Hello everyone! My name is Ben Armstrong, and I currently work as a Senior Environment/Prop Artist at Sumo Digital in Newcastle, United Kingdom.
Welcome to the breakdown of my recent Still Life project. In this breakdown, I will run through some of the processes I used to create the final renders, from initial scene setup to lighting. To learn about how I approach hard surface modeling and baking in Toolbag, check out my previous article with Marmoset, Baking A Hard Surface Weapon in Toolbag. Let’s jump right in!
This project started about four and a half years ago as a single asset (the ornate jug) built for the Toolbag 3 alpha test phase. I wanted to capture the feel of a classical still life painting with the then newly released Toolbag 3, hoping that the advancements in real-time rendering would allow me to bring it to fruition. Unfortunately, as impressive as Toolbag 3 was, it wasn’t quite up to the task, the idea mothballed, and new projects came and went in the interim. Fast forward to late 2020, Toolbag 4 was in its alpha/beta phase, and I created an asset for the occasion (Nagra D-II) to test new features such as the ray tracing renderer and scene management tools. I then decided to blow the cobwebs off the still life project and set out to redefine it.
I started with a fresh mood board using PureRef to help establish the classical feel I was going for while still conveying a certain level of luxury and intensity. Then, keeping in mind that the jug had to be central to the composition, I started to block out the scene in a rudimentary manner.
At this point, I started to get ideas about the framing and how I wanted that to feel. I opted to go for a portrait-style shot to lean into the height of the elements in the composition. I set the Output Resolution to 3000×3840 and turned on Safe Frame to better visualize the composition. I also set the camera’s Field of View to 85mm to mimic close to a traditional portrait lens. This worked as my base setup, and I continued to make various tweaks during the project. I also tried various HDRI’s from FlippedNormals Studio Pack to achieve a base lighting pass that aligned with the project’s tone.
Trial and Error
Many iterations to the composition and assets were made from this early pass until the final render stage. I was constantly trying ideas and studying my references throughout the project.
The addition of the soft elements (food and fabric) to the scene was a particular point of iteration, trying various drapes and folds over the scene using the excellent Blender add-on Simply Cloth Pro in conjunction with sculpting in ZBrush. The drapes at the rear were something that I wanted to add for a while since they helped balance the composition, offered some texture, and created interesting lighting pick-up. Ultimately, there was a lot of trial and error to figure out what worked and what did not.
Locking in the Composition
With plenty of refinement left to go, I figured it was a good time to get some trusted feedback. I can’t stress the importance of getting feedback at the right time in the project! Fresh eyes and an alternative perspective can help keep you on track. With that in mind, I asked my good friend and talented artist David Holland to take a look.
The shot on the left is my composition prior to David’s feedback, and the image on the right was after. The main iteration points were to adjust the camera angle and some compositional elements to make things look more interesting.
While making various tweaks to the camera angle and position, I’d lost a certain amount of depth to the image, and the camera was leveled with the table. Dave’s feedback addressed this and I was able to remedy the issue. The second area that needed more impact was the composition of the elements. The candlestick tower above the jug shifted from the focal point, so I made some changes to its design, which snowballed into tweaking multiple props.
The new arrangement had a better overall sense of harmony, with interconnecting and overlapping shapes, whereas the props initially felt quite isolated from one another. This new composition also allowed the jug to be the dominant vertical element again, and I continued to make small tweaks that can be noted in the final renders.
Shader Tips & Tricks
Adjusting Microsurface Detail
This is a great feature that can allow for some manipulation of the roughness/gloss response in the scene, and this helps make scene-dependent artistic changes without changing the source content.
In the Microsurface module, I picked Advanced Mirco to manipulate the roughness texture of the assets directly in Toolbag. You can adjust the Minimum and Maximum sliders to affect the range of values of the loaded texture.
In the example above, I set the Maximum value to 0.5, compressing the full texture into 0-0.5 range, resulting in the asset becoming shinier and increasing contrast between the rough and smooth values in the texture.
Setting Up Cloth
To dial in the cloth and attain a suitable satin-like finish, I used a mixture of specific texture maps and shader features.
The material was created between Photoshop and Substance Designer. I had a reasonably detailed height map, which enabled me to use parallax occlusion mapping (in TB, this is found under Surface > Parallax > Height map). This helped give the heavier embroidered details more weight and definition against the base satin fabric.
The effects of this were subtle; however, it’s most visible above the center of the shot. Pushing parallax occlusion mapping too far can lead to stepping and nasty artifacts/distortion, but it’s a great way to get a little more out of the finer details in a material when used correctly.
To get the satin finish to look the way I wanted, I used the sheen setting under Diffusion> Microfiber > Sheen Map. I loaded a specific Sheen map that I created using an inverted and levels adjusted height map. This enabled me to have the fabric sheen on the base fabric but not on the gold embroidery. I tinted the sheen with a light desaturated green to help push the fabric effect wrapping the light around the folds.
Creating Glass Materials
My glass setup for this scene was pretty straightforward. The screenshot below shows the various settings and maps I used, generated from bake and texture projects in Toolbag. While researching to get the best possible glass results, I referenced Cem Tezcan’s excellent breakdown, which had great tips to achieve glass materials in Toolbag, well worth a read!
Ray Tracing On!
Ray tracing had a transformative effect on this project, not only in having a higher fidelity in the final result but also in how I could light the scene (more on that later). I’ve compiled a raster vs. ray tracing comparison to highlight the difference it made to the scene:
As you can see from the comparison image above, there are numerous improvements to the final treatment of the scene:
- Accurate reflections (the reflection of the plate in the spilled wine)
- Accurately rendered glass and liquids with correct thickness and refraction
- Multi-bounce GI (the gold-colored light bounces indirectly illuminating the underside of the grapes and around the cheese)
- Accurate contact shadows grounding assets in the scene (no more floaty objects!)
- Improved shading across all surfaces
Without ray tracing, I would not have accurately depicted a lot of the complex material definition and layering of surfaces in the scene, and the original test project would have probably been left to gather more dust!
For the lighting in the scene, I wanted to capture the feel of a traditional still life where there is little influence on the objects from a wider environment. So I replicated a black box environment by not using an HDRI, which meant the environment’s contribution to the lighting was zero/black. From there, it was a case of layering up the lights in a controlled manner.
The final lighting set-up for this scene was constructed mainly using planes with an emissive material assigned to them, combined with some primitive shadow casting geometry. With the final highlight being applied via a spot light. This was added to help pop the curvature of various elements and pull out some nice edge highlights.
The final camera and image settings can be seen above. They were adjusted continually in the closing stages of the project, and all test renders were done at nearly full render quality.
With the speed of Toolbag’s rendering on RTX hardware, it made sense to review and adjust continually at the desired quality. All of the settings were tweaked to help add imperfection and believability.
- Final settings for the ray-traced lighting. There was a lot of trial and error to get the final setup.
- Keeping the Samples high and Denoise Strength low allowed me to keep a certain amount of detail and imperfection that would have been smoothed out.
- I added render passes to the final render, which was incredibly useful for post-production work and fine-tuning.
- Adjusting the Near Blur and Far Blur settings of the Depth of Field settings helped create the feel of an old camera lens.
- I added subtle camera Distortion to enhance the old lens look.
- I added Vignette directly in Toolbag’s Post Effects since I prefer the control there. This helped to encompass the grainy effect.
Render Passes and Compositing
I could composite in the fog render in a more controlled subtle manner with render passes now available. I rendered out a rather aggressive ‘blown out’ fog that I could layer in with the help of the Depth Render Pass. This helped to add in separation and atmosphere between the middle ground and the background of the image.
Below is the step-by-step implementation of the post-process passes applied to the image. Individually, they aren’t as effective; however, cumulatively, they moved the image in a direction I was ultimately happy with. The application of each pass followed the same iterative process of trial and error that ran through the entire project. Often stepping away from the image and returning with fresh eyes helped me determine if the changes had the desired effect.
I hope you’ve found this breakdown helpful, and I would just like to say a huge thank you to everyone at Marmoset for inviting me back to write this breakdown article. Thanks for reading!
We’d like to thank Ben Armstrong for writing this breakdown. You can check out more of Ben’s work on Artstation. Set up and light realistic still life artwork using the 30-day trial for Toolbag 4.
If you’re interested in collaborating on a breakdown article, please send us your pitch along with your artwork to firstname.lastname@example.org.