In case you missed it
Study more abandoned environments
Hi, my name is Adam Sharp and I’m an Environment/Material Artist at Electric Square. I started in the film/animation industry, working on numerous productions over the years, ranging from film, TV, and music industries. I made the jump to game development 2 years ago.
I first got into 3D creating models and backgrounds for post-production houses. My work included shot setup, set-dressing, and lighting work. More and more of my work became environment-based which is why I decided to make the switch to games to focus on immersive environments.
I’ve always been inspired by film, cinematography, lighting, etc. In terms of games that have given me inspiration, I’m a big fan of Naughty Dog's work, especially from an Environment point of view.
I am always learning and developing new workflows and skillsets, which I think is important for artists, as there is always new technology to learn and help improve your pipeline.
Abandoned Mansion Hall
Abandoned Mansion Hall: Start of the Project
I wanted to focus on a small interior scene that would have some interesting detail and lighting. I’m a fan of abandoned places as I think they have a lot of storytelling potential and are visually interesting. From a Texturing point of view, there are usually some really interesting decaying materials.
I looked around and found a few images that I thought would be an interesting challenge to create. This included locations like Villa Margherita and Kinmel Hall. I found quite a few good reference shots of different angles of the rooms so I could begin to block out the base scene.
The main goal was to give an essence of the place and to make everything sit together in a believable way.
The Base of the Scene
I started whiteboxing the main layout with primitives and box brushes within UE4. After I had a good base, I then exported the whole thing out as an FBX to use as a template within Maya. I then had a pretty accurate idea of the size of everything I needed to model. It was then a case of modeling up final assets and replacing the whiteboxes in UE4. The original whitebox and final sceneы are very close in layout and size due to this. I found that this way of working helped immensely with the final scene.
I split the staircase into three different models for ease of assembling, again utilizing primitives and box brushes and using them as a template to match in Maya.
The ceilings were a bit of a technical experiment, I wanted to push Substance Designer and see what I could achieve without a detailed model. Both roofs were 100% Substance Designer using pixel depth offset in UE4 to give them depth. The models themselves were simple geometry. A plane for the main roof and a dome mesh for the ornate version.
I created all the materials in Substance Designer. This gave me enormous flexibility when it came to tweaks, changes, and randomization.
For the Ornate dome ceiling, I started by breaking down the details into their component parts, then creating several height details and using a circular splatter to position all the elements.
I did the same for the main roof but this time, I used tile samplers to position all the elements.
I would normally model these and bake them down but I wanted to see how effective it would be to keep it all in Designer.
I subtracted damage from the height using slope blur with very small values to give a bit of edgewear.
The main props all used tileable materials, again from Designer. I baked high to low poly meshes in Substance Painter and created user input channels that would act as alphas to mask out the areas for different surfaces in UE4, like dirt, wood, highlights, etc.
I set up material layering within UE4 for assigning different textures to different parts of the mesh using the alphas from Painter to blend between them.
I also used decals for the small rubble/pebbles to help blend the elements together and give an overall decay look to the floor and stair areas.
I used baked lighting for the scene with a few rec lights in certain areas to brighten them up a little. The main light through the windows uses Exponential Height fog for volumetric lighting to create interesting shadows of the meshes it interacts with. I knew I wanted a fairly strong shaft of light illuminating the center of the scene that would create enough bounce light to fill the scene, it also added to the composition. I tweaked the lighting a lot during this process. It was a challenge to get the lighting to look natural whilst balancing the scene so things were not too bright or dark.
Tips & Sources for Environment Artists
Reference is so important when attempting to make anything look like it’s grounded in reality. Breaking down the reference into its base components and keeping things simple at the beginning before building on that foundation and adding the final detail will help build complicated environments.
Planning and blockout go hand in hand with the reference phase and will help the whole process run more smoothly. You can quickly get an idea of the size of your level by having a run around in UE4. If you are able to create your own concept art for what you're aiming for it will give you a fairly good idea of what you are trying to achieve. It will also give you something to reference for your hero shot and lighting.
Composition and an understanding of the rule of thirds, focal points, and lighting to aid the focus of the eye are also important things to consider. Turning off all the color information and looking at your shots in black and white also helps to see how your scene reads and where the viewer's eye is drawn.
Keeping up motivation on a project can be a challenge. If I need a break from texturing then I will switch to doing some modeling instead to mix up the workflow.
Dinusty Empire is a handy resource for getting critiques on your work as well as a lot of tips and resources, including the discord channel.
Tim Simpson also has some great information and tutorials on his Polygon Academy channel.
Also, check out Warren Marshall's video on setting up user channels in Substance Painter.