Forsaken: Composition, Atmosphere, Lighting in UE4

Forsaken: Composition, Atmosphere, Lighting in UE4

Harid Taşkın prepared a thorough breakdown of his latest UE4 scene Forsaken: a step-by-step approach to composition, storytelling, lighting, and more.

Introduction

Hello, my name is Harid Taşkın. I’m a lighting artist from Istanbul, Turkey, looking for opportunities to chase my career in AAA game studios.

I was always into video games, but I actually discovered my passion for designing games when I was getting my Bachelor’s degree at Eastern Mediterranean University. I started creating games in GameMaker, then taught myself Unity and Unreal Engine 4. Before deciding to pursue a career in the game industry, I worked at my university as a research assistant.

Currently, I'm getting my Master’s degree in Digital Game Design at Bahcesehir University Game Lab. In the past, I worked for Tatu Creative Studios (also known as Warp10 Game Studio) and participated in three major projects: a canceled multiplayer for PC, an unannounced PC game and a released Turkish movie where we were responsible for the “in-game” scenes. The movie was created in Unreal Engine 4.

Recently, I published my latest Unreal Engine project “Forsaken". This article will cover the thinking process, how the idea brewed, the design, and finally the lighting setup. Let’s begin!

Forsaken: Main Shots

Idea

The idea of creating an environment that later became “Forsaken” came to me when I was doing one of my simple lighting exercises, this time using Paragon assets from Epic Games. The overcast lighting I was working on somehow reminded me of a Nordic version of Dark Souls. From there, a question popped up: what if?

I've always been a huge fan of high-fantasy worlds and stories like Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, and The Elder Scrolls. I sat down with the question mentioned above and played with it to create a solid foundational idea. I further developed it during the brainstorm session (which I believe is quite important if you want to establish a solid foundation) and settled upon an environment with a dark, gothic-medieval atmosphere of Dark Souls in a Nordic-feeling surrounding inspired by God of War. The scene also had to borrow some cinematographic and real-world elements inspired by Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings.

My eventual goal was to use the idea described above and build an environment just like a painting that tells a story to the viewer and, unlike a game environment, focuses primarily on aesthetics rather than functionality.

References

It is really important to have a set of references whether you create a character, an environment or even just a lighting situation. Concept art, scenes and in-game shots from the games and movies mentioned previously were really useful for me to clearly visualize what I really wanted to create.

I also searched on Pinterest and Artstation for some examples of ruins and shrines, nordic forests, etc. In the end, I had a library of references ranging from fantasy concepts to real-life photos.

First Steps

Before jumping into Maya or Unreal Engine, I went to Photoshop and drew a rough sketch of the layout for the main shot. Drawing a sketch really helped me during the blockout stage - I uploaded it into Maya and made a simple blockout for the scene composition. Up until that moment, I only had the idea and the composition. 

At my previous workplace, I was also involved in other disciplines, mainly level design and set dressing, so I adopted the following pipeline:

  • Blockout
  • Draft Lighting
  • First Asset Placement
  • First Lighting Pass
  • Detailed Asset Placement
  • Detailed Lighting

 

After the initial asset placement of the larger elements, something felt wrong - the scene looked more like a piece from Shadow of Colossus! That problem occurred because the proportions were off: the scene felt insanely large and lacked common proportion relativity.

I found the solution by simply moving the camera slightly back and showing the ground. Now everything was more grounded and relative to the central scale reference. With a solid foundation, I started the placement of smaller details. This is where my creativity went into action again and I started to think about the asset-lore relations.

According to the background story of the environment, this was a magical forest transformed into meditating grounds by people. The place was later drained of its arcane powers due to abusive use. I needed to reflect that “depleted sorcery” of the place. Since the theme was dark and the powers were depleted, I decided to avoid any obvious signs of magic and convey the needed feelings through the environmental storytelling instead. With this in mind, I needed symbolism and ornaments to present that.

Symbolism

In order to tell the story and create the atmosphere, I extensively used symbolism throughout the environment (both lore-based and more subconscious symbols).

Composition of the Shots

As I mentioned earlier, my main goal was aesthetics and composition rather than functionality. So, after I decided what kind of shots I wanted, I did the final asset placement in order to complement them.

I chose to use slightly diagonal angles wherever I can in order to signify the destruction and lack of order in the place. The main structure and the stairs near the lit bonfire are examples of that.

In the main shot, I wanted the viewer to first look at either the shrine on the left or the top of the broken structure in the middle. From there, even if the viewer gets distracted, the geometric shapes of the structures subtly guide the eyes back to the track and let the viewer look at the overall composition, the center where the bonfire burns, and finally the deers.

Scale of the Scene

When you start a project, it's extremely important to understand how much you or your team can handle within a predicted amount of time. The scene was planned as a part of a larger outdoor complex, but in order to be able to focus on small details, I chose to create a smaller area. The size I used was enough to reflect my main idea.

Texturing & Materials

For this project, I didn’t create any textures at all. Instead, I only tweaked the materials some of the assets had and also brought in materials from Megascans.

In case I need to create any material, my pipeline is simple:

  • Find high-quality photos, preferably texture shots with top view.
  • Blend them together to create a unique look, remove all light and shadow information and finally make it tillable in Photoshop.
  • Use Substance Alchemist to convert it to PBR and export maps.
  • Create material in Unreal Engine and tweak it to fit the environment.

 

Hopefully, in my free time, I will try Quixel Mixer and Substance Designer to further develop my material authoring skills.

If I need to texture anything, Substance Painter is my primary choice.

Preparing Base Color Maps for Lighting

One of the tasks of a Lighting Artist is to calibrate and adjust the materials/textures of given assets to react properly to the lighting in the scene. As Tilmann Milde explains in one of his videos, keeping a consistent range of median values for the base colors is really important to get correct colors and bounce light information. While lighting something, if some of the surfaces look extremely dark or blown, check their Base Color maps.

To check out how the base colors of materials relate to each other, use Unreal Engine’s Base Color view mode. In this view mode, the environment should look as flat as possible. But keep in mind that not all materials should have the same brightness for their base colors. Use this view mode to have a reasonable range for their values. Again, thanks to Tilmann Milde for this superb tip!

There are two methods that you can use to fix such issues, apart from consulting your material artists of course: you can tweak the texture values either in Photoshop or Unreal Engine.

I generally use a color calibrator actor to approximately calibrate colors and light values. There is a color calibrator actor in the UE's Engine Content.

Using Assets in Projects

In this project, apart from some surfaces that were crafted to support tessellation materials properly, I haven’t really modeled anything. There are several reasons behind that:

Using pre-made assets has serious advantages for artists like me. First of all, it saves time. If I were to model everything in this scene by myself, with UVing, texturing and other things, I would have to waste a considerable amount of time on the models themselves instead of focusing on the scene and its idea. That would double the production time for me.

Secondly, I wouldn't be able to reach the quality I wanted if I modeled all the assets. As a lighting artist, I do know how to model, but not at the level of an experienced 3D artist. That's why I chose to use top-quality pre-made assets which both cut the production time and let me focus on the environment. After all, my goal was not to demonstrate my modeling skills but rather create a beautiful composition and give it the right mood and atmosphere.

Unless the project requires a specific art style, like World of Warcraft or Overwatch, photoscan libraries like Megascans come in quite handy regardless of the size of the team. Instead of wasting time on recreating common objects like trees and common rocks, you can focus on unique assets and use pre-made photoscanned assets - this can easily increase the quality of your work while reducing the production time.

In this project, I used the following:

 

Making the Assets Look Unique

In order to make your work look unique, the assets should feel unique. That’s a simple equation. Tweaking or changing their materials and modifying the mesh are simple solutions. However, there is another, more creative solution: pay attention to how you place these individual assets!

Believe me, there are hundreds of different ways of putting an asset into an environment: rotating, slightly scaling up or down, cleverly combining with other assets, adding decals, even partly burying it underground! Rather than plainly placing objects in the environment, try to be more creative and aware of what context needs.

Understanding what kind of forms the environment demands really helps out during your attempts to make the assets feel unique.

Let’s talk about the ornaments I have in the scene. They are actually from the Paragon Asset pack as well! With creative placement and careful planning, the pieces feel unique.

In the following video, Andrew Hamilton shows a brief process of adding assets into Battlefront maps. You can see that he is placing the assets with awareness and creativity.

Using Megascans

I generally used assets from Megascans for natural objects. Since I had real-life references, I easily found the assets I needed in the huge library of Megascans. Selected assets were taken from curated collections of Pine Essentials, Meadow, and Forest Undergrowth.

Throughout the scene, Megascans were used in conjunction with MAWI United GmbH’s Redwood Forest and Broadleaf Forest Collections. Since those were super top-quality and versatile assets, both Megascans and these packs blended perfectly.

For smaller details like ground covers, I used Unreal’s foliage tool at first. To make everything look organic, I used a random scale for assets that were being scattered. This way plants have random height and width, just like in the real world. After finishing this foliage pass, I placed more assets by hand to ensure the artistic side of these areas was working as intended.

Lighting and Post-Production

Here we come to my favorite part of a project: giving it an atmosphere with lighting!

In “Forsaken”, I used a fully dynamic lighting setup with DFAO. Since I was able to fake the bounce light with some Skylight tweaking I was also able to get the shadows that I needed with DFAO. So I didn’t need to wait for light bakes.

I used an HDRI lighting type for the Skylight. In order to prepare for that, I created a sphere for the skydome that encases the entire scene. Then, I imported the HDR image I found on HDRI Haven with no mipmaps, set the settings to HDRI and unticked sRGB. Then, I created a very basic two-sided unlit material for the skydome.

In the post-process volume, I disabled Vignette to clearly see the light and dark balance of the scene. I also set the Eye Adaptation Min and Max values to 1. I love to use eye adaptation in my works, but in this scene, I needed even lighting across all shots.

Skylight

Most of the time, in a scenario where a scene is primarily lit by directional light and skylight, I start lighting the scene from the skylight. It is easier for me to set up the brightness of the darker areas and then adjust the brighter areas accordingly. The flatter light of the skylight gives me the opportunity to see where I should add more “accents” thus making it easier to set up the directional light.

To fake the bounce light, I set the Sky Distance Threshold of the skylight actor to a low distance. This way it captured not only the skydome but also the surroundings in its cubemap, and used their colors combined with skydome’s color to project light.

Directional Light

Since the lighting was planned to create an overcast, cold, Nordic atmosphere, I set 7200K whiteish-blue directional light with low intensity. To adjust the sunlight color, I generally prefer to use the Kelvin scale first and then tint it with the Light Color if a more artistic or stylized look is needed.

Atmospherics & Fog

To capture the essence of the atmosphere, I also relied on volumetric fog and atmospheric effects. To prevent the volumetric fog from flattening the image by cranking it up too much, I also used some fog sheets to cover up some places which needed a denser fog to create contrast and separate the forms.

Still, the scene lacked dynamism. Adding freshly pouring snow to the scene helped in making the scene more dynamic while staying true to the context.

After the first lighting pass, the scene was still lacking something. Due to the overcast lighting, scene was a bit flat. I needed more defined shadows which would let the scene get more readability and a more cinematic look. A tip for the lighting is: don’t be afraid of shadows! Use them to define details and forms, create focus and even hide things the viewer doesn’t need to see.

After trying several skylight/directional light combinations and HDRIs, I found a different solution. I added a secondary directional light with less intensity that rotated 45 degrees away from the main directional light. This way, I finally was able to have more defined, cinematic shadows, while still having the overcast weather. It might be non-realistic to have two “suns” in a scene, but it’s okay to fake certain things as long as they work as intended!

Support Lights

After being happy with the base lighting, I started to place accent lights which would create focal points and visual contrast between shapes. Also, by using these lights, I had more control over the highlights and specular reflections I was getting from the materials. First, I placed two spotlights above the main structure to get a highlight on it and the metal ornament on top of it. That helped me to achieve good balance and visibility.

The second spotlight is for highlighting the center part of the scene and separating it from the less important elements of the composition. For the close-ups, I used the same workflow and added accent lights if needed. For the crow shot, for example, I added a rimlight to separate the bird from the surroundings.  

Second Post-Process Pass

After finishing the lighting, the second tweaking in post-process volume was done to bring back camera&lens effects. I’m a huge fan of Chromatic Abberation and Grain in Unreal Engine, but they can look horribly simple, so it is important to use them carefully. Also, I brought back the vignette. For this scene, I also used Convolution Bloom which has a higher quality but more expensive than Standard Bloom.

Color Grading

When the lighting was done, I made a small initial grading in post-process volume to adjust the contrast and balance of the scene. To create a more dramatic and cinematic look, I increased the global contrast - this way it crushed the shadows a bit while pushing the highlights forward.

Also, to set the initial color grade, I tweaked the White balance to get a bit more from the warm colors. I adjusted the tint giving the contrast a blueish tone to bring out more blue colors of the shadows. They created a good, artistic contrast while keeping the cold atmosphere. Reducing the saturation a bit also helped me to get a cold atmosphere despite the slight warm tones brought by the highlights.

Before doing the grading, I went for a more generic cold atmosphere where cold colors were dominant. But that was not the look I planned to have. Rather than an Analogous scheme, a Split Complementary or Complementary color scheme would fit better. To better complement the color scheme and bring the focus into the center of the main shot, I also added a firelight to the bonfire.

Kerem Hünal, creative director at Tatu Creative Studios, once gave me a really nice tip:

In order to justify and balance the tone and tonal contrast of an image, and also to check the focus points properly, convert the image to Black & White. This helps to create a good balance of shadows and highlights and a good greyscale range for the image which, in its turn, helps to define the tints and shades of the image in full color.

After the initial grading, I took a screenshot and graded it further in DaVinci Resolve. Since DaVinci Resolve exports 3D LUT files in .cube format, in order to be used in Unreal Engine, these files need to be converted to 1D LUTs with png format.

To do that, a Color Lookup filter must be added on top of the LUT texture that is prepared for the Unreal Engine and the .cube file that's exported from Resolve should be fed in it.

Conclusion

Thank you for reading and I hope you've found this article helpful! If you have any questions, or simply want to say hello, you can reach me here anytime:


Before I say goodbye though, I want to thank Kerem S. Hünal and Onur Can Çaylı for their precious feedback and guidance through this project. And thanks to 80 Level for this wonderful opportunity!

And finally, people keep asking me about my lighting workflow. Because of that, I’m planning to make a Youtube channel devoted specifically to in-game/real-time lighting, with the emphasis on the thinking process, mindset, and execution rather than the technical side. Until then, the links below will lead you to beautiful YouTube channels by talented artists. Although not all of them are specifically about lighting, they can give nice tips and tricks, too.

 

Harid Taşkın, Lighting Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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