Calvary is a 3D fictional cathedral that is viewable in a virtual reality space that is based around Christian beliefs. The goal of this space is to invite the viewer, whether a Christian or non-Christian, into this once spiritual realm and explore the area and sounds that are immersed throughout. The HTC Vive is a new way in which a person can be in a virtual space and experience God without being within a physical structure like a tabernacle or cathedral. Calvary helps connect the viewer between the real and the supernatural. Hebrews 11:1 says “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The definition of virtual reality is the perception of being physically present in a non physical world. There is a correlation between the two which is demonstrated through the 3D environmental space. Even though something that exists in virtual reality is not real, our minds can still believe in it because of how engaging the experience can be. When someone puts on a VR headset they are transported to a fictional place and begin to hear and see things in which we are not really there. The sounds that reveal themselves are as important as the visuals and adds to the realism. Faith has a similar effect on the ones who believe in God. The supernatural goes beyond scientific understanding. Events which can not be scientifically explained, like the Biblical plagues in the book of Exodus, are viewed as the effects of a higher power, or God. Someone who doesn’t believe in God or a higher power would label these events as either untrue or chance. If one doesn’t believe in God it can be challenging to believe that the blessings they receive come from Him. Similar to those who have never been immersed in virtual reality may not fully understand how someone can experience so many different emotions from a space which does not exist.
When I was eight years old, I prayed and committed my life to Christ. But even before doing this, God placed a passion inside me for being creative and learning new creative techniques. It started out with drawing on paper, evolved into 2D graphics, and now has grown into creating 3D environments using a variety of programs. There has always been a desire within me to create art that gives glory and honor to God. When starting graduate school I was unsure what I wanted to accomplish. Over the course of the first year when I was discovering new technologies and improving my skills, I found that 3D environment art was the direction I wanted to go. 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” This was the verse which came to mind when I decided to build a cathedral for my thesis. Between learning new programs and building everything, this project was going to take several months. Since God has been the most important thing in my life, He was going to be the focus of this project. The word Calvary is the name of the location where Jesus was crucified on the cross. I wanted to have several direct correlations between that historic moment and the 3D virtual space so that is why I started by calling the cathedral Calvary.
The intention of the work is to change the way in which many cathedrals personify the early Christians in paintings and statues. Many reflect a larger than life persona and their body types usually resemble that of professional bodybuilders. Some may view this as the church displaying their faith but at times faith can be weak. I don’t think that these churches portraying these men and women like this is wrong. I want the viewer to be focused more on the reason behind these people and not the physical. Many European and American depictions, of the early Christians depict them as all being caucasian, i.e. The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci or the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, but this certainly was not the case. The main reason I chose to simplify the statues was for the viewer to not look at the apostles or Christ and compare them to their own bodies. God never bases whether to love, use, or help someone based off of what they physically look like or can do. Every person in the Bible other than Christ had many flaws and issues in their own life and I didn’t want it to make it look like you had to have it all together in order to interact with God. In Matthew 11:28, Jesus says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”
The Biblical influences that I drew from when developing this environment originated from reading about the Tabernacle found in the Bible’s Old Testament. This was the place where God dwelt on Earth among His’ people, the Israelites. Only the high priest could enter into the Tabernacle. Once they were inside there was a veil that separated them from the Holy of Holies. This is where the spirit of God dwelt. The high priest would have to open the curtain and enter into this holy place to fully experience God. Calvary does not contain a veil. The space is kept open for the viewer to see from one side of the structure to the other. The decision to not have a veil was intentional because this cathedral was during the time where Christ was on Earth, and like the statue located near the entrance that represents Christ, He welcomed all who came to Him, Christian and non-Christians.
The creation of Calvary required the mastery of many new programs which were brought into the production pipeline. Headus UV, Quixel Suite, Unity 5, and Unreal Engine 4, were some of the programs I had to learn while building Calvary. Some of these programs when compared side by side are very similar but each of them have their pros and cons. I had to learn half of these programs after starting my work which made the process slow down quite a bit because of the learning curve involved. But sometimes learning a new way to achieve a final outcome was faster than a rinse and repeat method in a different program. Cinema 4D is a 3D modeling, texturing, and animation program. This was the main program which was used to layout the foundation of Calvary. A grid was set in place before modeling started to make sure that each piece would go together when things got underway. Cinema 4D was the main program which was used to block out the space and it had a great rendering tool to quickly showcase what the space would look like when dynamic lighting came into play.
The process for building everything was progressing and there weren't very many hiccups except for the slow frame rate within Unity 5. The major problem was there wasn't any professional feedback from people in the gaming industry at this time. This all changed when the 2016 East Coast Gaming Conference started in Raleigh, North Carolina in March. Calvary was seen by several great artists like Eric Peterson, former President and CEO of Vicious Cycle Software, Inc., Suzanne Tudman former Lead Artist at Vicious Cycle Software, Inc., David Schultz, Environment Artist at Red Storm Entertainment, Chris Devens, Environment Artist at Insomniac Games, and Chad Dezern, Studio Director at Insomniac Games in North Carolina, to name a few. It was incredibly helpful to get all their feedback. It really changed the entire workflow and even the game engine was switched from Unity to Unreal Engine 4 after seeing how easy it was to use without having to learn a lot of code. Below in Figure 1 is what was showcased at the portfolio critique sessions that Suzanne Tudman led.
Before the sessions started Chad Dezern took a look at the still images and he advised me to have a crossover between manmade and nature. He said that many artists have cathedrals in their portfolio and the only things that really stand out are the stain glass and lighting, but if foliage was added throughout it would help make it more unique and interesting. That was the biggest change that took place in the next steps. Another issue pointed out by everyone was that the current objects in the scene needed to be taken into Zbrush and have the details sculpted onto the high poly mesh. After these high poly sculpts were completed the normal and ambient occlusion maps were exported and placed on the models within the game engine. Another change that took place was all the objects were beveled so there would never be a perfect 90 degree angle on an edge. That way the lighting could be more realistic when reflecting off of objects.
The original concept was to create a close replica of 16th century churches, i.e. Saint John’s and Saint Peter’s in Rome, Italy, and Saint Paul’s cathedral in London. The detail that went into each one of these churches is what I really inspired to create in Calvary. Not only the architectural but the foliage needed to match the level of detail throughout the space. I wanted to capture the massive scale which these churches captured and put it into Calvary. The symbolization of the scale was to show how small humans are when compared to God. The cathedral would be an artistic interpretation of what someone’s soul resembled after accepting Christ into their life. Figure 1 showcases the aesthetic of the first cathedral. Baroque architecture and artists like Michelangelo and Bernini were major influences in this design. As Michelangelo grew older he offered his artistic abilities free of charge for this final work of art when he built St Peter’s center dome. He did it for the glory of God. This was the view I tried to always remind myself of when working on this cathedral.
After attending the East Coast Gaming Conference I created a new concept which is shown in Figure 2 below. Within the gaming industry, two major influences in creating this concept were Andres Rodriguez and Jared Sobotta who both worked on the Uncharted 4 game by Naughty Dog. The environments within the game are hyper realistic and some have similar aspects to Calvary. Andres Rodriguez gave a video interview about how he and his team went about creating the environments for Uncharted 4. They would start first with the concept art and then a level designer would block out the flow of the space and guide the player on where to move next. Rodriquez was in charge of modeling and world building as well as minor texture work. The interview was very valuable in providing me with a pipeline to use when creating Calvary. Artistically I continue to push myself as an artist to achieve the same level of realism similar to the ones at Naughty Dog. My work differentiates from these artist because sharing my faith is the main goal.
Above are some of the images used a reference material when creating the concept art below.
Modeling and texturing were the two main objectives when working on developing the space since I aspire to become an environment artist. However to make the space more engaging and believable there needed to be animation and sound. Since Calvary is a place where the viewer is forced to slow down and possibly have a spiritual experience the animation was kept simple and slow. The light rays come through the broken roof and are split by the support arches. The viewer can only experience these light rays if they are directly in their path. So only when one looks up towards the heavens they may possibly be reminded by the rays of light that the Light of the World, Christ, once dwelled in this place. The leaves which fall from the tree in the center of the church was the other part of movement that can be seen within the cathedral. It is supposed to draw one into the center to view this simple, yet beautiful, space and in doing so reveals sounds of the past when the place was in use. Before reaching the center of the church the sounds which the viewer is immersed by are those of nature and wildlife. First there are a variety of different birds, monkeys, and plant noises which were recorded from the Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya. Then the viewer starts moving to the center and faintly hears the sounds of church bells that were taken from Notre Dame in Paris, and voices from people who once visited here. The closer they get to the center the louder the sounds become.
After working on this 3D environment over the entire course of the school year I found myself not entering into this space with the idea that this was a place I created to honor God. The focus shifted from a passion to more of an assembly line. I had to regather my thoughts, spend some time in prayer, and not merely rely on whether something within the space looked good enough. Calvary’s intention l was to introduce the viewer to my faith as a Christian and possibly make them start having a dialogue with myself or others about their beliefs and possibly who is Jesus to them. I have had some great conversations with a few professors at Virginia Tech as well as with many of my friends.
It wasn’t until people put on the HTC Vive headset, headphones, and grabbed the controls and were transported into Calvary that I was reminded of my primary goal. The interactions with the space and how people felt ranged from feeling sick just by being in a virtual reality world, to having a spiritual experience. Through this project I had discussions not only about Christ and Christianity, but what other people believed in as well. These discussions led me to find more ways to improve Calvary, not only aesthetically but to make people continue to think about Christ and have them come to their own conclusions about their beliefs.
Calvary is a personal project which I plan on continuing to develop as I grow as a Christian. I want this to be a continuation of my faith. If I am not able to have a conversation with someone who explores this space I want them to be able to get a feel of what I value and hold dear to me. Scripture verses will be added onto the fabric and foundations of the cathedral to help address what this place once was. The verses which are chosen will be directed toward the viewer and pose questions for them to answer about their own beliefs.
Saint John’s, Saint Peter’s, and Saint Paul’s cathedrals took tens of hundreds of years to finish. I don’t see this interior taking that long to complete but I will continue to add more to help tell the story of Christ and His time on Earth as well as in heaven. This will be the place to show my faith and love for my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and an invitation to anyone who is interested to having an open conversation about things related to the supernatural.