Biome: Vegetation Architecture in 3D

Max Frorer talked about the way he created an outstanding visual experience with UE4, Agisoft Photoscan and some patience.

 Max Frorer talked about the way he created an outstanding visual experience with UE4, Agisoft Photoscan and some patience. 



Hello, my name is Max Frorer, I am 22 years old and I am a Junior Game Art major at Ringling College of Art and Design. The Game Art BFA program at Ringling College brings our feature film aesthetic to games and is focused on providing students with the professional artistic skills necessary to create compelling and believable interactive experiences. In the recent past, I have enjoyed tackling a variety of projects. My main focus, however, is hard surface modeling and Industrial Design. I enjoy taking the design principles I’ve learned and those I’ve intuitively made up, and applying them to characters, machines and environmental spaces. This environment piece challenged many of my weaknesses and forced me to take different approaches to making art. As a result, I feel like I have grown a great deal as an artist.  


This Biome was a Ringling assignment with a time limit of 3 weeks. The assignment itself was fairly open-ended: build an environment untouched by humanity. Because my favorite aspects of environment design have to do with composition, lighting and design language, I wanted to focus there. I enjoy forming compositions using positive/negative space with leading lines that can hold up as individual pieces of art. I try to avoid depending on next-gen technology to make my work look strong. I’ve seen 2D pixel art completely blow away a modern AAA quality render simply because the fundamental designs are more powerful.

I got the idea to create a forest because I felt that I could easily find reference by simply going outside. A forest was something I could actually experience. I had also experimented with photogrammetry in the past, but had never used that approach for a school assignment. I knew that I wanted to focus mostly on composition and less on sculpting and texturing trees, so I explored the forest areas within a few miles of my school and began to collect ideas of specimens I found visually appealing.

I Immediately fell in love with the chaotic idea of overgrowth. I found that it added so much personality, story and history to its subject. A good environment piece must have a story. Without a story in mind, the piece is unlikely to be cohesive, and the viewer may have a very hard time understanding what is going on.

I found that the Ficus Macrophylla tree had an incredible structure and design. It was as though this tree’s history was evident on the outside. Of all the trees I could feasibly make in the given amount of time, this species of tree would offer the most promise in terms of visual appeal.  

I began sketching different trees I observed because I felt like drawing would help me visually understand how the Ficus Macrophylla grew, and the best ways I could use and modify it in my scene. I wanted my scene to be evocative and to convey emotion.


The composition of the piece was the result of intention and happy accident. I had an initial idea for the composition, but I wanted to challenged my first impulse to see if I could come up with a better layout, so I sketched several thumbnails to see if I could stumble upon some improvements. I used the tree branches as leading lines to create subtle spiral effects. As a result, when looking around the scene, the branches and light help move the eye around the entire piece in fluid motions. I also realized that having a multiplicity of branches would result in some really cool forms of dappled light that would break through onto the ground. I knew I wanted there to be branches above to add a sense of verticality.  However, I did not anticipate that the total snare of branches might nearly block out the sky. The entire look of the scene changed when I imported most of the trees in Unreal due to the heavy branch overhang.  My scene went from an empty-looking greybox to an environment that felt full of life.

The biggest challenges in building this scene were all tech-based challenges. My background is much more heavily involved in fine arts and at the time of this project, I did not have a very strong understanding of Unreal’s Material Editor. I wanted to improve on my weaknesses, but I knew that with such a swift deadline, I had to be very clever in order to come out with a portfolio level piece.


I used Agisoft Photoscan and a GoPro camera to capture the tree’s root base; I took a few hundred photos of the tree’s base in a span of a two hours. The day fluctuated from overcast weather to extremely sunny and I was trying to capture the tree in the most neutral lighting possible. The scan came out surprisingly well, however I had to fix many modeling anomalies and errors that riddled the tree’s roots.

I created the entire low poly model in Maya because I felt that was the best way to create an optimized model with the best silhouette. I tried ZRemesher and I tried projecting the high poly onto a decimated low poly, however I felt that the result lost the personality that the initial scan had. I realized that modeling it in Maya would take much longer, but as a result it would come out cleaner and look better. I quickly modeled the rest of the tree in Maya using reference photos and the knowledge I obtained from my sketches. Originally I planned on using two different trees to form the scene, however I later felt that using one tree, rotated around to feel different, would be more visually effective.

I used xNormal to bake the Ambient Occlusion map from the high poly model onto the low poly and I used Maya to bake and transfer the normal/diffuse maps. I then took the tree into Substance Painter to fix any baking errors as well as improve the tree’s materials.  

I found Megascans to be invaluable. I used their textures for all of the foliage in the scene. If I end up making any other scenes like this, I will definitely be using Megascans again. I was very impressed with their texture quality.

Ground and Water

The material set up for the water is extremely simple. I used a panning normal map of sand with roughness and metallic bumped up. I also overlaid a cloud map to give the illusion that certain areas of water were hit by sunlight while other areas were shadowed. I used multiple sphere reflections over the body of water to bounce the colors of the surrounding environment into the water’s reflections. I knew that that foliage and overlapping translucency would bog down frame rate, so I couldn’t afford to make a crazy water material. The ground was more complicated because I had to make all the trees feel planted into the ground.

In observing nature, I saw that overgrowth really made a tree feel like it existed. A bigger challenge was dealing with how the water merged with the ground. I originally created a material set-up where the water blended nicely when in contact with solid meshes. However, I felt like it took away from the feeling of richness and density that the simpler water material had. Again, I was at a crunch for time, so I decided to use algae and tiny plants to build up around the areas where the water came in contact with the land, obscuring all the seams. This took a while to figure out compositionally because it quickly became very visually distracting, so finding the right balance took time.  

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Other than design language, lighting a scene is the most important aspect of making a successful image, in my opinion. The process of lighting this Biome was the most enjoyable aspect of the scene’s creation for me. Apart from the initial phase of figuring out how I wanted to build my forest, I used no reference material or inspiration when I lit this scene; most of the lighting, rather, was done intuitively.

I knew I wanted to create a feeling of surrealism and to replicate the feeling of being in a dream. I was not worried about lighting the scene to feel “realistic”; I wanted to evoke a feeling. I used a single directional light and skylight to fill and brighten any areas of the image and prevent any spot in particular from getting too dark. For the rest of the piece, I used point lights and spot lights. I turned off cast shadows to many of my lights, which contributed greatly to the surreal atmosphere. I also colored the lights in certain areas to bring out specific plants or to make the foliage feel more alive. For example, I floated a few green point lights with cast shadow turned off over some of the plants to make them pop out more. In post processing, I heavily altered the hue and saturation to make the brown in the water and the green in the plants more punchy, which also contributed to the surreal feel.

In order to get light blasting in from the left, I used 4 different spot lights with cast shadow turned on as well as a few godrays add more depth. By using spot lights instead of a single directional light, I had much more control as to how the light went through the trees, which helped lead the eye around the piece.

For my night scene, I wanted to make the scene feel just as alive as the day scene, yet completely asleep. I wanted the viewer to feel as if they had to whisper if they were in this world in order to not disturb anything living there. I also wanted the scene to feel cool and humid, so I adjusted the post processing to bring out all the blues. I deleted my directional light and skylight and stuck to just using point lights and spot lights. I angled the spot lights to come down from the top of the tree branches so it would feel like the moon was just out of view, covered by branches. I didn’t make the night scene until my semester was over and I was home during winter break. Re-lighting the scene took approximately three days.

Using Unreal Engine 4

I find Unreal Engine 4 to be extremely powerful. I remember the first time I used it, I was making a simple brick wall my sophomore year and when I got it in engine for the first time I was so blown away by how it looked that I ran across campus to grab my friend and forced her to take a look. Having the possibility to make a piece like this in a game engine is nothing short of incredible to me. I find UE4 to be extremely easy to use, intuitive and fun. It reminds me of back in the day when I would go crazy with Forge in Halo 3. The biggest challenge with this scene had to do with baking the lighting. Many times the lighting would randomly break, or suddenly specific foliage would stop casting shadows and appear to be glowing. I usually had to close out of the project and reopen it, build lighting again and it would be fine.

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Max Frorer, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 1

  • Ben barnett

    I go to Ringling too. I absolutely love this.


    Ben barnett

    ·6 years ago·

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