Friday, 5 December 2014

The BIG Group Project

For the past few weeks I have been working on another group project in University. This time our entire yeargroup all worked together on a side-scrolling game within Unreal Engine 4.
The game was divided into four sections; Hot, Happy, Cold and Scary. Our team of around 20 people was further divided into 4 teams of environment artists, a concept artist in each team and separate teams for character artists and engine artists. The character artist team were able to divide themselves into making an NPC each for each of the areas of the game, and two main playable characters.
Our tutors acted as our art directors and managers. The idea was that we were simulating what it is like to work in industry whilst still at Uni.





I was assigned the role of environment artist in the ‘Happy’ team and I worked in a sub-team of 4 people.
After working in industry for two summers I could really see the differences between the working world and University, and my prior experience helped me to maintain organisation and establish a reliable pipeline.
I knew the importance of communication within teams in Lucid Games, and the fact that feedback needs to be something you seek out and receive constantly, as everything needs to be approved by the directors before continuing, and your art needs to be approved by programmers and level designers to make sure the game will work properly.

As a team we wanted a game that was cohesive and held a similar theme throughout all levels. When I worked at Lucid Games on stylised games like Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery, the art director issued a style guide to me. It was a well-established, extremely comprehensive complete manual of how the assets should be designed and textured. It was the type of document that the art director would be able to send to outsourcers as instructions for how they should make the assets so that the whole game is pieced together consistently.
If I ever had any doubts about how to create the game assets I could read the style guide and understand straight away what I needed to do.

So we asked our tutors to provide us with a style guide, but unfortunately they weren’t able to do so and explained to the concept artist team that it was their job to create the style guide. I think this was a major challenge for the team, as they wanted to come up with something that all 20-something of us would enjoy working with, but with no experience of ever creating a style guide this proved a really difficult task. It also meant that our team's concept artist was pre-occupied with the style guide and wasn't available to produce concepts for us. We ended up looking at Trine 2 and using that art style as an example.

I really like Trine 2’s art style and I think it fits in really well with the sidescrolling genre, so it made sense and the team were enthusiastic about using this art style. However I felt a little bit disheartened that we couldn’t come up with something unique and new together. We are all very capable and hard working artists – I think we all just panicked a little bit that we didn’t have clear direction and so jumped onto the most logical point of reference.

I personally had some difficulty engaging with my assigned topic of ‘Happy’ mainly because it is a more emotive word than a descriptive one. Especially compared to topics like ‘Hot’ and ‘Cold’, where visual ideas come a lot more easily.
One way we approached this was to think about what the word happiness entails. Our group decided that we wanted to move away from the garish colours of children’s parties or Willy Wonka style environments because they weren’t to our personal taste, so we looked into concepts like enlightenment and peace and went for an Asian zen-garden style idea instead. Our feedback from the tutors was that they would rather the Happy area be designed like a Candy-land similar to ‘SugarRush’ in Wreck-it Ralph – basically an idea we had spoken about not feeling enthusiastic about working on!
So we thought about how we could re-direct our ideas to fit more in line with what the tutors suggested, and began thumb nailing ideas for a peaceful landscape in some really vibrant colours.

Another technique that helped us to think of ideas was to think of the opposite of ‘Scary’ – the forth area. If hot and cold were opposites, perhaps the opposite of scary would be happy? It was a difficult concept to fully grasp and really reminded me of the scene in Donnie Darko when he argues that life can’t be measured on a scale between Fear and Love!

It was becoming a bit too serious and at the time I had a lot of things on my plate in my personal life, so I took the weekend off and went to visit my family on a holiday in the Lake District. Being out in the clear air and thinking about the forms of the mountains, trees and waterfalls that we visited was very helpful in getting my mind back on track as to what the project was really telling me to do.

I was an environment artist, I needed to make an environment, and the ‘happy’ ideology could come later! When I returned from the Lakes, my team had already made a start on some concepts. They kept explaining to me that they had panicked over ideas and had just thrown anything down. I knew that this tone of everyone panicking needed to stop, and with some ideas already put down I was able to help refine our ideas and enforce some organisation by writing up an asset list and creating a folder structure on Google drive so that the team could put their ideas into a proper home, as opposed to floating around in their heads or sketchbooks.

From this point on we regained momentum and spent time in the concepting phase trying to get a cohesive environment together. We had scrums as often as possible, and big meetings every other day with the entire team which was helpful in exchanging ideas and suggestions. I put together our final concept and helped to refine the whitebox, then we were able to begin dividing tasks amongst each other and splitting up the happy area into sections we could all work on.

I worked on the skybox, the playable terrain, the background elements and particle effects such as clouds and bubbles.

We had some difficulties when not every member of the team was present, and the character artist for our level very rarely came in, but in the end everything pulled together and we got a working level out of it.

There has to be a hierarchy amongst teams, if everyone is equal there ends up being a lot of discussions and wasted time about what people would want or like and spending a lot of time and effort compromising can sometimes be to the detriment of the project. If teams have leaders and a system of being able to report something back to a higher-up to satisfy their vision, then workflow runs much more smoothly. On an emotional level it can also help the artist get over instances where they don’t actually like the work that they are doing – if you have someone to answer to and deliver projects to on time then you can feel that your work needs to be done to fulfil a goal, and you can remove your ego from the process.

This system was not so strong in our group project, but we were able to manage ourselves within our teams so each group had someone to pull everyone together and get the bigger picture sorted. This process helped me to learn more about how people prefer to work – do they like to be in charge of the assets they make, or do they prefer to be told what to do so they can get stuck into an assigned task? It’s important to know how to adapt to other people’s working style.


I am extremely proud of how well-organised and sensible we have all been for this project. Despite all of our issues and problems, we were able to pull each other together and encourage each other to get this project to be as good as we could manage.

It felt that the project was not properly planned out, as we would sometimes receive feedback that would contradict itself. We hadn’t been given a framework for the game, so we had to design and programme that ourselves in Unreal 4, so it meant that the engine team had been given the role of designer and programmer in a fairly unfamiliar piece of software – they weren’t necessarily working an artist role. Often we would be advised to think carefully about gameplay and how the sidescroller would work as a game. But then at other times we were advised to not worry about the gameplay and just focus on making the visual experience great and having great art in the game.

I think these two paradoxical pieces of advice really confused a lot of people in the whole team, so it was up to all of us to work it out together and make sure no-one felt lost or had a hard time.
We used our scrums to not only explain what we were working on that day, but also as a safe space where we could vent how we were feeling about our work. This way we could help encourage each other to keep going or to re-organise priorities. It was a really mature way to approach the project and I feel much closer to my peers due to this.
Their support and encouragement throughout this project has helped me to feel that I have a very strong support network here and I’m sure that during our Final Major Projects that same sense of camaraderie will push us through any hard times.

I have experience of working in big teams on stylised projects in industry and I can honestly say the whole process is entirely different. Where I worked, the creative director who I was producing concepts and models for was available nearly all day every day. Of course sometimes I would need to wait for feedback because we were all very busy – but the proximity of working with your directors makes a huge difference to workflow. Especially when the art style and vision is pre-determined and finalised – you can still be expressive in your work but it has to follow along with what the director wants. Those limitations are great for artists, who can sometimes get a bit carried away or on the otherhand completely uninspired!

The feedback I received was always very clear at Lucid too – a simple ‘Yes this works, push the features’ or ‘No this isn’t working we won’t use this’ was brilliant for getting through idea iteration rapidly and successfully. Sometimes the feedback we received at university was a bit ambiguous and left us wondering where to go next. The feedback I received on my individual pieces, like my own concepts and assets was very helpful and direct, but when it came to the level as a whole it was difficult to get decisive critique.

I understand that not all companies have the same way of giving feedback. I was able to work with how Lucid provided feedback very well. This time I needed to develop my own strategies to sort of ‘decode’ the feedback, which in hindsight is a valuable thing to learn I think.

If we were to approach this project again, under the same circumstances, I would encourage all of the team to go on a research trip at the beginning of the project. We all seemed to go off into our own groups to concept ideas within the confines of the game art building, and this was not entirely helpful for our creativity. Perhaps a trip to a museum, a park, the theatre, an art gallery, the seaside – somewhere where we could all be together bouncing ideas and in the open air with real-life reference all around us. Maybe we would have come up with more engaging, unique material.

All in all, I’m very proud that we all managed ourselves well enough to produce some really amazing work – we made a working game! It was tough, but we did well.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014


I made it a habit to make regular studies of the environment around me and the environments in film over summer, and I feel that analysing and mimicking the atmospheric techniques found in film has helped me to understand good composition and colour in a lot more depth. Here's some of the studies I have done recently:

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott 1982)

Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson)

Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola 2006)

Prometheus (Ridley Scott 2012)

Wrath of the Titans (Jonathan Liebesman 2012)

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan 2014)

'Salammbo' sculpture by Maurice Ferrary (1899)

A study of my little sister in the garden

Studies from photos and sketches of the Lake District

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"King of the Dead" - 3rd year Group Project

My first week back at Uni involved exploring Unreal 4 and how to construct a Physically Based material – next gen materials that render in the same way that the physical properties of a real-life material would react in real-life lighting conditions. After I had spent some time familiarising myself with the engine, we were given a project brief to last just 2 weeks in randomly selected groups. The title of this brief was ‘King of the Dead’.

We needed to assume the role of a small art team trying to win a project with a games studio. We therefore needed to prove that we can produce original ideas, quality work and in an efficient time frame. ‘King of the Dead’ could be interpreted in any way, but our end result needed to be a character seated on a throne with a backdrop wall and floor within UE4.

“Any style is acceptable. This could be realistic, gothic, stylized or cartoon. Any mood is acceptable. This could be light hearted or frightening. The games studio does not want to limit possibilities. They are open to any ideas. They do want to be surprised and impressed with originality though. The subject is clichéd, your work must bring something original to succeed with this client and brief.”

We began this project by first doing as much research as we could gather around the various keywords that ‘King of the Dead’ sparked in our minds and drew on a whiteboard everything we considered. We also used websites that generated random sentences to help us think outside the box – we wanted to make sure that we didn’t go straight for the first thing that pops into our heads so to help us get out of that mindset we thought about random and opposite ideas to challenge our more cliché thoughts.

We set up big moodboards on Pinterest which focused on the visual element of our idea generation. We could then further narrow our ideas down once we had selected the images that stood out to us the most. During this process, I stumbled upon the word ‘freezing’ and this got me thinking about cryogenic freezing, the idea that a person can be put into a ‘cryosleep’ by freezing themselves, with the hope that once they thaw out they will return to life without any ill effects on health or appearance.

From this idea, I started to explore what ‘King of the Dead’ could mean if the King was cryogenically frozen. I discussed this idea with my group and everyone seemed enthusiastic about this new spin on the title, and quickly we had delved into how we could apply this to our brief. The throne would be a cryogenic chamber with the King frozen inside. Using other keywords from our whiteboard for inspiration, I suggested that for a bit of backstory, our scene could be set be far in the future where in a sci-fi society, people cannot die anymore because tech is so good; so our King is the leader of a cult of people who wish to die and look to ancient cultures for guidance on how to achieve this. We set the thought aside so that we could continue to come up with new ideas.
A moodboard I put together that reads left-right in order of complexity/extremity

Lucy in our group mentioned how her research had led to finding out about a type of parasite that lives in the mouth of a fish and feeds of its tongue, eventually replacing it. We were all extremely grossed out by this so we made sure to keep it in mind! Thinking of a backstory had helped me to come up with an interesting idea, so I tried it again and played with the idea that the parasite is the King, and his throne and palace is the tongue and mouth of a dying creature.
The rest of the group seemed equally inspired by this idea, so we tried to focus our thoughts on these two main concepts; parasites and cryogenic freezing

Ultimately, we combined the two, and my tasks for the rest of the group project included contributing idea generation and iteration through thumbnails, concepts, whiteboxes and moodboards. I also set up timescales and deadlines for the group to work to help us meet our goals and shared out the workload between all members of the group using a whiteboard to announce our tasks for the day.

I also took on the task of modelling, rigging and texturing the character’s body whilst Lucy worked on the head (so we could then combine the two together later, which worked out as being very time efficient). I used Unreal 4 a lot during the project, and was able to quickly set up the camera angle and whitebox in Unreal 4, adding in the post-processing effects (such as film grain, vignette, fringing, dust particle effects and fog) and lighting in the scene, which was an important factor in deciding colour scheme.

I also created a facebook group upon which group members could upload their work for instant feedback. Regularly posting on the facebook group meant that we could ask each other for feedback at any and all times.

Rebecca worked on the throne concept, model and textures, Hal worked on the background hieroglyphics and wall texture and Tom created the cryogenic pod and the material that would appear to fill the pod.

Our group were able to bounce ideas off each other from the outset, which helped us to form interesting ideas which we could later develop. We each understood the general pipeline that would lead us along the production process. 

Having a shorter deadline meant that the group had a clear objective and expectations, however I think the overall pace of the group could have been a little bit quicker, as we often missed deadlines that we set for ourselves – for example we were still texturing our assets on Thursday when we had originally planned to have everything in engine at that point so we could compose the scene together and polish it on Friday. Furthermore, we unfortunately did not reach any of our stretch goals; we were all really keen on getting an animated panning shot of the scene but we could not reach this goal.

Final render of our scene
I think if we were to improve upon this project we could get the blue, frosty material on the cryogenic pod to be much more translucent so that the character could be much more visible, perhaps also adding in particle effects like steam to heighten atmosphere and narrative. We could also create some decals to ensure that the bottom of the throne blended in with the ground more seamlessly.

I think the most important thing I learnt from the group project was that leadership, communication and organisation takes up a lot of time and effort and it is difficult to lead a group whilst still being a source of motivation and efficient myself. Industry experience has enabled me to become a faster artist and I will now often spare myself work when it is not needed – for example the textures on the character are not very detailed, but this is because the character can barely be seen so it would not be time efficient for me to go into detail, my time was better spent in engine with the scene lighting and camera angle.

Despite this, I feel that in future projects I should take time out to talk to each member of the group personally so that I can help them with any issues or take in any feedback for the group that people may not want to say when all of the group is present – because sometimes this can cause anxiety. Although working in a group should mean that everyone is treated equally and ideas are a representation of our collective vision, this doesn’t mean that the individual should be ignored.
I think that having or being a mediator in the group would be extremely valuable in maintaining group unity and motivation.
I also think that as we were using a new engine, we could have put aside sessions where we each take turns with the engine experimenting with what we could do in it together, this may have created a nice environment for each of us to raise concerns or ask for help.

To conclude, I think the final render communicates the themes and mood of the idea very well, without touching on too many clichés. I hope our final render is an example of our capability to produce unique ideas, designs and interesting visuals. I am also very happy that I was able to inspire other people with my ideas, it was a very rewarding experience to come up with many different concepts with the help of others.

Monday, 22 September 2014

My first demo reel!

I have also been working hard on my own personal projects at Uni during second year. I put together a short show reel in March to be able to present my progress to others:
Katie Hallaron 3D Modelling Showreel 2014 from Katie Hallaron on Vimeo.

M.E.D.U.S.A is an energy beam weapon inspired by the book ‘Mortal Engines’ by Philip Reeve and a past self-portrait University assignment that I did in 2013. I created this character as a personal project, using 3ds Max to model a high poly robotic torso and Keyshot to render a photorealistic turntable.
This project involved a working process that I had not yet tried as my previous projects had all been low-mid poly assets.
I felt it was very important to get the form blocked out in simple shapes first, and then develop upon these shapes to construct a model that looks complex. It was also important for me to study human anatomy to give the robot a realistic appearance, as it has metal parts where humans would have tissue, tendon or muscle. For example I needed the robot to look as though her head could be supported by her neck to maintain believability, so I replaced the sternomastoid muscle with telescopic pistons.
I made my basemesh mid poly and applied subdivisions and smoothing to ensure the lighting worked properly on her high-poly form. I used path deform splines to get her snakes – which had been modelled straight along the y axis - to bend around and twist, and I gave her eyes an emissive texture to get a glowing effect.
I think the hardest part of this project was to keep my design unique in the sea of androids and robotic humans that are in popular culture. I feel that borrowing from the Ancient Greek mythological Medusa design helped to give it that extra interest.


This was also a personal project that I had developed from a previous assignment. I was tasked with redesigning the famous tripod design from H.G. Well’s book ‘The War of the Worlds’. I wanted to make my tripod insect-like whilst still keeping the features that H.G. Wells describes: three legs, tentacles, ‘oily brown skin’ etc.
Designing a creature with three legs is difficult as there are no known animals with this biological feature, so I thought about how the creature would walk and designed the aesthetics around this.
I also wanted the alien to have an aggressive design so I used triangular shapes to emphasise sharpness, stability and the ‘tripod’ theme. This is also echoed in its 3 eyes and front tentacles.
For my personal development on this I wanted the alien to be crashing through a city. I took the model I had made in Maya into 3ds Max and used Mental Ray to render out an animation of the alien causing explosions in a city made from primitive cubes.
I had never used Mental Ray before so it was a big learning curve for me to work out how the lighting and special effects work. I used Arch & Design materials to give the buildings reflectivity, and the tripod a glossy effect. I then used an Architectural material with high illuminance to make the tripod’s eyes and the explosion glow.
I then took the animation into After Effects and added in more bloom and lens flare to give my scene a cinematic feel.

"Off The Map" Competition

During second year I had been working in a group on a submission for the Off the Map Competition held by the British Library, Game City and Crytek. Our team, 'The Flying Buttress' consists of five other of my fellow Game Art students from DeMontfort University; Kit Grande, Ben Mowson, Findara McAvinchey, Ewan Couper and Elliott Pacel. You can find our blog which goes into detail about our processes and how we made the level here:
Our brief was to create a game level based around a choice of 3 pieces of gothic literature and architecture; Whitby (Bram Stoker's Dracula), Fonthill Abbey and The Masque of the Red Death (Edgar Allen Poe).

We chose to focus our game environment on Whitby. We wanted to really capture a haunting atmosphere to showcase the grandeur and beauty of Whitby Abbey from Bram Stoker's perspective when writing his famous gothic novel 'Dracula'. By uniting the maps and illustrations provided by the British Library with our own artist research and photographic reference of Ely Cathedral, we hoped to capture both Gothic literature and architecture into a single visual experience.

Here's our final submission flythrough:

We used Cryengine to build our game level, it was challenging to learn a new piece of software under pressure, but the engine's powerful colour grading, terrain editing and light system tools helped us to push our vision, and we were eventually able to create a fully realised game environment, complete with triggered events.

We were invited to talk about our project at the Game City 9 opening event in Nottingham. It was great to meet up with my team again, (especially as I was a little nervous about presenting to a crowd!) and our presentation went really well. I loved being able to talk to other applicants and the event organisers, it was very interesting to see what everyone else was working on, and the British Library's hopes for the future of combining game technology like the Oculus Rift with libraries and museums - to make these places virtually accessible from home, was very inspiring.
(When I was younger and I'd go on days out with my mum, she would ask me where I wanted to go (i.e. cinema, shopping, theme parks?) and I'd nearly always say "The Museum!" so that might give you an indication into my character!!)

We successfully became one of three teams shortlisted for the Off the Map Jury 2014 Award which will be announced in October at GameCity9. I'm really excited to go the the event and find out how we did, but moreso to get back into that lovely community of creativity, sharing and ambition.

Summer 2014

It has been a long time since I updated: this summer has been incredibly busy and fast paced. Now, with a week to go until my final year of university begins, I have some time to reflect on all the madness.
When I finished second year, I felt quite sad that an eye-opening but fun chapter of my academic life had come to a close. I knew I had a lot to look forward to, but I was unprepared for how quickly this would all pass me by!
I took part in the Off the Map competition, I went to Walt Disney World Florida, I started working in Lucid Games again, and I attended Industry Workshops in London - all whilst trying to juggle my own personal projects, move house and get ready for my last year of University!
I discovered a lot of things about myself and the industry, and about other artists too. It's been another summer where I feel I have bridged a gap in my learning and stepped up another level. I'll go into more detail in the following blog posts :)


Friday, 16 May 2014

End of Second Year Review

It’s now the end of my second year of Game Art Design at DMU. I’m feeling nervous about what will come next but at the same time I feel that I have accomplished a lot this year, and I have developed both academically and personally in a short space of time. I feel more comfortable and confident in expressing myself and my ideas because I have the tools and technical/artistic skills to do so more articulately.

I think university was the best decision for me, I understand that Universities aren’t for everyone though. Uni is not like a career or a job which you depend on – even when I try and think of uni as my job, that doesn’t really sink in properly because in reality, it is a much freer environment where you are in control of your own learning. Education comes from many more sources than just tutors – in fact, solely depending on tutors for your education at Uni would be limiting yourself.

I feel that I have really stepped out of my comfort zone this year, more than I ever have in my education I think – and in ways that lean far more towards practical technical ability and logic than for example in my previous exploration where I have been more emotionally driven and abstract.

I’ve been working in a group during second year too, which has surprisingly been massively different from working in a game company team like when I worked at Lucid Games. I feel that groupwork is incredibly important in an artist’s development to become a better artist – we need to be able to give and take critique fairly, and learn to compromise and unite ideas – artists who don’t experience group work may be missing out on learning a way of working and interacting with others, especially commercial artists who will inevitably have to work with clients. I’m not sure I would have had the same opportunity to be involved in a group working on exciting projects if I was not at University, I think it would have been a lot harder for me to make it this far on my own.

I have really enjoyed getting stuck in to personal projects this year too, having my own work to do in my spare time when I’m not working on things I’ve been asked or briefed to do has kept me eager to learn new software, techniques, industry practices – and it’s also helped keep me sane when tension and stress has been high.
I hope to continue working this way for as long as I can, (somewhat sadistically) I really enjoy pushing my limits and finding out how much work and progress I can make in short intervals.
The downside to this is that I can sometimes be a workaholic and become too stressed and on edge too often. Work is important to me, but when I’m losing sleep just because “I work better during the night”, I have to reconsider if it’s entirely worth it. I’m hoping to get into a better, healthier routine over summer.

This year has also been really important for me in making friends and chilling out. I had a lot to deal with last year and kept mostly to myself, just getting my work done and keeping fairly quiet. This year, a lot of weight has been lifted from my back, and I’ve felt more confident in myself than I have felt for quite a while – I’m very happy where I am right now, with my Game Art friends, and I’ll be sad to leave second year because it’s been amazing!