Pixomondo (PXO) has an extremely strong slate of high-end episodic VFX work, most, if not all of which, has extremely tight deadlines. To lay a solid foundation for asset creation, the 3D team at PXO has creatively used KitBash3D’s model kits of high-quality, customizable 3D assets as the building blocks for digital set extensions and environments. By leveraging KitBash3D assets for real-time virtual production workflows and procedurally-generated environment building, PXO has improved production workflows and allowed their artists to focus on lighting and on more bespoke 3D modeling.
Kitbashing or model bashing is a practice dating to the earliest days of practical miniature models. Models such as Star Trek’s TNG physical Borg ship were created by taking pieces out of commercial and amateur model kits. Today digital kitbashing is popular to create concept models and they are increasingly used for high-end production environments.
Staging Halo with Procedurally-Generated Environments
Halo is an American series developed by Kyle Killen and Steven Kane for the streaming service Paramount+, based on the video game franchise of the same name. For Master Chief’s (Pablo Schreiber) battle for mankind against the Covenant alien race in Halo, an epic backdrop of massive 26th-century cityscapes was central to visual storytelling. Under the direction of Head of CG Evgeny (Johny) Berbasov, PXO crafted procedurally-generated environments to set the stage for the pinnacle war and reimagine the in-game universe for the TV series.
Filming began in Ontario, Canada in October 2019, although post and effects for the first five episodes was affected due to the COVID pandemic. Filming eventually resumed in Budapest, Hungary in February 2021. Halo premiered on March, on Paramount+, with the series already renewed for a second season.
“Because the show is based on the popular and well-established game IP, fans know how the world should look and expect it to be represented in a specific way,” shared Berbasov. “We were responsible for building upon the concept art and designs in a way that made the fictional and futuristic environments impressive and believable, while also staying true to the lore for fans.”
Executive producer Kiki Wolfkill revealed that the series is a standalone story that takes place within its own ‘Silver Timeline’ and that is inspired by the game rather than a continuation, or adaptation. The aim was to give the two Halo canons a chance to evolve individually to suit their media. While the plot divergence has not been popular with all the game-focused fans, the visual look of the show visually delivers a complex and detailed Halo world.
To expedite production, PXO leveraged KitBash3D model kit libraries as the basis and inspiration for world-building on Halo. Berbasov stated, “When we received the initial concept art for the series, we realized that there were many similarities between the overall look of the show and the offerings in various KitBash3D asset libraries. We were able to take specific buildings from KitBash3D’s libraries and transform them to align with the unique design of the Halo universe, rather than taking extra time to create models from scratch. This laid the foundation for creating the massive 30-kilometer cityscape, allowing us to present work to the client faster than previously possible. Overall, the quality and customizability of KitBash3D assets enabled us to achieve this.” The team used Brutalist as its primary base kit, in addition to Neo Tokyo and Neo Tokyo 2.
Berbasov added, “When we’re delivering the first version of an environment to a client for review, KitBash3D model kits serve as the initial jumping-off point and help save us up to 80% of the time typically required in creating assets. What used to take a week now only takes two days.” KitBash3D’s assets come prepared for use in Unreal, Maya, with VRay or Arnold which allows teams to very quickly hit the ground running within several hours.
To develop the cityscape environment, PXO used a procedural world-building process to ensure that no two buildings in the series looked identical. To achieve this, the team created a library with multiple variations of floors, bays, roofs, and GAFs that were based on the original KitBash3D model kits but fully customized to align with the look of the Halo universe. Working in Houdini, the team procedurally combined the separate elements together to create the layouts for unique and different buildings. The map of the 30-kilometer cityscape with buildings, streets, and water lines was also procedurally generated, with different elements mixed and matched to populate the massive environment. Berbasov adds, “Ultimately, it was like multi-level kitbashing – we took the original KitBash3D model kits, disassembled and customized the different elements of each asset, then reassembled the pieces back together to create a complex, high-fidelity, and one-of-a-kind environment for the series. We relied upon KitBash3D as a basis for the building blocks of the environment, allowing us to create faster and free up artist cycles to focus on more creative tasks.”
A veteran artisan, Berbasov has witnessed the evolution of post-production pipelines throughout more than two decades of working in the industry. He shared, “Throughout my career, I’ve worked through all of the different VFX and animation departments, so I have an in-depth understanding of how the entire pipeline works and how complex and time-consuming creating assets, shots, and environments can be.” When Berbasov first got started 24 years ago, environment assets had to be built from scratch. “Today, we’re seeing companies like KitBash3D present and popularize an ‘assetized’ mindset – one where assets are no longer being built manually and having accessible, premade, high-quality model kits as a starting point is making life easier for artists and expediting post-production workflows. This is especially critical for fast-paced production environments, like for episodic series.”
Berbasov concluded, “KitBash3D offers extensive libraries with a diverse range of assets that can be tailored to meet the demands or style of any project. The latest kits are also very clean in topology, so we don’t have to spend a lot of time cleaning it up or decoupling pieces. On fast-paced productions that require quick turnaround, we don’t have extra time to build and shade assets. We need to be able to quickly combine elements together, present it to the client, approve the cameras, light it, and deliver it as efficiently as possible. Using KitBash3D assets and working with an ‘assetized’ mindset is critical in this pursuit.”
Assembling the Final Frontier for Star Trek: Discovery
Crafting exotic planets and futuristic sci-fi environments was an essential role for PXO in world-building for the Emmy Award-winning series Star Trek: Discovery. For four seasons, PXO has been developing cinematic worlds, under the direction of VFX Supervisor Fausto Tejeda. “When it comes to a television pipeline, projects have very short deadlines and require a quick turnaround on delivery, ” comments Tejeda. “Tools like KitBash3D have been essential in enabling us to deliver on time and at a high level of quality.”
PXO’s scope of work on Star Trek: Discovery encompassed crafting creatures, spaceships, characters, environments, and effects. In season two, the team was tasked with recreating an entirely new and futuristic planet from scratch and based solely on concept designs. “We received general guidelines and concept art from the client, and we were able to use KitBash3D assets as the foundation for our environment building. The model kits have an established geometry and look that matched the concept, and we were able to further customize and build upon the assets. It was amazing to use kits from the get-go that worked flawlessly,” said Tejeda. Similarly, for season three, the team developed a futuristic San Francisco to accommodate a timeline jump to 900 years in the future. Tejeda added, “We used KitBash3D’s Utopia kit as the basis of the environment, then further customized the asset and added new textures. We ended up transferring that asset with other vendors on the show, and to this day, it’s still being used not only on Star Trek: Discovery, but also on Picard.”
For season four, PXO began incorporating virtual production workflows and filming sequences on two in-house LED volumes. “Using KitBash3D assets allows us to lay the groundwork and do the blocking within a scene. The assets have been essential for enabling us to rapidly get iterations out in compliance. We’ll quickly kitbash a scene with massive environments, then we’ll get them up on our huge LED volume walls to gauge if the scale and distance are working. It helps us get work in front of the client as fast as possible, which is critical,” comments Tejeda. When the PXO team has Zoom meetings with their clients, they are also able to do quick demos and preview lookdev work in Unreal Engine, then change or swap out assets in real-time. From there, the team continues to build upon the assets until the final desired look is achieved. “It’s all about speed nowadays, and having tools like KitBash3D that we can rely on and use confidently in our pipeline is instrumental for our workflow,” said Tejeda.
Leveraging KitBash3D assets has saved PXO weeks’ worth of time that would have previously been required to build models, shaders, and textures. “Having the assets as a base allowed us to focus more on the beautification of shots, such as lighting, making sure things are in a direct position, layout, and addressing client notes on which specific buildings need to be enhanced,” Tejeda points out. “We don’t have to worry so much about the grunt work of starting things from scratch; it’s more about making sure a shot looks aesthetically pleasing. That takes a decent amount of time too, so any little shortcut that we can take is always valuable.”
PXO has found this approach helps to allow an asset to move easily through the entire pipeline. Since assets that are targetted first for use on the LED wall, will be reused again in post. “For instance, if a client wants to do a wide establishing shot, we render the assets right out of Unreal, so it’s important that our assets are high enough quality for both our Unreal work and post-work,” says Tejeda.
“A lot of times you buy model kits from various websites, download them, and realize that they come in a bunch of triangles or geometry that’s not working,” Tejeda explains. “You have to spend hours after the fact cleaning something up. With KitBash3D, you know what you’re getting every single time. You know it will be clean and ready to use as soon as you download it. You know you’ll have options to use it as a hero asset or background asset, or with Unreal Engine or Maya.”
“Rather than spending our resources on creating one tiny building in the background that no one will even notice or see, it’s better to spend the time developing a more complex environment, instead of focusing on each individual little asset. So, having something like KitBash3D’s libraries that we know we can rely on to look good is pretty important. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend building an asset, if you don’t have the time to light or place it properly, it still won’t look great. It’s all about knowing how to use your tools to your advantage to make cinematic worlds more beautiful,” concluded Tejeda.