Telling a Story with 3 Props - A Solution to a Quicker Portfolio Piece.
7 min read

Telling a Story with 3 Props - A Solution to a Quicker Portfolio Piece.

In this article, I will describe the thought processes I followed when developing quick pieces that are still portfolio-worthy.
Telling a Story with 3 Props - A Solution to a Quicker Portfolio Piece.

It is common to see people end their working day extremely tired. After 8+ hours in front of your screen at work, it is not rare to seek other activities that aren't completely related to one's job.

In my case, I've been a 3D artist for a while now, which requires a fair amount of keeping up to do, as the industry advances quite rapidly and the risk of staying behind is something to consider.

In order to keep up with the industry, it is important to do some work from time to time when at home, as not all companies use the latest tech or allow you to show any work you did during development.

See the conflict here? If you have ever published a piece, you may be aware of the fact that they don't exactly take a week to complete, even less when you have only a few hours a day to work on them.

This mix of issues got my brain started. How can I make relevant pieces relatively quickly so that I can achieve a good portfolio piece without sacrificing my resting hours for a long period of time?

One day, while watching a guy on YouTube make a diorama, it all came to my mind. What if I make dioramas too but construct them out of fewer props? It was, and excuse me if I'm flattering myself, a genius idea. Now I only had to think about the best way to make it happen.

Believe it or not, the biggest challenge for me has never been the modeling part but coming up with ideas to model. This time I not only had to do that, but I also had to find a story for my assets.

After a quick Google search, I found good answers on how to tell a story, with simple guidelines that I needed to follow to make this work. One of them was to prioritize simplicity.

So there was I, watching a movie called Phone Booth, trying to come up with simple ideas for my scene, without noticing I had it all in front of me. The film I was watching was almost entirely filmed around a phone booth!

It struck me shortly after finishing it. That phone booth prop is actually a good little environment in itself. A ton of stuff could happen in there, and it's quite self-contained within its walls.

I then proceeded to write rule number one of those small three prop dioramas, find a prop that can tell a story independently of its surroundings, and make the other props you integrate a plus to the story told by the main one.

This container prop must have very strong elements that can be heavily tweaked to create an interesting composition.

If you think about it, a phone booth is a prop that has other props, like the phone itself, in it. This allows me to position that piece in a way that adds to the story too.

Added to this, there's a ton of room for stickers, graffiti, and other elements like maps and currencies in it that will help determine where our story is taking place.

A crucial aspect of telling a story is defining a character. This is something I read in one of the articles that I gathered during my research, and it makes a ton of sense. We can't relate to an inanimate object as much as we do to someone else.

Human actions that we can recognize are also a huge part of telling a story. An unhung phone signifies someone was using it, but that's too obvious. Because of this, I ended up thinking about the importance of exaggerating someone's actions and create a  personality out of the signs or markings someone leaves behind in an object or space when interacting with it.

Notice the lipstick on the glass and the nail polish. Those two help define, under the most probable conditions, our character's gender.

The third and last aspect I wanted this piece to represent is a recognizable space where the events are happening. The cheap tall plastic glass indicates a low-class bar, at least where I'm from, and the colorful night lighting helps sell the idea that she was close to the club.

Once I had all these details in, I felt everything was way too clean and my scene uninteresting, so I sinned from being a bit too lazy and decided to use the easy way to finish polishing my story, dirt.

Dirtying up the area took me much closer to where I wanted this piece to be. Sometimes being lazy brings out the most effective ideas to life, and this was the case, but like everything in life, dirt comes with a cost, understanding where to add it and why it is there.

Because of this, my story got a bit more interesting. I decided this was not just a phone booth, this was an abandoned one, so I just had to come up with a reason for that abandonment. A pandemic was a pretty good solution to that.

All in all, I have to admit this story wrote itself as time passed, and I kept working on it. At first, I wanted my piece to represent a kidnapping, but it ended up being a death by infection.

As I mentioned above, adding dirt really helped my story to be more credible, but it wasn't by far the most important texture detail to make this one come to life.

The roughness channel in our props is probably the one I would consider the most important one when defining the values that will bring those use signs in to make our prop more readable.

As you can see, there is a lot of contrast, created by the different materials plus a good amount of fingerprints and dust. I wouldn't normally apply this amount of dirt and scratches to a model, but in this case, it leads to a nice contrast when light touches every part of the model (I am not a huge fan of the area around the hanger and buttons tho).

When telling a story, every single detail counts. That means thinking your process through carefully.

As you can see here, these details define the location of our prop and the situation happening around it. They show quite a bit of wear as well, suggesting they have been there for a while.

Time-relevant details are vital too. With these, I mean, try not to place a futuristic asset inside your 1950's scene. It will confuse the audience.

Ultimately, you want to ask a lot of people about what they can see in your image, what story it is telling them, and what they don't understand about your image. Use that data to determine if the story you are trying to tell is the same as others are perceiving.

Before I finish, I want to state something very important for these. Our stories don't need much more than a line to become interesting.

"A woman was speaking on the phone, got infected, and died" or "A crime scene containing a weapon and some bullets" are enough to create a whole universe around them with our art.

We don't need complex factors that will confuse the viewer. Clarity and conciseness are key players in these piece's stories.

To end this article, I'd like to add some nice resources that could help you tell a story in your props. This article contains some super easy to follow steps that helped me do so:

How to Tell a Great Story
It’s a skill every leader needs to master.

A more in-depth guide on how I'm building these stories can be found in my Artstation course "Quality vs Quantity in Storytelling."

Quality vs Quantity in Storytelling
In this two-part series, Javier Benitez breaks down coming up with simple yet effective pieces to quickly develop a strong portfolio, without the need to commit to large scenes or complex assets.

I know I post these Artstation tutorials quite a bit, but they are relevant to this topic in this case!

Thank you for reading this, I hope it was somewhat useful to you.

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