Building the Stairway to Heaven

Whilst browsing the Internet I happened across this image and immediately thought “that would be a cool environment to create in 3D”.  It doesn’t require that many assets to be created, the texturing is split between two main areas and thick fog covers the distant background. It will take me no time at all to make this! That was a year ago.

Fast forward to now and the project is finished. As you can probably guess it didn’t go as smoothly as I first anticipated but I did learn a lot about planning, time management and keeping the main goal in sight. These things are so often overlooked so I wanted to write a blog post on how you can best manage your own projects. I’ll be using this project as a case study and to better illustrate my points.

There are a couple of reasons why this project took so long to complete. Firstly, it was completed through live streams only. I’ve found live streaming to be a very effective tool to actually committing to doing my own personal work at home. It’s not for everyone, but it did force me to stick to a schedule and a time limit.  Knowing when I was streaming (working) helped me plan out my time more efficiently. If you’re interested in seeing one of my creative streams join me over on Twitch, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm GMT.

Secondly, I started and completed a timed competition environment during this project. While working on my “Beyond Human” environment I paused work on this project. The reason why I chose to do a timed piece in the middle of this project is because I knew I was purposely shying away from areas I don’t have much experience in. Working on timed projects (with fixed deadlines) forces you to pick up new techniques and to learn more quickly. I used “Beyond Human” to push me out of my comfort zone in Unreal Engine 4 which, in turn, I then applied to the the Stairway project.

During production of “Stairway to Heaven” I took a screenshot of what I had been working on after every stream to show viewers where I was up to. Below is the complete  project progress image (containing every end of stream image). The blue numbers give you an indication of progression:

Stairway_Progression_01

As you can see the project went through a few forms before becoming the final finished version. Now this doesn’t look like a lot of work but if we multiply the number of images by the amount of time I stream for then we get a rough idea of how much time I spent on the project:

46 (screenshots) x 3 (hours a stream) = 138 hours, or just over 17 (8-hour) days

Seventeen days is a long time to work on a relatively simple environment! It’s worth noting that this time takes into account all the problems, errors and issues I ran into along the way. No one gets through production without hitting a problem at one stage or another.

Now let’s look at how much of what I created ended up in the final environment:

Stairway_Progression_01_NotUsed

Almost half of the progress I made didn’t actually make it into the finished environment. I rushed into creating assets without thinking about what it was that I actually wanted to create. Not having a firm idea of what you want to create or achieve will come back to haunt you later in any project.

As I shied away from locking down a firm idea it (inevitably) led to experimentation with no real purpose. In this early stage I tried using other pieces of software and new workflow techniques to learn something ‘new’. This was all to no avail as none of it made it into the final version and a lot needed re-working. It did teach me a valuable lesson though: don’t rush after shiny objects.

If we took the time that I wasted off our current total we’re looking at the project taking roughly 87 hours, or almost 11 (8-hour) days. This makes the project length a lot more reasonable and manageable.

So lack of forward planning and early, undefined experimentation led to the project taking longer than usual to complete. What else contributed to this? Losing sight of the end goal/project aim will also cause issues. By taking a step back during production and re-assessing what we’re creating we can really see (and question) if things are moving in the right direction. Below is the same image but annotated with my thoughts (this was done after completing project):

Stairway_Progression_01_ProgressNotes

As you can see, made a lot of extra work for myself.  Some assets were too detailed, some I started but didn’t finish, I tried new techniques that were later made redundant, I didn’t lock down a composition until much later in the project, etc. All classic mistakes that a lack of planning leads to.

Now let’s take a look at the order in which I would do things if I was to create this project again:

Stairway_Progression_01_AdvisedPlan

  1. Work out composition with placeholder assets
  2. Work out potential lighting scenarios with placeholder assets
  3. Sculpt the landscape, double-check composition
  4. Refine your placeholder assets (man-made), double-check composition
  5. Refine your placeholder assets (foliage), double-check composition
  6. Check assets are working together (they should be if you’re consistently checking!)
  7. Update environment with all assets
  8. Are textures working together? (they should be if you’re consistently checking!)
  9. Final environment tweaks (not shown, these include textures, lighting, post effects)

As you can see I made the environment in the wrong order. Only at the end did I refine the composition or attempt the lighting. Forcing yourself to look at the environment as whole (steps 1-3) with placeholder (or blocked out) geometry really helps you gauge exactly what you need to create. Much like play testing games, the early you can see the thing as a whole, the easier it will be to see what is and isn’t working.

This project was an unwieldy beast that could have been completed sooner and better if I’d spent more time planning what it was that I wanted to achieve. It was huge learning experience of how not to do things but I am glad that things went the way they did as I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did. In conclusion, I will definitely be devoting more time to planning out my future projects!

Disclaimer: This ‘defined’ planning process works well for me because I organising my time into chunks works for me. This won’t work for everyone but I would recommend giving it a go nonetheless. Getting into the mindset of planning ahead will help you later down the line with anything that you’re doing.

Moving forward I thought it would be good to create a document that I could use in future projects to better plan my time. Upon completing the Stairway I thought about other information that would be beneficial to note down too. Having all the right information in one place while working on a project and to reference during production would be really handy. This led me to create the project planning sheet below.Project_Planning_Document_ExampleA blank version of this can be downloaded from my Gumroad page. I decided to include a version of the sheet filled in (with my current project) so you can get a better picture of the sheet in action. It’s working well for me so far and I hope it works for you too!


Interested in how I plan my projects and how you can use my process to plan out your own projects then please check out my planning videos over on YouTube. Tune in to my live streams for further creative insights, tips & tricks and industry discussions. Lastly, follow me on Twitter for 3D ramblings, stream updates and future resources.

Creative streaming in 3 useful steps

Creative streaming is still in its infancy but is becoming more mainstream and popular as place to hangout and learn new skills. There are a variety of creative channels that Twitch hosts and each has several streamers broadcasting at any one time.

I started streaming six months ago as a way to make working on personal projects at home easier. By creating and committing to a schedule, I’ve found that I now really enjoy working on personal projects at home and that my own learning has improved quite significantly. Before starting the stream I read several ‘how to stream’ guides but they only give you so much information. I wanted to write my own post about what I’ve learnt on my streaming journey as a way to help and encourage others to start streaming themselves. I’ve broken it down into three key areas:

  • Setup
  • Content
  • Reason

These might seem obvious but will definitely help you start and maintain your stream if you’re willing to invest a little bit of time into them. 

Setup


The setup includes hardware, software, your internet connection, branding and your streaming environment.

Working in the games industry (and previously in film) I already use a pretty high spec home computer. Although there isn’t a recommended computer setup for streaming make sure your computer can perform while under intense CPU/GPU stress. If you can perform intensive tasks without causing critical errors then there should be no problem streaming/recording whilst you’re working.

A microphone and webcam are essential equipment for any stream. Viewers like to see who you are and hear your voice. This is especially important in creative streams as you will be asked questions about what you are doing and be asked to help viewers solve problems that they are having too. Seeing your expressions of triumph and failures while working helps makes it feel more human.

In terms of streaming software there are two main ones that people use: X-Split and OBS. I use OBS as it’s free, works straight out of the box and is pretty easy to customise. It’s worth setting up a moderation bot to keep an eye on your stream chat in case anyone becomes a nuisance to others. I’ve only had one issue in my six months and it was pretty minor. Nightbot is a good choice and allows you to set up customisable chat commands and viewer facing animations for new follows, hosts and donations.

If you’re using creative software in your stream then you have to make sure that each one is properly licensed. If it isn’t it goes against Twitch’s Terms of Service and can end up with your stream being suspended or shut down completely.

Your internet connection has to be pretty robust for streaming. Connecting your machine physically to the router will give you the best results but connecting via wi-fi is sufficient. Try to limit the amount of data you’re using on other devices during the stream as this will eat up a fair portion of the bandwidth. I found this article on Twitch helpful as it goes into detail on how you can make your stream as sturdy as possible.

As any professional company will tell you, consistent branding is a big plus to making you recognisable and reliable. Although branding is not essential to starting a stream I do think it is important to think about introducing one at some point. I spent a lot of time thinking up a branded look but in the end it distracted me from actually starting the stream. I’m not entirely happy with the branding I eventually created but it is consistent and will do for the moment!

Lastly, consider the space where you will be conducting the stream. Be aware of what’s happening behind you and try to make sure you’re as well-lit as possible so people can see your face. Filming against a green-screen will help take out any background elements though it’s not completely necessary.

Content


So you’ve got the right setup and you’re ready to go but what is it that you actually want to stream? The content of your stream is important as it’s what people will remember it by and why they will choose to tune in each time.

For creative streams I’ve found it easier to do one project at a time. This keeps the stream progress consistent from one stream to the next and makes it easier for everyone to see the gradual progression of the piece. Breaking a project down will also help create a streaming schedule for you to follow. This is important as it’ll make it easier for you to plan when you want to stream and help your audience tune in as they will know when you will be online. 

Planning is your friend here and I’ve found it to be a very powerful tool. My advice is to work out how many hours you want to stream for and how frequently. Depending on your answer will determine the best way to break down the project into manageable chunks which will give you an idea of how long it might take to finish a project. This also helps when selecting a project to do as you might not want to be working on a project for six months at a time!

Make sure to allow time for things to go wrong and remember that it is ok when things to go awry! You can’t pause the stream, fix the issue and then play the stream again. You have to be able to adapt to the situation as it happens. I find this to be the most interesting part of a stream as you’re learning how to solve problems or at least how to go about solving an issue. It’s also good to see that everyone runs into problems eventually and that no one gets it right one hundred percent of the time!

Try not to put too much pressure on yourself either. Sometimes a stream (and the work you create) goes really well, other times you feel like you haven’t achieved anything. What’s important is that you stick at it. Ask your audience if you get stuck with anything and if you can’t solve the issue on your own then use google and forums to find a solution. It might not be the most inspiring thing to do in a stream but finding the answer and proving the solution works live is something that everyone can learn from.

Remember to add hashtags and communities to your streams in the dashboard. This increases your exposure across the broadcast channel and also makes it possible for your stream to be hosted on other websites. ArtStation has dedicated Twitch auto-hosting for each individual portfolio so be sure to set this up correctly. What better way is there to connect to the community by doing it for free through your own portfolio!

Reason


The reason why you want to stream is essential to the longevity of the stream both for you and your audience. You have to ask yourself why you want to do it. For me, I needed a schedule to stick to so that I would actually commit to working on personal projects at home. You could argue that I could have done this offline without a stream but for me, it made me more committed to my work knowing I had to be at my computer at a certain time even if no one viewed the stream. 

In “Let’s Play” streams the host has to be fairly entertaining for the audience to stick around. I think this is less important for creative streams as generally people aren’t there to be entertained, they’re there to learn. Interaction with the audience is still key but I’ve found that this tends to be more academic. People are interested in what you’re creating and why you are doing it in a certain way. Be prepared to answer questions about what you’re doing and don’t shy away from giving demonstrations.

Remember, it’s not all about you. Quite often I’ve been asked how I would tackle a particular task and why. I find these questions to be enjoyable to answer as they require you to ‘think on your feet’. When you’re live there’s no time to research the perfect solution or record an error-free demonstration. You have to make it work (or attempt to) right there and I think this is an excellent way to learn, both for you and the viewers. Explain why you are doing it in a certain way or using a certain piece of software and don’t worry so much about getting the perfect solution. The process or explanation is what people want to see and find most useful.

In anything art-related, critique (being able to give it and take it) forms a big part of the learning process. Be prepared to receive critique as you stream. Some people will love what you’re doing, others won’t. Be courteous (everyone is entitled to their own opinion) and ask why it’s not appealing to them. The ‘why’ is what we use to improve so encourage viewers to give a description of why they don’t like a piece of work opposed to giving a one-word answer. Likewise, when viewers ask for critique on their own work, give it. Be honest and be constructive. Say what isn’t working for you and why.

Everyone wants to improve and be the best they can be but unfortunately there isn’t a fast-track for this. You have to put in the work so asking for feedback is a step in the right direction to improving. The more you do it, the more you will get out of it. It’s very important not take criticism personally either. Comments you receive are not aimed at you, it’s aimed at your work. You have to detach yourself from it and the sooner you can do this the better. In order to rise through the ranks you have to build up a thick skin and this only happens by continuously seeking feedback. Keep at it and you’ll become a better artist (and a better person) for it.


If you want to see my stream in action or you’re just curious as to how a creative stream works then please tune into my creative stream on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8pm GMT (3pm EST / 12pm PST). For updates and notifications about my stream, follow me on Twitter @griffitii