Art Spotlight: Mysterious Space Artifacts!

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Ok, where to start?

My name is Steve Morrison and I’m a Artist/Animator based in Scotland.

From a young age I was always interested in drawing, animation and story creation and so after finishing a Traditional Art & Design degree at University in Scotland I found myself (with a little bit of right time, right place) working at a well known Game Development Studio in Dundee, Scotland. Since then I have worked at quite a few different studios making games for the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony and EA.

Although I didn’t do any 3D or use much digital software at University—my studies were in the traditional mediums and techniques—I found jumping into 3D creation an exciting move that allowed me to exercise my creativity in a different way. I started learning 3D modelling and animation in Alias and Wavefront before they eventually became Maya. I also use 3ds Max currently in my job but always gravitate back to Maya when doing personal work. I have experience with ZBrush and Mudbox although my current modelling process tends towards keeping things simple and solid so I rarely stray from Maya and Photoshop for modelling and texturing of my 3D Doodles.


Although I have worked on a fairly large spread of different visual looks from stylised to photorealistic, I still always tend to gravitate back to creating toy-like designs when doing personal work. Often this is because I can get great results quickly making use of simple shapes and colours to create models that are whimsical, simple and toy-like. If I end up with something that looks like it could be a cool toy sitting on my desk, I tend to be happy with the results.

The other thing I do even before I start is come up with a narrative of some kind to help drive my creative juices and shape what I am building. Having a story behind a character, object or scene helps me visualise things in my head as I model and it’s also quite a fluid way to work as you can let the story and ideas change and adjust as you model and your imagination expands the idea.

Mysterious Space Artifacts!


I had recently finished a fun little Robot piece called Fizzo! The narrative behind that scene and design was a trash cleaning Droid that used its “disintegration” cannons to zap the trash out of existence. Part of that narrative also added that the engineers who had invented the disintegration cannons had really created displacement canons that sent the trash across space and possibly time. So where was it ending up?


This led me to thinking about an alien species in a galaxy far away suddenly finding these discarded and displaced used cans afflicting their space and planet. I decided it would be fun to create a scene with an alien sent on a mission to investigate these strange items floating towards their world.

A rough doodle on a Post-It note game me a rough idea of what I wanted to model. This was the most basic of scribbles as a guide for what I ultimately ended up producing, barring some minor tweaks along the way.

A quick Post-It note doodle was where it began


When modelling I always work at a lower resolution and then smooth the model to get a more rounded look. This technique forces me to keep shapes simple and lends itself well to the stylised cartoon look that I naturally lean towards. So: simple volumes of the model and edge loops that help the shapes tends to be the main focus as I model.

The example here shows the simple structure of the Alien’s body prior to smoothing to get the final resulting mesh. Even after smoothing the mesh is still fairly simple.

On the left is the basic modelled mesh, On the right is the smoothed mesh (helmet was changed in style during modelling due to alien head shape)


When it comes to texturing I quite often keep elements to flat colours if I can. Often just using a coloured shader and adding specular texture, bump and emissive elements till I get something that feels suitably toy like. However for this model I ended up doing some small texture unwrapping just to create some more interesting textures between the soft and hard surfaces that made up the suit and skin of the model.

Technically there is nothing complicated in my approach to unwrapping and nothing that hasn’t been discussed many times before. In this case, because I’m not making game ready assets and due to the friendliness of the Sketchfab renderer and material engine, I kept it simple and mapped and textured based on surface type rather than having a single material for the whole character. So, not really very efficient but in this case I’m focused on the fun of creating the scene rather than the exacting task of creating game ready assets.

Keeping things simple with basic surface textures


So I want to pose the character as if it is floating in space investigating some of the giant floating soda cans. Which means quickly rigging the mesh.

Creating a basic skeleton enough to quickly pose the character in Maya is fairly simple. I don’t need to set up any complicated rigging or IK handles to get the simple pose I want, so I make a basic action figure style skeleton and skin the mesh to it. There are enough very good rigging tutorials that I probably don’t need to go into the complexities here. Needless to say, as this isn’t to be animated I keep it simple and get the character posed and then remove the transforms, baking the character in the pose I want for the scene.

The character uses a simple skeleton rig and once posed is baked in that position

Creating the Spaceship

Next I wanted to create a spaceship, or pod that our intrepid alien astronaut has used to reach the asteroid field-like clutter of giant soda cans. Again I approach this with a simple shape. Clean, quirky and easy to model means making use of spheres is my approach. For inspiration I do some quick reference gathering for examples of deep sea ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles). There are a large amount of interesting shapes but what jumps out at me is the spherical lens glass that covers the ROV cameras. This is the shape I want so I can keep everything within a sphere design.

Keeping everything spherical and simple I ended up with a really clean, minimalist toy-like design that worked well with the look of the alien astronaut. Choosing to keep the texture mapping to a minimum on it was also key to the final look.

Keeping the design simple worked in my favour to create a clean and simple Ship

So now I that had the main elements of character and ship, I grabbed the previously modelled soda cans from the Fizzo! Scene and added them in place. I had a reasonable idea about where I would be placing the starting camera position once I had the scene uploaded to Sketchfab, so was ready to go.

Models, materials and textures separated and ready to setup once uploaded to Sketchfab

Sketchfab Setup

Now this is where I have a lot of fun playing with settings to get that bright, glowing model/toy look.

Firstly, I usually turn on all the Post Process Filters I want to use. Getting these set up first makes it much easier to then play around with material settings in the next step. Screen Space Reflection and Screen Space Ambient Occlusion help bring volume and solidity to the objects in the scene. Then, using the Depth Of Field helps add that typically miniature world feeling which in this scene’s case was important because I wanted the alien to feel small given the size of the floating soda cans.

Setting up Post Processing Filters is my first port of call with Sketchfab

The upload tool does a good job of taking in the textures and colours from the fbx file, but the fantastic editing tools allow me to give the scene much more polish. Playing with the materials to get more punch out of the materials that I had set up in Maya was easy to do. I often doubled up textures that I had only planned to used for colour, but added them to specular effects or the metallic setting in a material, which gave me a lot to play with even with simple textures.

Getting the right level of glow, shine and reflection for surfaces is easily controlled and really flexible with in the Sketchfab material editor.

Creating various material surfaces combined with screen space reflection post processing filters is very easy with the Sketchfab material editor

Adding the refraction effect to the glass material added an extra level of depth. As with all the editing tools, the easy-to-use materials sliders and instant feedback made it simple to get the right levels I wanted. It’s not only a great effect but added a nice thickness to the glass, again adding to that toy-like quality of the models and scene.

The glass refraction effects work perfectly for the toy-like visual style of the scene

The final resulting scene was very satisfying to see and getting a staff pick for the scene was fantastic. Having an online tool like Sketchfab with its editor that allows you to present your 3D work in the best way possible is incredibly useful, and the flexibility of also viewing work on mobile is an added bonus.

I’d like to thank the team at Sketchfab for asking me to do this Art Spotlight and I hope that this piece has at least been useful in providing an insight into my approach to fun, simple and creative modelling when combined with the Sketchfab tools. You can also see another follow up scene where I made more use of the Sketchfab transparency and emissive material effects to show our intrepid aliens exploring the effects of this giant amount of displaced trash from far, far away in their oceans where giant bioluminescent creatures roam – “Jellied Juice In The Depths


About the author

Steve Morrison

Artist and Animator

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  • Avatar vicsar says:

    I love how simplistic this model is, the characters seems very intrigued by its finding. The way you cross-reference both models is great, I like that story telling approach.

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