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Paul Pepera, hard-surface pro

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Polycount's Hamish Bode had a chance to chat with Paul Pepera, master hard-surface high poly modeler and Lead Mission Artist for 343 Industries.

Hamish Bode: How long have you been involved in the games industry and what's your current role?

Paul Pepera: I have been modding games most of my life but I got my first professional job in 2007 at TimeGate Studios working on Section 8.  I have also worked at id Software before coming to my current job at 343 Industries where I work as a Lead Mission Artist on Halo 4. In between jobs I like to pick up contract work; which was when I was contracted by Tripwire Interactive to model the Panzer IV and T-34 for Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad.

What was the first thing that got you interested in game art?

I knew I wanted to work on games my entire life; however the role I wanted did change over the years. Originally I wanted to be aprogrammer and took classes in C++; I then wanted to be a designer before finally deciding to be an artist. Ultimately I always knew I’d be working on games in some capacity.

What really implanted the idea in my mind to be a game artist, specifically a modeler, was the Doom 3 art book; the model of the Cyberdemon and the Zbrush sculpt of the Pinkie was the clincher. From a game art standpoint I have always been interested in environment art. My passion lays in setting the game inside a spatial context that told a story, fulfilled the need of advancing the gameplay while at the same time remaining visually compelling. Over the years I have focused myself in hard surface modeling but recently I find I’m most interested in lighting. A great model will look like crap with poor lighting, whereas a poor model can look awesome with the proper lighting. It’s the finishing step that ties all the hard work put into modeling, texturing, shader definition, and fx effects all together.

Of all the art that's around in games today, what impresses you the most?

I’m really excited about the lighting tech that is appearing in the most recent generation of games, particularly Battlefield 3. I always felt the artists at EA DICE did an amazing job lighting their games, particularly Mirror’s Edge, which I still think that is the most beautiful looking video game ever made. Pushing more polies and larger textures is great but I feel good lighting with strong material definition truly pushes games toward a pleasing cinematic look that transcends the video game aesthetic.

The mega texture tech of the most recent iteration of idtech is also very exciting, I was fortunate to work with it during my time at id Software. From an artist’s perspective you essentially have an unlimited texture budget; I could texture a tiny soda can on a 4096 x 4096 texture sheet since the game engine will re-map all the geometry in the game to proper texel density with it goes through the mega texture system. The recent Unreal tech being shown off by Epic is also incredibly exciting. I feel for the first time the tech going into games is reaching a stage where a viewer is no longer conscious they are looking at real-time ‘ game art’, this is truly a great time to be an artist in this industry.

How far do you go down the "rabbit-hole" when you're researching the content of what you're modeling? A lot of game communities appreciate meticulous effort for attention to detail and Red Orchestra is no exception.

Red Orchestra has an extremely loyal and fanatical fan base. The fans that play RO appreciate the authenticity reflected not just in the gameplay but also in the recreation of the equipment used at the time such as the weapons, uniforms, and vehicles - among other things. From an art standpoint respecting such attention to detail is a big challenge, especially when a few misplaced bolts or different wheel configurations could mean the difference between a tank that saw service in North Africa in 1942 and a tank that saw action on the Eastern Front in 1943. While these differences may seem insignificant to the casual gamer such details are not missed by the demanding and observant fan base which constitutes the bulk of the Red Orchestra community. This sort of attention to detail also brings the greatest satisfaction when modeling historical equipment. My whole life I’ve built plastic model kits of Tigers I, Messerschmitts, Sturmoviks, and T-34s; I look at the game art I’ve done since then as simply an extension of a hobby and joy which has turned into a professional career.

And as a modeler constructing these vehicles having an unhealthy obsession with details is of the upmost importance. The most challenging part of modeling tanks to such a realistic degree is finding the proper amount of reference. Very few Panzer IVs survived to this day, though there are still many T-34s still around (you can’t walk a mile in Eastern Europe without encountering a monument to the T-34 in celebration of the victory of the Great Patriotic War.) There is even a monument located in  Slovakia which I managed to visit and photograph back in 2008 which is comprised of a Russian T-34 driving over and crushing a Panzer IV Ausf J. Though it is a different variant than the Pz IV featured in RO2 many features are identical so the trip did yield a lot of relevant reference images.

I also got a large supply a reference from Tripwire Interactive when I began modeling the vehicles, which I when further supplemented with my own reference I have collected over the years modeling WW2 equipment, ended up being several gigabytes worth of picture sof every nut and bolt of the Panzer IV. From a pure modeling standpoint the shapes are rather simple, save for a few parts such the drive sprocket and the tracks which require more intense Sub-D problem solving skill. The real challenges lay in making sure the digital geometry respect the real life counterpart.

If we can get a little specific for a moment, what's required of the in-game content in order to capture/bake all the finer details typically found in your hard surface models? (Welding marks, thick armor paint build up, divets/holes/scratches, etc.)

I was only responsible for the high poly model, low poly model, and baking of the textures, the rest was done in-house by the artists at Tripwire. The create the surface marks such as the welds, damage scars, armor detail, etc. I used bump maps. Originally I tried putting the model into Zbrush and sculpting those details but I did not like the results. Bump maps worked just fine since the details are small enough they don’t contribute to the silhouette, and when it comes time to baking the maps (normal, ao, etc) they baked out just fine. Creating bump maps for the high poly geometry also prevent me from having to collapse the geo into several million polygon chunks that would be required to put the model into Zbrush, thus speeding up the process.

While modeling the vehicles I did have to take into account animation and rigging work; for example there needs to be enough geometry in the tracks to allow them to deform as they drive over objects so as to recreate the action of the torsion bar suspension systems. Most of the hatches needed to be able to open for when the in-game tank crews unbuttoned (i.e. opened their hatches).

Are there aspects of your workflow that you practice or are constantly trying to improve?

One step of the process I’m particularly interested in and am always trying to improve is the part before ever opening a 3D package. I consider visualizing and understand the forms and shapes of a subject matter in my mind the most important step in the 3D process. This preliminary mental understanding of the task at hand dictates how I attack the model from a technical point of view; it also serves as a way to anticipate if the model will be successful before ever laying down any polys thus making the process more efficient. I always sketch out shapes on paper before every model, even if the drawings are extremely loose and nonsensical to others. I find drawing out the thoughts in my mind on paper helps me immensely in visualizing a model in my mind; I never, ever begin modeling without at least doing some sort of preliminary 2D sketches.

I’m always trying to improve every facet of the work I do, even if it something I consider to be my fortay. It’s incredibly important to stay up to date with the latest trends in this industry and techniques that are being used by other artists. Forums like Polycount are probably the best resource for artists in this field. Such places are excellent hubs for sharing information, learning new techniques, as well as gauging how far the overall skill level of the industry has come.

And finally, what else do you do to keep busy?

The hobby that eats up the most of my free time is photography. I currently use seven cameras (six analog and one digital). I prefer to shoot film as opposed to digital not only because I prefer the aesthetics of film but also for the process. I enjoy trying out different film types, I like developing my own film, I like having contact sheets printed, I enjoy the physical property of film. My career demands that I spend most of my days sitting in front of a computer monitor so the idea of an image being stored on a physical medium as opposed to binary code and pixels on a memory stick has a lot of appeal to me.

I prefer to shoot with equipment which, as of today, is still limited to film such as twin-lens reflex cameras, 4x5 view systems, and rangefinder. I don't feel like spending $7,000 on a Leica M9 when I can own a nice M6 for a fraction of the price. With digital, I would be pretty much limited to SLR equipment and for the type of street photography I do an SLR is not my ideal choice. Apart from photography I enjoy drawing and oil painting.

Thanks for talking with us, Paul.

Don't forget to check out Paul's game art and photography!


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