Building VFX environments? Get these pro tips from Hybride

Hybride environment supe Marco Tremblay on the steps to follow for crafting the best worlds possible.

VFX artists are tasked with creating complex environments every day. It might be a futuristic city or an alien landscape—just where do you start as a VFX artist on such a build?

Marco Tremblay.

In this befores & afters breakdown, we’ve asked Marco Tremblay, asset and environment supervisor at Hybride, to share his go-to tips and tricks for making environments. Tremblay’s team has worked on several large-scale builds in recent times, from Nevarro in The Mandalorian, s1, to the city of Kijimi in The Rise of Skywalker. They’ve also worked on Watchmen, Jack Ryan and a host of other projects.

Tremblay shares the secrets of what to look out for from the very beginning of a project, how to manage an environment team, what tools you can rely on and what things artists can do to really nail their environment work. Here’s his analysis, below, in this step-by-step guide.

1. Where do you even start with an environment build?

Although every production comes with a unique signature look, some sequences do come with more creative freedom, while others need an additional factual accuracy to existing reference (digital concepts, technical designs packages, seamless integration).

Hybride’s work for s1 of ‘The Mandalorian’ included locations on Nevarro.

The first step is to start the process of finding the best way to dress the ‘space’ efficiently (using the less assets as possible), rapidly (dynamic and responsive assets) and plan for time to customize the asset management pipeline (managing, ingesting, and sharing assets with in-house teams and vendors).

Ingesting a package increases efficiency but you must still budget for a fair number of enhancements along the way to keep your options open, by building solid assets that can accept numerous alterations. Set extensions, for example, are based on physical designs so this type of work is more straightforward. Since they usually come with LIDAR scans, I like to ingest those first, make them into a zero-version and publish them for the layout to start assembling even though they are not the final geometry.

A solid modeling/texturing of a live set is crucial, so getting those completed relatively fast allows for efficient structured interactions with layout and digital cinematography.

2. Environments—it’s teamwork: how to split up the work

Parallel work is the key. At the early stages of building an environment you need to group and identify the type of shots (master shots, establishing, etc.) that are needed. Once the master and establishing shots are aligned, the other groups usually follow quite easily. The remaining shots that cannot be categorized are then bundled into a group of ‘specifics’. I always make sure to isolate them at an early stage, which makes it easier to manage.

Kijimi, as seen in ‘The Rise of Skywalker.’

Additionally, I find it particularly important to add a selection of additional tracking tasks linked to specific assets, which aren’t provided initially. These cameras will be used as a base for the creation of our different asset elements. Down the road, it is inevitable to end up with several versions of the same set. Like I mentioned earlier, flexibility is key to allow production to ‘art direct’ without any constraints or limitations.

In other cases, when we’re asked to propose a design rather than follow a concept, we tune into our ‘references gathering’ mode! You have to switch your mindset since you’re creating unique content, adding life into environments, props, and characters. This said; when sync’ing to existing sets or creating new ones, my next step is to layer the workload in respect to each member of my team by identify the environment asset types.

Say you have a chase sequence in a city. Let us say ‘street level’—some artists would oversee the ground, sidewalks, and urban life, while other team members generate vegetation, parks, props of all sorts, landmark buildings, generic buildings and so on. Like an orchestra, communication between team members is important to stay in sync and visual is king.

I find that very often it is easier to nail an environment if you strike fast and push a more ‘integrated’ proposition for production to review. It is particularly important to keep that balance between aiming for that 80% mark without dressing it up too much at an early stage, it keeps the process easier to revise following creative feedback.

We’ll push a version for review when I know it works within the context of the sequence and story. Always listen to the expectations and never be afraid to do what it takes to bring this world to the next level. Always stay in control of your environment.

3. Knowing how ‘much’ environment to build

It all comes down to the camera capture accuracy and a thorough evaluation of each challenge. This process first takes place between the different departments’ specialists involved in the sequence, followed by a discussion with the visual effects supervisor, compositing supervisor, and asset/environment supervisor (yours truly) to finalize the combined approach.

A street-level scene made by Hybride for ‘The Mandalorian.’

Keeping as many of the live elements as possible is always the main objective but unfortunately, enhancing or replacing some of them with digital elements is sometimes inevitable. Occasionally, when the junction between the live elements and the CG will most likely require an extensive amount of work with high risk of failing to achieve the desire result, we define a new ‘path of action’ where we select a transition area to insert those extra elements properly. A combined bag of tricks and know-how from either 2D/3D is an important recipe for success.

4. Tools of the trade, including the environment pipeline

Before working out what tools and techniques to use to build an environment, you must look at the different scenarios in place:
– Is it more of a traditional type of set extension?
– Does it involve photogrammetry?
– Is it part of a volume?
– Do these specific environments require us to ingest other vendor’s geometry?

On the streets of Kijimi.

In the case of a set extension, we usually do a quick layout pass in Maya, and then move ahead to the assembly team to make sure all the selected assets fit into place properly. It is quickly followed by moving it down the pipeline to the animation, simulation and lighting departments. Pipeline is not always as straightforward as you would imagine since most layers of production are using different software now.

In Hybride’s early years (nearly 30 years ago), we were a Softimage house, so all our assets where generated within the same software environment. Things have changed considerably since then! We transitioned to Houdini. Clarisse is currently being implemented to the assembly department while Layout, Modeling and Lighting remains in Maya.

There are so many ways in which you can build a pipeline now, it is important to keep it as simple as possible. Over the years I often heard our field referred to as the ‘far west’ and I think that does sound about right! We have all kinds of challenges from various A-list projects that require us to make sure we keep a flexible pipeline to meet those demands.

Building efficient ingest tools to ease the process of connecting with other vendor assets is more and more important since the interactions between us within the same environments are more frequent. Photogrammetry is currently reaching new highs. Whenever a Megascan asset or elements from a location scout are captured, being able to insert them into your pipeline quickly and efficiently is the future you want to be part of. The ability to re-design a photogrammetry location capture is something I never thought possible a decade ago.

More recently, on the latest season of The Mandalorian, we had to ingest a desert location where the whole environment consists of photogrammetry files. To help with the manipulation of these Megascan-type of challenges, our development and pipeline teams are constantly on the forefront enhancing current software, developing new tools and implementing software solutions (Clarisse implementation, for example) to help us work efficiently. And we are also looking at Unreal Engine for real-time solutions into the future.

5. Top tips for environment artists in VFX

There are some simple and basic rules to follow obviously but as a general approach I would suggest the following:

The Nevarro build.

– Be bold and take risks. Remember that when you build an environment you are supporting a storyline. The devil is in the details. Sometimes you have to come up with different scenarios in your head and somehow it will make it come true.

– Have a deeper in-depth look at each object, how each one was made, who made them and for what purpose. Immerse yourself in that location and walk it through while envisioning the area, the people, the atmospherics and timeline.

– Ask yourself, ‘How would I do it?’ I find it often comes down to your instinct. That little voice that tells you something looks wrong here…well, it means that it probably is!

– Follow through with your ideas, follow concepts, get to your 80% mark fast, send it for review and get it approved before finalizing. This has worked for me my whole life, do not fall into a versioning trap, and go for a ‘kind of final’ mentality.

– Surround yourself with team members you trust!

– Remember that no image belongs to you; you are part of a team! And always have fun doing it, working in this VFX industry is a privilege!

You can see more of Hybride’s environment builds on recent projects at the studio’s website.

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This article is part of the befores & afters VFX Insight series. If you’d like to promote your VFX/animation/CG tech or service, you can find out more about the VFX Insight series here.