Achieving 70s Sci-Fi Look in Unreal
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Achieving 70s Sci-Fi Look in Unreal
11 April, 2017
Interview
3d artist Christoffer Radsby did a super detailed breakdown of the ‘Beyond The Horizon’ scene, talking about sky dome, modeling, and choice of colors.

Introduction

Hello there! My name is Christoffer (Chris) Radsby, Senior Environment Artist at Massive Entertainment – A Ubisoft Studio. I’m mostly a self-taught artist and I didn’t really realize until I was 21-22 years old that the Games Industry was actually a viable option for a career, in my mind I had those jobs pinned as something that only happens to very specific people and it felt way out of my reach. I never studied anything related to game development, I did however get a bachelor’s degree studying Interaction Design.

After I graduated, I ended up in a situation where I couldn’t get a job as an Interaction Designer because they all required experience. Realizing that, I decided to pursue a career in game-development instead, sadly I had no clue where to start. I thought hard about what kind of game-developer I wanted to be and ultimately decided that I wanted to be a 3D Artist or an Environment Artist. So I turned to google like any sensible person would do and wrote: How to make 3D for Games.

That lead me to most of the 3D forums online; 3d-for-games.com, polycount, gameartisans etc.

Then after a year of 8 hours of study every day, I managed to become good enough to get hired and my first job was at Evolution Studios, which at that time worked on Motorstorm Apocalypse for the PS3. Since then I’ve contributed to Wipeout 2048, Far Cry 3, The Division and some of their DLC packages.

Right now I’m currently working on the recently announced Avatar Project.

Beyond The Horizon

I guess it all started with me burning out on realistic art really, even though I really appreciate the pursuit of photo-realism, I still tend to enjoy more colorful art with more designed or specific art-styles. My main inspiration for this one is70s Sci Fi, specifically; John Harris which I ended up leaning on the works for most of the direction of the scene. He manages to create beautiful compositions of colors and shapes, all in harmony which sometimes is directly contrasted by a lot of other older sci-fi which has almost uncomfortable colors making up the image.

I think what I wanted to show more than anything was that it’s okay to explore the full range of colors even though you’re not creating a low-poly world or a cel-shaded environment. Since I’ve made mostly realistic art during my whole career I’ve found myself just wanting to get back to the basics and simplify my art. Focusing on colors, composition and shapes.

Composition

Early on I knew I wanted to create a vista with the new environment, I wanted to focus on the vastness and scale which is something that is very hard to actually get right.

At the start of the project I decided on a few things that I wanted to make sure I had at the end of the whole thing.

  • The scene has a clear sense of directionality, something that will help lead the eye but also show the vastness of the environment using perspective and scale. Which is why the towers were already in the scene in some basic shape early on.
  • To be able to show the scale of the scene I needed something human-sized and relatable that will directly contrast the size of the towers. This ended up being the pine-trees that I had in the environment.
  • Trying to keep the Orange/Red skybox at least as one of the Main Subjects of the scene.

(one of the first quick screenshots of the environment)

I quickly realized that the scene would end up being pretty hard to convey the scale without a foreground element. That’s when I decided to have the whole scene located on a cliff overlooking the vista. It would allow me to focus on the vista and foreground and almost not have to care about the middle-ground at all. I tried a lot of things to really show of the scale of the environment, early on I tried using these huge-cables or bridges leading from the Vista into the Foreground but they ended up being more distracting than as a useful tool to show the scale. They also ruined the composition a lot by slicing through the directionality of the scene.

The hardest thing I think was to actually make sure I got a good sense of scale and epicness, I spent a lot of time trying to get this right and I guess it can be shown off some more so I thought I’d actually show you guys what the environment looks like if I place you smack in the middle of the Vista and Billboard Trees.

(I had to disable the skybox since the sun became too powerful from this angle.)

Skybox

The skybox was definitely a real challenge and it’s currently the result of several features working together. Skybox colors, height fog, atmospheric fog, cloud/starfall and aurora particles as well as the planets in the background.

For the scene as a whole, I had chosen colors that are direct contrasts of each other to make them pop but also colors that harmonize well and support each other giving it a very pleasing look in my opinion. It’s easy to forget that color theory is a big part of an art-piece, to show this I’ve simplified the image above. It lets you focus on the bigger shapes, composition and colors. I usually do this with a lot of my art to make sure I’m going in the right direction, it helps remove all the noise and it’s not far off looking like real concept art.

I think the lighting sorted itself out after I figured out the main composition and colors, it’s a very simple setup with a skylight and a directional light that matches somewhat the color of the skybox. I also had to work a lot with the height fog to make sure both planets and water edge blended in a better way, early on it was really sharp and didn’t look quite right. The same goes for the fog in the scene, I spent quite some time messing around with the colors to make it sure it blended more with the horizon and the rest of the environment.

Another big part of the sky were the moons, now there are a couple of ways you can go about having a planet/moon in your environment, in my case I decided to have the “planet spheres” inside the skydome instead of something that was actually tied to the Material of the Skydome itself like what comes with the Default settings of Ultra Dynamic Sky. I wanted the moons to have a real tangible size and depth to them, this also allowed me to fully control the color and material of the moons without having to mess around with the texture-based moon of Ultra Dynamic Sky.

Here are the shaders I used for the planet shading; it’s is just a simple shader that makes a really intense rimlight based on the sun-direction.

I also in the end added another material which would be another scaled up sphere sitting on top of the other one to fully control how big I’d like the outer atmosphere Halo-effect to be. It’s probably not the most efficient way of doing things but it works well enough for portfolio purposes.

 
If you’d want them to actually look more realistic however they would be seen through the atmosphere of the planet you’re on. This can be done by placing the sphere outside the skydome and setting the skydome to be additive. You’d end up with something like this:


I ended up not doing this since I wanted to fully be able to control the look of the planets.

Landscape Generation

I used World Machine for the cliffs and for the landscape which all the pine trees are growing in the Vista. In the end however made most use of 1 Cliff Mesh that I kept scaling and copying around. The foreground is made using the Landscape Tools which was simple enough to re-shape to what I wanted. To make the foreground a bit more detailed I spent some time making grass. I wanted a really soft-looking grass that just melted into the ground-textures but was also throwing soft shadows. I ended up using a gradient mask to control the translucency of the grass, it really helped the grass to look softer on the hills.

Modeling

To be honest, I really tried to get by with the minimum amount of effort spent on the actual props themselves. Mainly because the idea with the environment wasn’t to make sure every prop by itself looked amazing but to make sure I really nailed the colors, scale and composition. A lot of the props I found in my older library of models that I’ve gathered throughout the years and some of them were already supplied from Epic’s Sample-Demos. I did however end up making a few props from scratch, the biggest one that took the longest time was the Space-ship.

I decided to build it from scratch in Modo. I’m not all that used to modeling hard surface or designing spaceship so I gathered reference from bits and pieces all over the internet and started to build it using the Rounded Edge Shader in mind.

I took the long route and hand-modeled all the paneling as well, it was a fun experience and if anything, I think it made me a bit more comfortable with Hard Surface modeling. It baked out quite well from Modo from the first try and I ended up using really big bevels so that I could get detail that would read from a distance, it looks a bit cartoony but I was fine with it in the end. I used Substance Painter for the texturing and looked mostly at Star Wars spaceships for the type of paneling, colors and grime.

Animation

I honestly never thought to use sequencer to animate the ship flying in. At first I tried to loop the ship on a spline but it proved way too difficult to time right, so I decided to learn how sequencer worked. As far as animation goes I had to time it to the awesome music of Gareth Coker which was the biggest hurdle I think. The swooshing sound when the ship flies in is actually in the soundtrack (Gareth Coker – Ascension). The ship was key-framed the whole way through the scene and it actually makes use of a Volume Vertex Collapse Shader that the ship passes through during the animation which fakes the effect of a “hyper-drive fly-in”.

In the end, it’s been a real fun and great learning experience and if you’d like to create something like this, then here is my advice:

  • Create a strong sense directionality in your environment. This will help guide the viewers eye but it also helps you decide what parts of your environment you should be spending your focus on. In the best case the directionality of your environment will lead the viewers eye to the main subject/focal point of the scene.
  • Always work Big to Small, it makes it easier to tell when you’re going the wrong direction. A good-looking environment can become greater with the right composition and if you can tell if your composition is off early then it’s an easy win.
  • Be efficient, creating modern 3d environments take a long time, it’s okay to cut corners. To make sure you don’t burn out, really plan on where you want to spend your production time. It’s easy to get caught up in creating every little detail on every model when all you want to do is to show off an epic vista.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with colors, if you’re struggling then spend some time looking at really good paintings and If you really want things to pop in your environment then make good use of contrasting colors.
  • The sequencer is wonderfully easy to use, mixing unique animations together with looped ones can really give life to an environment. It’s totally worth looking into more for your next project!

Christoffer Radsby, 3D Environment Artist at Ubisoft Massive

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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9 Comments on "Achieving 70s Sci-Fi Look in Unreal"

avatar
ChrisRadsby
Member
ChrisRadsby

@Dorian The Fake Sun Direction is a constant 3 vector. In this case it would allow me to fake the sun-direction.

NicB
Guest
NicB

“In the end however made most use of 1 Cliff Mesh that I kept scaling and copying around”

“I really tried to get by with the minimum amount of effort spent on the actual props themselves”

“cut corners”

thanks 80.lv for promoting every low-hanging fruit enthusiast out there

Admin
Admin

Good point, Dorian. I have no idea about the Sun though. We’ll check it and bring some clarification to you.

dorian
Guest
dorian

I’m probably too nooby to recreate that shader, but what is this fake sun direction thing?

dorian
Guest
dorian

Now that I noticed that planets are inside the skybox with the clouds behind them. That is, sadly, incorrect. Any clouds should be in front of the planet. No problem with the stars, tho.

dorian
Guest
dorian

Placing them behind the skybox, damn, that’s it! I used to cover planets with clouds and it never looked good.
But the stars shine through the planets, so we want the planet and stars which are procedural from the default skybox, so… gotta make cards with emissive color stars. Any other way?

ChrisRadsby
Member
ChrisRadsby

@migero , the planets where double spheres using both of the shaders posted, sitting inside the skydome. When inside the skydome they’d be affected by the fog and I could fully control what color I wanted them to be.

migero
Guest
migero

quote
“I ended up not doing this since I wanted to fully be able to control the look of the planets.”

so what method was used for planets if not behind skybox ?

Caleb Longmire
Guest
Caleb Longmire

Very cool. Ill definitely be referring back to this at some point. Reminds me of Robert McCall’s retro-future paintings. He always did a great job conveying scale and epicness, and his color work was always on point.

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