Model a Mars Ranger with Modo
Ubisoft’s Matthew O takes you through the steps to make his Mars Ranger and how to design for competitions
with this article we will cover some of the techniques used in the creation of the mars ranger. during the process, time was a major limitation and so it was very important that the workflow was trimmed down wherever possible in order to create a great design in an efficient manner. we will look at some of the workflow enhancements and shortcuts used within modo to allow more time for the design portion of the project as well as provide some general tips that might help you in the future with your design work.
the ranger was built as part of the hp mars home Planet modelling competition so it needed to not only impress designers but also engineers. we will discuss how this affected the design process later in the article.
01Why join a competition? i love taking part in competitions, it drives me to finish a piece within a shorter time frame than i normally would. it also enforces a set of restrictions upon me if i hope to do well and i like to see this as a great opportunity to push myself. in this case i chose to enter three weeks before the competition ended. i have some experience of participating in a few competitions and even host environment art challenges for artstation so i felt that despite the short time frame, it was still an achievable project.
one of the biggest pieces of advice i give is to try and cut down on as much manual work as possible in order to free up that time to iterate on your design.
02Restrictions and design limitations in this case it was made very clear in the brief that i’d be judged by a group of experts, from creatives to engineers and also by the community. this meant that in order to do well i needed to create a design that not only had creative appeal but i also had to ensure that my model was grounded in reality in order to meet the expectations of the engineers. ordinarily, i try do this anyway as it makes the design more relatable but it meant i really needed to try and explain every shape if i was going to convince the judges.
03Do your research mars is a hostile place, with extreme temperatures, high levels of radiation, huge sandstorms and almost no surface resources. the kind of vehicle required to support a small group of people on its surface would need to be versatile, heavy duty and able to provide for its crew. i figured all of these kinds of technology or equipment were already in development in some way so if i could find the important components and allow them to inform my design then it’d help to add believability to the final design.
04Gather good references once i had a list of requirements i decided to build a big board of references, this included images of the kind of tech required for the vehicle but also vehicles that i wanted to use as inspiration for my design.
these ranged from concepts, to toys and screenshots from movies. i always use these to help inform my design whenever i’m getting a little creative block and the real world reference helps to bring some realism.
05Refine your workflow Personally, i find that it is extremely important to optimise my workflow. i like to try and cut out as much unnecessary work as possible in order to avoid fatigue. i find it harder and harder to objectively look at my design the longer i look at it, so, in order to produce the best design, i need to make sure i’m working quickly enough and that i enjoy the process.
06Modo’s Round Edge Shader one of the slowest parts of modelling for me is needing to add support loops to all hard edges in order for the mesh to be subdivided. most of these are just to give nice bevels and sometimes they can be very time consuming to add to complex shapes. i avoid doing this all together by using the round edge shader in modo. this makes all concave and convex edges up to an angle that i define to look rounded, it can give really nice results and is obviously far faster than support loops. this also allows me to always iterate on the bevel sizes and overall shapes of the design.
in order to produce the best design, i need to make sure i’m working quickly enough and that i enjoy the process
07UV work and materials typically when i work with this kind of asset i avoid manually Uving any of the model unless i really can’t get good results without it. i prefer to tri-planar project my textures onto the model and scale them based on how they look in the render. this saves me a huge amount of time as Uving is a slow process but more importantly it means i can set up materials very early in the process and keep modelling without needing to fix UVS.
this gives me the opportunity to not only iterate on the textures in Quixel but to also to control the way they are being used in modo’s material editor.
08Texture creation with DDO For this kind of hard surface design work i really like to use Quixel’s ddo to generate tileable textures.
the program utilises scans and masks that can be combined in more than enough ways to create nice fabrics, plastics, metals and whatever other materials i typically need for my piece, and quickly. this is very important to me as typically when i spend time building a material manually using the likes of substance designer or even through sculpting methods it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days and this isn’t something i can afford to be spending time on if i only have three weeks.
09Texture layering in Modo i spend a good amount of time layering up textures in modo to make my materials looks convincing and interesting, i want all of this work to not rely on UVS and to not be impacted by my constantly-changing design. this works very similarly to Photoshop, in that i might have my paint job looking pretty good but want to blend in some extra information to my bump or roughness, for example, in order to break up the overall material. this really helps to add some general material variation in a quick manner.
10Procedural texture blending when working in modo on a design i like to avoid spending time on painting in edge damage or grunge for example. therefore i tend to use lots of blending that is based on textures i’ve generated in ddo as well as some procedural effects. a good example of this is using a generic metal paint job, blending out to a bare metal using procedural convexity that is being generated by modo and then running a texture through that effect to break it up and make it look like damage.
11Block out the initial design during the blockout process the most important thing for me is to hit a realistic sense of scale with a really interesting silhouette, constantly scaling and moving wheels or the whole cockpit, for example, until i find something i like. once i am happy i will show the design to others to get their feedback.
12Use feedback in your design after getting their reactions i will implement the feedback i agree with. it can also be valuable to show this kind of work to people who aren’t professional artists as their feedback doesn’t tend to factor in production difficulty and can be far more blunt. as you can see, my blockout changed a lot based upon elements i grew to dislike and the feedback i was receiving from friends. Feedback can lead to the development of really cool new ideas, like airless tyres and better treads. after the first week and a half i basically locked this design down so that i could move on to detailing the vehicle and getting it ready to submit.
after getting their reactions i will implement the feedback i agree with. it can also be valuable to show this kind of work to people who aren’t professional artists as their feedback doesn’t tend to factor in production difficulty
Model the details once my blockout is feeling solid then i move on to modelling in the details, this is important in order to make the vehicle feel believable and to give everything a sense of scale. it’s also an extremely powerful way of adding an overall composition to the design and controlling where the viewer looks.
Light the Ranger i use image-based lighting regularly in my personal work as i feel it gives really nice results with very little time and effort, once i’ve chosen my hdri map i’ll rotate it to fit the individual camera angles i’ve chosen.
i can also increase and decrease contrast and overall power through modo until i’m happy that it gives me a solid base for my renders.
Add key lights when i’m happy with my lighting scenario i will often add lights just to pick out key details. this vehicle is going to spend most of its life out in the martian desert so i didn’t want the extra lighting to look too synthetic; it had to be pretty subtle. in this case i added some low power point lights above the tyres to increase their sense of volume as well as adding spotlights to the modelled lights around the cab.
this helped to bed them into the design, their effect is subtle in the final images but it helps to pick out some of the shapes around them, such as hand grips.
Composite your renders once i’ve rendered out my vehicle i render an ambient occlusion pass to give myself extra information.
First, i sharpen my base image by a small amount, then i’ll multiply my ao by roughly 50% depending on how strong i would like it to look. to bring back some contrast i will overlay the ao on another layer at roughly 15% and finally, i duplicate the base render, high pass filter that and then i’ll set the layer to hard light at roughly 5% in order to pick out some of the finer details.
Present the final design once i have my different camera angles composited, i like to make my presentation images nice and clean.
i typically use a dark flat grey background so that it doesn’t distract from the piece, i will also add a vignette to the whole image to bring the viewer’s eye back to the centre of the image.
Show the vehicle on Mars For the final shot i wanted to make a single image that’d help to sell the fantasy, i think it’s much easier to appreciate the overall need for the vehicle with an action shot. For this i used a few different free-to-use shots of mars from nasa’s mars rover and edited them together until i liked the overall composition of the background, i needed to colour grade this and the vehicle separately until i felt they felt like they were in the same environment.
Add some atmospherics there are multiple layers of dust and smoke alphas overlaid to give the sense of a dry, arid atmosphere around the vehicle and i increased the power of these lights to give the appearance that the light beams are volumetric and full of dust.
Ground the vehicle lastly i overlaid layers of sand and dust onto the vehicle and thickened it up in crevices to make it look like it’d been out exploring for some time and to really make the vehicle look like it’s in the scene. to achieve this result i used a combination of Photoshop and procedural masks generated in modo, this also felt like the perfect opportunity to inject a little humour and add the ‘Clean me’ to the windscreen.