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Lorna Blythe shared the way she remade mysterious Orient Express from Agatha Christie’s novel in UE4: modularity, assets, glass and porcelain materials, lighting, and more.
Hi there, thanks for taking the time to read this! I’m Lorna and I’m an aspiring Environment Artist from Sheffield, England. I have recently completed my Master’s degree and achieved a Distinction in Games Design at Sheffield Hallam University. My tutor, Dave Wilson, has been a huge help, providing plenty of constructive criticism and advice.
I like to center my projects around skills that I need to improve, or new techniques that I want to learn. For the Murder on the Orient Express project, my main goal was to learn how to create a realistic modular environment. In addition, I planned to use environmental narrative to suggest a story and split up the repetition of the scene.
After deciding to use a trim sheet workflow, I began to consider the environment I wanted to create. I chose to combine my love of travel with my interest in the crime/ detective genre and recreate the Orient Express. Made famous by Agatha Christie, the luxury train is synonymous with mystery and intrigue.
I planned to create an accurate portrayal of the train as it would have looked in the early 1930s when Agatha Christie traveled.
My initial task was to use Pinterest to save references and inspirations. I organized my board into sections such as “Lighting” or “Architecture”. After looking at my references, I settled on creating the L’Oriental dining carriage, due to its bold colors, decorative wooden panels, and overall ambiance.
I visited the National Railway Museum in York to gather more reference images and learn more about the layout and style of the carriage. In the museum, there is a research area specifically dedicated to trains, and I found many books on the Orient Express. After talking to the staff, I was given an email address for Belmond, the company that currently runs the Orient Express service. The carriages have been completely refurbished to accurately replicate the style and luxury from the 1930s.
After I contacted Belmond and explained my project, they were kind enough to send me high-quality reference images and blueprints of the whole carriage, with exact dimensions of tables, chairs and the carriage itself.
Using the sizes given in the blueprints, I was able to construct an accurate blockout of the space quickly. The challenge in this stage was splitting the carriage into modular pieces. I chose to have one panel for each window and a separate piece for the decorative art panel. This worked well initially until it came to making the ends of the carriage, where the pieces no longer fit well together. After a few iterations, I ended up slightly altering the overall length of the carriage to reduce the number of unique parts required. I also just used simple point lights to quickly provide a general start for the lighting.
As the train carriage is modular, I had to use the props to break up the repetition of the scene. This became more challenging when considering the restaurant uses the same utensils, plates, and fixtures at each table. I used the placement of these props to create more interest, for instance, some tables are neatly set while others are being cleared, and blinds are at every window, but differ in length to create variety.
There are over 30 unique assets in the scene, not including the essential items, such as tables, chairs etc.
Only a few assets are used to hint at the story. The “Poirot” assets (bowler hat, journal, newspaper, and photograph) provide the most obvious environmental storytelling. The newspaper mentions a murder suspect being freed, and another article warns about the freezing weather conditions predicted. The remaining narrative assets provide clues about the other passengers.
Complex Asset Models
Most assets were reasonably straightforward to model, but the decorative shelf and ornate table lamp were both a little more complex.
After creating the basic lamp model, I used ZBrush to add shape and further details for the High Poly.
I used Material ID’s to add translucency to the bottom edge of the lamp while keeping the rest of the lamp opaque.
To create the intricate edges and mesh front of the shelves, I used alphas to reduce the poly count. The cylinders were modeled along with the hooks at each end and once textured looked convincing.
To create the chair, I made a basic mesh in 3ds Max, using the measurements from the blueprints, and then imported into ZBrush to shape and add curves. Although I spent a while sculpting, most of my time for this asset was spent texturing. I started with a base fabric material in Painter. To replicate the design of the original reference, I used a giraffe pattern as an alpha and added height detail. Although this was a good start, I didn’t feel like it was quite complete. After a bit of trial and error I found that by overlaying a Histogram Shift filter, the material appeared to react to light in the same way as velvet.
Glass & Porcelain Materials
The detailed plates were a challenge to replicate. Initially, I tried to create alphas of each shape and add in Substance Painter, however, due to the designs being handmade, the result I ended up with did not look close enough to my references. I realized the best way to texture the detail would be to hand-paint it myself. Although time-consuming, I’m pleased with how these turned out and feel like they resemble my references well. I was glad to spend the extra time to get them just right, I feel like I improved my hand-painting skills as well as attention to detail.
I found creating an effective glass material quite difficult. The final material I used was set up with a Fresnel and several Lerps to allow adjustments for opacity, roughness, and refraction. After tweaking the material instance, I was able to use the same base material for both the windows and wine glasses throughout the scene.
Marvelous Designer was used for creating the high poly assets for tablecloths, curtains, glove, and bucket towel. To make the curtains I created the fabric and used the Pin tool to attach it to the curtain rail. After clicking Simulate, I was then able to pin the fabric as it moved in real time to get the nice drape effect. After exporting from Marvelous, it just needed optimizing and texturing. I used this method for all fabrics in the scene.
The carpet is modular and the pattern was created using Photoshop to replicate the reference. I used a material instance to create tiling in UE4 to get an accurate scale and size. I also tweaked the brightness and tone of the image using parameters to get a closer match to the original carpet.
Challenges & Decisions
The largest challenge I faced in this project was solving the glass material and achieving realistic reflections and translucency. Once the master material was set up, I spent a long time making adjustments to the parameters to get the right balance. I had aimed to create an exterior environment for the train, full of foliage, snow, and trees, but due to the time I had left, this goal was not met. Since the environment was sparse with just the night sky and the shape of mountains in the distance, this affected how transparent I could make the windows. Too transparent and the outside space would be very noticeable, too opaque and the outside lighting would have little to no effect on the environment.
In addition, I wanted to create the illusion of rain and frost on the window pane. I used the roughness parameters to do this, but again, with the Fresnel and reflectivity, this took a while to get right.
Lighting was one of the main areas I wanted to focus on in this project. In the blockout stage, I added basic point lights to provide a starting point for the lighting. I had several references from both the TV and movie adaptations of the book, as well as real-world photos from the actual carriage. This provided plenty of different lighting scenarios to examine and helped me narrow down the feel I was looking for.
Rather than making the lighting exactly like the real Orient Express carriage, I exaggerated certain aspects to suggest a more dramatic, suspenseful atmosphere. All natural lights use a slightly blue, cold hue and all interior lights use have a warm temperature to produce a contrast.
Using a blueprint on the wooden panel static meshes allowed me to attach lights. Once applied, this ensured that each panel used the same lighting once duplicated throughout the carriage and saved manually placing and adjusting each light. Any modifications were also then applied to each instance. This helped with efficiency and sped up the lighting process.
I used this same technique with the table lamp asset. I added a spotlight to create the general light source and added a warm-hued point light to replicate the light passing through the red material and affecting nearby objects.
The images below show a single table section with “Lighting Only”:
A large part of the final mood was created with the Post-Processing. As well as some small adjustments, I created a LUT and altered the Scene tint color to a slightly pink shade. Below you can see the before and after Post-Processing:
I’ve really enjoyed working on this project and have learned some valuable lessons throughout the process. One of the most important things I’ve realized was how proper planning and documenting progress can help a project run smoothly. I strived to plan and allocate time prior to beginning the project as a way to improve my time-management abilities. I’ve noticed that not only is it motivational to see just how much work can be accomplished in a day, but I have been able to better predict how long tasks will take, which really helped me to stick to my schedule.
As with most projects, there are always areas to be improved, but overall, I’m pleased with my final piece and have learned so much throughout the process.
Thanks again for reading! To see the completed version of the project feel free to have a look at my portfolio.
Lorna Blythe, Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
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