Behind the Art of Morrowind with Tatiana Malinko

By: Benjamin "Foghladha" Foley | : 1992   : 33

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us about the art of Morrowind. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your role at ZeniMax Online?

Hello! My name is Tatiana Malinko and I am the lead character artist for The Elder Scrolls Online. I have been with ZeniMax for over 7 years now. I started as a Senior Character Artist working on development of the Character Customization System (also known Character Creator) – a system that allows for creation and customization of the characters, both playable and NPCs. I have worked on creating the faces and physiques for payable characters, their hair, adornments, body markings, costumes, etc. I have also worked on some mounts and critters in game, such as the Senche, horses, and others. Currently, I am supervising a group of 3D character artists that create everything character-related for The Elder Scrolls Online: armors, weapons, customization options for the characters, mounts, monsters, critters, etc.

I also work closely with the Concept Art team on the design of new armors, costumes, and other character-related concepts.

Breathing Life into Morrowind

Now Morrowind had a very unique style of art. From its architecture to it's strange fauna. Did you spend a lot of time in Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind when researching the world you would be recreating?

Morrowind’s world is magical and unique in appearance. When working on the art for ESO: Morrowind, we spent a substantial amount of time researching the look and lore of the original TES III: Morrowind, including watching gameplay videos that included architecture, creatures, and the characters we needed to recreate or get style guides for, reading everything lore-related, consulting our Lead Loremaster, Lawrence Schick.

Let's talk about your design process. When you first get an assignment, what steps do you follow to bring it to life?

The design is usually done at the concept stage, by our team of dedicated Concept Artists. I have a background and interest in costume making and I work closely with the Concept Art team on the design of armors, costumes, and other character-related concepts.

Here is an example of how we go about designing a cultural costume:

The design of any asset usually starts with a discussion and sharing of ideas about what the asset is, its function, its history if it has appeared in previous Elder Scrolls game, and the culture in Tamriel that it is associated with. We do research on the lore and on any previous visual depictions of the asset.

Next, we create a series of thumbnail sketches, and our Art Director selects his favorites out of the bunch. Then the designs start to take shape via larger drawings. Through the process, we consult daily with our Loremaster, Art Director, Concept Art Lead, and myself.

When we decide upon the main costume forms, we create a series of clean-line drawings for both male and female figures. After that, we add the “detail callouts”, as we refer to them. Detail callouts might include things like materials, fabric patterns, metal engraving patterns, stitching on clothing, embroidery, beadwork, etc. After that, we look over the piece one last time and check if any further direction is needed before the Character Artist begins implementing the concept.

What was one of your favorite places in Morrowind and will it be making a reappearance in the Morrowind expansion?

I really love the Bitter Coast with its otherworldly atmosphere, unique blend of flora, and iconic Morrowind creatures such as the Bull Netch.

Is there anything (Character, Place, or Object) you are most proud of?

I love Lord Vivec the most! The creation of this NPC for The Elder Scrolls Online was the most interesting and challenging, artistically and technically. The design of Vivec’s costume is very intricate, as it is asymmetrical in nature, and has some amazing details and embellishments. And the asymmetrical skin treatment, half gold and half blue, required an unorthodox approach since all of our in-game character designs to date were symmetrical through most of the body. Lord Vivec got a custom configuration, both with his figure geometry and texture.

The artists on my team did an amazing job bringing Lord Vivec to life!

From a design standpoint, Elder Scrolls Online takes place 700 years before the events in TES III. 700 years is a very long time, just looking at the past 100 years of our lives in America there have been huge changes in landscape and innovation. As an artist you had to envision everything as if it was rolled back 700 years. How did your team approach this??

Let’s look at our own world. Humanity’s progress didn’t always move at the current speed. Consider Ancient Egypt – its architectural language and culture hardly changed over five thousand years! Certainly, there are stylistic differences between different periods; but from the perspective of contemporary humanity, they were not significant enough to make the culture unrecognizable.

We approached the design of Morrowind for The Elder Scrolls Online with this mindset. Of course, Morrowind in The Elder Scrolls Online isn’t an exact copy of TES III. But there are some recognizable silhouettes for the architectural structures; dwelling construction elements are similar. We looked at the materials that the dwellings were constructed from: materials are naturally found in the area. Then there are the giant mushrooms that exist in the areas of Morrowind – they provide the iconic framework for the environments. Just like in real life, the passage of time doesn’t always bring more sophisticated designs, be it architecture or clothing. So some of the clothing and armors we created are a bit more elaborate than seen in TES III, while still having distinct silhouettes and using some of the same materials that armor and clothing was crafted out of in TES III.

Being Bethesda created TES III, were the original source materials available for you to leverage in the new designs or did you have to go at it just by playing the old game and recreating the experience?

Game art creation technology has changed so drastically since TES III came out that source material, even if available, can’t really be used in the asset creation process for The Elder Scrolls Online. The way the models and textures are generated is very different these days. For example, we use a cloth simulation software to “stitch together” all of the cloth garments, then sculpt over these simulated meshes to add minute details like crumpling, fabric grain, stitching, embroidery, etc. From this sculpture, we create a normal map bake then proceed with adding texturing to it with a special texturing software that uses physical-world principles to create the shading. Fifteen years ago, models and textures were created in a very different manner and using different software. So we used images and videos from TES III as an inspiration for the art of The Elder Scrolls Online.

The Tech Behind the Artist

Let's talk about the technical side for a moment. What tools and applications do you use on a day to day basis?

We use 3D Studio Max and Maya for modeling and Pixologic’s Zbrush for sculpting the details – it’s possible to have millions of polygons in a single model!

We use Marvelous Designer software create cloth garments. It uses principles of cloth-making from the real-world to create patterns for all parts of the clothing, stitch it together, and simulate it over the character figure. We also use Marvelous Designer to simulate bedding, hanging cloths, banners, and even some portions of the gear you see on mounts or large creatures such as the carpet drapery found on the Silt Strider.

We use Xnormal is to bake down Normal Maps, Allegorithmic’s Substance Painter to create the textures, and Substance Designer to create materials. We also use Photoshop to bring all the textural elements together and add even more detail. And we use proprietary tools to export the artwork into the game. Some artists use additional software and scripts to aid their workflow.

Stylus, Trackball or Mouse? Which do you prefer?

I am an old-fashioned artist in this regard, so a simple corded optical mouse works best for me when modeling in 3D Software, and a stylus when working on Cintiq monitor, sculpting, or painting.

Do you draw on a portable tablet when you're away from your workstation and if so what kind of tablet do you use?

At home, I have a somewhat portable workstation. It’s an Alienware laptop with 13HD touch Cintiq connected to it. I can bring it to different rooms to work as necessary. In times when I am away from work or home, I prefer to use traditional media: a sketchpad and pencil, real clay for sculpting, and oil paints for painting.

I also spend a lot of time making costumes and accessories in the real world. There is something unique about being able to touch real-world materials and create something beautiful with them. It improves my understanding of how to create art digitally.

Future Thinking

Have you experienced any of the new VR Design tools that allow you to create in a 3D space virtually? If so what tools have you used and did you like the experience?

I haven’t really worked with VR technology; I have only seen it in action. It is fascinating, and there is a lot of potential there for game development.

A Look at the Artist

Where did you get your start in art? Was this something you were always passionate about?

I started seriously studying art at the age of 14 when I enrolled in the fine arts school for children in Crimea, Ukraine, where I studied painting and drawing. I did so in hopes of becoming a fashion designer one day. Later, I studied architecture, then graphic design, then Visual Effects and 3D Modeling and sculpture. I come from a family of crafters, so I was able to learned sewing and embroidery and other crafts at an early age. I was also involved in various performing arts: theater, dancing, and opera singing. I can’t really remember a time where I was not being involved in some form of art. So, yes, art is what I live for.

Were you formally trained in fine art and if so where did you study?

I studied drawing and painting at the children’s art school in my hometown of Feodosia, Crimea, Ukraine. Later I studied restoration of buildings and structures at the city college in St. Petersburg, Russia, finally receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Animation and Visual Effects from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA. I then studied sculpture at the same school for a while. In the field of digital art, there is a necessity to keep learning just to be able to use all the newest tools and technology, but also to grow as an artist.

In addition to the digital medium are there any other mediums you dabble with in your free time?

I sculpt with water-based or oil-based clay whenever I can. I like to paint with oils. And I make cosplay and fantasy costumes, where I employ a variety of materials and techniques: pattern-making, sewing, bead and gem embroidery, 3D printing, molding thermoplastics, sculpting with sculpey, and more.

Do you have a portfolio site or DeviantArt available?

Yes, though I have not updated it in quite some time. www.tatianart.com.

Published: July 10th, 2017

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About the Author

Benjamin "Foghladha" Foley
Managing Editor & Designer

Benjamin founded the Gaiscioch Social Gaming Community in 2001 and has since been the founder & activities director for this well known community. His role has gone beyond just running the Gaming Community and now includes running the Athletics Program in Portland, Oregon, as well as acting as the Managing Editor of the Gaiscioch Magazine, and is the Lead Producer on the Gaiscioch Livestream Productions. Additionally he networks with game developers to form relationships between Gaiscioch and development studios.

His experience in publishing dates back to helping his Grandparents who operated a printing press for over 40 years. In high school and college Benjamin excelled in journalism and played an active part in the school newspaper. Benjamin currently works full time as the director of technology for a franchise trade publication & education company.

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