Using Props & Lighting to Build Mood in a Scene
Maarten Hof talked about his recent scene Shabby Back Alley: designing the space, lighting, and rendering in Blender EEVEE.
In the past year, I have been very chill in terms of personal projects. Now that I have a full-time job in the industry I wanted to take it slower – since I art for a living now I’m pretty content with creative tasks I get. I have been working on some projects that never saw the light of day including a scene about New Amsterdam and a Last Of Us fan art. Maybe one day I will finish them!
I just wrapped up my first year working at Massive. Working on The Division 2 has been an absolute blast so far! I have learned so much in this past year and seeing that so many people are enjoying the game is really cool! I can also see a shift in my personal art in terms of planning, pipeline, and overall quality.
Goals & Reference
My main objective with Shabby Back Alley was to make a very contained scene that I could finish within the span of one month so I knew I would not lose interest somewhere down the line. In addition to that this was also an opportunity to use all the unused assets I made for еру previous projects and learn Blender EEVEE – which I have been wanting to do for some time now.
When I thought about a contained scene with a small scope I immediately thought about a back alley. When I was looking for inspiration I stumbled upon this amazing concept art by Wojtek Fus for Detroit: Become Human and this became the main reference in terms of lighting and mood. Next to that, I also used photos of back alleys from New York and Chicago as a reference.
Creating the Main Space
I started by blocking out the space with the bigger props. I tried to put them in positions where it would make sense. From there on, I started to look at the silhouettes and how I could make them more interesting. For example, I added AC units to break up the straight lines in the back of the alley. After that, I started moving stuff around so the scene read better. I tried to do this by grouping props so that there would be different little “islands” of interest. This gives the viewers some room to rest their eyes outside of the propping islands. Then I tweaked the lighting and different reflections so the scene conveyed a nice amount of depth and atmosphere.
Example of propping islands.
In terms of dressing the most useful props were the cardboard and litter props. Without these, the whole scene would fall apart. The same could be said about the cables (both hanging and on the wall).
Most useful props.
There is not really a lot going on with the buildings here – essentially it comes down to two planes on either side. I cut the holes for the windows out with the boolean modifier in Blender which allowed me to easily iterate on the positions of the windows. Once I got that down I placed the actual window asset in the holes.
Boolean boxes for the windows are still visible in the early renders.
Set of windows I originally made for my Last of Us fan art but came to good use for this one.
I think the best 3D renderer to compare EEVEE with is Marmoset Toolbag 3. In a lot of ways it kinda works the same (the render parts). EEVEE functions just like any other real-time renderer, meaning that your shadows and lighting are not super accurate and you can tweak a lot of settings to let the lighting and rendering behave as you want it to. I really liked this about EEVEE – it’s very straight forward. If you are used to working with a game engine like Unreal or Unity, picking up EEVEE will not be a problem. In addition, EEVEE outputs still-renders with a number of samples you can set yourself, and the render times are super fast – making final shots for your portfolio is super easy! Another thing I really liked about EEVEE and was actually really impressed with was the volumetric fog: this looks very good and is super easy to set up.
I use the lighting to set the mood and guide the viewer, but also to create specular highlights and emphasize silhouettes. Knowing this, I started with one key light: the orange light from the door. Then, I started to look for ways to compliment this light. For example, in the beginning, I had a blue light on the other side of the back alley as seen below here:
In the end, this light ended up attracting too much attention in the wrong way. It didn’t feel coherent and messed with the color palette I was going for, so I replaced it with a yellow neon sign. The sign creates some interest but stays within the same color palette of the light coming from the door and leading your eyes from one side of the back alley to the other.
To emulate lighting from the city slipping in through the thick fog I used planar lights that are hanging above the back alley. These lights created the highlights on the cables and bricks.
To top everything off I used an “Irradiance Volume” to create bounce lights in combination with a supporting point light hanging in front of the door.
It took me around 1 month to build this scene. Mind that I already built a lot of the assets before, so the only things I actually worked on were the propping, lighting, and the infrastructure. I think the key to building these scenes faster is having a clear vision and a logical approach. Concept art and a reference/mood board can help a lot with this.