go with the scene:
Second paintover, more refined and re-directed the main idea lighting and storytelling wise:
What would be your advice to anyone looking to pursue a similar area of work as yourself?
There is a set of things I believe to be the most useful for people thinking of joining this career path, and these are:
Even though the Industry is rapidly growing, it can be really, really hard to break in. Competition is really tough because there are a lot of people wanting in. Be ready to put A LOT of time and effort into this.
The fact that you like games a lot doesn’t mean you’ll like working in games either, that’s a huge one I see in beginners. In fact, ask a bunch of people that work at AAA studios: A lot of them don’t play that much anymore. We spend that time making art. (We still love games of course)
Don’t compare yourself to others. Do your best and let your efforts elevate your skill level. Everyone is different.
Strive to have a positive attitude and be humble. No one is a better person for making sick art, no newcomer putting all their will into not-yet-there level of art should be belittled. We are all game art enthusiasts, let’s spread the love!
Online, in particular a lot of gaming communities can be pretty toxic. Don’t let this influence you, don’t be a part of that. Realise that these are comments written by people under Internet veil of anonymity, who haven’t yet matured enough to have productive conversations, or can’t get joy in other avenues in life. Stray away from that and you’ll be a happier person and a more confident artist.
Learn about yourself. As I mentioned, everybody is different, and in this industry, production is known be get quite intense at times. It is very useful to self reflect and understand what are your limits, your work tolerance, your speed, etc. You need to find the perfect balance between work and life or else you will become unhealthy, burnt out and this is not fun. Speak about this with your fellow artists, take care of each other, mental health is as important as physical health.
Do you have any future aspirations as a developer, perhaps expand more on this project?
I’ve been taking a break for health reasons, and so I can work on personal art a bit more, and I am on the look out for the next step of what studio I want to join and help bring awesome games to life!
I will continue to rack on experience as Environment Artist for sure. As I do this, I have several projects on my to-do list, that will come to be at the right time. Pretty cool ideas if you ask me but I would rather wait until I can show something to talk about it.
If you’d like to see more of Abel’s work or stay up to date with him, you can do so using the following links:
Finally, Abel is a member of Dinusty’s Empire Discord Server: https://dinustyempire.com/