Setting the Stage for a 3D World with Prop and Environment Modeling
In any 3D production there's going to be the need for 3D environments and props to help set the stage for the story, whether it's for games, movies or commercials. Believable environments and props are a vital part for any production, just as much as the characters. Without environments there wouldn't be anywhere for the characters to live. A single environment may require hundreds of assets organized to make the final set. This article will give you some helpful tips you can use for your next environment modeling project so you can create the best work possible.
Think About the Story
As an environment modeler you're creating all the set pieces and props that make up the story. Essentially you're creating the world the characters live in. These environments help push the story forward. Whenever you're creating an environment for any type of production you need to think about how this particular environment or set fits within the story.
Maybe you're tasked with modeling a bedroom. Is it a child's bedroom or an adult's? For instance, if it's a child's room then the placement of props and other assets would be much messier than an adult's bedroom where things would (hopefully) be much more organized. It's better to know at the start where this environment fits within the story so you can avoid reworks later on down the pipeline.
It's Good to be Random
Modeling an environment can range from a city street, a living room, or a concert venue. As mentioned above every asset needs to help tell the story. When it comes to 3D it can be easy to set up and place objects organized and perfect. However, this can be a dead give away of a CG environment and take the viewer out of the experience. Of course, depending on the character or story this organized look can help sell their personality.
That being said, more often than not it's good to place things randomly and with a disorganized feel. Chances are, if you're sitting at your desk the notepad you may have sitting there is not placed perfectly straight, or even your monitor might be tilted at a slight angle. Putting in these very small irregularities into your sets can really help sell the realism; you should try to make your environments feel lived in.
For instance, if you're modeling a concert stage would the speakers be placed exactly at a 90 degree angle? Probably not, unless the person setting it up made sure it was, which is unlikely. Even putting these tiny imperfections into your sets can go a long way in helping immerse the viewer.
Use a Sculpting Application
Sculpting applications are heavily used with character and organic modeling but they're also vital for creating realistic environments. While you won't need a sculpting app to model a trash can prop or telephone booth on a street corner they're still an essential tool to have for organic environments like rocks and cliffs or a broken down brick wall. These are things that could be difficult to model believably in a traditional 3D modeling program like Maya or simply would take much too long.
Sculpting programs like Mudbox or ZBrush are key for creating those fine details to really help push the realism in your environments. For instance, you could have a dining table modeled fine, but it's missing the little extra dirt to make it even more believable. A program like ZBrush is great for putting in those scratches and imperfections on a model that really put it over the top.
Think Logically with the Props in the Environment
When modeling props you should have an understanding of where it's going to be in the scene relative to the camera. You can spends lots of time creating every small detail for a prop, and the camera is never going to be close enough for the viewer to ever tell the difference.
If you're working in a production environment you're constantly trying to meet the deadlines set for the project. So think about if the prop you're creating needs the time and ultimately money required to make it look perfect and spot on with its real life counterpart. If the camera is never going to be close enough you can spend the time else where on more important assets.
Environment models can range from a futuristic sci-fi city to a western town. It's up to you, the environment modeler, to create the props and everything that makes up the set in a realistic and believable way to set the stage for the stories to play out in. Try implementing some of these tips for your next project to speed up your workflow and create great environments for any project. To learn more check out Environment Modeling Concepts in Maya and go from beginner to expert with these environment modeling learning paths: Environment Modeling in 3ds Max, Environment Modeling in Maya.