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City Design: 3D Urban Environment Modeling

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3D Urban Environments

cityscape night
source: pxhere

Designing a city environment is a part of the work of the 3D environment artists, on a computer-generated or visual effects film project.  Creating 3D urban environments is not a completely distinct sub-category of artists, however.  It serves to describe an artist's interest, experience or even a 3D project's specifications, in opposition to natural environment modeling.

In reality, most environments, computer generated of filmed, are a mix of both natural and city elements.  It should rather be seen as a gradient between the  predominance of natural or man-made elements.   For example, what do we make of a park suspended on a space station; or an abandonned city reclaimed by nature?  Hence, many environment artists have the skillsets to do both types of environments.

However, it is worth distinguishing urban and natural environments separately to illustrate the dissimilitudes between them.  Indeed, there are a couple of very specific differences in the workflow and aesthetics of urban landscape.  This will also help to better explain the process of constructing a convincing 3D cityscape environment.


Entertainment City or Real-Life

3D environment artists working on an predominantly urban landscape or a cityscape have very different challences than those working on purely natural landscapes.  They are the equivalent of visual urban planners for the next digital age.  The main difference is that in the film & entertainment industry, 3D artists do not have to worry about usability as much as looks.  In this case, real-life common-sense takes a second place, in favor of the imaginary and the 'wow factor'.  There is no limit for the imagination of creative people.

When it comes to the game and architectural previsualization industries, usability is a little more important.  But it's still not as much of a concern as when it comes to real life designs and construction.  For example, the actual engineering, architectural design and urban planning of a real-life city, all have a lot more to take into consideration than just look of things.

This is why there are absolutely inconveniently absurd places in films.  For example, you can look no further than the epic lightsaber battles from Star Wars, happening on some bridge overlooking a bottomless pit.


3D Cityscape Workflow

city environment night back and white
source: pxhere

Creating an urban 3D cityscape is the process of assembling man-made elements onto a natural terrain.  The 3D environment artist will have to create the actual topology of the terrain and the main structures onto which the other 3D objects will be assembled.  This can be, for example, a space platform onto which a futuristic city would be built, or an artifical concrete ground, over a natural terrain, to serve as the base for streets.

But creating every one of the 3D objects required for a city is a tremendous amount of work hours.  In a big studio, this means that all the modeling specializations  and the texture department will be asked to contribute.

But in the end, working on a 3D cityscape has more in common with hard surface modeling and architectural modeling than it shares in common with organic or character modelers.


Key Aspects of a Cityscape

Hard surface 3D models

industrial organized man made objects
source: pxhere

First, creating 3D city environments is all about working with 3D hard surface models.  It requires an great deal of time to create all of the 3D objects that compose a city and it takes skills to craft all the tiny details on of them.  Most of the repeatable man-made elements, called props, will be created by  hard surface modelers or generalist 3D modelers.

Those can range from lights, traffic lights, signs, banners, ads, postal boxes, benches, posts, electric wires, roads, sidewalks, fences, plant boxes, bus shelters, sewer covers, etc.  A simple street corner has an astonishing amount of different elements to be considered.  There are often 8 street lights with pedestrian signals, if not more, some intertwined electrical wires and poles, at least 4 traffic signs, 4 sidewalk ramps, many different cars...


Architecture Models

building structured unique colors
source: pxhere. Carlos ZGZ

After this, there are still the most detailed and difficult models of it all: the houses, stores, factories, skyscrapers and historical buildings...  They also happen to usually compose the bulk of the space in a city, with 'almost unique' variations.  This category of 3D modeling will usually fall onto the hands of a  3D architectural modeler, either in-house, or through the purchase of online models.  A few website like www.kitbash3d.com and www.turbosquid.com offer very quality models, sorted by style, like victorian, gothic, western...


The most detailed buildings and the foreground architecture will be with made in high-resolution.  This means that the 3D model and textures will be extremely detailed, to allow for close-up.  However, most building in a cityscape models can be of medium to low resolution, because they only fill-in the rest of the space in the set.  In any case, ressources should always be as optimized as possible.  This is in order to reduce the load required by the rendering engine at the end of the production process.


Organizational Design

In a city, everything is structured, organized and planned ahead, even the plants and trees.  Therefore, every 3D model in a cityscape has to be organized in a way that shows a certain systematic structure and planning for common sense.   It is not about the organic and random placement of things, but rather about urban planning and mindful designs.   Humans, however do add their organic touch of detail, in their choice of windows drapes, for example.


Organic Models

urban decor overturned by vegetation
source: pxhere

Because most CG environments have a mix of all types of natural and urban modeling, there is also a  need for organic models in a very dense city.  In fact, especially in a predominantly urban 3D environment, it is the contrast between those two worlds that often creates an interesting composition.

Additionally, the background in a cityscape is usualy a natural one.  This means the sky, clouds, sun, planets or natural landscape in far away. These are very often simply replaced entierlywith an image, a video or a a matte-painting.  Buildings that are very very far, can also be replaced  with a flat sequence without any notice.

Organic models, can also be used in, on or near architectural elements, such as in statues of decorative elements.  You can read more about the blurry line bewteen organic and hard surface modeling on this page see more about the blurry line in org mod



But then there are also debris, the elements of the natural world that fall onto us, like water, snow, branches, leaves, rocks...  And of course the even greater quantiy of debris made by human activity, like food wrappers, cups, cigarettes, pothole debris, paper, plastic bags, lost items, etc.  This quickly becomes a little much for one person to handle, especially if you try to strive for realism (see the uncanny valley).  One missing feature will most likely be noticed by many unforgiving franchise fans, angry that you messed up their favorite super-hero movie sequence.


Human and chaos

human chaos texture debris accidents
source: pxhere

A lot of the work has to do with the 'organized chaos' of human life and understanding how it leaves traces onto the environment.   AI will probably be plagued by this plight when trying to understand our actions.


First, there is a is a way that we use cities, but not always exactly perfectly as they were planned.  As we can see in many instances, it is common to see the corners of a grass cut by a diagonal path, just because it was a the shortest path.  There is order in human activity, but also a special kind of rebellious nature in the day-to-day interactions with our environment.  It's as though we are very organized biological machines for producing chaos, disorder and imperfections in our environments.

This creates a lot of small un-planned elements in the decor, that we come to accept as normal.  CG films are often criticised for having the opposite quality: that of being too perfectly neat and ordered, even in randomness.  In order to combat this perception, 3D artists have to put a lot of work into recreating realistic imperfections in their models.


The Passage of Time

old abandonned house time passing
source: pxhere

The passage of time is another such factor contributing to the degradation of the initial planned elements of a city.  The use and alternance of new and old, must always be in the forefront of the artist's mind when trying to create a realistic 3D city.  A great example of this is the change in color of every material, in contact with air, water or the sun.  The red color disappears from print under the sun, water corrodes metal, and air shapes our mountains.


In the same way, many feets passing on a certain part of a sidewalk is certain to leave marks, of dirt, and erosion that cannot be ignored, for a good level of realism.  Textures pose a special challenges in cities, exactly because of this, but also because nature also leaves a lot of marks on our man made constructions and buildings.

Apocalypse landscapes are very popular these days, especially in FPS videogames.  Such  a landscape is obviously a mix of natural and urban elements, but what it demonstrates most, is the passage of time, after humans stopped trying to 'organize their world'.  A careful ability to recreate how and where plants can break out of the cement and grow organically around a fence, is a unique talent for observation and creation.


Specific Skills Required

  • Understanding how buildings are constructed
  • Ability to determine a pleasant overlap of building styles next to one another
  • Attention to the automatic routines of human habits (making shortcut trails on grassy corners)
  • Knowledge of depth composition in filmmaking
  • Ability to create quick variations of 3D models using angle, size and tint variations
  • A strong sense of correct proportions between buildings and other elements
  • Ability to texture objects is a plus
  • Understanding of the passage of time and it's effect on cities

See also: 3D environment modeling

Pre-Built Cityscape Models

Check out some of these great 3D model kits you can download from www.kitbash3d.com


Read a step-by-step tutorial on how to create a complex 3D city scene on www.creativebloq.com



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