/Q& A: Hand-painting the watercolor world of Dordogne

Q& A: Hand-painting the watercolor world of Dordogne

The first thing you’ll notice about Dordogne, the upcoming narrative adventure from French developer Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, are the captivating watercolor paintings that serve as the building blocks for each picturesque scene. 

Many of the enchanting visuals that players encounter throughout the story, which focuses on a young women called Mimi as she sorts through the remnants of her Grandmother’s life in an attempt to make sense of her own, have been painted by hand by Dordogne art director Cedric Babouche.

They bring an element of the pastoral to proceedings, gently pulling players into Mimi’s rose-tinted world as she revisits her childhood memories — echoes of summers spent in rural Dordogne, marveling at the world around her. 

Although the game isn’t out until next year, we were keen to learn how Babouche created and refined that delicate aesthetic to better understand his creative process. As luck would have it, the self-professed ‘watercolor addict’ had plenty to say on the matter. 

Gamasutra: How did you land on the watercolor aesthetic, and what ultimately convinced you it was the right fit? Was it something you’d always planned?

Cedric Babouche: I started watercolor 30 years ago when I was 14 years old. It was a revelation. I instantly knew it was for me. I also work with gouache, acrylic, pastel and Photoshop of course, but I felt that I had a strong connection with my brushes, paper, and pigments. I tried to paint by myself at first, but later on in life met some amazing teachers at my school Emile Cohl in Lyon (France) who taught me some specific techniques that helped me improve my skills as a professional.

I also worked in the VFX and animation industry for 15 years and always wanted to try and bring that 2D/3D look into my work. I don’t think it’s something you usually see. Traditional techniques tend to touch the hearts of people, and I wanted to follow that path. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but I knew I had to stick with it.

Three years ago, I decided to start my own company. It was a natural step for me to develop projects in animation, video games, and commercials using that approach — but it doesn’t mean I’ll always do this. For me, each project has its own essence, so if I have to follow a different path for some other projects, I will, but for now I’m more than happy with watercolor, paper and 3D. 

Gamasutra: Once you’d landed on the art style, how did you begin the process of creating those watercolor environments and transporting them into the game? What tools and techniques did you use to craft your watercolor world?

Babouche: I always start with black and white sketches on paper, made using Indian inks. Paper is always at the center of my work. I create a few sketches — maybe two or three at most — in order to block the main composition and the values of each shot. 

After that, I think a lot about the colors I’m going to use. I don’t do watercolor sketches before going for the final result, because I’m always afraid to lose that spontaneity. I have some automatisms which help me streamline that process. I go straight to the watercolor artwork I have in mind. If I make mistakes, it’s ok, I deal with them. I never start again. The final result might be a little bit different from what I had in mind, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting.

From that point, I do rough modeling for the camera mapping in Blender, and depending on the actions and movements the character will have in that environment, we spend a lot of time rebuilding textures and point of views that you can’t see in the original illustration in Photoshop. Sometimes, we can make four to five camera mapping rounds in one scene just to be able to show what we want to show in the scene.

Gamasutra: What was the biggest challenge you faced when attempting to bring those watercolor paintings to life in the digital space, and how did you overcome it?

Babouche: I’ve spent years working on 2D/3D mix. For me, camera mapping is the best viable solution. But if you only stick to that method you can’t expect the character to move a lot in its environment. So you have to spend a lot of time tweaking things with some tiny shaders and particles. You can also tweak some glow effect in order to blend some edges.

I like to make things simple and try and avoid spending too much time struggling with modeling and shaders. That’s why all the lighting and shadows are painted directly in the illustration I’m camera mapping. Of course, you have to cheat a little when you want to make them dynamic, but I prefer to cheat and control what I do instead of spending too much time developing shaders I don’t control. I like to keep the essence of my original illustration. If I was a good coder or developer, maybe I would change my mind.

Gamasutra: There’s a lot of incredibly rich animation in Dordogne, and it’s a joy to watch Mimi interact with the world around her. How did you manage to blend the stylized 3D characters with those painted environments?

Babouche: Again, based on my experience, you have to try to keep things simple. If you tried to mock up a watercolor shader, usually it looks fake because (and I don’t know why) most of the watercolor shaders are animated. I think it’s related to the fact that watercolor is fluid and we sometimes use drops of water to make the watercolor ‘move.’ But actually, the human eye isn’t really comfortable with movement when you’re dealing with watercolor.

I’ve personally decided to use a very simple shader with backgrounds, characters, and props simply textured with watercolor and white rim light to underline them. It might look simple, but I prefer this instead of something that would perhaps throw off players.

Gamasutra: I’m also keen to know how you designed the characters themselves. Could you talk about the inspiration and challenges behind that process?

Babouche: They are totally connected with what I know. I’m directly inspired by my family and sometimes by actors I like. For example, Mimi as a kid is inspired by a mix of my two daughters. I study them a lot. The way they speak, the way they move. As a director in animation they are an amazing source of inspiration. 

For Marnie, the grandmother, she’s a mix of two actresses that I like: Lauren Bacall and Allison Janney. Of course, the final look is more classical than those amazing actresses, but I wanted to give her that same kind of energy in the way she speaks or moves. Physically she’s totally different though.

For the artistic part, it’s the same process as the backgrounds. I use only Indian ink and brushes for sketches. Almost never pencils. I like to focus on my drawing. A pencil allows you to erase and go back and forth. So again, you lose a part of your spontaneity and focus.

With Indian inks I sometimes draw shapes very quickly, and sometimes I use an ink pen to refine things and draw very slowly. It doesn’t make sense at all, but it’s my process now.

Gamasutra: There are moments in the game where Mimi can photograph these gorgeous, three dimensional watercolor vistas. How did you build those scenes and make it possible for players to interact with them?

Babouche: These scenes are based on multi camera mapping. We call them skybox views. Some of them are quite simple with two to three camera mappings and illustrations, but for the final production I expect to have more complex scenes with five to seven camera mappings and illustrations, plus some textured props or layers to fill up the gaps.

Gamasutra: There are a number of different scenes in Dordogne, ranging from warm indoor settings to serene riverbeds. Which environments were the most difficult to realize?

Babouche: Outside environments are definitely the toughest ones because they’re organic and it’s very difficult to separate the layers for foliages, bushes, or even water because of the gradients you have in the paintings. Whites that you naturally have in watercolor are really helpful to solve some of these issues.
Indoor backgrounds are easier because we talk about angles, strong shapes and perspective.

But as we want to keep the spontaneity of illustrations, most of the time we don’t care so much about perspective. So it can be very tricky to make an accurate 3D model. We cheat a lot and thank our technical director for developing some tricks allowing us to change the scale of our character depending on our fake perspectives.

Gamasutra: Finally, specifically with regards to art design and direction, what’s the more important lesson you’ve learned working on Dordogne?

Babouche: That paper and traditional techniques are definitely time-saving for 2D looking productions.
Some people might think it’s time-consuming to paint illustrations by hand, but I think I would spend way more time on Photoshop trying to paint backgrounds that might look like watercolor but lack authenticity. I think Ctrl+Z is a formidable invention, but also one of the worst in terms of spontaneity.

Of course, I have a lot of experience and I sign off on my own work so it’s easy for me to say that, but bringing back some traditional art in pipelines can be very useful (depending on the art direction you’re aiming at, of course).

Mixing techniques, using the best of each one (we hope) from 2D to 3D, on paper or screen, is very exciting and helps improve our skills every day. That’s what I was looking for for years and that’s what I’m expecting from the people I’m working with: some fun in experimenting and learning.