Breakdown: Realistic Environment in UE4
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Thank you for sharing your work process!!

I really like how you've articulated your entire process. This was a very enriching read. A Well deserved feature!

Great article! Thanks for the awesome read.

Breakdown: Realistic Environment in UE4
2 May, 2019
Environment Art
Interview

Emile Van Den Berghe prepared a breakdown of his realistic scene made in UE4: blockout, materials, vegetation, and lighting.

Introduction

Hi, I’m Emile Van Den Berghe, born and raised in Belgium. I’m a student at Howest DAE (Digital Art & Entertainment) majoring in Game Graphics Production.

During high school, I used to draw a lot in my textbooks and play around with Blender in my spare time. A friend recommended me to check out this school and that turned out to be the best decision in my life! We get a lot of courses, ranging from 2D illustrations to scripting and rigging, but I fell in love with 3D and, more specifically, environments.

Goals of the Scene

This environment was made for an assignment of the Level Decoration course. We were tasked with making a realistic scene with baked lighting. Previously, the finished result had to be something that could be found in an Ikea catalog but this year, we got a lot more freedom with the theme we wanted to pick. A lot of effort went into finding a reference because I wanted something that I would enjoy working on and learn new things with. A few weeks before the assignment started I was already collecting different ideas on Pinterest. Through the process of elimination (with the help of friends and family – so thanks to them!) I decided to go with this picture:

Blockout

I wanted to recreate this scene as close as possible. An intuitional approach was not precise enough, so I started by figuring out the FOV of the picture using fSpy. I used this information to set up a camera in Unreal with the same aspect ratio and FOV as in the picture. When the camera is selected in Unreal, it shows a small preview in the right bottom corner of the viewport. Clicking the pin icon will keep the preview visible even if you deselect the camera. By placing the image into Pureref and making it transparent, I could overlay the reference onto the preview window – this way Pureref will stay in front of all windows even if it isn’t active. Now I could start blocking out the scene with BSPs while aligning them with the preview window.

Materials

Materials are an important part of this scene, and the major ones – concrete and mud – are made in Substance. I started by making the concrete, and the first try wasn’t that satisfying, but it was a good warm-up. On the second try, I got what I was looking for. This was a basic tiling PBR-material, so it was really easy to set it up in Unreal.

The mud was more challenging. First, I set up a material in Unreal that would be able to blend the mud and water. This was done with vertex painting depending on the heightmap of the mud.

In 3ds Max, I made a ground plane with extra geometry in the center. This way, I had more vertices to paint on. I used this mesh to replace the BSP that was the floor of the scene.

I was really satisfied with the mud, but the concrete was still too clean. I made decals for moss and leaks using textures from Textures.com. With these, I could add localized details like some green moss buildup at the bottom of the walls, leaks along the borders, and cracks in the walls. Smaller decals were used under the pipes sticking out of the concrete to make them feel more part of the scene. The transition between the ivy and concrete was also a bit too harsh, but moss decals helped to break that.

Vegetation

The vegetation was all made manually inside 3ds Max. I made a small cluster of about 10 leaves. This cluster allowed me to quickly construct bigger formations. In a short period of time, I had 4 different plants that I could use to decorate the scene. The plants have a two-sided foliage material in Unreal but the shadowed parts were still too dark. I passed the base color through a multiply node into the emissive slot. That way I could give the plants a slight glow which made them look a lot more like the ref.

Since this was only a small scene and I aimed for as much control over the plants as I wanted, I placed most of them by hand. The ivy on the ground near the camera had a rough transition to the mud, so I added a moss layer that I could vertex paint over the mud and water.

Performance

Because this is such a small scene, I didn’t have to worry about the performance too much. I did spend some extra polys on the leaves to have as few transparent parts as possible. Because there is only a small transparent edge around each leaf, the amount of overdraw is very minimal. By using the decals and vertex painted materials, I could avoid having to place a lot of plants behind each other to make the scene look dense.

Lighting

The lighting in the ref was really nice, but I felt like I could make it more interesting. To have natural light I limited myself to a skylight and a directional light. By playing around with the directional light, I could let the beams cast shadows on the scene, giving it a more dramatic feeling. To make it even more interesting, I increased the source angle of the directional light. This softens the transition of the shadow when the distance to the object casting the shadow increases.

I added a very small amount of fog to lighten up the end of the corridor. Additionally, a vignette darkens the sides. Combined, they bring focus to the center of the image.  This gives the scene a lot more depth and makes everything come together nicely.

Afterword

I hope you enjoyed this breakdown! If you have any more questions or feedback, you can find me here:

Emile Van Den Berghe, Environment artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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