Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Concepts: "Look Development"

I was going to post a more advanced (and fun) tutorial today, but I immediately realized that I was talking about a concept called Look Development that not everyone is familiar with, so here's my definition:

Look Development (aka "look-dev") is the process, or method, that an artist (or team of artists) goes through to come up with the look of the final imagery for a project. Look-dev also includes figuring out and demonstrating the techniques and tools (aka "the pipeline") that will be used to achieve that goal.

At a nuts-and-bolts level, the look-dev artist's job is to examine reference material (or style guides), determine what characteristics need to be duplicated in CG to match the effect, or feel of the project, and come up with a technical method for producing the desired look.

In practice look-dev can be viewed as a three-step, recursive process that goes like this:

observation -> execution -> critique -> observation -> execution -> critique -> lather -> rinse -> repeat...

Observation is, IMO, the most important step, and is the step that separates the mediocre artists from the really good artists. Good artists have a good eye, and a good eye is something that can be developed with practice and honest self critique.

What's being observed depends on the project's goals, and could vary from requiring a photo-realistic match of some natural phenomenon, to requiring the duplication in 3d of a set of stylized 2D layout drawings from a team of designers. Oftentimes, when the final look isn't well defined, The look-dev team will be helping develop that final style.

The goal of the Observation step is to define what characteristics make up the look you're going for. What kind of surfaces are involved? Is there something characteristic about the camera being used? What kind of lighting is required to reach the required look?

Execution is the "figuring it out" step. This is the trial-and-error part of the process where the look-dev artists experiments with tools and techniques, trying to come up with the process that will produce the desired look (ie. the process that will match those characteristics that were defined in the previous step). An artist that's good at (and efficient in) the execution step is an artist that's familiar with the tools available -- not only what they're capable of and how they work, but also where their limitations are and what kinds of work-arounds are available.

Critique is the final step of the process, and all that requires is looking, critically and honestly, at what you produced in the Execution step, comparing that to what you were shooting for in the Observation step, and deciding if you need to put more work into Observation and Execution.

Look-dev is a process that's key to the work of individual artists as well as industry teams. In team environments, different team members take on different rolls, with supervisors leading the observation process, technical directors doing the work of the execution phase, and creative directors involved in critiquing the results. As an individual, the look-dev process can help you focus your efforts and help you avoid the moving-target problems that can sabotage even individual efforts. (The "moving-target" in a team environment is usually that creative director, but that's enough of a discussion that it's probably best to put it off for a future post) :)

see also: a good case-study article on look-dev for a game, and Neil Blevins' shader theory section

images: Grapes - Johan Thorngren, Mr. Squarepants - Blur Studio.