Tutorials: Maya Mentalray Lighting


Gnomon has a series of tutorials by Frederic Durand that go into Maya lighting with Mentalray, starting with Light and Shadow: Lighting and Rendering Series Vol 1. The quality achievable through it really surprised me— I previously thought I’d have to get VRay, apparently the de facto renderer by film CG VFX artists, to achieve this level of render. This can really help increase the realism with the virtual set for VFM02. So today, between things happening at GDC 2015, I thought I’d put myself through these lighting tutorials to really maximize the power I’ve had sitting in my iMac with Maya all along.


After watching a few other tutorials, I had also recently completed the course Hard Surface Texture Painting to see the full pipeline of setting new UVs and creating textures as I worked on this for the first production model of VFM02’s virtual set. It essentially verified the process I had already used with an added step of using an intermediary program to paint scratches and details across the UVs by painting directly on the model– something I believe I might be able to do in Mudbox.

So anyway, as I work on other stuff, I’m going to put Frederic’s lighting tutorials on and see what I can pick up over the next couple of days.

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First VFM02 Environ Production Modeling


The VFM02 virtual set has officially passed from pre-production to production, as tonight I’ve made my first piece of complex geometry (ever) from a simple cube to begin replacing the graybox blocking. The previous tutorials really helped. When I hot-keyed the Extrude command, oh boy did that change my world.

To take it any further at this point, now… well… now it’s time to unwrap UV texture coordinates. Yay. Yayyyyyyy.

I tried the ‘Automatic UV Mapping’ command and it created a total mess. Some vertices went off into infinity, apparently. The command might as well have been called ‘LOL JK FU’. But then I deleted all of the UVs and did it again– with a fresh slate, it worked out really nicely. Surprised. Broke everything up by six sides and unwrapped those nicely. And I stumbled on that totally by accident– I could’ve spent hours trying to do Planar Mapping and pulling verts manually. Ugh. Next, I re-arranged the shells and changed their proportions based on what would be most visible and important, tested this with checkers, etc…

Later tonight, I’m going to burn through this tutorial from Digital Tutors, UV Mapping Workflows in Maya, and hope UV Unwrapping and Mapping can finally not feel like such a dreaded process.


I had gone through the sections about UV mapping on Lynda.com for Maya. While valuable for a fresh beginner like me, they ultimately weren’t nearly thorough enough on this. They never got into unwrapping complex geometry. Instead, there’s an example of using planar mapping to throw a flat texture onto the flat side of a flat mesh– a fish! C’mon… They do not adequately prepare you for, say, unwrapping a triple-A quality human character mesh, let alone this simple tech box. There were some better clues in Lynda’s Game Environment Modeling tutorial though. I’ll check out the 2015 Maya Essential Training sometime, even though I’m running 2012.

So I’ll give the UV tutorial a go later tonight. I just finished the Gnomon Game Environment Modeling tutorial, where Nate from Sony Santa Monica talks about how he’s modeling to prepare for texturing and how the modeling process is never really done until you finish texturing and even then it’s not really done… but the tutorial ends right when it should go on to the texturing part. And Gnomon doesn’t offer a part II texturing tutorial, but they do have several on the subject. It just would’ve been nice to have the continuity of process and see it through. I’ve yet to find a single or multi-part grouped tutorial that truly goes from start to finish at a fully professional level.

EDIT: Looks like Nate did do a counterpart actually, but unfortunately it’s all in ZBrush instead of Mudbox: Environment Modeling and Sculpting for Games. Still, would have liked to see the first tutorial followed through to the end, but this helps! Also just signed up for a Gnomon subscription!


Anyway, so I’ve got the UVs sorted and now I might bring it into Mudbox to make sure the polygons and UVs all play nice. If so, then I’ll do a quick texture pass between Mudbox / Photoshop / and experimenting with making a techy elements normals-baked kit in Maya. And just refine from there. Before I do this, I may also go back and refine the model as well. I’ll update this article if I make any further significant progress tonight.

02/26 — 3:30AM UPDATE: Refined the model, deleted unnecessary faces we never see, redid the UVs. Then brought it into Photoshop and sketched over it as a design pass. Will do the photographic texturing build in Photoshop tomorrow, and I think I can probably get away with doing a bump map in Photoshop manually instead of doing normals in Mudbox– but I’ll try both!


02/26 — 20:12 UPDATE:
Current Photoshop texturing and design progress:


02/28 — 21:15 UPDATE:
Had some time today to work on texture. Experimenting with bump maps– first tried simply turning off all the graphics from the base textures and creating a quick desaturated and levels-tweaked bump map. Not too sure about it really, so this probably isn’t going to be as easy. Might have to do a whole new bump map texture from scratch for it to really make sense. Want to also bring this into Mudbox next and see what can be done with normal mapping there. Also, this was rendered in Maya with Mentalray and getting VRay is on my list… This material is a standard Maya Blinn so I’ll look into experimenting with other materials later as well.


03/01 — 21:15 UPDATE:
Manual bump mapping. Much better, more like modeling by grayscale graphic design. Not as pronounced as I would’ve liked. Maybe I can get some more texture into it on a separate layer next. I tried bringing this into Mudbox, but upon upscaling its polys so I could sculpt it and bake a normal map, the UVs didn’t perfectly upscale as I had hoped and distorted the base texture. I have a few ideas for some things I can try to fix this next.


03/02 — 21:15 UPDATE:
Successfully upscaled the geo of the model in Mudbox without distorting UVs and did a bit of sculpting on the mesh. Then figured out how to export this to a normal map for the low-poly mesh target, and applied this in Maya. It appears I had to choose between using the Bump Map and the Normal Map. I couldn’t apply both? There’s probably a method to do that in the Hypershade.


When I tested this in Maya, the results didn’t quite transfer as effectively as they appeared in the Mudbox sculpt. So I’ll have to experiment with this more. Currently, I’m fairly happy with using the Bump Map instead, as I was able to get very precise cuts (plating seams and vents, etc…) and extrusions (bolts, etc…) in a very straightforward manner directly over the 2D texture map in my PSD. That method was also very fast. I’d probably entirely rely on Mudbox for more organic sculpting needs instead of hard surface stuff. The bump map just didn’t deform negative values as much as I’d like, and increasing the bump value in Maya introduced distortions.

Lots to keep experimenting with as I learn this stuff. For environment art, I’m starting to see how you can go a little more high-poly than I was expecting (especially these days) and not have to do all of the detail in bump maps or normal maps, especially if the goal is to make a movie and not a game with these assets. I’d like to figure out the game method, though, as it’s most optimal and seems like a best practice for getting an asset done efficiently and effectively in both arenas. Plus, I’m looking into actually using a game engine like Unreal Engine 4 to render scenes in realtime to save enormous amounts of time and bypass the need to buy and build a renderfarm– will have to test if this will hold up in 4K.

I’ll keep digging and continue messing around with it. But as far as a pipeline, I’ve never gone this far, so that’s cool.


I think at this point I can probably move on and build out the rest of the set with low poly objects and bump maps. Especially for a movie, where I know the camera never gets in too close on any of this and details are lost, even at 4K. It’s important that they’re there, but I think they don’t have to be as in-depth as a model you could walk right up to if this were a game.

Alright– moving on!

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Tutorials: Maya Sci-Fi Environs


After client work, this evening I dove into tutorials.

The first one I found at Digital Tutors: Creating a Game-Ready Sci-Fi Environment in Maya (2.5 hours) so I can make progress on VFM02 — my blocker on that project now is my limit on modeling ability for the environment art. I’m currently good enough just to get the basic graybox in. But of course, I always go for projects a bit beyond my experience, so I intentionally hit blockers as opportunities to push myself. It’s time to finally get beyond this– once I do, so many possibilities will open up.

This tutorial was very helpful, because I could finally see the full pipeline of doing environment art in an optimized way (streamlined models, high-poly baked into low-poly, etc…). Maya is so convoluted from a UI standpoint, and watching this guy work was at times overwhelming for how odd the process seemed. However, as with any software, the more you do this, the more second-nature it gets. I just have to push through and do this stuff, over and over, before I can even get good. I have Mudbox as well, so I’m also trying to dive in and learn that.


I bought a Gnomon tutorial for this in 2012 (Environment Modeling for Games), and will revisit it now that I have more time next. That just stops at modeling, however. I wanted to see the full path from modeling to texture and normal maps and Mudbox painting to final assets, so the Digital Tutors tutorial above is better for that. I figured I might as well look closely at game environment art tutorials to kill two birds with one stone: might as well make my default practice optimal modeling and materials so my work can be usable both for video and for game engines. And the more efficient I make my film CG environments, the better. As we’re into the eighth console gen, the gap on this stuff is probably closing anyway.

My goal right now is to learn hard-surface high-detail yet efficient modeling in Maya and virtual detail painting in Mudbox so I can get good and fast at doing environments. This will be critical for a virtual filmmaking pipeline. For VFM02, I’ve pulled some Sci-Fi Interiors Research for general inspiration, reference, and quality targets (quite a challenge ahead).

I’ve had Maya since 2011 and Mudbox since 2013, but have used them off-and-on. In that time, I’ve been primarily earning my living still doing UI for games, so it’s not something I work in every day. I usually just haven’t had the time or haven’t made the time. Since life has gotten a lot more stable since I went global freelance (I’m not moving every year for a studio gig), it’s a lot easier to focus and ramp up on these kinds of goals now, if only I make them a priority.


My daily timesheets I keep for myself have new routines set for expanding my skills with online training like this, working on existing internal projects, doing existing external client work, finding new business, and spending time with the girlfriend, all in a single day. Focused intense drive was always there, but it’s not enough: you have to turn that into a machine. This book has great advice for how to start doing that: Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind. It still involves a lot of caffeine.


Next, I’m going to run through this other Digital Tutor tutorial: Rendering Low Resolution Environments in Maya (3hrs).

If you know of any tutorials that really rock for Maya and detailed environment art, let me know via @XanderDavisLive. Happy Friday!

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