Image: RedLine2311

Source Filmmaker is famous for the Saxxy Awards and other machinima, but there’s a vibrant and fascinating scene using the program for “scenebuilding” (2D art) as well.

Given the vast array of other, more popular options out there for digital painting, this might seem an odd and even counter-productive way to make art. After all, SFM was built to make movies, not still images.

But what’s going on here isn’t the same. Scenebuilding isn’t painting. It’s not drawing, either. When artists are making static stuff in SFM, the experience is closer to set-dressing, or building a diorama; it’s more about composition and playing with existing elements and variables then creating something entirely new.

Here’s an example of how it works, courtesy of Croatian artist Eduard Tucaković. He made this Simon Stålenhag-inspired image last year:

Looks cool! But here’s what it looks like in SFM:

You can see how the objects have been arranged to line up perfectly at the point of capture, and how the lighting is scattered throughout.

An actual 3D artist might be looking at this thinking “um yes this is how it all works”, and that’s true! But the big difference here for fans and tinkerers is that Source Filmmaker is available for free, and is in many ways far easier to use than professional 3D software, especially when you consider the tutorials and guides members of the community have made to help folks get started.

There are drawbacks to scenebuilding, though. You’ll notice most images rely on existing 3D models and characters (especially those from Source Engine games like Left 4 Dead and Half-Life 2), which limits the scope of what can be achieved, and the raw results can sometimes be a bit rough, requiring a pass in Photoshop to clean up things like clipping errors.

And SFM itself can be a hassle. Valve hasn’t updated it since 2015 (it’s based on the original Source Engine), and it’s still not a 64-bit application, so users struggle with frequent crashes thanks to its limited memory usage. There is a SFM2, based on Source Engine 2, but so far the only game it supports is DOTA 2.

Some prominent scenebuilders are current or former game studio artists, who dabble in the hobby not as a replacement for existing skills, but just because it’s a fun way to fuck around with composition and make cool images. And while most of the stuff that’s getting used to create scenes has been salvaged from other games, there’s even an art to that process: random junk, from grass to bricks to crates, can be combined and lit to appear as though it’s an all-new object.

All of the images you’ve seen so far are the work of Tucaković, but if you want to check out more SFM work, you can take a look at the portfolios of artists like TeslaMen, XieAngel, PixelEgor and Ivw115 as well.

Image: XieAngel
Image: PixelEgor
Image: TeslaMen

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About the author

Luke Plunkett

Luke Plunkett is a Senior Editor based in Canberra, Australia. He has written a book on cosplay, designed a game about airplanes, and also runs cosplay.kotaku.com.