A Harmless Hobby: Making a Dishonored-Inspired Environment in UE4

A Harmless Hobby: Making a Dishonored-Inspired Environment in UE4

Laetitia Bertrand talked about the production of her project inspired by Dishonored 2 and created during the Environment Art Bootcamp at Vertex School.

Introduction

Hi, my name is Laetitia Bertrand and I am an Environment Artist from Paris, France. I have always wanted to become an artist, but unlike many of my fellow game artists, I was only introduced to video games rather late, around 15. At that time, I spent 2 weeks interning at a small Facebook game company called Humanogames for which I designed a couple of assets that the actual Game Artists later included in the game. Seeing this is what made up my mind about becoming a Game Artist as well. 

I studied 3D Game Art in LISAA Paris and specialized in Environment Art as I just love building worlds. After getting my degree, I worked at a mobile game studio for 6 months on a project that was sadly never released and then as a freelancer on a variety of 3D projects. At the moment, I’m looking for an in-house position as an Environment Artist, while working on a new personal project.

Joining Vertex School

None of the 3D projects I worked on as a freelancer were game-related. Despite learning new skills and software in-between projects, I realized that my experiences were not in adequation with the kind of job I wanted to do and I felt that I didn’t have the skills to get into the industry yet. So when I signed up for the Environment Art Bootcamp at Vertex School, I was looking to level up my overall environment building process with the help of my mentors, Ryan Kingslien and John Waynick, to match the game industry’s expectations. The skills I mostly wanted to focus on were lighting and creating the right atmosphere to tell a specific story but I was also hoping to improve my modeling and texturing techniques and learn a lot more about Unreal Engine.

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A Harmless Hobby: Inspiration

Being a big fan of Dishonored, I have wanted to make an environment inspired by it for a while and this was just the perfect opportunity to do it. So my biggest inspiration was obviously Dishonored 2, but I also had other environment references such as Sherlock Holmes: Devil’s Daughter, The Council and Vampyr for example, which have some similar atmosphere, architectural and furniture styles, and colour schemes.

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Going back to the game to try to understand what makes Dishonored’s visual identity so strong, I spent a lot of time analyzing the shapes and textures of the assets and soon realized that my biggest focus would have to be on those stylized textures. Because they are the elements that give you this impression of being in a painting. I also looked at the way rooms were furnished, taking a specific one as my main reference: Vasco’s office in the Addermire Institute, and combining it with other elements encountered in different offices in the game. Luckily for me, there were many resources to work from, as environment artists from Arkane such as Yannick Gombart, Adrien Thierry and many others display their work on Artstation, and have talked in detail about their workflows in interviews. It definitely helped me plan how I was going to approach this entire project. Even though I used different software solutions, it gave me a good grasp of their overall process.

Modeling

The first step in modeling this environment was to create a blockout with very simplified shapes and import it into Unreal. Even at this early stage, I was already working with templates of what would become my modular kit. This allowed me to test things very quickly, easily bring modifications to the scene layout, as well as figure out what could be made out of a trimsheet or what would be a singular asset. Even though this office was supposed to have been ransacked, a piece of advice that my mentors gave me was to create it clean first and then destroy it and make it messy by scattering stuff all over the place. 

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I modeled these pieces in 3ds Max using a Turbosmooth modifier and adding in extra loops to control the bevels for the high poly version. Then for the low poly version most of the time I could just remove the modifier and add bevels to the edges to fit the geometry of the high poly. Then I just had to replace the very primitive ones with these new versions of the assets in Unreal.

Dishonored 2’s shapes are a balanced mix of extravagant yet elegant curves and very rigid, straight lines, but in this project, not many assets had those crazy curves so the modeling was rather classic. But the texturing then had a big role to play in recreating the style of Dishonored. One of the challenges here was to figure out early what could use a normal map and what needed actual geometry for details.

Texturing

The scene has many wooden elements with different tones and polish, so in order to keep some visual unity through this variety I created a unique wood material in Substance Designer with tweakable fiber amount, colour and roughness to use as a base. From there I created a couple of things: 

- A second material of wooden planks for the floor which I then imported into 3ds Max onto a plane to add some extrudes to it following the material for a more realistic feel.

- A trimsheet that I used on most wooden assets, for which I used decals to add dust, scratches, variations of all kind.

And for other more singular pieces of furniture, like the desk and the chair, I imported my material into Substance Painter and used it to texture them separately. With this approach, I simply had to paint the dust, noise and worn out look directly into the texture taking into account the way the asset would have been used. For example, on the desk drawer, I added scratches around its handle because it would get more used every time someone opens it.

I did most of the final texturing in Substance Painter but created many materials in Substance Designer. I only used a few materials created in Substance Designer directly in Unreal Engine, like the wooden floor or the wallpaper. Most of the time I imported them into Substance Painter to use them to create the final textures.

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Glass

The work on glass was not easy and definitely took a lot of time and adjustment. The glass for the frames and shelves windows is a material I created in Unreal Engine directly. Having a bit of trouble getting the result that I wanted, I used the Advanced Glass Pack from Unreal marketplace as a reference. I layered some generic noise on a translucent and smooth material with a min and a max opacity slider for it using a Lerp node and then added some alpha maps I made in Photoshop for broken bits of glass or dust sitting in the corners. The material for the glass bottles is very similar but it also uses a fresnel fallout and refraction to get a nicer reflective look. The glass shards on the ground are decals created in Substance Designer, same for the dirt on the ground and tear on the rug.

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Small Details in the Scene

At first, the butterflies were not supposed to be a big part of the storytelling, there were only supposed to be a few of them as well as other frames with paintings to decorate the walls. But after a couple of weeks of working on the scene, one of my mentors asked me why I didn’t have more framed butterflies up there, which gave me the idea to make them an important theme in this environment. The storytelling shifted and we went from a random ransacked office to a lepidopterist’s one: to achieve this change I added a lot of framed butterflies to the scene and replaced assets that were irrelevant to this new theme with new ones that made more sense for a collector to have, like metallic trays, glass bottles, empty frames awaiting butterflies, etc.

Things like glass debris and dirt on the floor were added with decals created in Substance Designer, and the papers are Megascans decals except for a few paper cards so I could have pages sticking out of a notebook or a drawer for example. But otherwise, most of the assets scattered through the room have actual geometry (books, cardboard boxes, butterflies). To gain some time when placing them in Unreal, I created prefabs of grouped assets using blueprints to create variations quickly and then manually added single ones as well, with the snapping option disabled for the rotation and position so that it appeared more natural.

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A little anecdote about the butterflies: I made about 20 different butterflies inspired by the ones in Dishonored 2, so when I researched their names to label them (because what collector wouldn’t label such a collection?) luckily, I found that most were existing species. But there are a few whose names I couldn’t find so I made up Latin versions of the names of my mentors and fellow artists from the Environment Bootcamp. So between the Papilio Ulysses and the Morpho Menelaus you might come across the Ryanes Kingslienii and the Johneus Waynickrum.

Props

One of my favourite props here is the safe and that’s a good thing considering that it’s the one that took me the longest time to model and texture. It has a pretty complex shape so I had to understand the way this kind of safe would work to be able to divide it into multiple smaller parts. I first started with the core of the safe and then added details one step at a time, going from big to small to create the high poly. Then I made its low poly by removing the Turbosmooth modifier, some small details, many loops and sometimes rebuilding entirely some parts. Since it has so many elements sitting on top of each other I had to use an exploded version to bake it in Substance Painter. Once the bake was done I was able to replace it with the non-exploded version to texture it. Texturing it also took quite some time, finding the right amount of colour variation, paint chipping, tear and wear. And Unreal did not make it any easier for me to get the right roughness since it doesn’t exactly render the same way as in Substance Painter, so I had to go back and forth with this a couple of times. But it was definitely worth the effort because this safe is a big part of my storytelling and my focus point in the main shot of the environment.

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Another asset I really like is the big rounded windows through which the sun comes in, I wish I could have windows like this in real life!

Lighting and Post-Process

As soon as I got a blockout that I liked I started working on a lighting blockout. It took me a while to finally get one that worked with the scene. I kept adjusting it, tweaking things as I was going further in the building process, so the big lighting pass that I expected to do at the end was in fact not so big since the lighting had evolved with the scene.

I worked mostly in Detail lighting only mode when setting up the lighting, it makes it much easier to read and adjust the lights this way.

The dynamic lighting of the scene is composed of one directional light, then I used 10 spotlights in total to light the scene, 6 of those being the lights in the display cabinets and the other 4 helping the storytelling. For example, one is entirely focused on the safe. There is a skylight HDRI as well, to get less dark shadow areas and nicer reflections in the scene and I also used a couple of point lights which I baked to get some cooler bounce lights in the dark areas. I also used some rim lights to enhance the geometry of certain assets by giving a very subtle light to its edges.

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Only once I was done with the lighting did I start using colour grading in the post-process. I kept it pretty subtle: I made a LUT in Photoshop, adjusting the tone, saturation and contrast in the room. I also played with the AO and pushed the bloom a little bit.

Renders

I had to set up a camera for my main shot very early in the project and having this composition ready helped create the scene around this shot. It’s a good way to prioritize tasks too, starting with your focal points and then building around those. To figure out this composition and check the quality of my render I created a Quality sheet: it’s a visual document in which you gather multiple shots of your references and add your own render to see if yours matches the quality and atmosphere you want to set. If yours stands out it means that you still have some work to do.

Making video renders was an idea I had early in the project but I wasn’t sure that I would have the time to do so, so I created a couple of cinematic camera actors with nice compositions to render this environment from different angles at least using screenshots. It turned out that I had the extra time I needed to make dynamic shots so I made them follow rails to create some push-ins, pannings, etc. based on the angles I had already defined. The camera settings didn’t need much modification, I modified manually the focal distance using a debug plane for each angle and changed the focal length of the camera to something between the usual in-game length around 12 and the one used in film (35), so around 20.

Feedback

Working on this environment I encountered a couple of technical challenges, the biggest one being the glass material. I spent a huge amount of time testing different things, watching tutorials, looking at glass that other artists made, and most importantly asking for advice. There are lots of great resources out there and many artists willing to help and support you so don’t be shy! Getting feedback and advice from the mentors twice a week allowed me to learn a lot since they always push you to take things one step further or suggest trying techniques you hadn’t thought of, making the projects always more interesting. And showing your work often also helps make sure that if you go in the wrong direction you'll know it very quickly and avoid wasting too much time. In addition to my mentors, I also had the chance to get some great feedback from Blizzard environment artist Lucas Annunziata, who brought a fresh eye to my project (which was at a pretty advanced stage already) and gave me some more advice for working on the glass.

Hopefully, my next step will be to find a job at a studio, and keep learning and having fun in what I do! 

Laetitia Bertrand, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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