Taking Insects from 2D to 3D with the Natural History Museum, London

In the beginning of this year, Adobe announced a partnership with the Digital Collections Programme at the Natural History Museum, London. The museum, which has been a landmark cultural and scientific institution since 1881, has been working to digitize its collection of over 80 million items.

By making its collection available to the world, the museum is helping to solve, through accessibility and research, some of the most fundamental challenges of our time. For Adobe, after working on breathtaking content initiatives with collaborators such as NASA, the Rijksmuseum and 36 Days of Type, the ability to support the museum and make a portion of the collection available in new and unique ways was a perfect match for the Adobe Stock 3D team, specifically Kimberly Potvin, the Content Development Manager, and Alex Fleming and Jordon Jakusz, two amazing 3D artists on that team.

A drawer of Birdwing butterflies that have been digitized and shared online by the Digital Collections Programme.

Content Curation

The beginning of any content story starts with inspiration. What are the things that challenge you, that make you get out of bed in the morning, that drive you to create? For the content team, the culturally critical goals of the museum and the colorful diversity of its collection (containing over 30 million insects) provided inspiration that led to a clear goal – to develop 3D models inspired by hand-curated insects from the museum’s collection, offer these assets for free to the community, and design an innovative and exciting challenge with our friends at ArtStation.

The team started this project by scouring the Museum’s Data Portal for 30-40 insects of interest. Key search criteria included:

1. Insects that had visual references.
2. Specimens for which a variety of photo angles were available, if possible.
3. A wide range of body types and proportions (so that each asset would be unique when developed into a 3D model).
4. A variety of color patterns and body components.
5. A broad range of insect species.

The Natural History Museum’s Data Portal.

The team used art board visualization techniques to compare samples. Questions considered included which insects worked well together, and which were too similar in appearance or body type? What textures, colors, or patterns would be compelling for 3D artists?

After searching thousands of records, the art board was narrowed down to 35 possibilities. The team then worked closely with the museum to evaluate, revise, replace, and iterate on each option, resulting in a final selection of 20 specimens. This collaborative process ensured that each insect was a strong representation of the museum’s collection while being a unique and appealing asset in its own right.

The final art board of curated insects from the Natural History Museum’s digital collection. All images available under CC by 4.0 license.

Content Development

Over the following weeks, the team and the museum developed individual art boards for each insect. It was critical to capture each specimen from as many angles as possible while providing macro-views of certain features. Details became especially relevant when evaluating the geometry and texture requirements for components such as the eyes, wings, and legs as some subtle variations needed to be addressed during the modeling process.

Left: detail of the eyes of Euglossa decorata from the Natural History Museum; right: final 3D model on Adobe Stock showing the eyes of Euglossa decorata (Asset ID 319491300).

Once the art boards were final, the team began the modeling phase. As with most custom asset creation, 3D artists first work on the model, addressing geometry and technical asset construction specifications; texture and material assignments come later. It is important that the body composition and design match the real-world specimen as closely as possible prior to envisioning the final aesthetics.

Using this methodology, each asset at each stage of the development process was reviewed by the museum and the team, not only in a 360-degree web view (an example can be seen on this link), but with an average of five to six renders capturing a variety of angles. This review process was carried out at each stage of an asset’s evolution with an average of three to five rounds per insect. Using these techniques, the two teams could witness each model moving closer to the original source in both quality and design.

Left: wireframe view of Euglossa decorata during art development; middle: in-progress view of Euglossa decorata without textures; right: final view of Euglossa decorata with textures.

Working together, the museum and the Adobe team were able to complete the final collection of 20 insect models for Adobe Stock. These assets were then ready for artists around the world to use in ArtStation’s The Art of 3D Insects Challenge, and in Adobe 3D and AR tools like Substance, Dimension, Aero, and Medium.

View of all 20 insects rendered in Dimension with a selection of background vectors and illustrations from Adobe Stock. 3D renders by Kimberly Potvin.

Art Conceptualization

One of the most breathtaking aspects of any content initiative is to witness how artists combine existing 3D assets with a conceptual challenge, and transition these into one-of-a-kind works of their own. As many of us know, almost any artistic endeavor begins with that nebulous, unrefined idea that somehow becomes a complete, stunning work. But seeing how a project transitions from the concept phase (often including storyboarding and sketching) through visual evolution (iterating on the work itself) to the final scene is one of the reasons we pour our hearts into these endeavors.

To highlight the beauty of this artistic process, we challenged our own Creative Director, Vladimir Petkovic, to show us how to move from the beginning to the end of the process in this way – to get from an individual asset to a final work, from an original concept to a complete scene.

Vlad began with a single model from the museum’s collection on Adobe Stock, the Heterosylus nabab. Starting with this base, he realized that the thick, wide body composition could be used as a perfect canvas, so he imported the model of the insect into Adobe Dimension. Here, he removed its textures. This ‘clay’ render would be used as a foundation, and a place to iterate ideas.

‘Clay’ render of the insect, Heterostylus nabab.

Vlad then transferred this image into Photoshop, where he drew, edited, and revised different illustrations. During this visualization phase, Vlad decided to produce not one work, but three – a trio of variations on the same insect in three distinct styles. The final set of sketches captured a diverse set of themes that ranged across time – the future of technology, the history of handmade textiles, and the ornate era of the Elizabethan age.

Style sketches of Heterostylus nabab (created in Photoshop).

Asset Development

Using the same Adobe Stock model of Heterostylus nabab, Vlad then leveraged Marvelous Designer and ZBrush to evolve and transform the original asset. These tools enabled him to add additional details to the 3D model itself, such as a cloth texture, elegant swirl patterns, or gears and wires. While working through this customization process, Vlad continued to reference the original sketches while keeping in mind how these changes would work with material and texturing techniques.

Three versions of Heterostylus nabab after asset customization and development.

Once these changes were complete, Vlad needed to prepare each of the models for texturing. He had created two meshes for each of the three designs – one low-resolution and one high-resolution (six in total). The low-resolution meshes would be used for the final model during rendering, whereas the high-resolution version would be ’baked’ into a normal map – used to store the finer surface detail – which would be used on the low-resolution mesh. Using this technique allowed Vlad to retain the same visual quality while using a more optimized mesh. This made the working process faster, easier, and would ultimately reduce the final rendering time.

Material Development

Now that the meshes were ready, Vlad needed to begin creating materials within Substance Painter. The first step in this process is to ’bake’ information maps from the high-resolution mesh. These maps allow Painter to use mesh features such as thickness, curvature, occlusion, world orientation, and more. In this way, artists are able to quickly produce complex effects and details like edge damage, accumulated dirt, and other tailored results.

Material customization work in Substance Painter.

Using a combination of existing materials from the custom collection on Substance Source along with his own self-made materials, Vlad was able to layer these textures on top of one another using masks and blending modes similar to those in Photoshop. By continuously iterating on these materials and tweaking parameters like color, roughness, metallic, and others, Vlad began to slowly evolve the look and feel of each asset, moving them closer at each stage to final works.

Progression of material development for all three styles of Heterostylus nabab.

Once this phase was complete, Vlad could export the textures from Painter using the Adobe Dimension preset and produce a package for each insect with the geometry and all of the accompanying texture files intact.

Individual Renders

It was now time to move onto the final step with this insect trio. Using Dimension, Vlad dragged and dropped the .obj file from the Painter export onto the canvas. The work appeared correctly, with all of its associated materials attached to the geometry.

Vlad then made adjustments to the scene – adding background photos, working on lighting, modifying the position of each insect – but after reviewing each scene in more detail, he realized that more work was needed in order to capture the spirit of the original concept. Leveraging additional models from Adobe Stock, Vlad began to incorporate small elements into each scene: screws, a needle and thread, a hammer, a wrench.

Adding additional 3D models to the insect scene inside Dimension.

Like a set designer, Vlad continued to modify and evolve each scene in Dimension, bringing each insect’s story to life. Through this iterative process, he was able to help each work to be its own unique piece, and to give viewers a sense of place and time with each of these scenes.

Final renders of Heterostylus nabab in three different styles.

Special thanks to the Digital Collections Programme team at the Natural History Museum, London for their work, dedication, and collaboration on this project.