Salvatore Gambino prepared a breakdown of his Magician’s Studio made in UE4: blockout, circular modular system, ivy, stained glass, marble mosaic, lighting.
Before Think Tank I mostly worked freelance as a high-poly sculptor for games. However, conscious of my lack of knowledge I wanted to invest in my 3D education and discovered this amazing school.
While studying I’ve been caught with the beauty of making environments finding a way to combine my passion for worldwide cultures and the pleasure of the video games world.
I believe that video games are the last frontier of storytelling and the bridge between modern technology and fine arts: a pleasure for the eyes and an exciting adventure to work with.
The project I will talk about has been done as a demo reel final project at school. Definitely one of the most challenging experiences I had until now and for sure the most educational one.
The goal of this project was to showcase personal concept and architectural design, procedural and hand made texture workflows, as well as modern and traditional lighting techniques.
Art Nouveau is one of the most significant art styles that Europe has ever seen. Between the 19th and 20th century, it showed a strong representation of nature with an emphasis on flowers and tree patterns.
In Italy, this style, under the name of Liberty, gifted us amazing buildings and fascinating gardens, especially in Palermo, Sicily where I was born.
My project was inspired by the beauty of Palermo’s mansions and Europe’s amazing examples, that I wanted to represent in a dreamlike environment with a taste of nostalgia for the early 20th century and a touch of magic.
Since I was young I have always been fascinated with occult matters, however inserting cliched “magic” elements in such a specific environment ran the risk of detracting from the Art Nouveau aesthetic. I remembered that alchemy had an intense resurgence at the end of the 19th century and elements of it, such as the transmutation of metals and the interest in mythical creatures like the mandrake, fitted perfectly with my ideas.
The main references that guided me through this journey were four:
- Villa Igea, Palermo;
- Livraria Lelo, Lisbon;
- Petit Palais, Paris;
- Hotel Tassel, Brussels.
One of the most challenging things I had to do was adapting and redesigning the references to better fit with my idea which I started to blockout.
First of all, I needed a big open space, a place of study and peace, where warm colors and light could transmit this magic /nostalgic feeling. The dome was fundamental, not just as a main light source but also to give this appearance of welcoming and breadth.
From the first frame, I wanted the viewer to feel immersed in the environment, spotting the side rooms around the central Hall.
The central marble mosaic floor is an easily readable symbol containing the essence of the building itself: concentric leaf patterns trying to reach the North Star (often connected with magic rituals).
The choice of two rows of columns (internal and external), transmits the feeling of verticality as well as filling and dividing the space.
The stairs are the arms of this building that invite you to go in and at the same time to spot the magic fulcrum of this Studio: the mandrake trapped in a jail of water and light in what appears an indoor winter garden. For this reason, the pillars and metal structures of the stairs have been designed to guide the viewer’s sight.
Without breaking the idea of a circular environment, nor distracting the player from the main topics, I wanted to add 4 Library recesses that add a lived in, messy appeal to this place of knowledge and strong elegant details capable of giving character to the environment.
Design & Blockout Workflow
I generally work with the metrical system, a 1m grid unit, using a human scale reference of 1.75m.
It’s really important to experiment with shapes and volumes before making a definite choice, always remembering to keep an architectural consistency. In my case, I wanted to experiment with two different spaces.
The first was a small and cozy studio, divided into two layers showcasing three main spaces: a library, a laboratory and the mandrake area. The issues with this first attempt were two:
- small spaces are hard to show in a demo reel context
- there was a camera design problem because most of the main spaces (the Mandrake and laboratory area) were hidden in the first frame
The second blockout, fixed all of the mistakes made in the previous attempt. I wanted to add a library corridor decorated with wooden carvings and windows that could guide the player to the main Hall.
The Hall had really basic cylindrical shapes in the first blockout, the only exception was the Mandrake Garden where I opted for a pentagon instead to give variation and to bring out the typical shape of the alchemic transmutation.
The Laboratory and Mandrake area were at the beginning interconnected using a grate and various pipes. My first intention was to show the mandrake as an experiment in the hands of the alchemist, however, due to a rigid deadline and to make the main areas as beautiful as possible, I decided to hide both the Corridor and Laboratory.
Having chosen the perfect blockout I cleaned it, once or twice, depending upon the projects. Most of the time the third blockout phase is directly done before the asset modeling one.
After finishing the blockout of the main elements in Maya, I start to import the rough models into Unreal Engine 4 to understand how the light interacts with the volumes and the basic materials. Light in my opinion defines 60% of an environment’s beauty.
The third blockout phase is less architectural but more stylistic and here is where I experiment with the asset’s shapes and try to find the perfect harmony between the elements.
When I work with curvy and complex shapes, it is really easy to work with Paint Effects in Maya. It gives you the opportunity to generate fluent and clean shapes procedurally, changing polygon density, scale, and other features. This allows easy transitioning between the blockout and modeling phase, always keeping the deformation proprieties attached to the curves.
This is how I created the columns, stairs, library recesses, and winter garden metal structures.
Forged metal is a constant feature in Art Nouveau buildings, and a fundamental element needed in my environment.
In all my forged metal assets I wanted to represent a clean stylized representation of trees, mostly branches, extending through the assets in a gentle and delicate way.
I avoided adding leaves to the branches, to not overwhelm the viewer with too many details in the same spots.
In all of the environment, I tried to avoid as many hard shapes as possible, everything has been shaped to be rounded and comfortable. Thanks to the metal I could define arches capable of hiding the corners of the corridor between the Mandrake garden and the main hall.
This idea has been extended into the main hall where the pillars and dome structure blend into the ceiling with flow and continuity.
One of the most common questions people asked me about this project is how I dealt with such large numbers of shapes, especially in the blockout phase. For me, the blockout is just an outline needed to establish volumes and environment layout. All the minor props such as books, lamps or chairs (especially without a defined concept) would be added as I developed individual spaces. Importing the rough blockout and setting up a few lights in UE4 definitely helps an understanding of what needs to be added or subtracted.
Radial Modular System
One of the biggest problems of my environment is that the volumes and layout are almost circular. That is a big issue if you have repeatable structural assets which need to be precisely snapped between each other.
Generally speaking the modular scene assembly for buildings in engines, needs assets snapping in the grid or at least between the borders of each piece, a truly difficult approach for my kind of assets.
My assets are curvy and intricate shapes. For this reason, I wanted to cover as much space as possible reusing objects, saving memory and time. In many cases, I just needed to simply duplicate using the radial and grid snap in UE4. This has been the case for the glass dome, the columns, the ceiling, and many others.
My major challenge was the recesses of the library, which are half cylinder volumes in the boundaries of a major circular area. Each recess has a modular column and a library shelf unit that need duplicating within its own circle. Moreover, UE4 has a bad grouping pivot management system that does not allow a permanent relocation of the pivot.
To solve this problem, I started my blocking in Maya marking the volumes of the areas with cylindrical caps. I took one for the radius of the main hall and four for the secondary recess areas, one of them snapped to the center of the scene.
It’s important to separate the various texture UV or tileable materials UV with different material IDs before importing it into UE4.
In UE4 the first thing I do before scene assembly is to shade my assets to correctly visualize shadows and reflections, then I change the lightmap resolution (in this case reaching an overall green color). And finally, I pushed the column and the library shelf to perfectly align with the base shape.
To radially snap the assets to their correct position I needed to permanently move the pivot to the central vertex of the base shape. With the highlighted object, I activated Set as Pivot Offset, remembering to click on the Grid Snap button to precisely move the pivot.
Symmetrical objects can be mirrored activating the Snap Scale button to 1.
After duplicating the assets with a grade snap of 5, I needed to make an overall group asset to snap each recess to the corresponding area. To do so I needed to make a dummy actor (a cube) snapped at the center of the base shape and Attach to the cube each recess asset.
Now through the cube actor, I can snap the entire group to the center of the secondary shapes.
It is not possible to duplicate this kind of group. Instead:
- first, duplicate the cube actor
- secondly, duplicate and attach the recess assets to the new actor.
To make the dummy actors and the base reference shapes invisible in render and editor, go to Details> Rendering, unflag Visible and flag Hidden in Game.
The ivy has been generated with Paint Effects too, using the preset Ivy brush. It made it extremely easy to deal with procedural polygon intensity and distribution. Moreover, the tool will generate individual ID materials to separate the leaves from the branch textures.
Combining the game meshes of ceiling, columns and dome, it’s possible to get a live snap mesh for the curves.
Using the same curve it is possible to attach multiple strokes, in my case I used the ivy brush together with the default brush to achieve the central branches.
I scaled the diameter of the branches to 3 polygons and the leaves to no more than 4 polygons which I procedurally banded to achieve a better realism.
It is important to save the changes made to the ivy preset, to save a lot of time.
Reducing the brush and leaves density is important to easily get a good baked light map in Unreal, otherwise, the self-shadows between the leaves will give you black ivy.
Once the strokes are editable it is possible to delete all the leaves or branches which are going into the shells. It will take some time but it will save the poly count.
Probably one of the greatest features of Paint Effects is the UV management. If the Ivy preset has been chosen the branches will be packed for a tileable texture, and the leaves will occupy the space 1-0, to share a single leave.
It’s clear that if you want more texture variation it would be wise to add alternative ID materials to the leaves.
To get a better lightmap in UE4, I would advise generating a second UV set instead of the automatic one in UE4.
I used Unfold U and V, to avoid overlapping vertices, as it is important to be able to straighten them with Straighten UV. Good Light maps need to be as straight as possible – it will avoid bugs and give better compatibility with the engine.
Finally, use Layout UV to pack the shells and fill gaps. It is important all the shells are inside the space 1-0.
The foliage material in Unreal is pretty straight forward. I generated a master material for my dead leaves, the grass and the ivy. It just contained some parameters to better handle opacity, emissive and translucency maps which are useful after light baking, in case they appear too dark.
The design of the Ivy is a compromise between natural wild growth and sinuous shapes which emphasize the beauty of the dome and ceiling. Indeed the ivy is like the spiraling extension of the pillar structures. The origin of these branches is metal vases hanging from the pillars, giving an overall feeling of elegance.
The Marble Mosaic
The Hall’s marble mosaic texture was a created by using both Photoshop and Substance Designer.
Inspired from the beautiful mosaic in Hotel Tassel, Brussels, I wanted to outline an alpha through the vectorial pen tool in Photoshop, filling the main shapes with RGB colors to easily import and split in Designer.
I found working in Photoshop with complex shapes, faster and easier instead of blending thousands of base shapes in Designer.
This graph shows the mask system which is the key element. From three bitmaps I could extract 8 masks which are necessary to separate the roughness and color variation of the various elements and outline the copper framing.
The Designer graph showcases the blending of two main materials: copper and marble.
The marble has four color and roughness variations. I chose to use the complementary color of the environment to give a sense of continuity.
The Roughness intensity is based on the subject – the stars are the smoother, followed by the leaves and the cream background.
To bring more life to this mosaic I wanted a defined copper outline, so I used the same masks to get the normal.
I always found stained or painted glass fascinating. It’s probably the most magical thing which can be shown in a building. For this reason, I could not miss it in my demo reel, plus Art Nouveau is full of it.
The first thing I had to do were find good references for both wall glass and lamps.
One of the most exquisite examples of Nouveau luminaries is the Tiffany style, showing multicolor pieces of stained glass in flower or animal patterns.
For my lamp I wanted to adapt this beautiful reference I found with a dragonfly, trying to achieve the shape of a stylized bellflower which is more rounded and capable of generating a wide cone of light.
The texturing program I used for the glass work was mostly Painter.
The workflow for this asset, minimized the use of procedural nodes or filters favoring instead a handmade approach.
It is important to start drawing the metal first, using the standard brush with the maximum hardness and 100 opacity.
Generate a fill layer with color (white) as a work background, then create a new layer with a black mask which will be the metal. In the black mask layer add a paint function and start to draw the layout. The distance tool has been extremely useful to delay the stroke and get fluent lines.
Once the shape is defined, add an anchor point to the mask to attach it to the height output and control it with levels.
In the emissive layer change the brush with a dirt alpha and random angle jitter, reduce the opacity to 60, and it will enable dynamic color intensity to be defined.
With the smudge tool blend the colors or gradients to achieve this kind of watercolor effect on the glass surface.
Add an anchor point to the emissive layer to transfer the color in the color information into a layer at the top of the emissive one.
Lastly, remember to activate opacity and add a paint tool in the emissive layer to erase any unnecessary mesh.
I used a basic surface material with editable parameters such as emissive or color intensity in UE4 to achieve the actual result.
This is the main workflow I used for my stained glass, however, in some cases, it’s been necessary to have a much more complex approach, as in the case of the Main Door.
For the main Door, I needed to design the entire piece based on the reference of the blooming alchemy tree I found on the internet.
The entire structure of the door tries to catch the base shapes of a tree and in the top section the opposites of day and night influence the color palette of the glass. A tree (the main symbol of the alchemy) is standing in the middle, crowned with the 5 main elements of the alchemy. The door shows the continuation of the tree roots, showing flatter colours.
In Painter, I adopted the same hand painted approach for the lamp with the difference that I wanted to separate the metal into different layer masks for better organization. The resulting metal alpha was exported to Designer.
One of the main characteristics of the stained glass is an inconsistent angle between the glass pieces. Through the extracted alpha and the node ‘fill flood random grayscale gradient’, I could get a greater normal variation.
This kind of glass material in UE4 has been new and challenging. I wanted to fake a directional light based on the normal channels.
I split and isolated detail and normal channels, in editable parameters.
Similarly to the Door, the Mandrake Jail showed not just fake light based on normals, but an even better separation of metal and translucent material via Material Attributes.
The Dome has been made with the door instanced material.
The main goal of the light in this project was to achieve a nostalgic feeling, a dreamlike quality, with soft light defining clear contrast between highlights and shadows but without falling into the trap of white or black extremes.
The second goal was a technical one, I wished to use volumetric lights and shadows without overwhelming the scene.
One of the most problematic characteristics of the volumetric light is the presence of the Height Fog that can easily hide whatever is in or behind the cones of light, giving a desaturation effect that can destroy the composition.
First of all, it is fundamental to introduce Post Process Volume into the scene with automatic exposure set to 1 for Min and Max values, otherwise, the light constantly changes based on camera position.
Secondly, it is necessary to have a Light Importance Volume covering all the area, and as many Lightmass Volumes as numbers of emissive lights and windows in the scene. It will give a smoother and correct propagation of the photons in the surrounding areas.
Thirdly, add a Direct Light, Height Fog and Skylight.
The reason why I’ve set up a lot of lights in the scene, is to use the Scene capture function in Skylight, which will reduce the shadows intensity. Avoid big intensity values otherwise, the light will start to feel flat.
The Direct Light is the most important in my scene, it is highly depended upon the Height Fog as well as having an important value called Volumetric Scattering Intensity which manages the overall density and colour of the volumetric emission.
Height fog manages the proprietes of the volumetric fog in a scene. It possesses some really tricky values such as Scattering Distribution, Extinction Scale and Static Lighting Scattering Intensity. Through days of practice, I found the perfect balance for what I needed: no fog in the shadowed areas and soft gentle God rays in the exposed areas.
A characteristic of the volumetric light is the presence of overexposed dust from the strong sun intensity.
The particle dust I used is based on the Epic dust ambient sample. I managed the dust texture to make it noisier and I changed the emissive value giving the overexposed effect I mentioned. I also changed the size to make it more visible from a far point of view and confined the dust volumes to the space covered with the volumetric rays. Other changes are minor ones altering life spawn and particle speed.
Frequently, the overall appeal of an environment is not only from major “natural” light sources but also with added fake lights capable of emphasizing or improving areas.
In the Library recesses, I needed to enhance the elements of the ceiling and metal structures through the use of a point light exactly in the middle of the half dome, which continued the natural shaft of the sun and created new shadows.
In the Hall, I wanted to use the Tiffany lamps to create 2 contrasting light sources, one bluish and one yellowish, based on the glass color.
The blue cold complementary lights of the smaller lanterns, break the overall presence of green and yellow tones, brightening dark corners and giving a sense of freshness.
At the same time, I needed some lamps at the top of the stairs giving a sophisticated warm appeal.
I designed these lanterns to be as close as possible to the reference of Livraria Lelo, Lisbon.
The Mandrake has been lit using a classic 3 point lighting technique, capable of outlining forms and silhouettes, combined with a photometric bottom spot light to improve the drama of the scene, and the reflection in the glass.
The 3 point lights, however, are not casting shadows to avoid over complex shapes in the same space.
To conclude the light set-up section, it is important to understand the power of the Post Process Volume, capable of adjusting the mood of the environment.
The first major element is color correction. There is a slight reduction of the overall warm saturation and the addition of bluish tones to both global gamma and shadow gamma.
I did not want to massively change the lens effect in the post process, relying instead on the major changes to the single cinematic cameras.
I am definitely happy with the final result of my demo reel. I would like to have done more with both the Corridor and Laboratory, but considering that this was a personal concept and my first major environment, I did not have time. Cutting those areas has been a necessary move. “Few but Good”. Probably in the future, I’ll continue working on them because there are a lot more magical things happening.
I learnt to create my personal workflow, helping me save time and achieve good results and the ability to see the world with a much more critical eye to analyse references in future projects.
- My mentors Johnny Malcom and Jude Godin, they gave me access to an extraordinary amount of knowledge and I’ll be forever grateful to them;
- Think Tank Training Centre for a year of great opportunities;
- Sir. Taylor Shorten and Mr. Tomer Meltser, for lots of technical advice.
- Douglas McLean and Gill Hersee for the great support and wisdom.
Special Thanks to 80.lv for giving me the honor of being part of this beautiful site.
Salvatore Gambino, Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev