I really like how you've articulated your entire process. This was a very enriching read. A Well deserved feature!
Great article! Thanks for the awesome read.
Wow, this is so cool! Nice job!
Saga Alayyoubi did a breakdown of his amazing UE4 installation, showing how he did the sculpts, painting and rendering.
Hi, my name is Saad and I’m a freelance artist living in London (I usually go by my artist nickname ‘Saga’ nowadays). For the past 6 months, I’ve been working as a Senior 3D Artist in MPC’s Advertising department, primarily designing and building real-time environments in Unreal Engine for commercial clients.
I started my career in architecture, getting my masters degree at Columbia University in New York and working as an architect on commercial skyscraper designs for a few years at one of the bigger corporate firms. Ever since my childhood I was always passionate about drawing & painting and knew I wanted to spend my life as an artist. My well-meaning parents who are both doctors knew nothing about art and pushed me into architecture since at least that had an obvious, financially secure career path. However as I progressed through college and later working as a junior architect, I was always more interested in ‘building dreams’ in the virtual world, rather than being constrained by the mundane realities of building construction (low client budgets, physical material costs and limitations, the tedious construction documentation which takes up 90% of an architect’s time, etc). The ‘architecture of the imagination’ was always far more compelling to me than the banality of concrete reality.
In my first couple of jobs I was doing a lot of 3d modeling and rendering work, and after a couple of years found my way into a CG commercials company founded by two other architects. After a few years of commercial work, I got a job designing VR environments and started getting properly into a real-time art workflow. I’ve had all kinds of clients over the years and have many stories from the trenches of CG/VFX studios, from the great to the downright abusive, and I feel fortunate now to have found a group I really love working with at MPC.
Digital artists these days have incredible power at our disposal; we can visualize our dreams in a way that the great artists of the past never could, to go beyond a 2d canvas and create tangible, spatial alternate realities and render them with near photorealistic fidelity. Some of the most interesting work of the greatest architects in history (such as Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright) is often the drawings and models of their unbuilt, massive-scale utopian projects envisioning new ways for humans to live in harmony with each other and with nature. During my art history courses at university, I was mesmerized by the dream-like worlds illustrated by the likes of Hugh Ferriss and Étienne-Louis Boullée. Their romanticized, fictional worlds sparked my imagination and I knew I wanted to follow in their footsteps. I think these dreams of a better world are the most important things we humans create, as they cultivate an aspiration towards transcendent ideals. In our modern, materialistic and spiritually-aimless society which fears a universe indifferent to our petty human lives, I believe we need idealizations of beauty and perfection to ward off the sense of meaninglessness and nihilism so pervasive nowadays.
The Sacred Altar
Thanks for the kind words. This was a deeply personal project, created while undergoing challenging times in my life. I started working on the sculpt while my wife and I were apart as she embarked on her life-long dream project in New Zealand. During that time of introspection, I found working on this piece very cathartic and meditative. I reflected deeply on how thoroughly imperfect and utterly flawed I had been in my life and in the relationship and sought redemption the only way I knew how by striving for perfection in my craft (though I still have a long way to go in this regard).
This underlying existential motivation for this project was the realization that our lives and relationships are so transient, fragile and finite; we easily succumb to the illusion that things will stay the same forever, when in fact the only constant in the universe is ‘change’ itself. We yearn for immortality, to preserve the things we love and protect them from eroding into inevitable corruption and decay. I think sometimes we create art as a way for us to transcend our inevitable deaths, to create a thing that might hopefully live forever, and give future generations something to remember us by.
My hope is that people will look at this project and reflect on the poignant, transient and fleeting nature of their own lives and relationships. Perhaps this will give them a deeper sense of appreciation and gratitude for the good times, and avoid taking them for granted as much as possible.
In terms of planning, I really had none whatsoever, to begin with. I just felt inspired to start sculpting this central altarpiece and knew I wanted it to follow a classical baroque style, but besides that everything else about the environment emerged organically through daily iteration. Slowly carving away at the sculpture of her likeness and the surrounding ornaments were peaceful, a redemptive ritual which I came back to, day after day, for several weeks on my nights and weekends after my day job at MPC.
In terms of the design, I was largely inspired by the Pythia Basin underneath the grand staircase of the Palais Garnier in Paris. I first saw this masterpiece when I visited Paris back in 2005, and it remained with me ever since. I emulated the general vaulted form of this structure as the initial starting point for my design and studied the baroque motifs which gave it such a lush, naturalistic form.
After modeling the rough shapes in 3ds Max, I moved into ZBrush and began sculpting some of my own baroque patterns on top of the base geometry. I created a small library of simple low-poly baroque elements, many of which I had modeled for previous projects, some new ones I created just for this sculpt, and a few of which I downloaded from 3d scans & manually retopologized in ZBrush. I then categorized these into groups and created several insert multi-mesh brushes out of them in ZBrush, in order to sculpt with them on top of my base forms in a layered manner. I crafted this altar to honor my relationship, so I spent the majority of my focus on her part of the sculpture and worked outward from the center.
I worked section by section, iterating on larger curved shapes, drawing the insert meshes onto the surface (using projection strength 100 so they followed the underlying contours), and sculpting blending/transition forms in between them. I primarily used the clay buildup, standard, dam standard, H polish, trim dynamic, pinch, and curve snap brushes to sculpt the entire surface, typically with a lazy radius of about 15 to achieve broad, clean brushstrokes. I also used a technique of drawing curved mask shapes and then blurring/sharpening several times to remove any wobbliness from the initial masking, followed by using ‘Inflate’ in the Deformation palette. It took a long time to develop the right workflow and design language, but after I had done it for one section the rest didn’t take as long to sculpt. I initially maintained some left/right symmetry but chose to break the symmetry via the hair design, which naturally made the sculpt more interesting and dynamic.
During the sculpting process I was always cognizant of the fact that all this would eventually have to run in real-time in UE, so I tried to keep the polycount on the lowest subdivision levels of each subtool as conservative as possible. At the same time, I wanted to see how much detail and fidelity I could manage, so for certain subtools, I would export slightly higher subdivision levels in order to avoid too much faceting of the surface. There were some trial and error, exporting back and forth between ZBrush and UE, to discover the right compromise between quality of detail preserved and performance.
Since my goal for this project was really just to express the story and vision as time-efficiently as possible (and since the sculpting portion alone took so long), I didn’t really get into creating new materials from scratch in Substance Designer for the stone shaders. Instead, I started with a basic Limestone material downloaded from Substance Source, and heavily modified it in Substance Painter.
The first step for all the assets in Substance, of course, was to bake the high poly sculpt from ZBrush onto the lower poly UE4-ready model. I then used the curvature and AO maps generated from this bake in substance to start to control areas of moss growth and used generators to modulate the roughness of the stone to have areas of water leaks, dirt buildup in the cavities, etc. One of my favorite tricks for stone materials in a wet environment is to have a very fine layer of low roughness ‘sparkles’ on the top of the layer stack, which catches the light at glancing angles and gives the shader that extra level of interest. I also made the master material in UE a simple vertex paint material, so I could manually modulate the amount of moss on individual rocks after they had been placed in their final location in the scene.
As I was progressing with the rock sculpts and texturing, I started building some stand-alone test scenes with just the rock assets, to see if I had made enough variants to sustain the entire environment without seeing too much repetition.
The genesis of the entire scene was the central vaulted altar structure, and everything else was really just added later to make its presence as impactful as possible. I also knew I wanted the altar to incorporate a 3d scan of a sculpture she and I both deeply admired, which is the Winged Victory of Samothrace (I manually retopologized and textured the 3d scan). There is a symbolic connection between the disembodied head hanging down from the vaulted ceiling, and the headless figure of Winged Victory below, highlighted by the direct sunlight, which I’ll leave open to interpretation…
Reflecting pools have for centuries been used by architects to reinforce the visual impact of a building facade or sculpture (think of the Taj Mahal, or the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van Der Rohe). The Corinthian columns supporting the altar helped frame the scene, and colonnades, in general, are a common motif in architecture to guide the audience towards an important monument.
As the altar sculpt was getting closer to completion in ZBrush, I was exporting unfinished versions of it into UE, to start to get a sense of what it might feel like in the scene and what dimensions it should be relative to the human scale. I sculpted all the rocks in ZBrush, sometimes using Megascans’ rocks as a starting point and then dynameshing multiple scans together before manually sculpting on top. The foliage assets, in this case, were just downloaded from Quixel Megascans and the UE Marketplace.
Volumetric fog and lighting
The lighting of the scene was very iterative, and I had to play around with various lighting scenarios for quite a while to determine how best to reveal the main sculpture. I started with just a single, movable directional light and the exponential height fog, and played with the angle until I could find interesting patterns of light and shadow interacting with the sculpt. As mentioned above, I sought to connect the headless figure of Winged Victory below with the face of the altar ceiling using light, so this was the primary imperative of the lighting design. I also wanted the overall mood of the environment to feel like a moment frozen in time, and tinged with a sense of nostalgic melancholy; the last rays of the setting sun softly grazing the side of her face invoking a quiet, reverent stillness.
Early on when building the scene, doing test lighting builds using the ‘preview’ setting in UE was very quick (under 5 minutes). This iteration speed helped because then I could see how the GI would respond and illuminate secondary areas of the sculpture and tweak/rebuild as necessary. One thing I find very useful is the ‘Indirect Lighting Intensity’ control in the Post Process Volume, which allows you to really fine tune the amount of GI affecting your scene after doing a lighting build. I turned up the ‘Indirect Lighting Intensity’ setting to a high value of 15 on my directional light before doing the lighting build, which gave me much more room to play with it after the build in the post process volume global indirect lighting controls. Lightmap resolutions required a bit of trial and error; due to the small size of many of the details in the sculpt, I opted for a lightmap resolution of 512 for each of the meshes on the main sculpt, while keeping the rest of the meshes in the scene at the default lightmap resolution.
After doing the lighting build, I set the directional light to movable, so I could have dynamic shadows and slightly animate the rotation of the light for certain shots in the sequencer. Luckily this still preserves the GI into baked lightmaps for all the textures, so making small incremental rotations to the directional light for the sake of cinematic effect doesn’t break the overall illusion of consistent lighting. I also used a value of just 1 for the number of dynamic shadow cascades in the directional light, as this decreased resolution gives a nice (albeit fake) soft shadow effect. To compensate for this lack of shadow resolution in closeup shots, I also added a bit of contact shadow, as well as careful control of ambient occlusion radius in the post process volume to ground everything together.
In areas where there was very little GI contribution from the lighting build, I added some small point lights with no volumetric scattering intensity, just to add some fill light in unnaturally dark areas. I also used a spotlight pointing back up off the water surface with an animated water caustics texture, just to add a bit of subtle ambient detail. There is no skylight in the scene, as I found it was just adding too much unnecessary ambient light.
I found that I liked using both an exponential height fog and an atmospheric fog in tandem together in the scene. While the exponential height fog gives you lovely volumetric light and shadows, by itself the scene just feels a little flat in terms of depth. Adding an atmospheric fog with a slight blue tint on top in a daylight scene like this just gives you more scene depth, as it allows you to flatten the values of more distant objects while preserving contrast close up. There aren’t really any ‘magic settings’ that universally work well, I just played with the fog amount, scattering distribution and extinction scale until it felt about right.
The water shader is extremely simple, as you can see in the screenshot. There is a panner node connected to a tiling noise normal map which controls the overall ripple size and speed, along with a Dither Temporal AA node plugged into Pixel Depth Offset, to soften the edge of where the water plane intersects with the rocks and ground. I used normal map decals on top to create overlapping radial ripples at the base of the columns and sculpture and duplicated these with varying scales around the scene to add some general variation. There are also some small lotus plants floating on the water surface. Using a planar reflection probe as well as enabling screen space reflections helps a lot.
So many aspects of this project really challenged me, from both an emotional and technical perspective. In the beginning, I didn’t have a very clear vision of the final outcome, so I just patiently worked on the sculpt hoping that I could build a compelling scene around it as it evolved.
The Zbrush sculpt alone took several weeks, and of course, went through the typical iteration cycle where it just looks terrible for a long time and you have to have faith that continued effort will be rewarded with good results. Designing all the forms to make them work together in an aesthetically pleasing way while keeping track of all the separate subtools and optimizing them so they could run in UE4 was technically tricky.
I think the best advice I would give to young environment artists working in UE is that if you are improvising on a scene design without following the guidance of pre-existing 2d concept art, keep going back and forth between your modeling software and UE early and often. If you take your sculpts into UE very early on in the scene blockout phase, it can influence the design decisions of your sculpt and inform how much detail each part needs in order to hold up to scrutiny. I really enjoy this concept process of an environment directly in UE. It’s also quite rewarding to start to see your sculpts come to life just by moving some dynamic lights around, which can give you a much better sense of the volumes and surfaces than simply switching matcaps in ZBrush.
I also recommend sharing your work in progress with close friends who will give you honest feedback and advice along the way, as it’s it’s very difficult to maintain a sense of objectivity when you spend a long time on a piece. My brother Firas and my good friend Javier (an incredible concept artist) both gave me a lot of support and ideas for this project, for which I’m very grateful.
Thank you very much to Kirill Tokarev for reaching out, for his kind words and for giving me the opportunity to share my work. I really appreciate all of your time and hope you enjoyed reading through the interview.