In previous articles, we have explained why we chose to create a narrative art book set in a new biopunk universe and went step by step through the preproduction process, covering world-building, the story, the design of environments, characters, and props. It's now time for us to take you through the work we accomplished while creating the illustrations in the book.
Every good illustration relies on a solid composition that makes it readable and includes all the information needed to understand the story.
Thanks to the various 3D assets created during preproduction, we knew that it would be faster to lay the basis for each illustration in 3D. We used VR tools—Adobe Medium (1) or Gravity Sketch (2) (both on Oculus)—and Blender (3), adapting to what we had to depict and the preexisting assets available.
Based on the storyboard sketch for the selected scene, we roughly recreated it in three dimensions, resolving placement and scale issues on the go rather intuitively.
We often realized or refined this first step collaboratively. Working remotely, one would be executing the work, while another (several thousand kilometers away) would comment and give instantaneous feedback as they watched the live feed on their screen.
We have mentioned this before, but in VR, Medium is an excellent tool for organic shapes, while Gravity Sketch is a better way to handle hard surface builds.
Example one: Medium
This scene was situated outside, showing the expedition members walking through a rugged landscape covered in mysterious mushrooms and long-abandoned vehicles.
Pierre Lazarevic started by creating the terrain using various rock stamps.
The moving tool was helpful to bend shapes and get a more flowing outcome.
We used different shaped stamps to lay down the road and "age" it by cutting into it.
The storyboard sketch was always close at hand for quick reference, even in VR.
The elements we could find in the default model library provided with the software were placed in the scene.
Those that didn't exist, like the lamp posts, were quickly modeled, duplicated, and placed along the road as well.
For the mushrooms, we created an original stamp shape.
Once we added one or two characters for later size reference, the work in Medium was done!
Example two: Gravity Sketch
In this scene, we were inside the tent during the expedition. The camera was set at head's height as if we were seated at the table in the foreground. We had a broad view of the tent's interior, with several focus points depicting the various activities going on with the expedition team at night.
Pierre started by placing the equipment boxes and tables by using simples blocks.
Then we used Gravity Sketch's mannequin model to place the characters, adapting their poses to their activities.
Next, we created the tent structure with globes for the supporting ceiling light bubbles and a plane for the exterior membrane.
Inside the tent, we adjusted the poses.
We could push details down to each finger, and being able to quickly place ourselves into Rain's perspective was one of the advantages of using VR.
After adding cables, more characters, and a few premade props, we could preview the set-up in-camera, and we were ready to move on to the next step.
Example 3: Blender
We return to the scene prepared in Medium and open it in Blender to refine and fix the composition.
Here we changed the character placeholders with the rough yet more detailed 3D models prepared during preproduction. We posed unnamed characters in Daz3D (4) before we imported them.
Most of the time, simply having a generic naked body is enough to have a sound basis to work on in 2D later. However, it was beneficial to have models for the designed characters and complex creatures like the mirror dogs.
Once everything was in place, we adjusted the camera position, lens parameters, and lighting to finalize the composition.
In this render, you can see how the final composition differs from the original storyboard sketch. While the environment and overall motif are truthful to the original intention, we now see Rain gathering samples and Elle monitoring the surroundings with her drone, adding information to the image. We have improved it in a limited amount of time and in a way that would probably not have been as smooth if attempted in 2D.
The magic happens when the painting process turns cold and rudimentary 3D renders with default grey figures into vibrant, atmospheric scenes. With readability and information, emotion is the third and final element that makes a good narrative illustration.
Let us show you how Klaus Pillon did it repeatedly for KIN – Mycocene with one of the illustrations in the book as an example. This image shows the expedition team loading their equipment into the foldable lifeboats to cross a bay where lies a sunken interchange during their journey across Japan.
Once we were settled on composition, we could paint without over concerning ourselves with scale or perspective. In this illustration, we used a base created in Gravity Sketch with elements modeled in Blender like the interchange, the mirror dogs, or the trekking cart.
This second pass shows the image after replacing the interchange with a textured version, helping with its reflection in the water. Klaus inserted a low mountain range plate in the far background and applied a few quick strokes to the characters to understand skin tones.
Next, Klaus cleared the sky and applied its reflection over the sea, reworked the air perspective over the mountains, and started adding details to the interchange to show the mushrooms overgrowing it. He has also begun to sketch out some of the characters in the foreground using the mannequins as guides.
After adjusting the sunlight temperature, now that he had color and light references both in the back and front of the image, Klaus worked his way through the characters and their equipment, referencing the designs from preproduction.
He continued his progress towards the back of the image, overpainting the midground characters already over the water. Klaus added a dissolving morning mist around the base of the interchange's pillars. He also placed quick highlights over the plastic suits to get a first approximation of the final image.
Here, Klaus is adjusting the sea color by softening the sky reflection and letting more of its red tint show through and match the original environment design. He is also starting to refine the characters and trying out one way to render the plastic suits' head covering bubbles.
In this next step, Klaus fixed minor anatomy issues and continued the detail work on the characters. The overall luminosity of the scene has also been increased slightly.
He kept adding details and adjusting some of the characters' poses by moving from the center of the image towards the sides. You can see the AC unit being treated as well, giving an idea of the final level of refining required for the props in the picture.
With help from the previous step, more items are added inside the boats to fill in the empty areas. Klaus strengthened the shadows to give more contrast and maintain readability by massing values despite the additional clutter.
He can finally add the final touches like the suit's harnesses, continuously checking the original prop concepts to ensure the designs are correctly replicated and consistent throughout the book.
After finalizing the foreground by completing the characters and props, Klaus went back to the environment, touching up the ground, adding more movement into the sea with waves and foams suggesting the lifeboats' motion. He also dirtied and darkened the highway branch at the top left of the picture to bring back the viewer's eye into the composition.
This is the final image. After finishing the characters in the midground, Klaus used the smudge tool to soften some edges, blending elements together to create contrasts in the brushwork and avoid superfluous sharpness in lesser essential areas. The last touch consisted in adding a subtle bloom effect to the plastic on the suits for the same reason.
And here we are, you can see the whole process summed up in this short animation of the painting's evolution.
We hope this article gave you a good idea of the production workflow for the illustrations in KIN – Mycocene. We consider images to be at least as essential to the telling of the story as the accompanying text, and we couldn't be more impatient for you to have a look at the entire printed book.
(1) Adobe Medium
(2) Gravity Sketch