We are launching a series of articles about the making of our latest demo, Adam. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will cover various aspects of production: concept art, assets production, in-engine setup, animation pipeline, VFX, and custom features as well as the tools we created for the project. We also plan to release various character and environment projects - basically all the material we can with no dependencies on Unity’s upcoming (but currently not publicly available) sequencer tool.
In addition to publishing a series of making of blog posts, we’re working hard to prepare as much as possible from this project for release. The plan is to make our assets and custom tech available this autumn.
My name is Georgi Simeonov and I was responsible for a lot of the art direction and production design on the project. I previously worked as a concept artist on games like Brink, Batman: Arkham origins, and Dirty Bomb as well as designing Volund for the Blacksmith Demo.
The film is set in a future where human society is transformed by harsh biological realities and civilization has shrunk to a few scattered, encapsulated communities clinging to the memory of greatness.
Adam, as our main character, was the starting point of our visual design process. He was designed to provide a glimpse into the complex backstory of the world, by revealing himself as a human prisoner whose consciousness has been trapped in a cheap mechanical body.
One of the early ideas that stuck was of that the mechanical body, while being functional, should still resemble and reference the human anatomy and organs in multiple ways, being in a way a mock écorché - a twisted stripped down copy of the real thing. This broad idea gave direction to multiple smaller details and decisions, both functional and decorative like - the cranium as a steel box reminiscent of human brain, covered by geometric machine cuts to create a pattern resembling the brain folds; the part exposed ribcage and spine - resembling a patient or a corpse awoken mid surgery/autopsy.
Another key concept for the design was reducing the convicts to walking records of their crimes, manifested in the chest monitor or tablet perpetually showing their sentence. For most of the production the sentence had their original mugshot as an additional reference to their human past and to provide a stark contrast with the near blank expressionless masks. At the end having a human face on the chest proved too distracting, so we went with the simpler design.
The very first set of exploration sketches for Adam. The beginning of the project caught me during my holidays so a lot of the initial exploration was done in a small pocket sketchbook, with a red pencil and a ballpoint pen. Veselin Efremov, our Director, wanted the convicts to look more human, so we dropped the one-eyed designs and the stranger proportions in favour of a more human silhouette
Exploring of the mechanics of the legs and arms. Here again we had to balance the priorities of having something that is mechanically believable but also laid out in ways that resemble bones, muscles, and sinews. We ended with a lot of cables similar to bike brake wires pulling the parts driven by motors mostly hidden away in the torso.
To continue the theme of a rough, inferior copy, the face was created as a Death Mask, from a hastily-scanned 3d print of the original. The concept included a mouth for quite a while, but a frozen expression, no matter if it was neutral or not, proved distracting from the eyes’ expressiveness. At the end, removing the mouth completely not only helped draw the focus to what mattered, but also helped to emphasize the convicts’ oppression.
Some of the many iterations Adam’s mask went through.
Exploring various alternate faces for Adam and the rest of the Convicts, we quickly discovered that it’s extremely easy to completely lose the impression of a human character and turn them into faceless or alien bots.
We needed the characters partially dressed in orange, a color evocative of prison uniforms. But since mechanical bodies don’t exactly need clothes, and painting them in any risked pushing them far into the realm of maintenance or utility robots, our way of hinting at clothing was through a shrink wrap package - such as could be used for mechanical elements before they are unwrapped, in a factory, mass-production setting.
Convict Shrink Wrap packaging exploration.
Our two other key characters were supposed to work as a pair from the start. We needed Sebastian to look wise and majestic but also fearsome, but in a non combative way. The Lieutenant, whom we came to call Lu, was to be his right hand, near equal, and counterpoint: the person of action and wielder of aggression when needed.
Pursuing the design of the two strangers we blended eastern and western archetypal savior influences, designs that can specifically serve their function and yet convey universal ideas and narratives beyond their few minutes of screen time.
Some of the main goals with Sebastian’s design were to show the two travelers an embodiment of a new culture that has developed outside, and to showcase the effort of its people to preserve their humanity and regain the ability to express their individuality.
We wanted Sebastian to look ancient, possibly one of the first or even the first to be cast out. At the same time, he carries the idea of a new beginning - of rebirth and regeneration. We mixed tribal elements like the sprouting seedling symbol on his forehead and in his chest cavity with more traditional messianic features. Material-wise, we went to one of our source inspirations and made Sebastian resemble a living bronze monument.
Sebastian and Lu’s masks/faces had to show the lengths to which some would go to reshape themselves in the pursuit of regaining and expressing their personality. We explored a carved/moulded and painted/stained look to emphasize the self-created image of the character as much as possible.
Face/Mask/Headgear explorations for Sebastian.
It was important that Lu didn’t just come across as a subordinate - we wanted her to be more of a partner. The warrior counterpoint to Sebastian’s spiritual leadership. In contrast to Sebastian, Lu is lighter and more mobile, but still intimidating.
Concept sculpt plus tank tracks armor, and a line sketch.
Initially we nicknamed the guards “surgeon sentries,” reflecting the two simple ideas behind their design. The guards of The City were one of only a few chances to directly visually communicate any aspect of the civilization within the the walls. In a way, they became a human manifestation of the city and its dwindling civilization. Closed in, wrapped, sterile, purist, desperate to retain their own identity in the face of self inflicted decline.
Initial Research and Ideas
The Cell provided the start of our narrative and the “birthplace” of Adam. As such, it played an important role and it naturally went through a number of iterations until we arrived at the balance of key elements we wanted.
We wanted it to be claustrophobic and in continuation of the theme of pseudo anatomy, we went for something resembling a mechanical womb with thick intestine-like pipes filling the space on all sides and compressing it even further.
Finding The Shape Language
Thumbnail explorations for the wall details of the Reformation Cell. These came at a relatively late stage in the project at a point when we already had a base variant of the room in blockout, a camera and a mocap setup: we just needed to distil the shapes and elements we wanted to use.
Most of the actual environment design beyond the initial reference boards and thumbnail explorations was done in Maya. This allowed us to have a working version of the world in Unity, including spaces, key structures and distances at a very early stage, allowing us the freedom and flexibility to iterate with all other aspects of production. Some of the blockout meshes worked so well we ended using them in the final version of the short.
Initial Research and Ideas
The Wall of the City as the primary manifestation of the setting had to express the nature of the society living behind. Medical themes and influences were also to the fore here; combining the sterile simplicity of Brutalism with the rows of indexed folders in a medical archive, thus making the wall an actual physical archive of the medical/biological memory of disappearing humanity.
Finding The Shape Language
Initial thumbnail explorations - these are some of the very first world concepts that defined much of the shape language and look of the key locations.
The watch tower as an element came quite late on in an attempt to add more variety to the wall. It was initially kit bashed by existing parts and later refined.
The Wall and platforms blockout. A lot of the exterior design was done and iterated on in the blockout phase.
A series of drawings done on top of the blockout to help environment artist with the details.
Overpaint of some of the later iterations of the wall to further push details and define elements and textures.
Initial Research and Ideas
For the Broken highway or meeting point where the strangers meet Adam and the other convicts, we wanted to create the impression of a holy place: an accidental temple. We used the symmetrical shape of a broken off highway section to create our shrine-like backdrop. A strong influence here was a woodblock print by Hiroshi Yoshida (In A Temple Yard).
Initially, we envisaged the flat muddy valley Sebastian and Lu are seen crossing as a melting ice lake in order to achieve the effect of walking on water for the low angle shot we introduce them in.
An overview of the outside space. The initial idea was for the character to gradually emerge from the deep, cold shadow of the wall into the sun. In the end we dropped the idea, since it was to restrictive in terms of lighting for a lot of the exterior shots.
Various ideas iterating on two of the later shots and exploring ground detail distribution as well as the distribution and shapes of the cliffs that form the skyline.