3D Environment Breakdown: Drug Laboratory in UE4

3D Environment Breakdown: Drug Laboratory in UE4

Markus Pichler shared a detailed breakdown of his recent UE4 scene Pelea Con El Diablo, inspired by Netflix's Narcos series.

Introduction

Hi, my name is Markus, I am 29 years old and I currently work as a Junior Environment Artist at Hangar 13 (2K Games). Before I got this first game art job, I mainly worked as an electrician and technical drawer for construction sites. I grew up with video games in my life and always had a passion for cinematography, games, and storytelling.

In March 2018, I started to learn modeling in Maya and set the goal to get into the game industry one day. After two years of self-teaching, I got my first job as a 3D Generalist at an Animation and VR company. In November 2019, I joined Hangar 13.

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Pelea Con El Diablo: Inspiration and Planning

I did my first Unreal scene “Tomb” in May 2019 with Billy Matjiunis during the Mentor Coalition month. Billy taught me everything I needed to know from concept to the finished scene.

When I started to plan a new portfolio project, I was watching Narcos Season 1 and 2 for the second time. Immediately, I got inspired by the Columbian flair of the show, with its Latin American Soundtrack, the Spanish language, the perfect performance by Wagner Moura (Pablo Escobar), and this stunning Intro. Also, this drug war back then was brutal and drug trafficking around the globe is still a huge problem today. I was inspired to tell a little story about cocaine production in a jungle lab.

For reference, I used a lot of screenshots from the Netflix series. There is a scene at the beginning of Season 1 where Pablo Escobar enters a cocaine lab for the first time where the cocaine production process is explained to him. That was my main reference.

I made a checklist on what kind of visuals I wanted to have in the scene, like cocaine leaves, the bags in which the coca leaves are collected, some kind of a self-built tank in which the coca leaves are mixed with gasoline and other chemicals, microwaves or cocaine bricks. So, I created a PureRef reference board with screenshots from the show. Additionally, I watched documentaries about drug trafficking and production and props that need to be in a drug lab scene (playing Ghost Recon: Wildlands also helped).

My goal in this project was to go a little bit further than creating a little game environment. From the beginning, I thought about doing a cinematic presentation and to emphasize on that. I didn’t want to spend too much time creating an optimized game scene and creating low poly meshes with the minimum on triangles and figuring out how to have as few textures as possible. I spent more Tris on the props for better quality and if it was necessary to get higher texture resolution on some props, I did it.

Before I began, I created some tasks on this milestone chart which I downloaded from Vertex42.com but there are a ton of other project management charts for Excel out there. I just did some estimates on tasks to figure out how long it would take. Due to the COVID-19 situation, I had to stay at home and used the time on weekends and mostly all my spare time to get some progress on tasks for this project. That’s why I was even faster than the provided time.

Modeling

I modeled my assets in Maya, and for a few meshes, I created a high poly in ZBrush. But basically, my modeling workflow was like this:

First, I blocked out a rough scene in Maya. Just super rough, just cubes, cylinders, and easy shapes, not thinking about modularity or details. Just like a rough sketch. For the architecture I played around a little bit, thinking about what could look interesting, like the main area, the little backyard where the cocaine leaves were stored and the walkway where the cocaine powder was placed on the tables.

Next, I imported everything in Unreal and tried to find a camera angle for the main shot that could describe the scene as detailed as possible. At that point, I was able to move around all that assets as I wanted and checked how the scene looked through the CineCam in Unreal. I decided to set up the camera to 21:9 to get that cinematic look. When I got the shot that I wanted, I locked the camera (right-click on the cam in the outliner - transforms - lock Actor Movement). That is especially important when you want to do a process gif in the end. And without having the camera transforms locked, you will accidentally move the camera, at least that would have happened to me a thousand times.

When I had my main composition set up, I created a first pass for all main assets. But now I was thinking of naming convention and structure. Well, the naming convention is quite simple, but I set it up like “Object Name” _ “Type” (cocaine_bricks_A). In the past, I have created one mesh per asset. But that was quite inconvenient because on every detailed pass on a mesh I had to separate them, do changes and combine them again.

This time I created groups per asset, which means I put all sub-meshes into a group and can move them around as I want. The group has its pivot point always in the same position, but inside the group, I have enough freedom to add and remove objects and to go into more detail step by step. 

I selected all meshes and gave them a quick “Automatic UV Layout” just to be able to throw a first texture pass on them later.

Then I moved the group (! Not the objects) to the world origin (0,0,0) and exported the group as FBX in the Unreal-created project folder under (Third Person BP/Geometry).

As soon as I had exported it from Maya, Unreal showed me the Import Settings for the new mesh that was being detected. If I had left the settings as they were, Unreal would have imported every single mesh on its own, that’s what I didn’t want because that would have caused chaos. There is an option which says “Combine Meshes”. Unreal merges every single mesh together from the group with the pivot set to the group's pivot at 0,0,0 in Maya.

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Texturing

As I’ve said before, when importing an asset, Unreal merges everything down to one mesh. If you have a model that needs to have more Materials on it, just simply add different Lamberts to the Meshes that you want to be separated. Unreal gives you one Material Slot per Lambert (can be any material in Maya, such as Blinn or Phong).

I created almost every texture for the props in Substance Painter, although I used some textures from Substance Source (Brick Wall, Plaster, Wooden Floor, Dirt on the Floor, Leaves, Dirt Ground Outside and Fabric Material outside), and the fabric and the Wooden Floor were made by Enrico Tammekänd.

The outside part of the scene is one combined mesh because I wanted to compose the single props in Maya, which was more comfortable to me (rotating and moving around all the metal wall pieces in Maya was more convenient to me). But because I gave the round wooden beams, the vertical wooden beams, the fabric “roof” and the metal fence their own lambert in Maya, Unreal gave me 4 Material slots.

Because I knew I had to create a lot of props in order to populate the scene properly, I barely used a high-to-lowpoly workflow, I actually made low/mid-poly props with weighted normal and just baked them inside painter using the “use low poly as high poly”-option (just to get AO, World Space, Curvature for the generators).

When it comes to creating props, I like the texturing process the most because it adds a story to the assets and that on the other hand tells the story of the whole scene. Substance Painter is an amazing tool and I pretty much asked myself the same questions on every asset, but let’s take the table with this blue mat on top as an example:

- What is the Base Material? Is there something in the Painter Library that comes the closest to what I need? Is it Metal, Wood, Plastic…?

I used a paint material (white painted) for the bottom part and a glossy plastic for the top.

- How old is that prop? Could it be damaged somehow? And on which spots can it be damaged? If it gets damaged, what Material would be underneath? Has it the same Roughness/Metalness/Color?

I remembered seeing some kind of yoga mat in a gym some time ago. It had a very used look, there were scratches in the middle and the edges were worn out. I realized that the old used surface was darker and the “newer” layers underneath slightly brighter. So, I made those scratches and damage spots brighter in terms of value and added a little more roughness to it.

- How long has this prop been in that scene? Is there any Dirt or Rust on it?

When it comes to a drug scene, I expect that the tables don’t get cleaned every week. I added dust and dirt with masks to some spots.

- How was that prop used by someone, does that kind of usage add something?

For this scene, it was important to understand how the tables were used. By finding enough reference, I understood the process of cocaine production (at least as much that I can recreate that visually). E.g. I wanted to show that people were using buckets filled with chemicals. Therefore, I added that “ring”-shape on the tables (roughness and color variation according to the table surface. Since that is a cocaine lab, I added a dirt mask which should look as if cocaine powder has been scattered around.

In Substance Painter, I very often use a fill layer and add a black mask to it. When it comes to generators, I mostly use Dirt, Dripping Rust, or Metal Edge Wear. I also like to “Add a Fill” to the mask and use one of the awesome grunges from the shelf that come with Substance Painter.

I often don’t just use one generator per layer (like the Metal Edge Wear), mostly I add another generator or a fill mask on top, to make sure that the effect doesn’t appear everywhere.

Composition and Lighting

As I’ve said, I started with creating a simple blockout and tried to nail the composition already in that stage. Then, I started to create the first pass on the props and imported them in Unreal. Having the blockout in the scene as if it was the first sketch in a drawing, allowed me to place the imported props exactly “on top” of the blockout. Later I hid the blockout and continued to create more props that might be interesting and needed to be there to tell the story of a drug lab right.

The neon light was created by using spot lights. In addition to that, I painted an emissive texture in the Substance Painter. Then I eye-balled the falloff and intensity settings until I was satisfied with it.

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I simply played around with colors when I got to the post processing part. I made the shadows bluer/greener-ish (colder) and the midtones and highlights a little bit warmer. Since the scene had a lot of different colors (red, blue, yellow, green) which looked distracting, I lowered the saturation. There is a good video about color grading in Unreal from Quixel (at about 32:15):

Challenges

I probably spent the most time creating the lighting. I baked the lighting again and again and couldn’t really find settings that would be just right for the scene and I still have a lot to learn when it comes to lighting.

Before I baked the lightmaps, I started removing every light in the scene (hiding them will result in baking them anyway, you have to click on the light, go to the “rendering” section in the object properties and disable “visible”) and just started with the Sky Light, baked it on Preview mode and checked the results, when I was happy with that I added the Directional Light (Sun), tweaked it till I got what I wanted and continued with the lights of the lamps.

Playing around with some atmospheric fog helped the scene to make it more interesting and to separate the foreground object a bit from the background objects.

I found a useful Tutorial Series on Youtube by Ryan Manning, it helped me to understand lighting in Unreal better. Kemal Günel has great Lighting tips as well.

I also wasn’t very happy with the composition at some point, but I got feedback from some people (Mentor Coalition Community) which helped me to push the scene further.

Presentation

For the Presentation, I tried to show the scene like it was my own IP. With some Alpha Masks that I’ve exported from Substance Painter, I created this logo that shows in the video. When I thought about a song for the cinematic, I listened to the Narcos Soundtrack from Season 1 and 2. The Song that I liked the most was “Pelea Con El Diablo”. Also, the title was appealing to me, which is translated “Fight with the Devil” and I thought it fits a scene that should tell the story of a drug war.

I wanted to implement the Unreal logo into the footage. In the past, Ubisoft often modified their logo to their IP’s and in Far Cry 5 they also presented their logo in a scene:

I like that kind of presentation and so I decided to do that with the Unreal Logo. I created this little scene where the cocaine was being loaded into that truck and showed off the Unreal Logo.

I wanted to give the camera a shaky feeling as if it was filmed by hand (without a rig). I did that by using my Oculus Rift. There are quite a lot of tutorials on Youtube. In Unreal it is also possible to set up a virtual camera you can use for example your IPad as a camera in your virtual environment, there is a good explanation here.

For editing, I used Adobe Premiere. To get something like a Super-8 look I dropped the frames with an effect called “Posterize Time”.

To get the dirty and scratched look I downloaded a video and blended it on top of my footage. I used this video:

Markus Pichler, Junior Environment Artist at Hangar 13

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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    3D Environment Breakdown: Drug Laboratory in UE4