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3D Natural Environment Artists – Digital World Builders

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What is a 3D Environment Artist?

natural landscape environment
source: pxhere

An environment artist is not a type of environmental activist who expresses his art using elements of the natural world.   In the field of 3D computer graphics, film animation and video games, an environment artist is someone who assembles digital worlds.  It is not, however, entirely in opposition, as many 3D artists are also more environmentally conscious.  But the main difference is that the purpose of their art form is not necessarily engaged actively for the environment.

His or her role is to create convincing environments, for a game level or a film sequence.  He usually assembles 3D scenes using a collection of smaller 3D models made by other departments, such as modeling, texturing and rigging.


Still Life

As with any traditional medium, from painting to photography, the 3D environment artist's subject is what we call 'still life'.  Hence, 3D environment artists are also mostly concerned with the composition of landscapes, natural or urban, but not so much with it's inhabitants.   They create a world with a specific aesthetic that will allow the vision of the director to be fully realized in all of the planned angles of viewing.

In essence, the environment artist allows the camera to be placed in such a way that the visual compositions match what was established in the storyboard.  If we were to make a comparison with a real live action film set, the 3D environment artist would have a similar role as the location scouter and the set decorator.  He also shares a similar interaction with the artistic director and director of photography.

Read more about still life here.


The motion of Time

Don't be fooled, however, still life doesn't mean it's boring work at all.  Although it is still in terms of being a static snapshot in time, there is nothing still in 'still life' aesthetics.   When you observe a natural environment for a little while, you can sense that there is a strong sense of evolution in the landscape.  There is movement, a certain speed in the placement of objects, their transition and their change through time.

Still life captures a place at a precise moment in time, with objects captured halfway between their genesis and their destruction,  Most objects in a landscape on their way to other destinations or other forms.  You can think of water, rocks, plants and even mountains, as temporary on the time scale of the universe.  We may be too quick to perceive it, but everything transform dramatically with time.  But things change at a time-scale greater than our attention span or our life-span can allow us to understand.

Thankfully, we can observe such phenomena thanks to time lapse photography and understand how nature forms it's amazing beauty.  You can look at the great videos from The Temponaut Timelapse to get a feel of this 'invisible' motion through time.


Spring bloom timelapse

Hyperlapse of 6 months in a forest

The passing of seasons in timelapse

Dandelion, from flower to seeds

Exterior Natural Landscapes

organized chaos leaves ground
source: pxhere

Creating a natural environment is all about organizing coherent randomness.  Simply using a randomize function to scatter rocks, branches, trees and grass on a flat plane will definitely not do!  It will never result in good, realistic or convincing scenes, in any situation or context, because it isn't how nature makes it.  For example, any square meter of the floor of a forest would yield a unique pattern, as unique as fingerprints in humans.  Also, in the real world, you wouldn't find any duplicate model repeated anywhere.  That's because everything has a slight unique variation that has been forged in a different way.

Unfortunately for 3D artists, this is also part of what makes it look 'natural' to us: the uniqueness of random.  Therefore, to be able to create a realistic outside natural environment, you need to consider how things are being transformed with time, in a natural environment.  With experience, you will understand how to simulate convincing chaos.


The Fleeting Nature of Things

Unlike what we often convince ourselves of, nothing is fixed in our world.  Everything temporary, in motion and in the process of transitioning into something else.  Even you.  It is essential to understand how all of the forces of nature are interconnected to create the shape of the landscape we know.  They cannot be overlooked in the process of recreating a natural, realistic or convincing result, for fear of falling into the uncanny valley.

3D environment artists understand how the shape of the landscape creates the distribution of water and also the variety of plant and tree species that grow from it.  Plants grow and change in type, like a gradient that starts at the water's edge and spreads outwards.  This means that the smaller plants will usually be closer to the water and the trees farther.  But it also means a distribution of plant types within these broad zones, in terms of affinity with water.  Understanding the interconnected nature of how landscapes are formed as they are now, and morph over time, helps to be able to realistically or stylistically reproduce it convincingly.


landscape evolution
source: pxhere

Landscapes Evolve in Time

  • Plants and trees grow from seeds, multiply, move with the sun, change color with seasons, make flowers, fruits and then dry up
  • Rivers flow, change trajectories according to inclination, forges canyons in the ground, etc
  • Lakes grow, dry up, change shapes, changes color, freeze, melts and creates ice blocks.
  • The sea waves have an ever-changing fractal pattern and it interacts uniquely with the solid rocks of coastline to create splashes and foam
  • Mountains are malleable cracks in the tectonic plates, forged by water and snow flowing down from them, from the erosion of air and the work of humans.
  • Rocks are created from liquid lava, made of different colors, roll down the hills, get molded and polished by water, broken down into sand and then accumulated as beaches.
  • Clouds move, change shape, density, color, condenses into rain, freezes into snow and ice, fills up rivers and evaporates again into clouds, tornadoes and hurricanes.


Defining Realistic VS Convincing

In this article, we use the term 'convincing' because a picture does not have to be 'photo-realistic' to be convincing or interesting.  See our article on the uncanny valley to learn more about this.

Examples of 3D environments

3D Environment Specializations

The environment artist is a specialization of 3D modeling that can be be associated by different departments, depending on the project.  In fact, it also depends on the industry, the company, the pipeline workflow, the type of project and the size of the team.  The requirements differ greatly from project to project.

On a film production, each sequence and each shot can be uniquely constructed, specifically for the need of the story.  In a game project, an environment is usually made for each level or so.  In architecture, the environment has to be immersive and realistic, but it could almost be a photo or a film.  It also and does not require as much detail because there will not be any kind of close-up interactions.  In fact, in the film and industry, environments that do not require any interactions can actually be simulated in 2D or drawn.  It is then called a matte painting.


3D Environment Modelers

single main tree
source: pxhere

Sometimes, the environment artist takes part in the creation of the collection of 3D objects that will then be used to assemble the digital world.  For the film industry, these 3D models are often made specifically for a set, a scene or an environment.  For example, mountains, trees, branches, plants, flowers, rocks, debris, and urban elements will all need to be modeled prior the assembly of the set.  Sometimes, there is a main object in a scene, one that is prominently placed in an environment.  In that case, the 3D environment artist will often be asked to model that element for a cohesive integration as the centerpiece in the composition.


Environment Layout Artists

house layout
source: pxhere

In most situations, however, the 3D models used by the environment artist to assemble a digital 3D world are already made by other generalist  or specialized 3D modelers.   The environment modeler then uses those models to create a convincing assemblage creating a scenery.  It can also be called a the 'set-dressing' step of an environment.  The art of creating a good-looking, realistic or cartoon-style environment is all about creating a convincing chaos, the randomness ordinarily created during the course of time, and the use of space.


3D Game Level / Environment Artist

In the game industry, the environment artist creates environments for each levels of a game, so it is called a level artist.   But most 3d models used in games are created and optimized in different departments than the level artist.  So it is usually the job of the low-poly modeler to create an optimized geometry for every game asset in the game.  In fact, the total number of different objects and the number of polygons used is important to minimize the size of the game to distribute. This means that there is not often the option to create new custom objects for en environment, unless they can be reused elsewhere.  Because of that, the level artist mostly uses a bank of already made content.  In that sense, the level artist of the game acts more like the layout artist for the film industry, than a 3D modeler.

Occasionally, the level artist may model and texture a few 3D objects by himself, specifically for the needs of an environment.  This is often the case in smaller projects and in versatile teams, but rarely in larger studios.  The element that a game level artist would be all of the unique structures and terrains for a particular set.  If an object is not modeled by the level artist, he will then ask the 3D modeling department for a new model, than will then be textured, rigged and optimized for the game engine.


tree forest landscape moody
source: pxhere



Aptitudes of an Environment Artist

  • Understanding the natural order of chaos in nature and cities
  • Ability to recreate 'disorganization' or 'chaos', like the real world or stylized
  • Being able to know where to place objects organically in a natural environment
  • A good attention to detail
  • A good eye for thoughtful placement of object
  • Strong sense of proportions (size of mountains to boulders, size of trees to plants, etc)
  • Understanding the forces that shape natural landscapes
  • Knowledge of how to scatter vegetation realistically and how to transitions between different species
  • Good perception of how light acts on landscapes, trees and plants.

3D environment Art for video Games

Check out this introduction to Environment Art in Videogames, from Naughty Dog


Working in Games as an Environment Artist at EA and Criterion Games

Have a look at this conference on 3D environment Art for video Games, organized by the Gnomon School of Visual Effects

Andres Rodriguez discusses what it takes to get into the industry as an environment artists these days and also takes a look some of the work he did for Uncharted 4


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