Sci-Fi Environment Production Guide

Sci-Fi Environment Production Guide

David Masana did a breakdown on the project he worked on during the Environment Bootcamp at Game Art Insitute and shared his workflow in 3DS Max and Unreal Engine.

Introduction

My name is David Masana, and I am a 3D Artist from Barcelona, Spain.

I graduated in Multimedia in 2016 by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia,  and graduated in Video Games Art Master’s Degree in 2017.

I got into 3D Art after several years in industrial engineering, which helped me to understand what drives me: being able to create appealing worlds and scenes. During my academic journey, I have learned much about 3DS Max, but it was my passion for 3D Art, which made me eager to learn more on my own and gained experience on several other 3D programs to achieve my goals.

While I was creating my portfolio, I got engaged in a fan-made project to create mods for an old MMO, providing new and fresh content for players who still play it. That is one of the things I was looking for: being able to provide other people a caring and meaningful content they could enjoy. Since then, I’ve been participating in some indie game jams, a UE4 game jam and made a demo for a video game, where I happened to be the only artist, which provided me the ground for proving myself able of delivering art at a fast pace.

About the GAI Environment Course

At first, I didn’t even know the existence of boot camps. I strove to obtain more knowledge, especially, regarding the environment, while I was doing a personal fan-made environment based on the famous TV show, Stargate. While I was working on it, my girlfriend told me there were those courses that she heard of for video game programmers, and that maybe there should be some for video game art, too, so I took my shot and dove in the web to find out the best ones. 

After comparing other artist’s reviews, the class schedules, successful students, and the mentors, I decided to apply for Game Art Institute as it seemed the best choice. And certainly, I was right to do so.

I had worked on environments before, but I really lacked training in certain areas and knowledge on better workflows. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to learn during this course and the course surpassed my initial thoughts. Thanks to Ryan Kingslien and Simon Fuchs, my two mentors during the Bootcamp, to whom I thank for their hard work and help during the whole course.

The Idea Behind the Project

I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi, in all its subcategories, from cyberpunk to space opera.

My goal was to create a sci-fi environment on an alien world, where humans could have built a military base.

I have a lot of influences, but the games that lay close to the idea I wanted to explore in the project I built were both Mass Effect saga and Star Citizen, for the environment design and ambience, and Star Wars: The Old Republic for the futuristic artillery - with some tweaks on Christian Piccolo’s concept. 

At this stage of the process, I didn’t know how different the workflows between them were, and it’s something that changed my own workflow in the middle of my project.

Modeling

Every time I work on a new project, I begin with some rough blockouts done in the engine and then I move them into 3DS Max and start tweaking from blockout to final props, with all the in-between rough meshes, to keep a track of how it changes almost in real-time. But this time, as I said, I had to change my workflow in the middle of my process because I wanted to change almost all the props from trim sheets (still held some of those) into something I found later on to be more the Star Citizen way of approach: mesh decals.

The information about mesh decals was a bit confusing at first. Nowadays it’s a pretty old method for engines like UE4, which now works better with decals that it’s not exactly a mesh itself but instead, they project to any mesh you want, anywhere you want.

In my research, I found a very good post in Reddit about it, explaining the basics, although I had to do further research to apply it in my project. That’s the reason why, at this point, I created a common normal decal map to be used by all the props I was transforming into this method. It was a pretty simple one as I didn’t need much more for my scene.

All I had to do at first was to just create a single quad as a separate element, but within the same mesh, on each prop, I wanted to use mesh decals. Then, assign a different Material ID to each part, which required a different material, for example, a base metal for a wall and another for that quad I created. Then, all I had to do was to import the new prop, and I would have all the material slots I needed, including the decal normal material.

Once I did this, it was just a matter of playing around in 3DS Max, creating quads, and allocating them correctly in the UV’s to display one of the details of my normal decal map and then placing them correctly. This is it, mesh decals, one quad for each detail and on a separate Material ID.

The very first thing you need to assimilate is to work from big to small, from blockout to detailed. This way, you know and understand the basic shape you want and end up with the details on it.

One of the best tools you can find for 3DS Max, which I encourage you to install, is TexTools. It’s a must for UV’s process optimization, as it saves you time and headaches. You still need to learn how UV’s work so you can polish the results the tool provides and you need to know and understand many of the things it can do, it’s not meant to be a full automatization tool -or at least not in my honest opinion.

Another process that helps me to maximize my efficiency in Max is to keybind everything you use the most. Even if you buy one of that hard-core MMO mouse out there with numeric buttons on the side, you can work faster by just switching faster between modes in editable poly or binding macros. It may sound not worth it, but trust me, it saves you time in the future if you invest now a bit of time on memorizing those new keybindings you set.

Texturing 

What I find most important while working with Substance Painter is to have my model already in the engine, working. I usually create a basic texture of any color and export the maps to create the shader in the engine. This way, every time I update and export the textures, I can see how it looks in the engine. I play a lot with both roughness and metalness not to see how it looks in substance, but how it feels in UE4. 

Most of the metals in my project have that slight value of reflectiveness that metals have, plus a matte look from a workspace where there’s a lot of particles around attaching to those metallic surfaces. I decided that metals that look too polished wouldn’t work on the storytelling of a place like this, plus the lighting in the area would blind the workers with unnecessary reflections in the maintenance workspace, isn’t it? I also added that roughness with several layers of grunge to achieve imperfections on the surface due to slight impacts and wear.

Most of the baked props in the area use the same basic metals I created previously and saved as a smart material. This way, I could use the base metal from the walls on the columns, fences, etc. and then add extra details or use other smart materials on top of it without losing the continuity of the walls.

In order to create a more randomized variety, I decided not to add neither texts nor painting details on the surfaces of the environment props. I added them later with decals to fully control their location and not to create too many different materials for each variation of wall, for example. Some of those texts have also some wear on it to add realness, while others don’t, to make them feel like recently replaced.

Lighting

I began with a standard illumination setting: skylight and directional light. I just wanted them as a rough setup, to have a bit of ambiance and light coming through the entrance. An exponential height fog was needed to create the mysterious and alien look I aimed for in this world, so I created one and changed its color to the blue-greenish color I was imagining for this alien world.

When I had this basic set-up, I began to place the ceiling neon with 4 point lights each, changing their shapes to fit the neon - at this point, no light values were modified. The next part was to set up the spotlights on the walls, with their cone angle and distance modified to obtain the desired effect with the scattering effect. Now was the time to modify some parameters, like making the spotlights have some scattering and the neon be free of scattering as it would add too much noise, so, instead of scattering, I opted for a bloom effect and intensified it with a post-processing volume.

In order to have a good result for the render, I worked a lot with the cameras from the beginning. Almost at the end of the project, I placed a couple more cameras with interesting points of view. Then a quick check on the lighting density to avoid light baking errors, and it was just a matter of using UE5’s excellent rendering capture with the “high-resolution screenshot”. Taken at a value of 3 was high enough to capture a great quality and then modified to fit my needs in Photoshop.

Also, it’s a safe bet to use the camera animations within UE5 to get a nice fly-through

with the “matinee” editor. This way you can display the true potential of your scene in depth.

The Technology Behind the Hexagons Barrier 

The force barrier was made with an easy trick, but that works pretty well.

I wanted to have something there that didn’t block light and felt like sci-fi, and that it wouldn’t consume much time. The best way to achieve this was to create a hexagon pattern with symmetry, grunge on opacity, and then some grunge alpha on emissive in Substance Painter. After that, once in UE4, I added an animated opacity with a panner.

This process took me less than 30 minutes, which, considering the duration of the whole project, is something very important when you achieve the desired result. Sometimes, less is better.

The Biggest Challenges 

My biggest challenge during this project was that I was used to bake all the props in the projects I had done prior to the Bootcamp.

Simon told me that, in the environments, he works on, he uses few materials, and this gave me the idea of trying to gather as much info as I could on the workflow that Star Citizen has, and try to apply it on my project -with the drawbacks that UE4 has with this method, nowadays. He also taught me how design works in shapes and density, and how to properly work with smoothing groups, which improved drastically my baking process.

I will always remember that before meeting Ryan, my props were displaying poorly and how he taught me how to make them realistic, how to apply the usage correctly, and how to push the naturality of colors.

With their help, I achieved a great result without dedicating more time than I would have initially dedicated, considering the size of this project. This way I was able to limit what was necessary to maximize the result.

David Masana, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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