Creation of Prinsengracht

I thought it would be interesting to write something about the development of the medieval scene environment. Not only the technical aspect but also the story behind a design and production timeline.

I work on my own and sometimes I hire designers to make characters and ornaments. 95% of my scenes are fully handwork and very time-consuming. Ten years ago I made the decision to fully focus on European medieval scene environments because they inspire me so much. For me, there are lots of opportunities to do studio work, but I’m scared of losing my passion and motivation when working on side projects not medieval related. This environment work is all about inspiration, so I will not be able to do other things that do not inspire me.

Inspiration is such a powerful tool keeping you on track when working in a large scene environment. First, there is this starting point of picking a reference or just a good idea to start with. When you pick this reference, you know you are going to fully focus on it for the next month in every detail. It is going to be you and take part in your life. Sleeping and dreaming, it’s everywhere. You study the location, look at photo references, and make notes to make a solid start. I call this pre-scene development. When it works out the good way, a sort of inspiration fire makes part of you and you can’t wait to start working on the scene, this is good. You need this for the next three weeks.

Old sketch from 1860 used as main reference (inspiration)

For the Prinsengracht scene, I had a sketch reference from a painter who draws the actual situation in 1860. I was also able to visit the location in real life to study it. Although only the bridge was left, it allowed me to make a photo scan from the bridge and observing the street and building structure. Then there was also a photo reference from 1920 that allowed me to get an idea of the street environment without cars and modern street objects. With all this information I had a solid base to start working on the scene.

Photo on location showing the bridge

I had a full month to work on the scene, one week of study and research, and three weeks of building and polishing. The first thing I did was making a work schedule how much time every object/building will cost. For example, 2/3 days for a building, 4 days for the street environment, etc, etc. With this schedule, I had a rough reference of how much time it will cost to finish it. With all the needed info it was time to start working on the scene.

Scene blockout

The first thing I did was making a block out. This visualizes the scene in a very simple way. Just some rough shapes to point out the light and camera. By doing this you quickly see if a building can be removed from the list or be added. I make some changes to my schedule and continue the work process. Because I have a very specific genre (19th-century European city sights) it is key to have a good texture reference. Think about arches, bricks, cobblestone it needs to fit the scene. During the years I learned that good texture reference is the key to a believable scene. Looking at a brick texture, I look at lots of detail. The space between the bricks, the layering, the roughness, it needs to be right. You can imagine when I travel for textures I can be so happy when I see the right surface. With my camera equipment ( Nikon z7 ) I scan the surface and make texture maps out of it.

Texture locations used for Prinsengracht

So when building a house, I already know the type of textures, I don’t have to look around on texture platforms. Because a texture is so specific, I have to know, before I start working on the scene, my basic set of textures.

The real fun is when you start mixing the textures/materials. A couple of years ago I learned this technique, I know, pretty late, but it was like magic for me. Mixing red with brown bricks to break the tilling look was such a powerful way of adding more detail to the surface. later I started mixing plaster and more texture types. It took some time to have good control of this. Like everything, you need to learn how to do it the right way. I still study this and every time I feel I get a bit closer to the result I have in mind.

Breakdown of material setup

The real game-changer was last year. When I switched from blender 2.79 to blender 2.8 I had a 1.5-year break because I worked on my Batavia 1627 project. At the end of 2019 when I completed this huge project I had to learn the new interface and played around with some new ideas. One of these was brick detail. I already made some progress on the materials as I explained earlier before, but there was always this hard-edge transition between corners of buildings. Also, the doors and windows had this hard transition that broke the illusion. I think the success of Germania was because it was a large scene environment with almost no detail on the corners. If there was one thing I would like to fix before working on a new set of environments, it was this brick detail effect.

Red markers show hard edges, green more smooth. (Old work)

For this, I changed the way I constructed the buildings. The old way was to make rough shapes of the structure, adding holes with a Boolean and added some bevel lines to hide the hard edges. The positive thing about this technique was an optimized model, but no option to add a displacement map. My new work method changed this. After adding the holes and deforming on the walls I added a remesh modifier to have solid geometry. It has a cost in performance, but now I was able to add weight layers of detail and vertex painting to define where to add a different material layer. The result was mind-blowing.

Close detail of bricks

I am still new to this new technique improvement. Although I know it is already common in the industry, I feel like there is a new world to explore in possibilities. Prinsengracht is a study project, and new ones will follow. Smaller and bigger ones, just to get more control on the looks. The main challenge is scene balance what I like to discuss in the following sample.

Maybe less technical, but still worth highlighting. After finishing the buildings and street design there is this empty scene that is ready to be filled with objects. Maybe the most dangerous point in scene development, because you can break the scene illusion by making bad choices. You can’t simply add some random characters and objects like barrels and buckets to archive a medieval look. It just doesn’t work like that. Every object adds a sort of value and putting the wrong objects together confuses the mind. For example, barrels. Nowadays we have these amazing photo scanned barrels, I love to put these everywhere in the scene because of the way they cast light and depth in the scene. But doing that will be the worst thing to do. For this, my photo reference of 1900/20 helps a lot. Looking close to these images you won’t see barrels everywhere. Just some rubbish and benches and fences filling the scenes. Sometimes a barrel, but these are rare. If you add these, do something with them, otherwise, don’t use random barrels or other old objects. I could write a book about this subject, so much to tell about it, but I think you get the point.

Green highlighted objects have a function, not just scene filling

Same for characters. A scene without feels strange, also for measurement reference. Somehow I always want a character in the scene to give the scene some value. I mentioned in the scene description that my characters are outdated. Between now and next year I like to work on a new set of villagers, but this takes time. If you are a designer, feel free to contact me.

Clay render of Prinsengracht

A nice little detail to finish this blog in the sky. Some years ago I made a set of HDRI images on a nice location in the Netherlands. I still use these skies because of the original look I can’t find on any platform. The clouds in combination with the blue make it typical Dutch. Some people say because we have so much water in the country it has an influence on the sky. They call it Dutch light. I don’t know if it’s true, but the HDRI’s from Holland and other countries are different, that’s a fact. It is hard for me to make new HDRI’s because I live in Delft and there is no empty land where I can capture these.

I hope this blog post gives some more info about the work behind it. Although it is just a very short explanation, it maybe helps you in your workflow as an environment designer. Feel free to ask questions.