Building Intricate Dioramas in 3D

Building Intricate Dioramas in 3D

Anya Elvidge talked about the creation of beautiful detailed dioramas in UE4.

Anya Elvidge creates some amazing 3d dioramas for her projects. We’ve discussed the production of these pieces: modeling, details, materials, ligthing and post-production. Her style is absolutely amazing.


I’m Anya Elvidge, or Anya the Artist as I tend to market myself. I’m a student, though I’m set to graduate in July when I will be finally let loose to find work in the game industry. I live in Leicester, UK, where I have just reached the end of my studies in Game Art Design at De Montfort University.

I’ve only been making game art for 3 years as part of my degree, but I quickly began to realise that my passion was with environment art, specifically creating little worlds in the form of dioramas in UE4. The first diorama I created was at the end of my second year, just under a year ago, and it really kindled my passion for environment art. Since then I’ve been focusing on improving my portfolio so I can get involved in some awesome projects.

Figure 1 (2)

Most recently, I’ve been working on my Final Major Project for university.

Figure 2 (1)

Figure 2 (7)

Figure 2 (6)

Figure 2 (5)

Figure 2 (4)

Figure 2 (3)

Figure 2 (2)

It was a 20 week long project, and I chose to create a set of 3 hand painted stylised dioramas in UE4 based on the writing of fantasy author Robin Hobb, who was kind enough to give me permission to use her IP. Each diorama is playable, and has various sounds and animations to add to the atmosphere I’m going for. In fact, you can download and play my ‘game’ here if you want.


I actually just recently did a little lecture to my course mates about my dioramas, and this was one of the big topics I focused on. Dioramas have such a huge number of benefits, particularly to those just starting out in environment art, where perhaps a team isn’t available for you to work in, or you just don’t want to spend months working on one scene.

The biggest benefit to working on dioramas is how safe they are, and yet they are still very interesting to the viewer. You have very little to consider outside the assets you are creating and how you will present them the most beautifully. You don’t have to deal with much in the way of coding, or creating immense vistas, or composing an area from multiple angles as you move through and around it. Additionally, it’s very easy to plan your time for something so small, and for school projects this can greatly reduce the stress of planning a project and trying to meet a strict deadline than with full environments.

I also like dioramas because they’re just so concentrated. They’re small areas of a high quality and you are completely in control of every little aspect of how it will look at the end. You can get away with not using huge tiling sheets to create an area, using lots of unique models and assets instead to give a scene loads of character. And really shows off your skills. You can be much more creative with your colour choices and compositions, too, because you don’t have to deal with how it will affect a larger area. Certainly dioramas are much easier to compose than larger scenes and you can get really creative.

Figure 3 (1)

Figure 3 (2)

If you’re going to make a diorama, I definitely think you should go the whole hog and make it really striking and unusual.


Every time I create a diorama, I start with 3D blockouts. I jump from 3dsMax to UE4 to see how a new potential blockout feels from distance and up-close. If the composition feels off, I’ll go back and forth making various sized changes until I’m happy. It takes a lot of iteration;

Figure 4 (1)

Figure 4 (2)

As I do this I’ll think about exactly what I want to be in my diorama, from assets to sound effects to what the atmosphere and colours will be. I make an extensive list of things, even silly little assets or sounds, and I can reconsider that list later and knock off things I don’t think will work. It’s easier to do this if you already have a strong idea in your head of what you want to achieve, or if you’re working from an existing description like I was, but I still think this is a good way of doing things. Pinterest is great for inspiration too, and I make a board for each of my dioramas.

Figure 5

Next I’ll start overpainting and photobashing my chosen blockout in Photoshop. Again, I had a strong idea in my head of what I wanted to do, but if you don’t then lots of quick iterative doodles and sketches can help an idea form.

Figure 6

Figure 6 (2)

Once I had a really simple room design, which had no furniture, I used a lighten layer with some artwork I liked to lay some abstract colour ideas onto my scene. It was a really creative and fun way of coming up with ideas I wouldn’t usually consider.

Figure 7

Next I revisited the list I had made earlier of asset ideas, and decided what would or wouldn’t work well in the scene and started to plan out where things would go and what they would look like. Then I just did some more photobashing and overpainting to try and get across a bit of atmosphere, using the colours from earlier and carefully considering the composition as I went.

Figure 8

Figure 9

For me, it’s important to be organised and know exactly what I’ll be dealing with in the future, especially when working to deadlines. I made an extensive plan of exactly what I would be making, such as if I would need a tilable texture for this or an animation for that, and input it into a spreadsheet.

Figure 10

Figure 11

At that point I’m ready to start modelling!


The vast majority of my work is made without Zbrush. I work in quite an old-school way of creating the albedo in Photoshop, and then using the albedo to also create the roughness and then a heightmap, which in turn is used to generate a normal map. Anything I sculpt in Zbrush is always started from a base mesh in 3dsMax, as I feel I have more control over elements there.

I’m not much of a sculptor- it’s something I really want to improve- however if an asset really calls for sculpting I have a really simple workflow involving as much 3dsMax as possible as that’s my comfort zone.

Figure 12

Figure 22

My brick wall tilable was sculpted in Zbrush, as was the floor, fireplace, and roof beams, but that’s it. I’ll always use Zbrush for things that need more uniqueness and depth beyond what I’m capable of hand painting and modelling in. Zbrush is my software of choice for more organic things such as stone and wood, however, I’ll always use a 3dsMax hard-surface workflow if I can get away with it. Oftentimes I’ll make the entire model in Max, and then just use Zbrush to beat it up round the edges and add unique details. I used this method for the lead on the windows, for instance.


I think having such detail in scenes is important to bring it to life and really immerse the viewer. I love taking the time to lovingly add tiny details to my dioramas, though I still think there’s a level of detail I’m yet to reach in my work and am still striving for! Because the scenes are so small, and they’re going to be scrutinised so closely, I think it’s important to use that to your advantage and make the scene super interesting.

At the end of the day, showing an ability to pay attention to the details while still maintaining a nice overall feel to a scene is, at least to me, really important. I think it’ll impress people looking at my portfolio and hopefully get me an awesome job in the end!

Material Production Process

When I created materials for my final year project dioramas, I worked in a sort-of semi stylised way using a combination of hand painted textures and PBR techniques. I use the standard PBR maps; metalness, roughness, albedo, and normal, but the maps themselves are hand-painted or use a combination of painting and overlaying maps generated from bakes. I try to simplify surface properties of materials, so that they don’t appear too noisy and rough, for example with the wall tilable texture and even the curtains. It gives the overall scene the softness I like.

Figure 19

Figure 19 (2)

I experimented with having designs on the curtains and other soft furnishings, but to maintain such a soft appearance it seemed best to just use gradients and abstract designs. Sometimes over-simplification can go a long way in a more complex scene.

Softwares I tend to use are Photoshop for hand-painting the textures, and if I’ve used Zbrush for sculpting, I’ll bake my maps in Topogun and overlay them in Photoshop using various layer modes. I’ll create my roughness map and height in Photoshop too by modifying a greyscale version of my albedo. I use CrazyBump for generating a normal map if I haven’t sculpted.

Unlike standard PBR, where the albedo has no shadow information baked, I have shadow information in the albedo much like an old-style diffuse map.

Figure 20

I like the depth it gives my textures and it gives the scene a more unusual feel. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep the materials out of the realm of uncanny valley, but in most cases it works pretty successfully. The main problems I have is when I’m trying to work with metal. The changes in hue in the albedo can have some strange effects sometimes.

I’d mostly say that the success of my work doesn’t come from technical knowledge- I’m not very good at the fundamentals of game art such as material creation, modelling and sculpting. I can use my more traditional art skills and knowledge to make my work as appealing (at least, at a distance!) as possible without being the best at creating good models etc.

I am, however, looking to properly learn Substance Designer and Painter, and other softwares too, in future projects so I can bring my technical skills up to scratch.

Using UE4

In UE4 I always set up a very rigid file structure to follow. That’s the first thing I do;

Figure 13

When I create my UE4 scenes I always work from a blank scene with a sky sphere, atmospheric fog, a skylight, a directional light, and atmospheric fog. I’ll put a post processing volume in there too and make sure the auto exposure is off. This starts me with a good, standard base for setting up a diorama which I can play with later. It’s important to consider that the skylight, atmospheric fog, and skysphere have a massive effect on the overall colouration of your scene.

Figure 14

As you go through adding assets through your scene and you want to make changes to, say, the colour of the sky, the whole scene will change colour with it. To get round this I create a large sphere in 3dsMax to act as a second ‘sky’. I apply an emissive material of whatever colour I want, or I create a gradient in Photoshop, and I turn off ‘cast shadows’ on the mesh. That way I can change the sky colour totally independently of the lighting, which is especially useful in stylised art.

Even though I do have an atmospheric fog asset in my scene, I tend to ignore it and make my own fog using particle effects and meshes. For example the snow haze in my first diorama, the light beams in the Room, and the light beams and slight haze near the tree in the Dragon Garden. Again, it affords me more control and means I don’t have to deal with other things changing as a result of tweaking settings.

Figure 21

I barely touch the post processing until later in development, as I don’t want to become reliant on it. You can also completely confuse yourself with your lighting if you start playing about with things like global illumination and then forget you tweaked the settings. It’s good to occasionally turn off your post process to see if you’ve gone too far astray from the actual scene. Shadow tint, ambient occlusion, and global illumination are some of my favourite settings to tweak.

Lighting Setup

Lighting is super important, and in my most recent projects I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot more through talking to guys in the industry. For each of my final year project dioramas, I start with a simple light setup of a skylight and a directional light, and build on that. Like I said, atmospheric fog and sky sphere colour also have a big effect on lighting, so they’re important to consider too.

The lighting setup for each of my dioramas is very different, so I’ll briefly run through each one.

Figure 15

The Fool’s Tent

Here, I have a very dim directional light (2) and quite a bright skylight (5), and then the rest of the lighting, such as for the tent, moonlight, and lanterns, is done with pointlights. I also have a setup where the Light_Ext lights turn off as you enter the tent, so that the dim lighting inside the tent is not interfered with by the bright exterior lighting, such as the light used to illuminate the tent.

Figure 16

I’ve learned not to be afraid of using point lights to aid my lighting, however you have to be careful because they are a big hit on framerates and optimisation. You couldn’t use as many lights as I have in a big environment.

Figure 17

The Fool’s Room

In this scene I have a very bright directional light (80) coming through the windows, and then a less bright directional light (25) coming in from the left to illuminate the front of the diorama. I have a skylight set to 1.5 make the scene feel softer, and to soften it even further a single very bright point light in the centre of the scene to illuminate the underside of the beams and brighten the walls. Bloom and light beam meshes are used in conjunction with the lighting to give the scene an airy feel.

Figure 18

The Dragon Garden

This diorama looks like chaos behind the scenes. Those floating trees you see are set to be hidden in game, but by ticking ‘cast hidden shadows’ they also cast shadows despite being invisible. I use this to cast additional tree shadows on my diorama to darken areas and draw attention to others. It’s a nice way of really controlling where the player looks in a scene.

In this diorama I have a bright directional light coming from the right, and then a second one coming from behind so that the tree canopy is more illuminated and to get some nice orange sub surface scattering showing on the dragon wings. It also lightens the overall scene a little. Point lights are used to brighten areas that are too dark, and to pick out focal points such as the dragon’s face.


Firstly I would absolutely recommend talking to the pros already in industry. Critique is so very important, and they can show you how to do things that might seem a little confusing or scary at first. If you see some work you really love, definitely don’t be afraid to ask how they went about it!

I have a few tips regarding creating successful dioramas… They’re not the end-all be-all of successful diorama creation, but they’re a good start.

  • Plan everything. Like I showed earlier, it’s important to know exactly what you’re going to deal with and be ready for it.
  • Really think about the placement of everything. Might seem obvious, but it takes a lot of thinking about even the tiniest of things to create a successful diorama. The placement of a single group of flowers might just slightly tip the balance of your diorama and be more of a distraction than help.
  • Treat it like a character. Rather than thinking of a diorama as a platform for showing off some high-detail assets, create it as you would a character, where everything is of equal importance and detail. Everything contributes towards an overall final product, rather than fading into the background to show something more important off.
  • The platform is as important as contents. Don’t just go down the ‘house on a disk’ route, because it’s boring. Make the platform be as much part of the scene as the assets in it. My favourite way to do this is making a ‘tearaway’, where it literally looks like you grabbed a chunk of a larger environment; bricks are falling away, things have smashed, tree roots are coming out of it, etc. You could get really creative though, I’m sure.
  • Give it multiple levels. The most successful dioramas I see have multiple levels to them. This could be achieved with a stairway, a bridge, a treehouse. Anything, really.
  • Don’t terminate visual elements too abruptly. Don’t just end the edges of your diorama with no thought. Have water falling off it, or sand, or cloth. Let the bricks of a wall break away gradually.
  • Atmosphere is still really important. It’s easy to fall into a trap of not having any atmosphere on an area so small, but don’t be afraid to add fog, light beams, particles, and interesting lighting to your scene.
  • Keep it balanced. Again, like you would with a character- if you drew a line down the centre, does it look like it’s going to fall over one way or another? If you have a tree hanging haphazardly off one side of your diorama, make sure to balance it out or it’ll be difficult to take nice renders that don’t feel off to the viewer.

I hope they help people make nice dioramas.

Anya Jo Elvidge, Student, Environment Artist,





Join discussion

Comments 1

  • Daniel

    Thank you Anya, for taking the time to explain in detail how you create these amazing pieces of art. I like very much your style!



    ·3 years ago·

You might also like

We need your consent

We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more