Stylized Viking Village: Water, Materials, Lighting

Stylized Viking Village: Water, Materials, Lighting

Maria Puchkova, Anna Kirilenko, and Marina Сhekhovskhih did a breakdown of their cartoonish 3D scene inspired by the animated movie How to Train Your Dragon and talked about their team approach to the project.


Hi there! In our team there are 3 of us:


When we first met each other during our studying at Scream School, we knew right away that we wanted to work together. We have much in common – similar views, ambitious plans and an endless desire to work hard and constantly learn new things. This was a strong basis for our effective partnership and project development.

Viking Village

We are going to talk mainly about the 3D part of our Viking Village scene. However, it is worth saying that Marina's work in our project as a concept artist cannot be underestimated. Her concepts for houses and props played a huge role in the whole project.

Concepts by Marina Сhekhovskhih:

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Main Idea, References & Plan

Viking Village started as a part of our super ambitious diploma project. Firstly, we wanted to create a whole island full of unique landmarks such as Viking Pub, Town Hall, Main Square with ritual Fireplace and huge Totems. There even was a special place for Viking toilets. Moreover, our island was filled with different characters: Vikings themselves, their sheep and the dangerous neighbors – dragons!

That was the moment when everything could go wrong without appropriate planning.  For the first step, we created a very simple blockout just to determine the work plan and to check the amount of standard and unique props, buildings, environmental elements, and characters.

When we counted all together, it became clear to us that we won`t be able to match the quality and meet the deadline with such amount of work. So, creating a priority plan was one of our best decisions. Together, we agreed on our main landmark – the Fishhouse and a list of props we will do to fill the scene.

All of us wanted to do something new, something fresh, and not just recreate an existing game, a movie environment, or a ready-made concept. The only way to do that is to develop your visual style, your story, and a unique atmosphere by exploring other works, combining different ideas and investigating ways of visual expression. So, constant searching, deep analysis and mixing various concepts were a great part of our work. 

The trilogy “How to Train Your Dragon” was our main inspiration source. We had spent many hours collecting different concepts for it, digging deeper into its clever design and distinctive stylization. Apart from this, we had plenty of references from different games, movies, and cartoons for each prop, decorative or environmental element. For this purpose, Pinterest was the best tool to set everything together and sort things out. Also, we would recommend Pureref which is very handy. Here is a short version of our main Refboard:

One of the strongest features of our project was a clearly established division of duties. In a team project, people usually underestimate the meaning of the management and zones of responsibilities. 

In our team, one of us was fully responsible for the art decisions (Maria Puchkova), whereas Anna Kirilenko was in charge of the technical part of the project. Such segregation of duties is necessary for effective work, but it is always important to listen to the team and respect your partners, especially if your decision differs a lot from the collective opinion.

For task management, we highly recommend Trello, as it was extremely helpful for us throughout the whole project. Below is a scheme of our duties and responsibilities for the project:

Landscape, Trees & Rocks

Our pipeline for environment style development included lots of research and analysis. It is important to keep in mind what atmosphere you want to achieve in your scene. Our goal was to create soft and nice forms, a cute and friendly ambiance. For this purpose, we collected suitable references and focused our attention on techniques and tricks that other artists used in their works. You can see below the examples of such reference study:

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It is also very important to create lots of variations in a short time to find the best solution and develop it further.  We would recommend experimenting as much as you can, even if the result is weird sometimes. We learned a lot from it and it turned out to be a very precious experience that helps us in our personal and professional projects.  Such experiments should be very fast and cheap – when you are searching for the right design, you can work with drafts or high poly models or you can automatically retopo and texture them. The main thing is to create a big variety as fast as you can. As soon as you find the right forms and colors you can redo it properly and optimize for the engine. You can see our experiments with the trees below:

Rocks were one of the most difficult parts of our work, as we looked for the right pipeline for a long time. Firstly, we tried to sculpt them directly in ZBrush. The result was very disappointing – forms turned out to be unreadable, crumpled and untidy.  We had had many tries until we found the most efficient pipeline:

  1. Find a suitable stylized reference
  2. Decide on the size and the number of rocks (for us it was 3 little, 3 medium, 2 flat and 2 big rocks)
  3. Model all the basic forms in Maya
  4. Bevel main edges one time in Maya
  5. Export them to ZBrush for detailing and creating natural cracks

Modeling Workflow, Instruments, Asset Breakdown

The first step was to find the shape and mood of the props and the architecture. This process took us most of the time (including base topology in UE4), but it was also the most important one. We needed to keep the same style of all objects and in such a big scene it was quite a challenge for us. Unfortunately, we spent too much time on the blockout, but at each stage, we were improving the overall feeling of the main forms. In the picture below, you can see our blockout that we used to create the base topology:

One of our strategic decisions was to create a set of planks. For this task, our main reference was Heroes of the Storm. These assets were reused many times in different ways. Firstly, they helped a lot with props like barrels, benches, and chests that are mainly made of wood. Secondly, they were used as props themselves and were very useful in detailing the road and some of the Viking houses. Thirdly, such wooded constructions as bridges or house basements were also made of these planks.  And finally, some of the tileable wood textures were made using the plank set. Below you can find the set itself and examples of using it.

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For most of the props, we mainly used the standard modeling pipeline:

  • Modeling the basic forms (drafts) in Maya
  • Adding details in ZBrush
  • Creating low poly and UV layout in Maya
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All houses consist of very simple parts. We wanted to minimize the noise in the scene as it already had lots of small details. So, we decided to make the house bases all the same and diversify them by using different decorative elements that you can see below. Such a simple module system helped us a lot to save time and make unique houses.

We would like to point out that small documentation was written for our project which helped our team to work smoothly and effectively. It contained basic information: 

  • Resolution of textures
  • Texel
  • Texture packing (by channel)
  • Naming
  • Project folder structure


Water: Caustics, Underwater & Foam

The main reference for the water shader was the game RiME which inspired us to make something outstanding. 

In this game, the water shader simulates stylized foam when water interacts with other objects. It also generates waves and has a very soft and nice gradient and effect of depth. 

Water from RiME has three different components which we wanted to recreate – you can see them below: 

For the foam which looks like stylized circles spreading from the objects, we used decals, and these decal-planes were added to the scene at the very end. They perfectly stylized the water and gave it some "cartooniness". As the foam decals are quite “static”, they can't recreate the high wave movement and are only suitable for calm water. Many thanks to Alex Vinogradov for his amazing Cartoon Water Foam tutorial (check it out!)

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The sun rays shimmering on the water are actually faked. They were created separately and added to the shader afterward. We could just use reflections on the water to make it glow, but then the effect of the "movement" of water would have disappeared. Moreover, this method added more control from an artistic point of view.

Scene Texturing

Props. Searching for the right texturing instruments also took us a lot of time, but eventually, we found the best way to texture effectively and maintain the same style for all the props.

We created two smart materials in Substance Painter - metal and wood which then were reused many times. This allowed us to save a huge amount of time (we were always lacking that) and also helped the team to work in the same style and color palette. 

Architecture. As for architecture, all materials here consisted of trims and tile materials. Some tiles were created in Substance Designer, and some - with the use of ZBrush sculpts. 

Tiles. The material for the tiles was fully generated in Substance Designer.

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Materials & Shaders in UE4

This part of the work turned out to be the most difficult and challenging one but it gave us the most satisfaction. Throughout the project, materials were being constantly modified depending on our needs.

In our UE4 project, we had several materials (Master Materials) from which the instances were created.

Basic material. The main and most ”popular” material in our scene. It was used for all the props, as well as some of the architectural elements. 

Roof material (for it, we also used vertex-painted moss material). The heightmap was used to give volume and relief to the roof tiles.

Moss material. We really wanted to achieve the effect of "fluffy" moss and tried many ways to do it. A balance had to be found between beauty and technical efficiency (our team was constantly arguing about it). So, we came up with an average solution - a parallax. As a result, we were able to achieve the effect of soft stylized moss islands. You can see the node system below:

Cloud material. The stylized sky was not an easy task. At first, we tried something more realistic, with a small number of clouds, but this solution was far from what we wanted to achieve. We tried to draw and use planes with opacity and modify them with the material. Since we had plans to create a small video, we wanted to breathe life into our map and the dynamic sky was a very important point. So we modified the clouds with a few parameters to set up their movement and shape. You can see the node solution for it below:

Render & Lighting Setup, Video Creation

For our final render setup, we used a special system for generating global illumination dynamically. In Unreal Engine, it is called “Light Propagation Volume”. This feature is still in development and it's not ready for production, so you would need to enable it directly in UE4 working files and then switch all the necessary parameters in the scene setup. Follow this link to find all the instructions.

A huge advantage of this method is that we did not have to bake the light. We were able to quickly adjust the lighting (e.g. intensity or angle of the sun) and see all the changes at once instead of rebaking our map again and again. It saved us a lot of time and gave us an opportunity to experiment a lot with different parameters, as this pipeline is really flexible.

The final part of the work is an animated video or a showreel in which the village is shown in all its glory. We wanted not only to show all the work done but also create a feeling of flying over the village to inspire and surprise the viewer.

With the help of such a powerful tool as Sequencer in UE4, we captured the necessary video material. However, we owe our final result to a real professional.  Danila Godea. With our raw materials, he managed to create a truly magical video that looks like an animated movie (if you are interested in collaboration, don’t hesitate to contact him at 


Finally, we'd like to outline a few things:

  • Time management is crucial. A priority plan can be a practical solution for appropriate planning.
  • Always search for feedback but never change your mind about some basic features of your personal project. Otherwise, it will lose its uniqueness and the original idea. 
  • Good references are vital for the work, yet you need to limit yourself in your search and analysis to save time and effort. Most often, one or two references for stylization, textures, and shapes are enough for good work. Don't bury yourself in a huge number of beautiful pictures – restrict their number for the sake of effective time-management.



Special thanks to our mentor Sergei Panin. It was a pleasure for us to work with you.

Many thanks and respect to our curator Oleg Tsitovich.

And great thanks to all the people who have provided advice on a wide range of areas, from concept art development to some technical issues: Ivan Podzorov, Viacheslav Bushuev, Danila Godea, Denis Rootski, Artem Kurenkov, Eugene Kopalov, and Evgeniya Morozova.

Maria Puchkova & Anna Kirilenko, 3D Artists

Marina Сhekhovskhih, Concept Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev


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Comments 1

  • Nathaniel Fisher

    Nice writeup! I'm not sure if it's the high frequency of small props making it noisy and hard to read, or if some shading would have helped give some definition, but the reference seems to give its large forms a lot more room to breathe. Nice job on the materials and great organisation!


    Nathaniel Fisher

    ·3 years ago·

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