Artistic considerations when designing a location

In this blog I talk about the artistic side of deciding what to include in a location design. I am using Unity to do my animations, mainly purchasing assets from the Unity Asset store and similar for my locations. If I had to create them myself I would probably never get anything done. This often represents one of the times I actually outlay real money on my project.

RC Anime has a great video that I am going to compare to what I find myself doing.

RC Anime starts by pointing out that locations that are personal spaces for characters can be used to reinforce their personalities. Of course what the characters say, how they behave, their attitudes all contribute as well, but you can add extra depth by creating interesting locations for your characters to exist in. What does their bedroom look like? Their work environment?

The following shot from No Game No Life has 4 characters working together, each with their space reinforcing their personal character. And the locations can change over time. The top right character uses their space to record their achievements. It starts out blank, then fills out during the series.

Colors make a big difference to the feel of a series. Bright colors for lively scenes, more sedate colors for sad scenes, more bloom effects for scenes with rich emotions, and so forth. Sometimes I find this affects my choice of Unity assets I use, but you can also use camera effects to adjust color saturation levels appropriately. I do find myself more and more looking at the shaders used by assets I get from the store.

A shader is the code that renders a texture onto the screen, taking into account things like lighting sources. I use a custom shader for making it look like rain drops running down a window pane for example. Two materials may have reflection, but a toon shader might flatten out the variation whereas a realistic shader will emphasize the details.

Shaders are something I have tried to stay away from, but as my desire to increase consistency goes up, the more I consider replacing shaders from the asset store with the toon shader I use for the characters. Photographically realistic location backgrounds with toon artwork for characters can rub the viewer the wrong way. I am also in the process of moving from the default built in render pipeline to the High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP) which appears to give more control over the look of shots.

RC Anime makes the point locations can help orient characters in a space. In No Game No Life, where a lot is in a cubical office space, pieces of key furniture can help orient where characters are on the overall floor. This means if you are hand drawing backgrounds, you need to be consistent to not confuse the viewer. This is one area where using full 3D models for locations wins. It is automatically consistent wherever I position the camera. I don’t have to invest in background drawings for every shot. This is also why the importance of storyboarding is reduced for me. If you have to draw each background, you need the background artist to know what shots are going to be required so they can work in parallel. No problem with 3D models. Just put characters in the space and move the camera around as you wish.

One thing I try to do to help orient the different locations with respect to each other, is I have a big mountain in the background. It is North. If it is smaller, then you are further south. In shots, I purposely put it to the left or right to give a feeling of being to the East or West. I try to make all locations align with North purely for this reason.

For example, the school is close to the mountains, but also central to the series. So I put the main mountain directly behind the school. Everything is now to one side or the other.

Another location is further east, so the big mountain is on the side.

Using 3D assets can also make it easier to get things like perspective and consistent lighting within a scene. I say easier, not easy. Perspective is automatic, but lighting can be hard. What I have found makes it harder, is again when different assets use different shaders. They respond to light in slightly different ways. Increasing/decreasing the intensity of lighting may change at a different rate for different shaders.

There is however a downside of using a 3D model. You have less artistic control for a particular shot. To get a nice shot composition, it can be hard when the background position of things is so fixed. One solution of this is to cheat – animate the position of objects in the scene as part of the shot, so you move them around slightly to make a shot look better. By animating the position, it moves back to the “real” position at the end of the shot.

One thing watching RC Anime’s video above has made be re-evaluate however is how to create more personal spaces for characters. I should put more thought into the artwork and furniture for the homes of the characters, their bedrooms, etc. I have done this somewhat it trying to select appropriate assets from the asset store, but I could do more adding personalized props into personal spaces. It is a bit harder when action frequently occurs at the school, but this is why I find review videos such as the above interesting. They make me think again about what I am doing myself in my own project, and look for opportunities to improve.

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