Art Spotlight: Volaspire

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Hi, My name is Glen Johnson. I’m an independent VR artist working out of Pittsburgh, PA, USA. I studied fine art at Carnegie Mellon University in the 90’s. I started my career mainly working in the advertising industry working on animation for commercials and multimedia presentations. I slowly migrated into creating art and animation for educational projects. In 2011 I started working for Home Run Pictures in Pittsburgh and got into technically complex animations and effects derived from scientific data while working there. I also built detailed terrain models of many of the planets and moons in our solar system including a large section of Pluto for a VR experience. I really got hooked on VR from that project and wanted to commit myself to building worlds for VR.

Working In VR

I wanted to start doing concept and production work inside VR, with VR applications, in addition to building environments for VR, with Unity. I started by sketching creatures and environments in Tilt Brush. I was having a lot of fun with it, but I really wanted to try to build real, usable assets for a VR game concept that I had, so I thought I would give MasterpieceVR a try after hearing that you can model with voxels in addition to brush modeling. I found out rather quickly that I was able to create models in MasterpieceVR very rapidly and with enormous creative freedom. I started sculpting biomechanical parts and realized that this was the approach to modeling that I’ve really been looking for, when I could see my library of models growing so quickly.

I found out about MasterpieceVR’s “Imagine and Create a Sustainable Future” competition in April 2018 and figured this would be a great opportunity to put my VR modeling skills to the test. My Volaspire model was my entry into the 3rd phase of the MasterpieceVR modeling competition. I wanted to visualize something you might see in a not-to-distant future that would combine features of a living/working space as well as transportation. I also wanted to design it to have green space for growing plants for sustaining the inhabitants as well as sustaining its own needs for energy and repairing itself and upgrading its own mechanical parts; a sort of self sustaining, all-in-one structure that you could put anywhere and immediately have everything you would need to live. Most of my inspiration for this piece came from the work of Syd Mead and Luc Schuiten.

Sculpting with MasterpieceVR

I’ve been finding while working in VR that if you accept some of the limitations and work a little differently there’s a lot you can do just because of how intuitive it is to just move your hands to add and subtract volumes. I find myself being much more productive while sculpting in VR because of the lack of distractions and overwhelming amounts of tools and menus.

When I started working on my Volaspire model I started with a very simple sketch of the whole model, mainly to get the proportions worked out and a general sense of all the parts I need to model in VR. When I’m modeling in VR I try not to get too hung up on modeling exactly what I sketched, because it’s just not possible in VR yet. I try to mainly get things looking as interesting as possible with the features that are most important to me. I try to build basic forms without a lot of details and save them as base files that I open up to create multiple variations from. I also save those basic forms as stamps I can use with the paste tool.

For mechanical parts I use the line guide a lot and mostly just add and subtract with the primitives. I change the proportions of the primitives often as well.

For organic models I try to use my body’s natural constraints while moving in VR to get some more expressive forms and use the smoothing tool until I get the shapes that I want. I then start to do the additive and subtractive modeling process using guides to carve mechanical parts out of the more freeform organic forms to get biomechanical looking pieces.

For what I’m working on it’s also nice to be able to look at the models on a large scale to see what it would look like if you were inside the pieces just by waving your hands to scale up and down.

Retopology and Painting

I’ve been using 3D-Coat to prepare my models for Sketchfab. It’s the quickest and easiest way to bring the poly count down from the voxel model that I build in MasterpieceVR and get some nice clean topology. I use the Autopo feature in 3D-Coat first to make sure I can get a nice clean result before I start painting. I use the “Best Quality” setting in the Autopo and usually get good results.

You do have to make sure to use the “Fill Voids” function so that your model doesn’t have voids. I also try to avoid modeling excessive amounts of loopholes to get consistently good results with the Autopo function.

I then paint the models making use of 3D-Coat’s Smart Materials as much as possible. My next step is to assemble all the pieces in Unity3D, so I use the Unity export constructor preset to produce PBR textures that are ready for both the Unity standard shader and Sketchfab’s PBR renderer.

I use Unity as the last step in assembling all the pieces because Unity’s standard shader and post processing effects can produce very similar results to what you see in Sketchfab.

I decided to animate this piece as well since it would help clearly convey some of the ideas I had about how this flying tower would work. I exported the fully assembled model from Unity as an fbx file and imported it into Maya to do the animations. I built a very quick and simple rig to do the IK animation of the legs.

To get the whole thing ready and working in Sketchfab I ran a mel script I wrote that replaces any duplicate geometry with instances and also does some poly reduction and removes any other extraneous information like extra UV sets and duplicate shaders. Making sure geometry is instanced in the final export is really important with something like this to run in Sketchfab. Otherwise the file size would be way too large to upload and performance would be greatly compromised.

Since part of the competition I was entering this model into was influenced by the description of the piece, I used annotations to describe as much of the design decisions that went into the model as I could. There are a lot of small details that would probably be missed if it were not for the annotations. When tweaking the post processing effects and materials I mostly just tried to match what I had made in Unity which was pretty easy. The results you can get with Sketchfab are really amazing when you take the time to get things looking the way you want them to look.

I wanted to fit my Volaspire conceptually into the futuristic, other dimensional, world of the Biotronicans I’ve been working on. It’s my vision of a world where advanced intelligent biomechanical creatures become caretakers of humanity and dominate the landscape with their own culture and biodiversity. The Volaspire is an ancestor of the other biomechanical creatures I’ve been developing as a concept for a VR game. It’s really great to be able to share my concept artwork as 3D models that can be viewed in VR using Sketchfab. I’ve been posting up my work as it develops on my Artstation page. I’m really glad I pushed myself to sculpt in VR. Working in MasterpieceVR really feels like a direct imagination-to-reality way to work. I’ve been really grateful that I’ve been able to get more exposure for my work through participating in the VR and Sketchfab communities.


About the author

Glen Johnson

VR Artist

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