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Saher Tarek made a write-up of assembling, compositing and lighting a vast Ice Castle environment, quickly produced with the help of ready packs from KitBash3d, UE Market and Documentation. Software used: UE4 & 3ds Max.
First of all, I would like to thank 80.lv for this interview. Their website has been immensely helpful for me because of all the guidance and ideas I got about Unreal through articles and tutorials from artists from around the world. It has been a thrilling experience for me to share my work among experienced and talented artists.
My name is Saher Tarek, I’m a 33 years old 3D environment artist from Cairo, Egypt. I finished studying 2D designing, journalism, and mass media back in 2007. I started my career in CG field as a 3D visualizer for architecture and interiors in 2008 after spending almost a year self-learning 3ds Max and V-Ray for Arch-Viz. I started my career in major local companies on projects for residential compounds and resorts as an environment artist for architectures and interiors. You can find my Arch-Viz work here.
I am a gamer and I was always taken by the environments and stories of games like Assassin’s Creed, Witcher, Fallout and so many other releases I lost count and fell in love with. I decided to learn 3D environment for game cinematics by myself, dreaming to join a team in a AAA company like Ubisoft or EA games to gain more experience and be a part of a big crew making incredibly detailed games.
Reference & Goals
The whole thing started when I was going through my portfolio to see if I could do something out of my comfort zone and I realized that I had never done an ice or frozen winter environments before. I start looking for some ice environment concepts to bounce around some ideas and get inspired by something. After a while, I found my main inspiration concept: The Ice Castle by Alex Lukianov.
Then I deiced to get an overview of Gothic architecture in real life, so I started learning about it on Google and all available sources, examining its combinations, structures, ratios, and especially the towers which were a remarkable thing during that era. I wanted to achieve a fantasy iced environment with a cinematic look in a short time.
Blockout & Structure
The structure here is a massive cave hidden castle that has high towers and a unique gate with a corridor in front of it. I broke it down in my head to smaller pieces so they could be linked. I decided to use the same models as in the concept (kitbash-3d gothic) because it contained modules that would help me to construct my castle quite easily.
All I did was start choosing modules and edit them to construct my castle and towers depending on my ref. I started with the gate first, then the corridor, then the castle design that I wanted to slightly vary from the concept to give it a difference between a still picture and a moving shot.
After finishing my blocking design I started to edit and define my material IDs for the whole scene. I chose ice bricks and gold for facades to give the scene a more royal look. As for UVs, I used the normal UVW modifier (box) in 3ds Max to start tiling my textures because I already decided that I would go real-time and unwrap would not be important at the beginning. I put these textures in the 3ds Max scene to view the scale of bricks because I’d use Unreal studio to transfer the castle to the engine after I replaced the non-instance geometry. I did it with instances to let Unreal Datasmith import it since it recognizes instances.
After importing my Datasmith file to Unreal and editing it a bit I started to build the cave. Cave rocks are taken from Particle Effects in Unreal Documentation that contains different kinds of rocks and materials. Construction of the cave was quite simple, and my main focus was on narrowing it at the entrance and making wider and bigger inside in order to fit the whole castle and the corridor and add more depth to my environment. Sculptures also from the pack found on Unreal Marketplace (Infinity Blade: Ice Lands). I chose those sculptures because they gave me an epic and royal look of the entrance.
Materials & Ice Shader
The materials are taken from the same Particle Effects project: it contains several types of ice, snowy rocks, and ground wet materials. As for the Ice shader on the castle, I just made a simple edit on it because it was not what I wanted. My plan was to give a feeling that bricks were made of ice, so I replaced one of the normals with a tiled brick from Infinity Blade pack (mentioned above).
The entrance has the same shader but I kept the normals without changes and added a value in texture coordinate nod to fit the cave rocks scale. Also, this shader contains a subsurface color that interacts instantly with lights. It allowed me to edit on the SS_scale later when I started working on lighting.
My main light was directional light with a god ray blueprint from Particle Effects project. It comes from the top left corner of the cave. Additionally, there’s a skylight and fog like the concept.
Lighting the corridor was not an easy task. It was dark and had a cold look while I wanted to achieve quite a different result. I opted for a warm color in order to avoid an abandoned castle vibe, so I used the fire particles from the Unreal Starter Content and distributed them on the sculptures plus added the point lights nearly in the center of the particles.
The light beam was taken from Infiltrator Demo. I just scaled and copied it on the main towers because it would be my center piece for the camera. It also had to emphasize the entrance to the main castle behind.
The ice shards on the ground are from Infinity Blade: Ice Lands. They had an emissive material so I started to distribute point lights on top of them to light up the ground a little.
For reflections, I used sphere reflection captures for the environment, statues, and castle. For the ground reflection, I used planer reflection to give the water on the ground a more realistic look. In exchange, however, it twice increased the render time of my scene and it was not good for performance.
Scene Utility Gamewise
An environment like this can possibly run in a game, but it’ll take a lot of preparation like checking the topology of the modules, unwrapping, texture density, etc. and more work to make it actually playable. As I said before, the planer reflection and particles were killing the performance even though I reduced the number of fog particles on the ground, so it would need to be adjusted as well.
Time & Challenges
The scene took me 36-40 hours divided into 6 days. The most time-consuming part of the production was the castle because it was rather complex. At the same time, I wanted it to look simple at first sight, with small details noticed under closer examination. The cave took some time as well: it had to be spacious and fit a large castle inside. Choosing sculptures and their positions was a tough task for me because I had so many to choose from. Finally, lighting FX was a challenge since the environment was quite large and immersed in a dark area that had very little light. I worked on it very carefully.
Overall it was a nice experience that let me learn more about the environment design for games and motivated to continue digging in UE to achieve more realistic renders.
Thank you fore reading.
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