How to turn a 2D image into stylised 3D

Discover how you can take a 2D illustration and transform it into a 3D masterpiece.

Sometimes a piece of artwork just demands to be rendered in 3D, and that was the spark that ignited Media Molecule's Emilie Stabell to spend a year adding an extra dimension to a beloved 2D image.

Stabell is fan of illustrator Sam Bosma, and in particular his concept Stability. "When I showed his illustration to a friend, I joked: "Imagine if I made this in 3D. It would be absolutely insane." Not long after that, I began modelling the first asset," says Stabell. "The sheer scale of the project was quite overwhelming, though, so on the first day I started by creating a cube in Maya, and that was it: a small beginning."

Stabell says her 3D art workflow was very simple: Maya was used for modelling, Photoshop for texturing and ZBrush was used to project from the concept. Once her 3D model was complete she rendered using Maya Hardware 2.0, and also used After Effects and Photoshop to add the finishing touches to the animated scene.

Start simple

"I make sure that my model doesn't cover up the outline on the concept," explains Emilie. "I'm going to need that little bit of extra space for when I add my own 'toon' outlines later"

Stabell began by blocking out the assets in Maya, using an image plane of the concept and setting her camera to front view. Using simple primitives, she was particularly careful to make sure the silhouettes matched the illustration. "Since the geometry is flat-shaded and wouldn't be deforming, it gave me a lot of freedom in how many pieces each asset can consist of," says Stabell. "As long as I was satisfied with the look of my silhouette from all angles, I knew I was on the right track. In a sense, this project was devoid of many of the usual technical, and tedious, aspects that go into creating successful 3D, which is most likely the reason why it kept being fun to work on the entire way through."

How the lighting hit the geometry also became irrelevant. "As long as the silhouette looks good, you're on the right track," says Stabell, explaining how focusing on the front view to match her geometry with the illustration is very forgiving for objects on the Z-axis: "As long as they're overlapping in the right order… It's really a rather flexible, different and fun way to do 3D."

Come together

Stabell loved seeing all of the disparate parts come together to bring the image to life. "I have never created anything of this scale, and proving to myself that I had the persistence and motivation to do so was a wonderful experience," says Stabell. "From a technical point of view, painting the textures gave me a lot of joy. Each asset was treated as a separate miniature project, so I never really managed to get tired of a specific part of the pipeline, and painting remained fresh and fun."

A selection of the main assets Emilie created throughout her lengthy process – over 200 in total

That painting process began in earnest once the silhouettes were finished, Stabell then created the UVs and exported the mesh as an .obj into ZBrush. "I projected the texture from the concept to use as a guide for the hand-painted textures I made in Photoshop. I imported the .obj file, divided the geometry a few times to get a good amount of resolution for the Polypaint and then positioned and scaled the model so it was ready for projection."

The next step involved using Spotlight to import and project the concept onto the mesh. Stabell checked her projection worked and then exported by going to Zplugin>Multi Map Exporter, and choosing Texture From Polypaint.

With her texture exported from ZBrush and opened in Photoshop, Stabell moved into Maya and took a UV snapshot of the assets' UVs to set as a layer on top of the ZBrush texture. She then created a mask for all of her UV shells and grouped them into appropriate subgroups, in this case: bird, wing, thighs and legs.

"This approach allowed me to create clipping masks for each group so I needn't worry about 'colouring within the lines'," explains Stabell. "Another important thing to note is to always make sure your masks are a couple of pixels wider than the actual UV shell, otherwise you might run into issues with Maya displaying black edges around the seams."

When it came to the painting, Stabell began by applying a flat base colour to everything using the Paint Bucket Tool and her own brushes: "Then I quickly painted some rough gradients and colour vibration using my Awesome Paint 1 brush. At this stage, I didn't worry about precision at all, as it was simply about applying some nice gradients and bold colours."

Once she had something decent to work with, it was time to switch to the Smudge Tool using her Smudge Blender brush: "This brush is optimised for the tool, so I didn't get any of the lag you'd normally experience when using Smudge. Furthermore, it left behind a bit of texture, creating that nice, painterly effect.

From here on, it was a process of going back and forth between painting and smudging until I was satisfied. Lastly, I drew the inner line art, as I planned to apply an outline as my final step."

The steps to add the 'toon' outline in Maya

Keep going

As you can see from her workflow, Stabell's task to texture and paint every asset by hand was a mammoth effort that involved creating over 200 assets. "The hardest part was keeping at it and not giving up on it halfway through," she says, adding: "When I had done roughly a third of the work, I had a short period of time where I really had to push myself to keep going. The sheer amount I knew I had left to do, made it seem like I would never finish."

This is when the plan to treat each asset as a separate project came into its own: "Without this type of workflow, I am almost certain that I would have canned the project long ago. Hence, I want to stress the importance of planning, folder structure and consistency. They are your best friends when doing something of a larger scale."

This is how the scene looks through the main camera in Maya

But the end was in sight, the assets had been modelled, textured and positioned, and Stabell just had to build her surrounding scene as depicted in the concept. "I started by setting up a camera with a simple 180 rotation around the model and built the environment from there. This is also the point in time where I started to think about how the environment is supporting the narrative and is helping enhance the original concept," she says.

As the story concerns a group of explorers hunting for pirate treasure in a vast dried-up ocean, some of the scene's elements – such as a pirate flag, a sunken ship and a chunky, rusty metal piece emerging from the sand – were designed and modelled to support the narrative. "I wanted to hint at the story. This may not be noticed by the audience, but it helps me as a creator to inject a sense of meaning and history into the scene in the hopes that it will resonate."

The view from above of the final scene in Maya

The home stretch

Rendering, says Stabell, was "a simple task" because all the information was stored in the textures.

Stabell explains: "All of my materials were surface shaders and there were no lights in the scene whatsoever. I split the scene into the appropriate render layers and rendered everything using Maya Hardware 2.0. Furthermore, I had a limited amount of render layers and only a few elements to tweak in compositing, so I quickly assembled everything in After Effects."

Once in After Effects, Stabell applied the scene's more subtle effects, including the flags blowing in the wind and the dust in front of the turtle. She then rendered out to Premiere and for the still images, she used Photoshop to put the finishing touches to the final images.

In the end, all of Stabell's hard work meant that she had much more than a single product to showcase: "The amount of work I put into each and every one of the assets, means that I am left with a substantial library of cool 3D characters and props. Furthermore, I decided to create the back of the piece as well, which means that the whole thing can now be used both for still images, turntables, videos and even in real time."

The final 3D concept from different angles

This article originally appeared in 3D World issue 215; buy it here!

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A character and environment artist at game developer Media Molecule in the UK, Emilie is passionate about character and concept designs.