The Space Opera Planet image from the ArtStation challenge

The Artstation Light space opera challenge

The Grand Space Opera Challenge

The Grand Space Opera: Light Age – Game Environment/Level Art

 

In December 2020 the wonderful team behind ArtStation put on an operatic themed challenge. Aimed at different fields within the art industry that ran towards the end of January. We had to create pieces of artwork using the theme, Grand Space Opera: Light Age. Set in the sci-fi world of the future, with alien worlds and unknown entities. We set forth to create something unique and out of this universe.

When I entered this contest as a student with little experience. I believed it would leave me stumbling. Unable to create something that would be adequate enough for the content. This actually became true, to an extent. But the experience I gained led me to gain a newfound respect for the amazing artists and for myself. Where I learnt a great deal more than I anticipated. With new models, styles, and cinematic techniques. I was able to put my own work and resilience to the test.

 

Now let’s dive into the creation process.

 

Tools:

 

Week 1

 

To start with, I played around with ideas through a to-do list instead of the usual proper planning. Which led me to get a general idea of what I wanted to create. The ideas ended up built around what I could do at my current skill level. Using a collection of approved assets from the Unreal marketplace.

The environment I first tested ended up being ships battling around the moon. Lasers and missiles, explosions and beams of light. Reinforcement ships enter the camera from the right, flying up to join the moon battle. All that good stuff. It sounded and looked cool with the progress I made on it. But the project ended up adding too much scope creep. Which led me to build something too large with the time constraints I had. In what I thought would be an awesome environment and cinematic scene, would have to wait till later. If I have more time and experience in the future, I would love to come back to create that scene.

 

First Look Concept Scene

The old scene look development through camera angle one. Using the Ultra Dynamic Sky third-party blueprint as the sky-box. With my basic block out models placed in the scene.

Oldscene_blockout ships

The old scene look development through the I-Max camera. Including my block out models and effects from the SmokeBuilder and InfinityBladeEffects assets.

 

The aim of my early work was to give a general feeling of looking up to the stars from an alien viewpoint. To see such a colossal event unfolding before their very eyes, unable to do anything but witness it. That is the light age, strife still falls upon many worlds at a moment’s notice. Some can prepare for it. Others get lost in the void.

Moving on from that, I removed a lot of my early work in my Unreal project. This time I kept it simple to start with to reduce the amount of scope creep that always seems to make its way in. And, of course, like the creeping of vines through an overgrown jungle. It returned.

 

Week 2

 

The second week of development went towards creating planetary bodies. Since I scrapped the scene from the previous images, this new one would become the basis to work with. Here I used 8k Mars map textures found on the NASA website. I then set it up in Photoshop for editing. through that process, I managed to create what I thought was an alien-looking planet. That planet is then used as a base to create more planets later in development. The method of blueprints and materials inside Unreal was the key to creating them.

 

Planet First Look

The planet first look without effect adjustments.

Planet Second Look

Planet second pass. Added effects in the material instance and blueprints. Added blue colonies to the textures.

 

For creating the stars I had to use cube maps that would give us our sided images that would form our skybox. Here we used a great program called Spacescape. With the map ready I added it to my scene and started blocking out. Around this time I started to test camera angles, post-processing, and look development.

 

Stars made in Spacescape

First look at the star background Cubemaps progress using Spacescape

Scene_1_Blockout_LookDev

The cinematic angle block out. Here is the second pass for the star look. Basic placement of my block-out ships for testing the scene camera angles.

 

Week 3

 

With the look development and ideas formed for the basis of my project. I turned to gather the references I would need to create my models. Using an amazing software called PureRef. I would find references and make mood boards for the ship and structure designs. This type of material gathering can take hours and you may never find the exact piece of art that will inspire your design. But a collection of images may help you to find a theme or feel you are after.

 

structure_references pureref

Pureref structure references.

 

For the structure design, I wanted to create a pyramid style found a lot in sci-fi civilizations. Here I built a basic pyramid structure due to time constraints, a lot of the detail rushed that lacked proper form and style. Luckily some of it ended up concealed in the vastness that is space.

 

pureref Ship references

Pureref spaceship references.

 

The ship references helped me to create my alien-inspired vessel. I went for a thin, biological design that tried to give off the idea of an ancient and sinister-looking ship. For the smaller ship that would oppose the ancient one. I incorporated a rustic and spherical look into its design. Through trial and error and the many versions I made during the modelling process. Something akin to alien vessels grew to become what we saw now in the final shots.

 

Week 4

 

During the third week and the last week, I spent the largest part of it modelling, sculpting, and texturing the models. The last few days of the week were set for creating the cinematic video for the scene. Cutting corners during development due to lack of time is always hard. But I managed to stitch together something that, while a professional would baulk at, it would suit me for the cinematic I was to build. To show off the rest of my work during the weeks of development, here are the finished shots of each type of asset that I used and created for the contest.

 

Assets_Refs_CallSheet

Assets and references.

 

The Ring Gate and the Space Pyramid were combined in blueprints to create a moveable giant space structure that would charge up the ring to unleash a devastating beam of energy at its foes. For the Ring Gate, I used a similar technique to the pyramid in the form of modelling, sculpting, and applying a greeble with minor adjustments. It didn’t turn out how I wanted it in the end, but it gave me enough of the look I was going for.

 

Ring_Gate_Callsheet

Ring Gate and Pyramid.

 

The pyramid was a basic shape that started in Maya. I made small cuts in it and increased its polycount before bringing it over to ZBrush. In ZBrush I made a low and high poly model. The poly-count is even larger for sculpting, before adding a noise greeble and applying that to the high-poly model. A few more adjustments were made before exporting to texturing. The texturing process was a simple one of metallic layers and a few lighting alphas added to it which you don’t really see in a space scene anyway. The model was then turned upside down in the scene and with the Ring Gate included, gave me our giant floating pyramid structure, ready to defend the planet.

 

Pyramid_CallSheet

Space Pyramid.

 

The boss ship was our main ship design used from references to create this ancient dweller of the void. Created with a similar process and the same tools as our structures, this took the largest amount of time to create. Being able to duplicate the base structure and flip it to give our bottom half definitely helped with reducing the time needed to make it. A basic sphere with an emissive material as our sun core is used as the power source to drive this massive ship. In the scene, the ship is clouded by dark shadows that precede and trail in its wake. Minor details to the surface of the model such as lights, scars, and other effects were textured in.

 

Boss_CallSheet

Boss Ship.

 

The small and large versions are to be used as the Shen Rah vessels that fight our boss ship. The same process as the boss ship was used, albeit with minor changes in the modelling phase. I played with a combined sphere and a doughnut in Maya until it looked like something useful. Further details were added before sending it to ZBrush. High-poly creation and sculpting alongside greebling were used to add the scratches and roughness of the model before moving on to texturing. Texturing it was relatively easy as I used metallic layers with some wood materials to bring out some detail of the ship. Blue tints and lights were painted on in areas before being given over to emissives in blueprints.

 

SmallShip_CallSheet

Shen Rah Ship.

 

Earlier in this article, I talked about my planet creation, here are the final three planet designs I made. They all use the same planet and cloud textures, just edited differently through instance materials in Unreal Engine.

 

Planets_CallSheet

Alien Planets.

 

And here are some of the cinematic look development shots I took while working on the cinematic short. I created multiple camera angles, set up animations for the ships, incorporated a sun and played around with effects for the planets and ships. By far the most time was using Unreal’s sequencer to create our ship movement and combat. In the cinematic video, I did not get time to include the ship battle, ships warping in front of the sun, and many more scenes I had planned out. In the future, I would love to come back, update and create a 20-minute-long cinematic battle that envisions the process I took.

 

Look_Dev_CallSheet

Look development for the cinematic intro.

 

And finally, here are the shot assets I used to finish off this contest. For the most part, I created it all from scratch using what little knowledge I had at the time. You really do not need much in order to make a basic cinematic scene in space. With time and dedication at your disposal, you can put towards making some truly breath-taking things using these tools. And as they become more readily available to the average person like me, we will start to see even more wondrous creations from the many talented people around the world.

 

The Void - Shenran planet

The Void Stand Off

The Void - Backup

The Void - Far away

 

While I did not expect to win anything, being an aspiring student learning just a small part of the industry and taking this challenge, was something new and hard, but worthwhile. As it showcases what I can do as a creator within Unreal Engine with less than 3 months of experience using the engine, and what I can expect in the future as I continue to explore its possibilities and the many other tools used inside the games industry.

 

I can’t wait!