Update - 15 May 2021
With everything coming to a close I've realized a few areas where I'm lacking. The first is that I too quickly try to do everything myself. The idea I was going with wasn't bad but I should have brought it in a bit when it came to expectations. This is the first real environment project I've done and while I have been slowly learning unreal I'm still far from mastering it. I
I certainly need to become better about tracking, my progress and even more importantly updating my plans and expectations based on that. I learned that lesson while I was trying to make a waterfall and water that looked similar, in the end, it was more time-efficient to get an asset from unreal instead of making it myself, the same was true of using mega-scans assets. It would have been smarter to tone down the scope of the project instead of keep pushing and pushing and then finish with an unsatisfactory project.
That said I still enjoyed the work even though I'm not happy with how it turned out. I'd rather learn these lessons in competition as opposed to on a job. I had some trouble with rendering in Unreal especially the sequencer but I'll upload it still (it's pretty funny, I tried every solution I could find it seems to be caused by some error with lighting though the issue was still there after turning everything off.)
In closing, I had a lot of fun and look forward to using this disappointing performance like a smart kid in Gym class to become the most improved next time I enter.
Update - 15 May 2021
Designing the golems
My first pass at the golems was too 2 dimensional, so on advice, I went back and did another pass at each element to make it more crablike. The advice I got was to think of them as crab-shaped first and then make them rocks as opposed to what I was doing which was making rocks crab-shaped (a subtle difference but an important one.)
Golems second pass
This version made up the final highs which I would then bake. Since none of the elements were going to move I decided to do most of the retopo in Zbrush using their automatic features and then fine-tune the UVs in Maya. For that purpose, I made a simple side menu just for retopoing (since it would add a lot of time and effort to keep moving around the menus in Zbrush.)
With that done I had hoped to hop right into Maya but ended up having to make a stop at blender because of a weird issue where my FBX files were losing parts (so I downloaded and learned how to rename the models and change their materials in Blender before taking just the lows into Maya where I'm comfortable with UVing.)
I explored both leaf styles and tree shapes for the project. I made some loose drawings of shapes, then made some quick tests in speed tree, and finally made some assets in Zbrush to make a modular tree kit of sorts (the last stew was to retopo them like the golems and to finish them off in mixer.)
These assets are in the final scenes though I feel like I should have worked more on their color, I also think some of the charm of the sculpts was lost when I added the texture.
I combined the tree elements into five different trees and made each one a static mesh, then used the procedural foliage tool to populate the area. It's a really cool feature and one I need to work on improving. There were growing pains and I still feel like I'm lacking in my ability to use the tool well.
I wasn't able to implement them but I was also working on flat foliage. I made the highs in Zbrush and then the lows in Maya. I used a pretty simple workflow where I baked a very close normal map and then used photoshop to make that an opacity map (unfortunately I ran out of time and wasn't able to implement it.)
One element of that was trying to make my own custom grass, I tried making both large bundles of grass and small clumps, however it never quite felt right and there was a time crunch so I ended up using brushify for the landscape instead.
Blocking out and making the map
For the map, I made a simple crab using a shell alpha from the first update, then sculpted a simple crab in Zbrush. I used that as a guide and added megascan rocks/landscape where appropriate.
Update - 21 Apr 2021
My education is in 3D modeling (I finished up a Diploma online and have been doing a private mentorship since in order to enter the industry.) So for this project I had to learn about concepting and creating passable concept art which has been a fun challenge.
I've been working through this concept for a little under a month. The concept revolves around carcinization which is the convergent evolution of crustaceans into crab like shapes. It made headlines late last year, often being touted as "Everything is evolving to crabs" (a funny exaggeration.) The seed of the idea being 'everything is crab or crustacean shaped/ influenced.'
A secondary goal with this project was to be as efficient as possible since I knew I would want to make my own custom flora.
Creating the story/history
After several changes the important story beats are essentially:
Just like Gia is the goddess of earth so too is there Cancer the goddess of crabs. She is made up of the same materials that make up the earth, but she is shaped as a crab.
For eons she stood, none know what is below her for all you can see looking down are her mighty legs and clouds. Until one day, from the heavens descended a crystal. In reaction to the unknown object hurtling towards her, Cancer used her mighty pincer to stop it. The force of her pincer cracked the crystal and from that crack sprang life giving water.
On her back where the water fell slowly life grew. That life like her was crustacean in shape, eventually sentient crab like beings lived upon her. The life on her back was not the only life the crystal brought, golems formed from the crystal and rock on her pincer. These beings did not age and in time came to war with the life on her back.
After a long war both sides were wiped out, life still exists on Cancer though none of it sentient. That is where our explorers from the prompt show up.
Concepting Cancer part 1
With efficiency in mind I used top down images of crabs to create alphas. All done in photoshop I cut out everything but the shells, removed the colors, and balanced the levels for each shell.
I used these alphas to make 3D geo in Zbrush, and then added some curvature to the shells with the move brush and the gizmo tool. The goal being to decide which shell silhouette makes sense as for the block out of Cancer's body (the rest can be used later for flora.) I rendered the shells in Keyshot.
I'm still deciding which shells to make silhouettes with and which to nix, but I did do a few tests just as a proof of concept.
Concepting the golems part 1
The golems are some of the most important parts of this project because their 'corpses' will make up a lot of the environment (they're essentially the smaller rocks on Cancer's body.) I started off doing a three quarter design however was advised that using symmetry would probably lead to better results. After that as well as watching some videos on how to concept these are the current designs I have as possibilities.
Just like with the shells I made the concepts as layers on photoshop. I was then able to invert them and use them as alphas in Zbrush. I turned them into 3D geo, then placed each concept in it's own folder, I used auto groups and manual groups in order to separate each model into different polygroups. Then I separated each polygoup into separate subtools (all within the concept's own folder.) I've been refining my favorite concepts into rock shapes. The biggest benefit of having it all in one file is being able to easily maintain the same level of detail across all the models.
Concepting flora, mostly still in the planning stage
For the flora I have some plans, the current ideas are as such:
Grass: mostly in the shape of crustacean limbs, mostly legs but also some long claws or half pincers
Leaves (for trees/vines/bushes): lobster tail/ horseshoe crabs/ other crabs not used in Cancer's final design (especially longer bodied ones)
Flowers: Crab shapes, shrimp/lobster bodies like the Justicia brandegeeana (which grew outside of my childhood home, which served as partial inspiration for the project.)
Trees: Long exposed roots leading to a short spiral trunk, similar to the shape of a hermit crab's shell on crab stilts.
I did some simple shape exploration in VR using gravity sketch which I've been working on becoming more proficient in.