A Robot in the headlights: Elvira Trofimova’s dazzling image brings FLCL's Canti and Haruko to life. Find out how V-Ray for Maya helped her create and render it.
About Elvira “El” Trofimova
Elvira was born in Russia, where she studied traditional art and began her professional career as an artist for social and mobile games in Samara and Moscow. She relocated to New York to work as a concept artist for collectibles, and then studied digital production at Gnomon. Elvira is currently based in LA, working as a 3D character artist at arthouse game development studio Eyes Out on some cool unannounced stuff.
I’ve been a fan of the FLCL show since I saw it for the first time in early 2000.
And while studying at Gnomon, I enjoyed combining class assignments thematically to have the opportunity to composite them later. FLCL crew was the result of the combination of multiple projects I worked on throughout those two years. The Vespa and Canti were made for Hard Surface 2 class with Max Dayan; the Rickenbacker was modeled for Michael Pavlovich’s Intro to ZBrush before Iwent to Gnomon and later textured for Lighting and Rendering Class with Oded Raz. I sculpted Haruko in ZBrush for Digital Sculpting with James Schauf.
I had all those models waiting for the spotlight, and finally had the chance to combine them all together for the Look Development class with Miguel Ortega. After I gathered all my renders, I pitched this concept:
References and composition
I wasn’t exactly sure how I wanted to combine the models, so I went through reference images of the show to gather some more inspiration (always a good excuse to re-watch a show you love!)
Finally, I decided on the road shoulder but with night lighting. I also added some more references to my PureRef board.
At the same time, I started blocking out the composition.
Modeling in Maya and Zbrush
During the 10 weeks of the course, I had to touch-up my old models and make an environment for the characters, so I tried to evenly progress each model and set everything up and render as soon as possible.
Usually I start in Maya to set the scale and start the initial block-out. For hard-surface objects I stay in Maya most of the time and jump into Zbrush to model organic shapes if needed. On Canti, I used Zbrush to sculpt connecting pieces on his neck and ankles.
For the Vespa, I only sculpted some folds on the seat in Zbrush; everything else was modeled in Maya.
If I modeled for higher resolution, I would do a Zbrush pass on subdivided models to add some extra damage and bake a normal/displacement map. For this project, I just painted some scratches in Substance since I wasn’t planning any super-close-up renders.
For Haruko, I used Maya for scale block-in, but most sculpting was done in Zbrush. I used Maya for occasional topology adjustments. I prefer clean topology for sculpting and it saves time later if you need to retopologize.
I initially made Haruko’s Rickbacker entirely in ZBrush because it was for an Intro to ZBrush class and I didn’t know Maya back then. But I updated the model for this project, using optimized topology and UVs.
V-Ray Render Elements and V-Ray Layers
I used Substance Painter to texture all the models. For Haruko’s face I used Female 30s Multichannel Face #07 from Texturing.xyz and used this Photoshop workflow to quickly apply albedo and displacement maps.
Because my plan was to render full figures (not close-up) with night lighting, I textured them keeping that in mind. For a single shot like this, it was important to fit in our weekly deadlines.
Camera setup and final composition
It can take a lifetime to learn how to create a powerful and engaging composition. If I dare to summarize what I learned over the years of trying to study it: just slap a Golden Spiral on it. Works like a charm.
Hot tip: Use Photoshop’s built-in overlays in the Crop tool to check with different types of composition rules: Golden Ratio, Golden Spiral, Rule of Thirds, etc.
Lighting and camera
I wanted to try the “deer in the headlight” type of lighting in one of my works and finally got a good opportunity to explore that for my FLCL crew. I tried different combinations with added rim lights and distant lights but I think the best effect for this look was achieved with just one main source: V-Ray Rectangle light close to the render camera with HDR texture of an actual bike headlight (found at hdrlabs.com under Lightsmith Collection).
I have one V-Ray Dome light in the scene with Night HDR at very low intensity just in case it might be visible in reflections. I also added V-Ray Sphere and Rectangle lights for the Vespa’s headlight, backlight, turn signals and Canti’s screen. I rendered them with the Light Select Render Element and animated separately in Nuke.
For post-production we used Nuke. First we needed to separate render elements we want to control with a Shuffle node and name them accordingly. Then merge them back together with Merge nodes on Plus.
I added glow to the lights for an atmospheric effect. With Transform node I animated slight zoom in on the main render and offset zoom in on the foliage render for a parallax effect. I added flickering to Canti’s screen with NoiseCurve node, value set to random. I added a sine curve to the Mix parameter of the node that merges Vespa’s signal and back lights and keyed the main headlight mix manually (turn on, fade out). Finally I added LUT corrector with the Vectorfield node to bring image from raw to sRGB gamma.
The final output was rendered as a 180-frame .png sequence at 24 fps and was combined into a video format in Adobe After Effects.