Catching a few lobsters...
/ Deep Dive into Environment Modelling

One major component of our project is the idea of journeying to distant places in the vastness of space. We wanted a mix of different environments, both in terms of space phenomena and alien planets. It was important to create as much variety and contrast between the settings of each shot as possible.

I designed environment assets for four different planets in four different shots. Each planet needed to have its own unique features and defining “hook” to make it stand out from the rest. For each shot I created basic geometric in Maya to lay out the proportions of the objects in the scene, which we used as the basis for early versions of our animatic. Then I brought each part of the base geo into zBrush where I created a more details sculpt. Many of the environment sculpts had over 4 million vertices, so we used Renderman archives to bring them back into Maya. Renderman archives allowed us to use high-resolution geometry without slowing down the time it takes to save the scene.

The main things in Spire Rock Planet are the huge stone columns that the ship flies through. I designed six unique spires (only one pictured below). Using Renderman archives will make it really easy to place a ton of duplicate spires in the background of the shot, and there’s just enough variety between the different spires that it won’t look like a bunch of identical copies of the same thing. The horizontal striping is meant to show that they are made up of many thin layers of rock eroded by the weather into pillar shapes. The hole may be caused by natural erosion patterns on this planet, or maybe by some unseen burrowing creature.

The cliffs in the background continue the horizontal layers motif from the pillars, because I imagine they would be made of mostly the same stuff. I wanted the background to have a unifying horizontal element to contrast the verticality of the spires. The cliff is built with three main levels, which will each have spires and clouds on them eventually. The textures on the cliff came out really dark in the render; I’m probably going to lighten them up considerably.


The Giant Hole shot is cool because it’s so simple, it’s a series of concentric circles that draw the eye in and give this illusion of a spiraling descent. But then the spaceship cuts straight through it without warning!

The hardest part of modeling the hole was making sure it wasn’t too uniform. I tried to vary the shape, height, and angle of each layer to break up the circles within circles pattern a little bit. Each layer is mostly flat on the top because I want to pant forests on each level. We’ve talked about having each layer be a different biome, which would be really cool if we manage to pull it off. I modeled the hole in 5 big chunks, with each descending smaller chunk having significantly fewer polygons because its harder to see the stuff deep down anyway. This really reduced the file size.


For Cube World I wanted to play up the contrast between the cubes and their surrounding environment to make them feel weird. To do this I made the mountains round and lumpy, in contrast with the harsh edges of the cubes. The forms are soft and round, almost like piles of wet sand.

The cubes themselves are 1000 cubic meters, and I wanted them to be kind of a mystery. Are they naturally forming crystals? Giant supercomputers left behind by advanced aliens? Enormous single-cell organisms collecting energy from the sun? I want it to feel ambigious, and let the viewer come up with their own explanations.

The shape of the Valley is meant to point the viewer’s eye towards the center of the frame, creating some minor dissonance when the ship turns and exits to the right of the shot. The big cactus in this shot is supposed to be 40 meters tall, but doesn’t look like it is, so I’m probably going to have to rethink it next term. The idea is to have a bunch of tall plants that the ship passes behind, because it will help show how far the ship is moving and sell the massive scale of the whole thing.



The splitting core planet is a calm respite in a planet torn apart by immense force. There’s really only cliff in this shot, and it’s lit almost entirely from behind. I tried sculpting it to be really rough, both to show that the planet is in bad shape, and because it needed enough texture to catch the highlights from the distant light source. My most important consideration here was that the ship needed to be able to land, and we needed an unobstructed view of it for if/when we end up compositing in live action people, so I made sure that the cliff had a mostly flat surface on the top (and if we decide later that its too flat we can always add some additional rocks).


Lobster Fact: During World War I, British soldiers behind enemies lines would frequently send covert messages to their commanding officers by tying letters to the backs of lobsters. It never worked.

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