The Meet MAT 2 Winners! Part One: Art Direction

It is a commonly held misconception that people create stories. Through action, or imagination, or observation.

The really good storytellers know the truth of the matter: it is the story that creates the person, not the other way around.

From our earliest years, the stories we hear, and witness, act as our guiding compasses as we move through this turbulent world. From stories we learn how to choose heroes and villains; we learn the ideals we should aspire to, and the pitfalls we should avoid. Such lessons may encompass a lifetime, or they may apply to the merest of moments. Great stories – great pieces of art – require honesty, and bravery. And, more often than not, also a little bit of skill. Listening to a story, and learning from a story, is an innate ability, one that all but the most soulless of us possess. But recounting such a story to another usually requires some practice.

In our recent Meet MAT 2 contest, we saw some astounding artistry. The most striking entries were those that showed innovativeness, technical brilliance – and, yes, those that told a story. Some entries, such as Guilherme Marconi’s ‘A Tale to Illuminate the Backlands’ were explicit in their storytelling, with characters and events quite clearly delineated. Others, such as Ayagaure Sanchez’s ‘Sea Sadness’ were more tonal in nature; they evoked a mood, and to some degree a setting, while precise details remained intentionally ambiguous.

We approached some of the highly placed Meet MAT 2 artists, who were kind enough to tell us the inspiration behind their entries, their overall objectives in creating their artwork, and the approach to art direction that allowed them to achieve this goal.  

Guilherme Marconi, ‘A Tale to Illuminate the Backlands’

Brazil-based Guilherme Marconi is a 2D illustrator; he has previously worked on projects for companies such as Nike, Absolut Vodka, and Microsoft. He was the winner of the ‘Best Storytelling’ award for the Meet MAT 2 contest.

When I saw MAT, my first thought was that I would like to tell a story, I didn´t want to create a person or a character, but I would like to tell his story – that is, the story of MAT’s life. My inspiration for this came from cordel literature ; that’s a particularly Brazilian way of storytelling. The esthetics involved, and the ways in which words are used, and the narrative takes place, has always enchanted me.

And music was also a source of inspiration. While I was creating this version of MAT I was listening to a lot of Brazilian music; my Spotify playlist for that is here.

The colors of my MAT were inspired by the stamps used in the process of printing cordel booklets. These are made of carved wood, and coated in black ink to print each page of the book.

Ultimately it was time to think about MAT’s story; here it’s important to say that I had help from Cincoletivo, a group of friends that works with me. They gave me a lot of support, making suggestions, writing, helping in the process, or just listening to me talking and talking while I was happy, just because I was participating in the contest.

The story on MAT’s body is about little Mary, and it recounts how she was looking for happiness through her window. It concerns an arranged marriage – these were very common where the story takes place. Her father wanted Mary to marry a violent man, named Sebastião. And it’s about how families used little girls to achieve status and power, with no consideration of the girls’, well-being, or desires.

The story starts in a very sad way.

One day, Mary was looking through her window, hoping to find some relief from her life of suffering. Suddenly she saw Severino, and his music, poetry, and a beautiful declaration won her heart. A strong, forbidden passion began between them.

Mary gave her heart to Severino, but she knew this wouldn’t be allowed by her strict father or her future violent husband. Neither man liked Severino, or his viola music that so enchanted Mary.

But Sebastião learned about this forbidden affair, and surprised Mary and Severino. Armed, he wanted to kill Severino – and perhaps even Mary. Realizing the danger, Severino pulled Mary up on to his horse, and the two of them escaped while Sebastião gave chase, firing his ‘garrucha ’.

Yet, as she escaped with Severino, Mary was truly happy for the first time in her life. Nothing from her previous life was important anymore. She was no longer a little girl, and she didn’t belong to her father or to any future with a violent husband. For the first time in her life, she was free.

I tried to tell a story using MAT´s texture because, as we know, each experience in our life causes a mark, something we can´t erase that changes us forever. Usually, when we meet someone, we don´t know the story behind the person. Everyone has a story, or a love story, or something they’ve left behind to reach their dreams – and here, on this wooden MAT, we get to see that story.

I´m sure that at the moment, when we’re living through a global pandemic, our incredible stories change every day – stories of health professionals and their love for life, common people with no super power recovering from the disease, dreamers planning new lifes, people with almost no resources producing masks to help the community, things like this. New stories to tell, new stories to inspire.

That´s why I believed in the power of a simple story in this context.

William Ruhlig, ‘Polar CliMATe Scientist’

William Ruhlig is an indie game developer, and a freelance artist and motion graphics designer. He also teaches at the University of Pretoria, in South Africa. He was the winner of the General category of the Meet MAT 2 contest.

For about 15 years or longer I’ve been using the nickname, ‘Pikkewynman’. This means ‘Penguin Man’ in Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. My first ever 3D render was a (very simple) penguin. So, penguins are never far from my mind; they’re really cute and goofy creatures.

When I looked at the MAT model for the contest, I thought I could turn it into a penguin. My first idea was some kind of aviator penguin, but that didn’t work too well, and I got stuck trying to figure out what to do besides a helmet. That’s when a friend of mine reminded me of an old meme with a penguin approaching a group of Antarctic scientists; this really filled me with sudden inspiration – there was so much I could add to the little guy to make him the best CliMATe Scientist ever.

A lot of research and real-life references helped me decide what he would wear, what gadgets he’d have, and what tools he’d need – using the pictures of the actual scientists gave me all the inspiration I needed to add in all the details.

In terms of art direction, the colors in my project were based on references to various forms of polar survival gear, snow, and of course, penguins. I tried to achieve some level of realism with the jacket and equipment that the character wears and, while the penguin’s colors are simple, I made him more stylized with bright blue eyes to complement the colors in the snow. I knew I wanted him to look as realistic as possible, so I made sure that that was at the forefront of my mind whenever deciding what elements to add next.

Adam Scott, ‘Sea Monkey’

Adam Scott has worked as a 3D character artist at High Moon Studios, Radical Entertainment, and Naughty Dog. He is currently working at Bungie. He won second place in the General category of the Meet MAT 2 contest.

For my Meet MAT 2 entry, my main goal was to incorporate the circle shape on the front of the head, as this was such an iconic part of the MeetMat mesh. I’d originally wanted to create a little kid in a lion costume. But I was creating the displacement within Painter exclusively, with brush strokes and modifiers, and I wasn’t happy with the results I was getting for the kid’s face. The kid was looking more creepy than cute.

After changing gears, I went with a face that gave me more flexibility. I had some early costume designs for a space monkey, but after seeing some vintage deep-sea diving suits I decided to switch to a sea monkey. The head design worked well, there was a good mix of material types, and I liked the option to layer in some heavy patina.

Vintage deep-sea diving suits have a decent mix of materials types (brass, leathers, textile, rubber), so I wanted to make sure my final design included these, to have a nice range of color blocking and specular values. And since Substance Painter makes it easy to add wear to materials, I opted for a well-used diving suit. This would help break up some of the larger surfaces, like the brass helmet.

I started the project by laying down some simple line art on the model, which basically acted as a concept. This would serve as my guide for my material breakup, which would generally also define my main areas of displacement.

As I progressed, I would often take screenshots of my model and do a paintover of areas that needed some love, or simply gather reference images of areas that were undefined.

The face was particularly important to get right, as it would be the main driver of this piece. I created several revisions before finalizing what you see now. Ideally, I’d have loved to give him more asymmetry and expression, but having to hand paint a depth mask through mask layers proved to be quite difficult! If anyone were to try this, I’d absolutely recommend baking displacement from a sculpted high-res mesh. Even though sculpting the face was challenging, I was surprised at how well displacement worked in Substance Painter. I was able to displace smaller face wrinkles of the chimpanzee, and use this detail to drive smart masks on color layers. Just as I tried maintain consistent grunge all over the model, I also tried to propagate this level of detail all over it.

I experimented with an underwater color tint for final renders, but it looked a bit odd with the open face helmet since this sea monkey would only breathe air. I also tried creating a glass lens in front of the face, by displacing in the back of the head. It worked okay on the front, but it destroyed the back of the head mesh… So I scrapped the idea in favour of a complete model.

Ayagaure Sanchez, ‘Sea Sadness’

Ayi Sanchez is Senior Environment Artist at MachineGames. He has previously worked on game series including Castlevania, Gears of War, and Wolfenstein. He won third place in the General category of the Meet MAT 2 contest.

I knew I wanted to do something related to sea materials, and how weathering tied them all together. I was inspired by Bioshock, diving suits, navigation machinery and fishing boats. Diving suits were quite a popular theme on the previous edition, so I didn’t want to do the same thing again. I found a picture of a Chadburn telegraph, did a mockup to turn it into a face and accidentally a sad expression appeared. I loved the sadness of it, so I decided to use that as the main motif. Then I added bird poop as a result of references I’d found; this complemented the sad feeling.

In the end, this artwork is all about telling a small story with just a texture – though, here, the final result came about as a result of experimentation, and multiple happy accidents.

In terms of art direction, I wanted to use a maximum of two colors for the palette, but some more came in towards the end. The idea was mainly to use brownish tones and complementary blues. I used those for the body. As part of the face, black paint felt quite natural with some contrasting white elements. That done, my main goal was to do as much as possible with the different hue inside each tone; wood, for example, needed to feel rich in nuance and subtleties, but everything also needed to feel fairly homogeneous. So I used weathering as a visual glue.

As well, I wanted to place a lot of emphasis on albedo, which for me is the true soul of a texture. For this reason, every part needed to feel unique and interesting without being distracting. I also tried out more elements that never made it to the final version, such as buoys, fenders, and ropes.

Nikolay Marinov, ‘KukerMat’

Nikolay Marinov is a fourth-year student of computer engineering at the ‘Angel Kanchev’ University of Ruse, in Bulgaria, and is currently working on his final thesis at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He also works as an environment artist at V Media, and as a texture artist at KitBash3D. He won first place in the Student category in the Meet MAT 2 contest.

I was really excited about this contest. I observed the first Meet MAT contest in 2017 and it looked like so much fun, but back then I knew next to nothing about CG. Observing the people who participated then, I knew that sci-fi would be an area of interest for a lot of artists, so I tried to think of ideas that incorporated something more organic. That’s how I came up with the KukerMat. I tried to think of something original drawn from Bulgarian culture – the Kukeri. The Kukeri are traditional Bulgarian costumes that men wear on some holidays. We do ritualistic dances to scare off evil spirits, and to bring good health to our villages.

To achieve this, I started with my reference board. I drew my color scheme from this, and ultimately tried to limit everything to just a few different colors and their variations. I wanted to have as many different materials as possible (cloth, leather, wool, iron, fur, wood, horn, cobblestones) so that I could brush up on my Substance Painter skills, after having previously spent so much time in Substance Designer.

KukerMat, early pass

Francesc Loyo Valls, ‘Ancient MAT Armor’

Francesc Loyo Valls is currently studying a Master’s Degree in Video Game Art at The Superior Institude of Applied Arts (LISAA), in Paris, as well as working on a freelance basis for A Tale of Games. He won second place in the Student category in the Meet MAT 2 contest.

The idea behind the Ancient Mat Armor grew out of experimentation with Substance Painter. I didn’t start with a clear idea in mind; I was only interested in learning the program. This meant that for every step of the process I would try to learn the available tools, and finally I’d choose the outcome that I found most interesting. This might sound a bit uncertain, but I found that this process was the perfect way to acquire skills while having fun.

The spark that started the project was my interest in designing robots and mechanisms. At the beginning I had in mind the idea of making a robot for the contest, to try out the various possibilities to create a hard-surface piece. But after some iteration and experimentation with the displacement I realized that the design reminded me of armor.

This idea, along with the possibilities for materials and weathering within Substance Painter, made me go for the ancient armor look. After adding the old, rusted silver look, I tested out different materials in between the armor plates. By chance I found that the red color complemented and bumped up the details. This organic discovery is what defined the final concept of the piece, an ancient suit of armor that was displayed in a museum or a gallery.

Florian Bobe, ‘SubMecha’

Florian Bobe is a student of 3D animation at E-Artsup, in Lyon, France. He won third place in the Student category of the Meet MAT 2 contest.

The idea for my Meet MAT 2 entry came to me simply because of my love for Japanese mechas, and for the Transformers franchise. More specifically, the principal idea of my MAT came from the Autobots of the first Transformers movie. The colors were different – the original Transformers are represented with little or no color; I drew upon the color palettes of Evangelion, which are quite tonic in color, and applied them to my MAT.

(Editor’s note: The first, and definitive, Transformers movie is The Transformers: The Movie, released in 1986. Every Transformers movie that Michael Bay has since directed is merely a pale imitation of the awesomeness of the original animated feature.)