Complex Modular Architecture Environment in UE4
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Complex Modular Architecture Environment in UE4
18 December, 2018
Environment Art
Environment Design
Interview

Tyler Anlauf prepared a detailed breakdown of his modular environment ROME: Church of Sant’Ivo made with UE4 and 3ds Max and talked about blockout, modular assembly, lighting, post process, composition and more.

Introduction

My name is Tyler Anlauf and I am an Environment Artist at Human Head Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. We have a very talented team working on multiple titles. I have had the pleasure of working on Call of Duty: Online, Rune, The Quiet Man, and an unannounced title.

Prior to joining Human Head Studios, I was first introduced to the digital art medium in high school learning photo editing in Photoshop. Soon after, I was self-taught in 3ds Max, CryEngine, Unity, programming, and video compositing. After deciding to pursue a career in 3D, I went on to study Animation and Concept Development at Madison College, taught by industry veterans such as Ed Binkley, Jeff Dewitt, and Nathaniel Albright. I had also landed jobs and internships as an artist at Gear Learning, Field Day Lab, and Scooter Software working on mobile games, PC games, and software UI.

Chris Hartmann and Ethan Hiley of Raven Software also became mentors of mine during college. They helped sharpen my skill set by critiquing my work and refined my knowledge in AAA game art. Ultimately, I was lucky enough to earn a job at Human Head Studios right after graduation.

Below are a couple past examples of my work studying from Chris and Ethan.

ROME: Church of Sant’Ivo

In this breakdown, I will share with you my process so far on ROME: Church of Sant’Ivo, the tips I learned, the challenges along the way and how I plan to improve the scene since it’s still a work in progress.

Project Goals

The goals of this project were to refine my art pipeline, learn Unreal Engine, and improve upon my lighting, color, and compositions skills. The Church of Sant’Ivo fit my project goals with its obvious modular design and lighting, color and composition possibilities.

It was also helpful to pick a place that I resonated with and was inspiring to me. This architectural masterpiece of the early Roman Baroque period has a rich history, grand architectural language, and scale that I find intriguing. The scale also posed a challenge for time restraints, so I had to plan accordingly.

Good Reference Solves Problems Visually

Every project should start with a good reference collection. It’s helpful to collect more reference than you think you may need since it might come in handy or it could spark an idea later in the project. Without it, there may have been a missed opportunity. Additionally, it’s useful to continue finding some reference at each stage of the project and not limit yourself to your initial reference collection.

Below is an example of just some of my reference collection.

Having some way to organize reference materials proved useful to coordinate them for each stage of production. Trello, Photoshop, or simply organizing reference in folders is effective.

As a result, I found a free product PureRef to be a useful tool to do this as it is a powerful, yet lightweight program. All reference materials can be seen at once, or easily snap to full screen to view one particular image. It’s simple to organize your reference into groups or even build unique reference boards.

Even old drawings became useful for this project especially when it came designing the level and defining scale. They also gave insight into how the church and courtyard were built in the Baroque period.

Project Planning

Next, it was time to break down the modular elements of the reference and start developing the metrics of the individual assets. At this stage, I made a list of how many pieces I needed to build. I also broke down the different materials needed, and how to produce them efficiently.

Here you can start to see how massive the space really is. Notice how the woman in the hallway on the lower right is roughly as tall as the base of the window.

The scale of this project is one of the challenges which made it fun to work on.  Everything about the architecture is oversized by design, making the space feel grandiose. For example, a window here is roughly 4 times larger than an average household window. Finding basic real-world measurements to base my objects on were not applicable to this project as the scale and architecture here is so unique.

Thus, finding a reference with people in them for scale became essential. Making sure to study numerous reference images to ensure the scale of the scene was accurately captured.

Blockout

The blockout is one of the most important steps in building an environment and can be easily rushed or neglected. A solid blockout can build the foundation for success, especially if working with teams and larger projects.

There are many ways to approach a blockout, however, I found UE4’s BSP brushes worked great for this blockout. The BSP tools made this blockout a very fluid process by doing simple Boolean operations to construct the basic shapes of the environment.

Using BSP reduced the urge of adding details before a solid block-out was complete, keeping the focus on the level design and building metrics.

Below you can see how close my block-out is to the final stage of the modular kit.

Blockout:

Final Modular Kit:

Any big adjustments at this stage can be easily made with the nature of BSP.  After testing and refining my metrics in UE4, I knew that this modular kit would work with the final geometry, before detailing them in 3ds Max or similar tools.

Below is an image of the early stages of how I defined the project metrics. These went through a few iterations before the level felt right and I got them locked down.

Additionally, I did an initial lighting and composition pass to test if my shapes were working well. This also helped me prioritize which assets would get the most polish based on the camera distance.

Next, blocking out some basic materials to the scene helped me get a better sense of the mood and scale of the scene. This initial material pass also helped me understand how I would plan out my final materials and get a better sense of how many I would need.

Modular Construction

Now that the kinks were worked out of the block-out, I can use my block-out as a starting point to construct my final geometry. Since I thought about the metrics of the modular assets early, they already snapped together on the grid making, the geometry construction quick and efficient.

In most cases, BSP is not as efficient as static meshes in UE4. Therefore, I converted my BSP block-out to static meshes and then import them into 3ds Max for the final geometry construction.

UE4 makes converting BSP to static mesh easy:

The construction of the modular kit in 3ds Max started out by defining the large and medium details first and then testing them along the way in UE4.  Nothing is worse than thinking you finished an asset, then realizing you made a mistake early on. After the large and medium details are refined, I could then focus on the fine details an optimization.

After some testing, I realized I needed more pieces added to my modular kit than anticipated. Seeing this issue early on helped me save time later since I could plan for adding additional pieces.

Test early, and test often!

Since I utilized tileable textures heavily, making sure the texel density was uniform between the assets was imperative. This was achieved using a script for 3ds Max called TexTools, although there are a variety of other tools and scripts available.

Blueprints for Modular Assembly

To make production more efficient, I constructed blueprints of repeated sections of the scene. For the corridors, I had made 3 variants in blueprint shown in red, green and blue in the graphic below. Each had its own types of doors, windows, and other details. This way, I only had to update 3 sections of the corridor, instead of 48.

This saved me tons of time as the changes would ripple through the whole project in real-time. The entrance of the church has two blueprints as the middle section is unique from the rest allowing for more variation shown in purple.

Materials

I created a few materials with a combination of Substance Designer and Substance Painter. However, due to time constraints, I used Substance Source and Quixel Megascans as well. This was a huge time saver.  

I utilized master materials in this project to make editing materials faster and more efficient. Utilizing material instances from my master material, I only had to switch out the textures instead of re-writing a unique shader for each material.

The functionality I wrote into the master material allowed me to make edits to the textures like Photoshop but in real-time without leaving UE4. In addition, I could enable features like vertex painting and add detail normals if desired for a particular material instance.

To optimize the master material, static switches were used to compile only the features that are needed in each instance. This makes the material optimized in the sense that only the enabled options will be computed. Therefore, I can create basic shaders driven by constant values, or fully driven by textures with more complex features and adjustments.

Lighting

Lighting was one of the tougher challenges, but it was also one of the most rewarding aspects to work on. Good lighting has the potential to turn a good scene into a fantastic one, so it is essential to understand at least the basics.

I started off the lighting on this scene by first studying photography, film, and lighting artists, to understand how light helps craft a composition and bring life to the models and materials in UE4. I recommend watching the UE4 Lighting Masterclass, Lighting Academy by 51Daedalus, and The Art of Lighting with Boon Cotter on YouTube to start with.

Materials also play a big role in the lighting as they determine how light photons are reflected off surfaces. Be sure to double check your base colors to ensure they are as calibrated as possible to PBR standards. It’s a good idea to keep the base color maps no darker than .02 in linear space. Anything darker can start to become a black hole for light photons which produces odd lighting results.

Both the UE4 lighting masterclass and 51Daedalus make a point of this.

The lighting in this scene is rather simple. I approached the lighting here by first constructing a clean calibrated lighting foundation for my starting point, as described in the UE4 Lighting Masterclass. After my lighting is calibrated and I have a clean foundation, and I could then stray from those settings to achieve something more visually pleasing.

Normalized Lighting Setup:

One of the most important elements was my skydome as it affects the whole scene, especially the mood. I created a simple but effective material for the sky to refine its rotation and intensity. I made sure the amount of Lux emitting from my skydome was calibrated and accurate to the real world so that it reflects onto the scene naturally. This was applied to an inverted sphere surrounding the level.

The trick was to dial in a sun direction that was early to mid-sunset to help define the mood, but also made interesting rhythms of light and dark at most viewing angles; helping craft the compositions I chose.

The volumetric fog was used as a tool to enhance the mood by creating god rays. The volumetric fog color was also necessary to define as it has a large impact on the color palette and mood. Lastly, the density of the fog helped sell the sense of scale, depth, and atmosphere into the scene.

Post Process

The post process was the next tool to define the look and feel. One of my favorite features was convolution bloom as it emulates more natural and detailed blooming of light, but at the cost of performance.

I was also able to take artistic control over the shadow, midtones, and highlight colors. This was relevant to refine the color pallet and bring out the details of the scene giving a richer feel to the shots.

Don’t be afraid to spend time here. With a few small tweaks, you can dramatically shift the look and feel of any scene, adding a nice touch to the final product.

Defining the color pallet is also essential. A simple way I checked my color pallet was by doing a blur test. Simply taking one of my screenshots and blurring it in Photoshop. This makes the color pallet more visible and I can use this information to refine my color pallet to construct a better composition.

Composition

Crafting a strong composition is just as important as any other part of the project. A good composition makes the viewer’s eye flow through an image in a way that is pleasing. To do this, I had crafted shots that took advantage of the shapes my geometry created, the rhythms of light and dark from my lighting, and pockets of warm and cool hues from my color pallet to all work together with a camera angle that complements them.

To craft an interesting camera angle, I used the Rule of Thirds and The Golden Spiral as guides.

The brightest area in a scene, and where there is the most contrast is usually the focal point. To test if my intended focal point is working, I crushed the levels down to reveal the brightest, highest contrast area of my scene. Adjusting my lighting as needed to make sure the focal point reads clearly. A strong focal point also reduced some of the natural repetition of the architecture since the eye has areas to rest on.

Using the Cine Camera Actor instead of the default camera actor in UE4 was useful to get a nice composition as it allows for additional camera settings to craft a good shot. In this case, I used the 16:9 DSLR filmback setting as it gave me good results for taking these environment shots. Playing with the filmback settings can give different looks so it’s worth experimenting with them. Also adjusting the focal length can yield a more cinematic feel. For these environment shots, I tend to use a wide-angle lens. However, portrait and telephoto lenses can be good for characters or close-ups of small objects.

Next Steps

As this scene is still a work in progress, there are many areas I can still improve. With the basics well defined already, I look forward to adding details and environmental storytelling. This includes how the environment has weathered over time, and what potential conflicts happened here. This can give me the opportunity to add more props, detail models, and more richness to the materials.

Final Images:

Conclusion

In closing, I really enjoyed working on this project so far. It’s been and will continue to be a great outlet for experimenting, learning, and improving myself outside of my professional work. There is a lot to do yet, and looking back from where I had started, I’ve learned a lot from it.

The key thing I took away from this project is that it’s not about the sheer complexity of a scene, but rather first crafting a solid foundation of which complexity can be layered onto.

To view more of my work, visit my portfolio.

Thanks for reading! And thank you, 80.lv!

If you found this article interesting, below we are listing a couple of related Unity Store Assets that may be useful for you.

Tyler Anlauf, Environment Artist at Human Head Studios

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Aaron LewisJim BochmenTravis MeierMiłosz Gierczak Recent comment authors
Aaron Lewis
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Aaron Lewis

Great guide and well written. Thanks man!

Jim Bochmen
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Jim Bochmen

Great breakdown! Also, awesome tips on using the blurred test for colors and making sure the focal point reads clearly.

tyanaluf@yahoo.com
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tyanaluf@yahoo.com

Very informative! The compositions are very well crafted.

Miłosz Gierczak
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Miłosz Gierczak

few final renders are quite bad, you should read more about traditional photography instead a lie “golden spiral rule”

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