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Jonas Axelsson talked about his atmospheric environment Lost Temple Ruins made with UE4, Maya, and Substance Designer.
Hi, my name is Jonas Axelsson. I’m a 3D Artist living in Montreal, Canada.
I’m originally from Sweden, but I have been living in Canada for years, working in the games industry.
Lost Temple Ruins: First Steps
Lost Temple Ruins was done at home during my free time. I wanted to do some kind of overgrown ancient temple ruins for a while but I didn’t have anything super specific in mind for the actual scene when I started.
I’ve always been a fan of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted games and especially the environments they are set it. After playing through the latest Uncharted and seeing what they were able to achieve, I got really inspired and decided to give it a try and see if I could create something in the same vein.
I actually started by just playing around with making some simple tropical foliage and some rocks.
I created these little dioramas where I tested out the materials, rocks, and foliage to see how it all went together, before creating a bigger scene. I went on to gather a bunch of inspiration and reference pictures. I did not have a clear idea of the composition at first but I knew the different elements I wanted in there.
When moving on to the actual layout, I started by creating a quick blockout in Maya just to get the idea “on paper”. I find that if I don’t do that early on, it’s easy to lose or modify the initial idea as the project progresses. I try not to go too much into detail though since I want to still be flexible down the road. Sort of like thumbnail sketching, but in 3D.
The next step was to get some rough meshes into UE4, start putting together a scene and get the scale of each component right. At this point, I still wasn’t dead set on keeping it inside of a cave and the temple was just a very rough square blockout, but I was testing out various silhouettes, compositions, and angles.
I usually do a quick lighting pass as well. I prefer working on something with decent lighting early on. It pushes me to keep going and it can help bring new ideas and flesh out the composition and color.
Working on Shapes
I started by making some very simple foliage and some simple rock shapes and just messing around with various little setups.
I knew that the rocks and foliage would take up most of the space in the scene so it was important to get those two components right. The majority of the cave walls are built with the same rock, using the same material.
I utilized the World Aligned Blend function in UE4’s materials for the moss material to always have the moss layer on top. That way the same rock could be used multiple times and avoid repetition, simply by rotating the rock.
I combined this with covering the rocks in small foliage to give the moss/ vegetation more volume.
After I had done some various cave setups it was time to tackle the temple. I wanted some kind of ancient, overgrown old temple structure. Something that’s been lost a long time and nature is slowly claiming it back.
I started experimenting with different temple shapes and setups. Initially, the temple was smaller, but I had to grow it in size to not disappear in all the foliage and moss. Once I had landed on something I liked for the overall shape, I started breaking it down into more modular pieces. I like to always break larger structures like this down as much as possible. It speeds up the work and is generally easier to work with.
Next, I created the various rock textures to use for the temple. All of the various patterns on the trims are using the same pattern texture. This texture was made partially by modeling different patterns and baking them onto a plane. In the first iterations the temple was more gray, but after covering everything in vegetation and moss, it became very hard to make out against the background. I decided to make it a colorful red to stand out from all the surrounding gray and green.
The vegetation was mostly made by photo sourcing various plants as a base and then tweaking them quite heavily in Photoshop.
By pasting together various parts of plants and hand painting some details I was able to get some plants quickly into UE4 and start populating the scene. It’s sort of an old-school way I guess, but I was able to get a decent result fast. Since this project started with me just messing around with some foliage, I stuck with a lot of the plants I had made originally.
After the Albedo was done I brought that into Substance and continued working on it from there. I prefer the Substance to Unreal workflow, and it’s quick to try things out. If I had to do this over again, I would probably try to do the foliage fully in Substance.
The moss textures were made with Substance Designer and they are used to cover pretty much every mesh in the scene. Each material uses the World Aligned Blend function in UE4 to get a cover of moss on top of each base material. The actual textures were made by blending together different noise generators. Pretty simple stuff, but once blended together with all the other materials, it gave a good result.
The temple ruins are using four materials total. A red painted type of stone as a base that blends with a more worn down type of stone. These two materials are blended together using Unreal’s vertex paint tool and allows me to paint the more worn down rock around cracks and damaged parts. This is a well established, excellent way of breaking up repetition when using tiling textures. The actual rock textures were made mostly by blending together various noise generators in Substance Designer. The 3rd material consists of some various patterns that I made and it’s mapped on parts of the ruins to add some additional details. On top of all of that, I blend the generic moss texture that’s also blending over everything else, to kind of tie it all together.
All fairly simple techniques but it gave me a good enough result not to warrant any unique textures for these assets.
The lighting step is usually one of my favorite parts. It’s what makes a scene come alive and gives it mood and ambiance. It’s also generally very rewarding as you will see all your hard work really shine.
For the lighting, I wanted a sort of humid and dark feeling in the cave, a place that’s been forgotten a long time ago and rarely sees sunlight. I also wanted to make sure it stayed beautiful and peaceful and didn’t end up looking too dark and creepy.
Finding that balance was one of the hardest parts and I went through a lot of iterations of the lighting.
The main light source in the scene is the obvious directional light, shining down from the ceiling of the cave. This combined with volumetric fog gives the scene a nice warm glow from hitting the red temple stone.
This is accompanied by a sky light to give a base of blue ambiance in the scene. On top of that, I used multiple point lights here and there to highlight various parts and to give some extra light in areas that were too dark
The biggest obstacle was balancing the direct sunlight with the ambient cave lighting. I tried multiple different setups for the lighting. Some versions with no direct sun light shining down at all, but it always ended up looking too flat and lost a lot of color. I probably baked the lighting in this scene over a hundred times.
The key was to have the sunlight sort of highlight the temple and some details but not bounce too much. Then have the sky light and point lights, light the rest of the cave and create the dark ambiance and mood for the rest of the scene. It sounds simple in hindsight, but took some tinkering to end up with a result that I was happy with. The post processing was done mostly to control the balance between warm and cold colors in the scene.
Thanks for reading, I hope you guys found this useful!