3d artist Andrew Weir talked about his experiments with stylised rendering in Unreal Engine 4. In this project he wanted to create a little level, which would look similar to The Witness and Firewatch.
My name is Andrew Weir. I am a 21 year old student currently studying Games Design at Sheffield Hallam University. I have almost completed my third year, ready to move onto my masters year. During my time at university I have had time to learn, but not too much time to polish a final product, until my more recent projects. I recently worked on a 12 week 3D art project for the TimeSplitters 2 map Ice Station at the same time as trying my hand in character design for games. I am proud of my achievements, but can’t wait to push my future projects further.
My assignment was to create whatever I wanted as a final year project. Knowing I would be moving onto the masters year, I took this opportunity to explore a style I hadn’t worked on before. We are mostly taught realistic PBR workflows. I have always wanted to look into stylized rendering. My initial interest in stylized real-time rendering was sparked by games such as Firewatch and The Witness. Especially with the presentations they have made to breakdown some of their workflow.
It’s important to mention this project was made as a visual real-time project. My frame rate remained high and my asset creation methods are the same as games design, but I didn’t need to worry about LODs or other optimisations for gameplay.
Overall, I knew I wanted to create an outdoor environment, to practice some areas of design I hadn’t looked into previously. Such as procedural cliff rocks, foliage and stylized water.
Within the scene there are a few manmade objects, these assets required more detailed hand painted textures. For this process I decided to create the textures in Photoshop, having previously looked into using other software that would allow me to paint onto the asset, as well as painting a high poly in Zbrush, however I kept it within my comfort zone in Photoshop.
I did decide to use Zbrush for most of the rock creation process. This seemed more preferable due to the asset being more random and a less uniform shape, meaning the UV maps and seams get quite messy to keep in line when painting in Photoshop. My style didn’t require much definition, and I’m not too experienced in Zbrush, however I would have liked to make sharper edges to the rocks. I used the Zremesh options to create a lower poly model, then baked down in Knald.
In Photoshop I overlaid the ambient occlusion and green channel in my curvature map.
As this wasn’t a group project, I could arrange my research and concepts in a way that fits my design pattern. It’s very important to get a rough layout, a concept or two and a block out of the environment down as soon as possible. I have very limited drawing abilities, However once I had the sketches down, I was able to work on the block out seen below.
Personally, In the early stages I will throw all my ideas into a project. The scale of a project will almost always need to be scaled down. From here I can decide what I want to keep and what I don’t like.
Some of the images below show the development within Unreal.
The layout of the scene slowly evolved into a cylindrical shape that contained a few key features to keep them interesting. These areas can be split into the waterfall, trees, beach, steps and lift. Each of these areas was considered as to why it would be interesting to look at, and how it could stand out from the previous section.
Whenever I create a material within unreal, I always want to make a material with interesting parameters or various visual options. So I can get the most out of the material.
For the rocks I wanted to have moss appear on the top, to break it up visually. I was aware of some of the nodes I could use to do this, and I’m sure this effect can be achieved in various ways. I chose the graph below. This acts as a mask.
Trees and Bushes:
I spent quite a long time getting this material to light properly. Having not made trees before, I didn’t want to follow a realistic method of making the leaves. I watched a few videos, however the shapes of planes and overall structure didn’t apply to my asset. I tried pointing the normals in other directions, but it still didn’t look right. Finally, I decided to make the asset unlit, and baked a gradient map, allowing me to make the lower parts darker.
The water is what I have been questioned about the most. I don’t consider it to be as advanced as the rest of the materials because it came together quite quickly. It is a mix of features; the actual water material is similar to any tutorial you can find online. Fresnel, crossing normal maps and a slightly metallic value for reflections.
Some of the slightly less obvious features include the refraction under the water and the edging. I spent quite a long time looking into how to create the edges of water, without much luck. The most procedural way I saw used the depth fade as a mask. However, this result wasn’t what I wanted. In the end I decided to look into spline meshes in Unreal 4, and used a plane with an animated material.
The underwater refractions are a fairly basic substance, which I panned and placed in the scene using a Decal.
Finally, I would like to talk about my approach to lighting. I haven’t seen my lighting technique in practice, but the results were quite effective. Overall the image can appear quite dull and boring, I noticed this and look at how I could increase the bounce lighting in the scene. I wanted specific results however, So I decided to use sphere assets to force certain areas to be the colour I desired.