Atmospheric Lighting in Environment Building

Atmospheric Lighting in Environment Building

3d designer Otto Ostera showed how he builds scenes in Unreal Engine 4 and uses light in his productions.

3d designer Otto Ostera showed how he builds scenes in Unreal Engine 4 and uses light in his productions.


My name is Otto Ostera and I’m an Environment Artist at Starbreeze Studios, based in Stockholm, Sweden. I’m originally from Argentina, and I’ve been actively working in the industry for almost 4 years now. Since I started I’ve been developing my skills in the most public way possible, always asking for feedback and trying to learn from the best artists out there. So I consider my Master to be the collective artistic knowledge on the internet. And of course in this past years I had the chance to work in many amazing teams of people developing great games, meet super talented folk as an outsourcing artist for triple A companies, and now to be part of such a great company as is Stabreeze. 

Assault on Pyongyang

“Assault on Pyongyang” started as a simple proof of concept at Globant (my last employer). With other 3 fellow artist we had the task of developing a whole character, it’s weapon, a vehicle and a whole environment (which was my task, naturally). After some brainstorming we decided that the character (created by Sergio Díaz) would be a Chinese soldier, from their special forces. So that’s where I began to develop this piece´s backstory. It would be an abandoned North Korean gas station from the 40´s which was turned into some sort of Communications Center by China during the invasion. This was going to be a game ready environment that you would be able to explore, but it was never really implemented.


The demo was going to be a very short one. You would come down from the road and right there at that spot you should know where you are, where are you going, and figure out that this is not a friendly environment. So I needed to tell the player where to look at first, what to explore, and finally where to head up next. There are many rules that apply to composition and guiding the eye: position, contrast, color and light are some of them. 

Here you can see the 3 Focal Points (FP) on this camera and the viewer’s eye path. The first thing to notice here is the FP1 (red). And that’s because of various reasons including: it’s placed properly over one of the vertical axis of the Golden Ratio; it has the strongest and closest light source; has a strong color choice; it contrasts strongly with its surroundings. Here I used this opportunity to introduce the players a bit of context. With the gas station sign and the Korean symbols they now have at least an idea of where they are standing. 

The second thing to notice is the FP2 (green). Here you can see the guard post and some blood. The elements that make this a the second FP are: again it’s placing over the Golder Ratio; the strong color choices; distance from the first one; light source. Here I added small elements that would make the players transition from one FP to another softer. In Red: the first FP light’s direction gets you to look to the right eventually, and the fact that the sign points that way (as an arrow would) helps too. The wires in the floor are a perfect example of using props to guide the players eye. In Green: the light post being a straight line breaks the path, and in case you wonder what’s up there the light direction will guide you back downwards. Here I chose not the make that light as strong because it would get the viewers attention. In Yellow: all empty space was chosen carefully so the player didn’t have anything make him look away. Here the darkness helps a lot, as well as the straight line on the left tree that stops from wondering what’s back there.

FP2 also introduces a violent background story: blood, bullet holes… someone died here. 
And finally FP3 (blue). This is a FP because of many reasons. It’s standing right on spot according to the Golden Ratio rule of thirds. Also the player’s eye will always follow roads if there’s something to look at the end of them. Then you have an arch around it (this trick I learned from the amazing guys at Naughty Dog who tend to use this technique). Something handmade by humans will pop up more if surrounded by nature and vice versa. Again, contrast.  
It’s important to notice that the player may read the image in other ways too. Someone who’s written language reads from right to left may go from FP2 to FP1, and then FP3. Composition is an amazing tool, and as an artist you have the power and the responsibility of making your image easy and soft to read. 

After FP3, when you get to see the building in the back, you wonder what is it. And even though you had some clues before, it’s important to make it work in a way that the player can tell what’s going on there. And maybe they already know it is a gas station because they saw the fallen sign. But that is not what I wanted the player to see. What I wanted the viewer to notice was the big antenna on the roof. Here is where the silhouette comes into place.

Silhouette is key. Always. In this case it tells you there is a huge antena so this maybe is some kind of military base or comunications center, and it shows a guard in the roof. Both storytelling and gameplay leading details. 


All the assets were taken from real life reference. I got tons of North Korean old gas stations photos and started to build up mine from the ground up. Almost every single asset was modeled and UVed in Blender and textured in Substance Painter. I tried to get all assets as performance friendly as possible, keeping a rather low polycount and small texture sizes. This is an example of one of the scene´s props. 

I think one of the biggest difficulties of having to create such a big amount of assets is keeping quality, style and technical accuracy in line. A piece of advice: always set your texel and polygon density first. Because if you are not careful, this problem can snowball out quickly and easily and you will end up with a serious quality inconsistency.

Building a Complex Scene

In order to go from a simple plane to a complex scene there are a few steps to have in mind. I took 15 minutes to create a very simple scene with assets from this project so you could see in a GIF the whole process behind world building.

At first you have a simple plane with a mud texture. Here you can see that I got 3 variants for the mud texture: a dried one, a wet one and one in between those two. First of all I applied the dry one to the whole plane and started to vertex paint some of the other two until I got something that made some kind of sense.  

Then I got some vegetation (grass, trees, plants) in place, followed by some rocks. And the road decal. Again, all very quickly.

After that just started dropping some props and layed out a very simple composition (Rule of Thirds) with lights as main focal points.

And finally some particles, godrays, rain, and made a quick lighting adjustment. And voila! Even though is a very quick and dirty example you get to see the whole workflow behind my environment creation process.

Camera Placing and Overall Composition. 

Here you can see one of the very first cameras, in a very early stage of the project. 

The were some many wrong things with this composition. My biggest mistake here was to try to force my way around the basics of compositing. One of the easiest and still correct ways to do a quick composition is to compose diagonally over the Rule of Thirds guidelines and to set the horizon line aligned with one of the thirds. That’s a way to do it. Now that you know, you will see it everywhere. It works. But here it wasn’t what I was looking for. 

We have already discussed my decision process on composition, so you know what was my process like. Composition takes a long time and, just as lighting, you never stop tweaking and tweaking. One of the biggest advices I can give in this matter are: use your lights to get attention, be careful with the sun and moon since they tend to be focal points just by standing there (or use that to your advantage), get interesting color variation (the color wheel is your best friend here), and ask for feedback. Getting people to see your work will help you to get fresh eyes on the piece. It doesn’t have to be someone that knows composition theory, anyone will do. Ask them what catches their eye and why. It will go a long way.


When main layout of the environment was almost ready I had this big problem with the general mood of the scene. Everything was looking warm and kind and that definitely wasn’t what I wanted for this piece. So besides the big lighting changes I made, I decided that in order to make the gas station a more wild and hostile environment it would be a great thing to play both with color and mood.

Here you can see the piece before the big changes:

And here you can see the first tape I took to make this place a bit more before I wanted. First of all I got all lights out. I got rid even of the directional light and started a whole new layout. I also added rain and quickly noticed that it would definitely make the environment colder and will give a more hostile bive to it. That’s what I was after.

And then I started adding some other lights like the fire, the lights from the windows, the light that hits the truck on the side. Started adding particles like fog, you can see some mist also, fire. At this point I was constantly tweaking composition. You can see the difference of the camera placing in those 3 screenshots.

In the end I decided to go with a similar lighting setting as this one, and started to add some extra lights mostly for silhouette reading. Also added some extra particles like god rays, and of course the rain itself. So definitely I must say that rain the lighting changes were the main factors that got me the mood of this scene right. Now it is a very hostile environment and you can see the soldier on the roof it’s not enjoying at good and nice sunset on the countryside (as it was before). That’s what made and always makes mood so important.

1 of 2

This piece took almost 3 months to complete since it had a lot of iteration changes story changes, and tons of feedback.

Always block as much props as you can at the blocking stage of an environment. This will definitely help you to make a quick build up of the scene and to get composition Blockheads in the very early stage of the environment God will save you tons of work hours later. Also never stick with the things you do coma don’t fall in love with anything you create. As for example Lighting in this piece it was almost completely redone and it was for the best. Read your books. Get documentation on lighting, composition, color theory. Never stop asking for feedback get people to see your work even though if they are not in the art world. the best thing you can get is a fresh pair of eyes looking at you work and telling you what they like and what they don’t and why. It is sometimes very hard to find good documentation on things like lighting for games, but there are a lot of people out there that will be willing to help you, including myself, so don’t hesitate on sending them or myself a message most likely we will be happy to lend you a hand. And have fun! That is what all this is all about.

Otto Ostera, Environment Artist at Starbreeze Studios

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 2

  • Chase Whittington

    Fantastic information, well done!


    Chase Whittington

    ·5 years ago·
  • Crumpler Clinton

    Great write up Otto!


    Crumpler Clinton

    ·5 years ago·

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