The TREE OF SKULLS

So a few jobs have come and gone since my last post, and every now and then I get an opportunity to get back into the project. I have done a few “upgrades” to Boris and plan a redo for Akoulah’s dress…of course, that is for another post.
One of the things I have to get around to eventually, are the trees. This story, after all, takes place in a forest.  Now trees are more props than characters for the most part… except for this one, which, in my story, carries the ominous title of “the tree of skulls”. Now I had this idea for a bit:
“In a clearing in the forests deep, upon the scorned earth of the fallow woodland floor, a lone tree grows…barely. It is unlike any other. From the starved earth it rises…its roots, trunk and branches twisted with the torment of the souls whose skulls hang from its boughs. It stands, dark and somber, no leaf nor fruit to bear…a sentinel of despair and a monument to ill deeds.” –Excerpt from some of my notes I jotted down last year.

At the end of last year, while away in New York…I managed to sketch this tree during some free time. It is to me, both a prop and a character at the same time. It had to have a sort of eerie presence in the scene. Now that it is completed, for the most part; I decided that I would share my progress on this particular piece.
So…on with the progress:

CLICK ON IMAGE TO SEE LARGER VERSION

A: Clearly I started with a sketch. Many times I can go from my head, but for this      particular project, I needed to have a guideline. Seeing as I was going for a very stylized, organic look, I needed something to help me stay within that look.

B: After starting out with a basic cylinder, which I twisted by rotating the vertices on one end…I added a few edge loops…and after a series of multiple extrusion operations, I have a very rough base-mesh.

C. The smoothed preview gives me a good idea of how the high resolution mesh will look. I have the basic twists in the trunk and the bulbous, deformed limbs.

D: Before I can begin sculpting or painting, I have to do UV mapping. If not for this, the normal map I plan on creating, will not work. This process involves separating all the roots and branches individually then mapping all the pieces into 0 -1 UV space. It does not take as long as you think, however, the process is tedious and repetitive.

E: After completing the UV mapping, I can export the model into Mudbox where I can further subdivide the mesh for sculpting in the fine detail of the trunk texture. This was a pleasant stage as it was amazing to see how the added detail and texturing made the tree come alive and really gave it that creepy edge. Sculpting digitally is almost like molding clay (just a lot less messy). It’s not something I do often, but after going through this pipeline, I may do it more ESPECIALLY now that I have a wacom tablet with which to work.

F: Now I can create my normal map from the high resolution sculpt. A normal map is sort of like an advanced bump map, it gives the impression of fine detail on a very low resolution mesh….the only downside is that the object’s silhouette is unaffected and retains its smooth shape. it’s commonly used in gaming. Now, I have the option of creating a displacement map, which basically renders a low res model to have all the detail and texture of the high-res, even in the silhouette…the only downside to this, is the amount of time it takes to render a displacement map. For a single image it is fine…but when you are doing multiple frames for animation…something has got to give.

G: I Used a level 3 subdivided mesh from mudbox as the new base mesh, to which I added the texture and normal map from the high resolution mesh. I also did this same process for the skulls which are hanging from the tree. I do have high res skull models from the Mr. Crow project which I can use as close-ups. So there it is finished. I still have work to do on the ground and more trees to create for the backgrounds. But this is a step in the right direction.
Unlike organic characters, this was far more abstract and loose…it was very odd to model, but very freeing. It was unusual to try forming this twisted, almost fluid-looking tree from mere polygons. It required that I not be so exact with my polygons and to try and be as random as possible. In the end it has this kind of creepy, organic, primeval feel to it…as if it is about to untwist itself and start moving. I think I achieved what I set out to accomplish with this. It’s a prop with a presence.
As always, I hope you learned something from this.
Cheers.

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