Hello everyone! My name is Antoine Lambert and I am currently working at Triotech in Montreal as a 3D environment artist.
I started by studying architecture for two years before realizing that I am more proficient in creating and building stories. I then graduated from ESA Saint-Luc in Brussels and HEAJ in Namur. After graduating, I started working at Terragame, a VR-gaming company. I have been wanting to move to Canada for a long time, therefore I enrolled in Anthony Vaccaro's Organic world-building CGMA course, as I was freelancing, to prepare myself for the high standards of the industry.
Gathering the Reference
During this CGMA course, I wanted to try to create a gigantic vista with a big sense of depth and a serene atmosphere. As I also wanted to create an atypical landscape, I chose to use the Zhangjiajie's national parc in China as my primary inspiration. Gathering references was pretty easy, thanks to the touristic aspect of the area. I also gathered references for the rock textures and the foliage, they came in handy later on ZBrush and SpeedTree.
Creating environments is like creating a story you can walkthrough. Having a scenario in mind is the first step, even a simple idea or a feeling. Those giant natural spires seem like slumbering giants, a “perfect place to meditate”. It's easier to tell a story if you believe in it. So those four words became the backbone of my creative process. Listening to music while working with the same rhythm and mood than the atmosphere I want to create helps a lot.
I first started to decompose the reference picture, which seemed the most relevant and tried to isolate the primary, secondary and tertiary elements of the landscape. It seemed like I had to create rocks and foliage and arrange them. Easier said than done; the mountains were formed million years ago when the area was underwater by the geological movements and oceanic erosion.
Creation of the Initial Shapes and First Tests
My first few blockings didn't work out. I initially wanted to include a building in the composition. I was time-crunched and wasn’t able to create the large temple I envisioned. I chose to focus on the rock formations and the organic aspects while using a big statue for the focal point. The terrain tool of Unreal isn't really adapted to create this kind of shape, so I decided to use World Machine to create the initial shape of the landscape and build the rock formations with modular rocks around the terrain.
As I mainly wanted to focus on the exercise of composing a large scale vista, I quickly modeled a few rocks on ZBrush and textured them with Substance Painter, some substance share tilables and UE4's material tools. I then created the foliage and different vegetation assets I would use to populate the landscape with SpeedTree and Maya. When creating those large scale scenes, Speedtree is incredibly powerful at creating optimized trees, with good LODs, realistic-looking shapes and great wind animations.
With all my “lego pieces” ready, I was finally able to really get into the composition of the environment. The first mountains I made weren't extreme enough, when you make a graphical choice, you have to go all the way or not at all, so I created some really imposing rock formations. As I was building mountains, I tried to keep some randomness in the rock placement to make it feel more natural.
Focal Points and Refining the Vista
Once the primary shapes and composition of the environment were satisfying, I could move on to the next steps. I almost created the whole environment with only one big rock, then created irregularities with a few others and used a moss shader to break up the textures, the addition of foliage was also a welcome touch as it brought even more irregularities.
In order to add more depth to the scene, I started by adding atmospheric and height fog to the level. The fog cards from Unreal's “Blueprints” scene allowed me to have more control over the placement of the fog in the scene. It was really useful to help me direct the attention and soften any parts I found too “noisy”. Adding low poly trees at the bottom of the mountains and a 2D rendering of mountains at the very background was the last touch to add even more depth to the scene. When creating foliage in unreal, do not forget to set the shader to the right lighting mode, this will allow you to use subsurface scattering and give to your grass, leaves, and other plants a more realistic rendering.
I then decided to sculpt the giant statue of a meditating man and used it as the focal point of one of my shots. I used ZBrush and Marvelous Designer to create the statue and the clothing. Lighting a scene that big can be challenging, baking foliage is really computing heavy and uses a lot of UV lightmap space.
As Anthony told me, keeping most of the grass lit in real-time will allow you to have a better shadow resolution on bigger meshes. For that kind of scene, I also should have used Unreal's world composition tool to create LOD's on the landscape and optimize the scene even further but I wasn't aware of this tool at the time.
As I chose to create a large scale landscape, I had to cut corners and merge some ideas with others to bring my project to the next level, towards the end of the masterclass. Spending more time on the texturing, lighting, and reworking the statue area would make this environment a lot better.
The most challenging part of this project was definitely the large scale of this level and its optimization, that requires a lot of work and will require more when I'll get back to this project.
I really liked this CGMA course, Anthony is a great teacher who gave me some very wise advice. The fact that he was able to follow the evolution of my scene allowed me to get weekly feedback, and it was incredibly useful. The weekly submissions help to organize thoughts and ideas in a constructive way, keep the track of the progress and keep archives of the project under its different forms, as well as present a breakdown of the scene. CGMA would also allow anyone from the industry to improve their skills and craft, as there will always be something new to learn on this platform. I would happily enroll in another course in the near future to further my skills in Substance Designer.
I really enjoyed writing this article; I am thrilled to get to contribute to this community and hope it will happen again!