Hi there! My name is Alexa Kruckenberg. I am a US-based technical artist and a graduate of Utah Valley University, where I studied game design and animation. I currently only make art as a hobby, but I hope to eventually turn it into a career!
In school, I focused a lot on creating realistic models through the PBR pipeline. It wasn’t until I graduated that I began to work in a more stylized, hand-painted approach, which I enjoy much more. Finding my niche in the 3D world has definitely made the creative process much more exciting for me!
I hope I can teach you something new as I go through the process of creating Cloud Station!
I browse Instagram A LOT (maybe more than I should) and currently follow over 850 artists. When I see an illustration that speaks to me, I add it to an album that I can look through whenever I get the 3D art bug. In this particular case, I had added this illustration by EllievsBear to that album over a year ago, and I’m sure you know how it goes: you keep meaning to get to a project, and things keep getting in the way!
Well, one night I couldn’t sleep and I decided to try to tire myself out by starting a new project. I looked through my inspiration album, and that illustration caught my eye again. I knew it was finally time to bring it to life!
I started by modeling the hills using half-spheres and simple extrusions. Getting them to look nice and smooth was important, and to me, there’s no better tool for that in Maya than the smooth function in the Quad Draw tool. I like to also turn on Soft Select to increase the influence of the smooth tool. It evens out the topology so nicely!
Once I was satisfied with the hills, I started on the aeropuppies (that’s what the artist called the fish-looking critters). These were also created with half-spheres and extrusions, plus a little bit of the Quad Draw tool (if you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of the Quad Draw tool). I knew I wanted them to be animated in the final design, so I made sure to keep my topology light and simple to make rigging easy for myself.
At that point, it was 4 AM, but I was so excited that I didn’t want to stop! The buildings, signs, and other small details were fairly simple to make—most of them are just cubes with a few extrusions here and there. The most difficult pieces were the long ropes for the bridge, which I made using the cap of a tiny cylinder extruded along a curve. But all in all, nothing was particularly challenging to make—it was just a matter of making sure I matched all the small details in the original illustration. By the time I was done, I had modeled through the entire night, but I was super happy with what I’d made!
After getting some sleep, it was time to texture everything! I separated the model into 5 materials: the hills, the details on hills 1 and 3, the details on hills 2 and 4, the skybox, and the aeropuppies. Separating things like this made it easy to isolate parts of the model in Substance Painter. I worked with a lot of masks to keep the various small bits separated from each other. Also, folders in Substance Painter are maybe the best thing ever, because you can add masks to them as well, and they also help keep your layers organized. I had easily over 100 layers by the time I was done texturing, so organization was super important!
I knew I wanted to put this on Sketchfab in its final form, and that definitely influenced my texturing workflow. As I added more and more detail to the textures, I periodically uploaded the model to Sketchfab as a draft to make sure everything looked right. I also set up my post-processing effects early on so I knew what I would need to bake into the textures in terms of lighting and texture, and what I could leave up to Sketchfab’s 3D viewer.
In order to keep things looking consistent between Substance Painter’s 3D viewer and Sketchfab’s, I found a custom unlit shader for Substance Painter that allowed me to work with the same unlit settings that I ended up using in Sketchfab. This was a major breakthrough for me because I was unable to work in Material view in Substance Painter with their default shader—it just looked too different due to the environment lighting, which I had decided to turn off in Sketchfab. With the custom shader, I could focus just on the Base Color and Opacity maps, which were all I really needed to worry about.
I relied on just a handful of default brushes: Basic Hard, Basic Soft, Kyle’s Spatter Brushes, and a little bit of the Watercolor Spots Brush. Some artists swear by fancy custom brushes, but I’ve found that I can usually get by just fine with what Substance Painter provides. Occasionally I have to go out and find or make a special brush to get the right effect, but for this piece, I didn’t.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to achieve the glowing effect of the signs and the titular cloud station in Sketchfab, but fortunately, a quick search revealed that an emissive map paired with the Bloom post-processing effect would be exactly what I was looking for.
Texturing took the longest out of all the steps in my process, but I wanted to make sure I got every detail just right!
Rigging and animation
Thanks to my training in technical art and coding, I’ve written my own auto-rigger in Maya, along with some other tools that make my pipeline run a little smoother. Rigging can be so tedious and it’s easy to make a mistake when you have to click so many different buttons, but automating the process solves both problems! However, I always paint my weight maps by hand. I’m never satisfied with Maya’s auto weight maps.
The rig for the aeropuppies was fairly simple, but I added a feature that I’d never done before, which was the ability to scale each joint in the rig. This allowed me to use the same base model for all three aeropuppies, but with a slightly different scale on each one so they didn’t look like exact duplicates of each other.
When I was still in school, I used to joke that I was in the wrong major because I hated animating. However, with this piece, I set out to change that. After a bit of research, I found that animating the aeropuppies along a curve would be the easiest way to get the overall motion that I wanted. I just used a basic NURBS circle for each path, although I did experiment with more complex curves that had some interesting results. Then I animated the swimming motion by rotating each joint along the aeropuppies’ spine on a 4-frame offset and set everything to run in a loop. As a last small detail, I also animated the windmill to spin and the windsock to blow in the wind.
Putting it all together!
With everything done in Maya and Substance Painter, it was time to upload to Sketchfab! I exported all the geometry and joints from Maya as an FBX, and then began to adjust my materials and post-processing effects. These are the settings I used:
- Scene: I set the Shading to Shadeless to turn off the environment lighting—I had worked the highlights and shadows into my textures, so no extra lighting was necessary.
- Materials: Nothing too special here—I just put in my exported textures from Substance Painter and adjusted the emission levels until I got a nice glow that wasn’t blinding. I also turned off the double-sided face rendering for the skybox.
- Post-Processing: I used the Grain effect to add some extra texture, and the Depth of Field effect to blur the background so the 4th hill looks like it’s fading into the distance, plus a little bit of blur on the foreground to help focus the viewer on the cloud station on the 3rd hill. I also turned on Chromatic Aberrations, Bloom, and Vignette, but these settings are all turned down pretty low so they’re not super visible.
- Sound: A friend suggested that I add some soothing music to really pull everything together, so I searched for some royalty-free music and found this piece by Helmut Schenker. The song was a little too long to upload to Sketchfab, so I took it into Audacity and picked out a short clip that would loop well.
And with that, Cloud Station was done!