Randall Villegas discussed the way he set up his amazing Pirate Radio Station with the help of UE4, Substance, Maya, and ZBrush.
As a small introduction, my name is Randall Villegas, I’m an environment artist and newly graduated student from the University of Texas at Dallas. I started in Quality assurance at a studio in Austin TX called Twisted Pixel and ever since I’ve been extremely invested in the game development process and working my way into the industry as an artist. While I certainly don’t have a long-term goal to continue as a QA tester after my graduation, I’ll never forget the impact being introduced to the game industry has had on me.
This project began as the second of a series of works for my capstone course, which was just a class to create quality work in my last semester of university. The first piece I worked on for the capstone had a dark, gritty feeling and I wanted to create a complementary piece to show my own range as an artist by working from a vivid and bright reference. This led me down a rabbit hole of searching for a reference and I landed on a fantastic piece of work by the great OKU on Art Station, definitely check his stuff out if you found my work interesting. Technically speaking, my main goals were to improve my outdoor lighting techniques, work with foliage and further my understanding of landscape creation.
Layout and pre-production
When starting a project from reference, the first thing I do is create an asset list. This isn’t extraordinarily fun, but it helps me track my own progress and ensure I don’t skip over anything. It also quantifies your workload so I can have a realistic time set for completing the piece. This will change over time and what I’m showing is kind of how I first rough out my asset list to give myself a starting point to begin modeling.
After I’ve done that, I’ll go through and block it out with major shapes and make changes to me asset list as I see fit in Maya. To achieve the highest level of accuracy, I set my reference as the background plane and align the grid with orthogonal in the scene. I’ll bookmark that camera view and begin modeling, moving the camera as necessary to make modeling adjustments and snapping back to the camera view to reorient pieces to keep proportions correct. As a final touch, I’ll create some base materials with some color adjustments to give a visible idea of what the 3D project will feel like.
Modeling and Texturing
I use Maya as my modeling software of choice for most things. It’s simple and has a lot of flexibility for creating complex shapes. For me, personally, a lot of the modeling is done in the blockout phase as far as architecture goes. At a base level, architecture tends to be a culmination of blocks assembled in a fancy manner. This means there is a lot of scaling and matching perspective. Since I set up my reference bookmark well, this part was pretty simple. For some of the difficult parts like the door detail, I’ll use tools such as the bend deformer or soft selection in Maya to create the shape.
The difficult part of this kind of scene comes in deciding what should be modular and what should have more individual work put into it. For instance, on this project, one of the most prominent parts is the overhang above the door. Considering this, I decided to give this the individual feeling it has in the reference and create a unique texture set and models.
For some of the other pieces like the lumber supports, they don’t command the same presence and I made a small kit of wood pieces to place on throughout the structure as seen in the reference. This is essentially the approach I took for the entire project in regards to modeling and texturing.
On a deeper level regarding texturing, I tend to do all my work in Substance Painter. If there are general color adjustments I want to make to the whole piece, I’ll sometimes bring it into Photoshop as I have more familiarity with it- but it isn’t necessary. I’ll usually start with some material I’ve created in Designer, but I still like to go in and hand paint some of the detail, especially on portfolio work like this where I’m not super restricted in regards to efficiency. Even though this is a stylized piece, PBR felt like the right choice as I wanted more detail than simple color maps. With this in mind, my use of normal and roughness maps is severely toned down so I could let the colors pop and speak for the work more.
For the vegetation, I knew I needed a few different types(grass, flowers, trees etc) and I knew what the heroes parts were. For the tree, I went from a high poly sculpt in ZBrush to and retopologized in Maya. I use a plugin called zTree to expedite this process, it can help create the base of a tree which can then be sculpted detail on after I’m happy with the general shape. I took a similar process for the rest of my foliage and allocated time-based on the importance of asset.
One of the most jarring things for me was how little detail foliage required to give a believable feeling. When I was working on my foliage initially, I would stare at it so long and closely that I would get lost in detail and create unrealistic expectations for the fidelity it should have. The cards for the leaves could be jarring or the geo for the stem may seem lacking- but I find that when they are added as detail into a scene the level of fidelity needed is much less than expected. For this reason, I started testing my foliage in the scene more often as I worked on it to gauge its quality.
After creation, I hand-placed the important pieces like the focal tree and foreground foliage pieces, just like any other asset in UE4. For the grass and flowers covering the landscape, I use the foliage tool to paint the landscape with a variety of grass and flowers. UE4 makes it pretty simple — you pull your assets into the sidebar and check which you want to paint to erase.
Unreal has a great lighting system to work with, the first thing is to match the directional light to the main light of the reference. After that is in place, picking the right color for the time of day and texture look helped create the likeness to the original while keeping it a believable 3D environment. All I had for the whole project was a skylight, directional light, exponential fog and reflection probe.
For outdoor scenes, allowing Unreal’s light system do a lot of the work through light bounces and the like was much more beneficial than attempting some complex light set up with bounce lights or anything of that nature. This setting can be found in the world settings along with other useful settings.
I had to play with the lightmap resolution some to get the shadow detail I wanted, and it is really objected to object depending on their prominence and how the light hits it so that took some time. Mostly, pieces like the overhang and tree had higher resolution maps as they needed the additional detail. Post-processing did a lot for the final details of the scene. Working on the lighting to get the colors and shadow contrast perfectly is good, but I definitely cleaned up the last ten percent or so by adjusting colors, shadow darkness and things like AO to give me the exact feeling I wanted.
In total, I spent about 5 weeks on the project while putting about 20 hours a week into it. The biggest challenges were lighting and landscape creation. My main issue was how it leads into the camera and gauging that distance properly. The house was simple as the pieces were all in close proximity, but the sprawling nature of the landscape was awkward to proportion correctly. Ultimately there was no fancy trick to this, I just kept working and working with it, making adjustments, using my reference until it finally reached a point of an acceptable look. Environment lighting in an outdoor scene is a much different process. With an interior scene, you create a simple 3 point light set up and add fill lights and its good. Working with one light can be frustrating but on a bright sunny day, it’s the correct method to use. Tools like UE4’s indirect light intensity and light bounces help, which I discussed some earlier.
More than anything, I think the biggest challenge is just finishing. It’s so easy to get frustrated and what to start anew or change to a new project. Above I’m showing a comparison of the beginning of my project and the end of it. The first image represents probably the most frustrating period for myself and there were a few times during this where I could work for hours and almost stand still in terms of progress. I kept pushing and eventually came to the final product as it is seen now. Completing this project was a large success for myself and I hope it encourages others to create work they can be proud of.