Mike, for how long have you been an artist?I’ve been an artist since I can remember. I can remember tracing my hands and drawing claws on them when I was a child. Throughout my youth I was into anything from drawing portraits to anime and comic book strips. After a while, I started getting into 3D and began to pick it up by reading the 3ds Max Bible and learning from YouTube. Years later, I was recruited by Blur Studio and have been working there since.
How do you usually start a project?
Usually, many things can be a start of a project. A movie, a quote, a dream, etc. Once I have an idea or feeling I want to give off, I start to sketch some ideas down. From there, I gather the proper reference for the project ahead. This can be done on Shutterstock, Google, any image search engine, really.
What's the story of this piece?For this piece I was thinking of a couple on a long journey together that had suddenly stumbled across this strange base or headquarters of some sort, hidden in the foggy atmosphere of this vast, natural landscape. I wanted the architecture to look like it was something built around and within the landscape.
Could you take us through a step by step of the process?
I started with a base image from Guillem H. Pongiluppis’ Gumroad pack: Scottish Landscapes. This was a great image to start from, because it had everything I needed as a far as a great base to begin with.
From there I jumped into 3ds Max and matched the perspective of the base image. Then with the help of your Brutalist kit, I quickly threw in some architecture to further my idea. I didn’t have to tweak textures at all for what I was doing. So, this was pretty much set it and forget it once I had the initial composition fleshed out. For the lighting, I used a generic overcast HDRI that matched the plate closely.
After I got the initial render completed, I jumped into Photoshop to start masking out areas of the architecture to help it sit into the plate. This along with painting in atmosphere really helps your CG render integrate with the plate. You want to focus on masking out areas that look natural and make it as realistic as possible. Also, for the BG building you can see that I really painted in a lot of atmosphere to push it further back in depth.
Next, I did the same for the lower portion of the building structure by bringing in another Brutalist asset. Masking out areas I did not want, and knowing that this particular piece was going to be sort of buried in the grass, I painted in cast shadows from it around the top and bottom of the structure. This helped the eye believe that it was underneath the terrain.
Then I went along the mask and painted in grass strands to make it seem natural. Also, color corrected the structure to fit into the plate. This is done by making sure all my levels are balanced, darks and brights, and making sure the color is matching nicely with the plate.
I felt the composition was a little heavy on the right side, so I decided to balance it out by adding a rock formation to the left side of the image. Again, using the same tools as before, checking my levels and colors so that everything sits together and feels like it is one image.
For this stage, I felt it was necessary to paint on top of the characters in the shot. Changed the outfits to look a bit more stylized and futuristic. Added more atmosphere, along with lights for the interior of the building structures.
Finally, I added a grade on top, which consisted of level adjustments, color grading with curves, and camera FX such as blooms and what not to bring it all together. What I usually do in Photoshop for this is collapsing everything together on a new layer and with the shortcut (Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E), gaussian blurring it, then setting that layer to lighten. Create a black mask for that layer and paint in where you want the bloom effect to happen.
One more question, Mike. Why do you make art?I make art because it’s a freedom for me that I can’t get elsewhere; it’s an extension of myself. There’s lots of times in life when you can feel either helpless, in a maze, frustrated, when things just get too complicated, or even when things are perfect. When I sit down and get to create a world for a moment, I get to escape it all and live in my own dream-like reality.
Mike Johnson is a Lead Scene Assembler and Matte Painter at Blur Studio. You can check out some of his incredible work on his ArtStation here.