Zachary Allen has returned to 80 Level to tell us more about AVALON, a short Unreal Engine 5-powered cinematic, discuss the modeling and texturing workflows behind the project, and share the rendering setup.
My name is Zachary Allen, and I am an Environment/Prop Artist that is currently based near London in the UK. I'm beginning my final year of undergraduate study at the University of Hertfordshire in September.
Since my previous feature on 80 Level, I have been involved in my first few commercial projects at Digital Salmon, St Albans. I have been extremely thankful to be involved with this very talented team of artists and have had the opportunity to work on some very exciting projects. Some of this work can be found on my ArtStation.
Like many 3D Artists, I started my journey because of my interest in video games and my love of art and design. I enjoy telling narratives and developing the history of a game world through the assets that I create, immersing players further into the overall experience that is trying to be created.
The AVALON Project
AVALON is an Unreal Engine 5-powered cinematic created by a small team of students during the final four months of our second year at the University of Hertfordshire. The cinematic encapsulates the story of a gun-runner who is hunted by a ruthless enemy, determined to turn his death into a message of what happens when the Corporation is double-crossed.
The core team was made of two Character Artists, Ethan James Chapman and Charlie Shrehorn-Middleton, and an Environment Artist, me. This obviously meant that we would adopt different tasks to assist in supporting the development of the project – from narrative writing to cinematography and animation. We also worked with other students in our year that helped in areas such as concept art, animation, rigging, lighting, and musical composition.
We have always used contemporary industry-standard software, including:
- Substance 3D Painter
- Substance 3D Designer
- Unreal Engine 5
- Marvelous Designer
- Marmoset Toolbag
- DaVinci Resolve
We began pre-production for AVALON in January and based the project on a Games Design Document that I had written during the Autumn. Using this Games Design Document as a starting point, we began to obtain visual reference as a foundation to help the team to envision the world that we were going to create.
We created one main reference board that we split into different sections (props, characters, environments, lighting, etc). This helps to create one cohesive visual-aid that the entire team can refer to, making sure that our art remains cohesive. Inspired by works such as Alien (1979) and Dead Space (2008), we began to develop our ideas using industrialist retrofuturism as the aesthetic for our project. This reference board supported the development of other aspects of our pre-production from the narrative writing to the character concepts by Jaye Lara Blunden.
We then began writing a script that could be used for the storyboard. Something the entire team found very useful was the script analysis, where we annotated the script with images and words to make the nuances more understandable for everybody involved. This stage of pre-production was very important as this was the foundation that would be used to communicate between the different disciplines – especially when working in a larger group or with artists that may not be involved from the very beginning of the project.
The storyboard was then used to create an initial “pre-vis movie” where we filmed a basic representation of the storyboard using a handheld camera. This pre-vis movie went through a few different iterations and edits until we decided on the best camera shot. This could then be used later in production to help the visualization of the character movement alongside the motion of the camera shots.
Developing the Environments
One of the most important first steps in creating an environment is establishing the scale of the assets within the scene as it dictates the believability of the shot. I also created an asset list that contained the basic measurements when referencing the real-world counterparts (or that which could be closely related). I also exported the Unreal Engine 5 mannequin into Maya to use as a height reference (it is about 185cm tall), this became especially useful when modeling props for the environment as I could use this as a visual aid when sizing the assets.
Once the basic blockout was finished, I animated the basic movement of the camera. This would allow me to focus on developing areas of the environment that would have more screen time than others. Placing the scene cameras as early as possible is very important as it helps to compose the environment whilst also acting as blinders to keep a focus on the most important parts of the scene.
Animating cameras can prove difficult, especially when we were trying to achieve a continuous one-shot that blended between the third and first person. Once the basic camera blockout was finished, I spent some time perfecting the timings as these can be difficult to change later in production, and then began to add the secondary details. When looking around, we tend to focus on certain objects or areas of interest – this is something I tried to recreate during the first-person section of our shot. I then gave the camera animation to our character animator (Connor Scheibe) who cleaned up the curves and made some changes and adjustments where needed. This camera animation was continuously developed over the project’s development cycle which meant that the tone and impact of certain moments were heightened with each change made.
To ensure that we would finish the cinematic by the end of May, the team decided to use certain assets of the modular kit by Pavel Inozemtsev (Omega. Sci-Fi Modular Environment Pack) to assist in building the environment. I then began to develop the blockout by adding these modular pieces to the scene. I then modeled my own modular pieces that would fill areas that the kit could not; as well as breaking up some of the more repetitive areas of the environment. Making modular kits can prove difficult, but makes iteration very easy later into production.
Prop Modeling and Texturing
Maya is the modeling software that I have used for many years and most of the shortcuts have become second nature to me. There is an ongoing debate regarding what modeling software is best, but I would advise readers to use what one is most comfortable with. Modeling software is just a tool, and you will only be efficient with a tool that one understands. ZBrush was also used on various assets that needed sculpted details, usually dents and damage.
The modular assets were textured using tileable textures in the engine. The shaders in Unreal Engine 5 were set up so that different grunge maps could be layered and applied, allowing for color and roughness break up, making sure that the texture did not seem repeated throughout the scene.
The more unique environment assets and props required dedicated texturing inside of Substance 3D Painter. It is very important to correctly set up Substance 3D Painter to closely match Unreal Engine 5. There are many tutorials on this setup online, but it will mean that there will be less back and forth later in production as the assets will look the same in between the software.
Texturing the Rifle
I will focus on the texturing process of the rifle that our protagonist picks up at the beginning of the cinematic.
I find it most useful to work from big to small when texturing props and begin by applying the basic materials to each of the various parts of my model (hard plastic, clear plastic, different types of metal, etc.). I can then begin to layer color variation and roughness variation on top of this (making sure to keep the different layers separate as it will allow me to make tweaks and changes easily later). Having a wide range of roughness values across the model is very important as it really helps to sell the model's realism and authenticity.
When texturing, it is very important to continuously analyze your reference board. During my life drawing classes, I was always told to look at the figure more than what was on my paper – this forced me to actively analyze and process the forms and proportions of who I was drawing. The same technique can be applied to the texturing process, as a way of forcing yourself to truly understand the object you are trying to paint.
When it comes to the smaller details, try to not overdo it. I see many beginners add scratches and small damages to the model globally; rather than applying it to localized areas. To achieve the realism that is wanted, one needs to understand the function of the asset; what pieces move; what areas would become damaged before others; how well is it looked after. Yes, it is the small details that sell a 3D asset, but be purposeful with your texturing decisions.
Rendering and Post-Production
Rendering in Unreal Engine 5 is a relatively simple process. Do not overlook the impact of using console variables, as these can give you a lot of control over the lighting and overall rendering of your scenes. Spend some time researching and experimenting with these variables to find the best combination for your scene.
All the post-production was achieved with DaVinci Resolve. Here, the project was set up to accommodate the use of ACEScg, as that is the color space that we used for our renders. We also exported from Unreal Engine 5 using EXRs to give us an image format with a wider range of data that could be used when color-grading. As well as color-grading our shot, I added some film grain, a vignette, and a hint of chromatic aberration to make the shot more cinematic.
What Have I Learned From AVALON?
The team and I have spent around four months working on AVALON from start to finish and we have learned much in this time. One of the main challenges we ran into was part of our character pipeline and issues that were a result of the rigs. It is not realistic to think that a character rig will work the first time, the animator and rigger will have constant discussions regarding areas that need to be improved or fixed. But do not underestimate the amount of time that it takes to get the perfect rig; we were still making changes and finding small issues late into production.
My advice for any beginners or artists that will be working within a team for the first time is to reduce your idea more than you think you should. It is great to think big, but your focus should be on pushing quality and not quantity. Hone your one idea and spend more of your time making high-quality assets and fixing those small imperfections that will really push your final cinematic.
If you are interested in seeing more in-depth breakdowns from other areas of the project, please take the time to look at our individual artist breakdowns!