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Breakdown: Cute 3D Mill-Like House

Alice Démaret showed the work process behind the Quiet Mill House project, explaining the composition and sharing tips that can help artists be more effective.


Hello everyone! I'm Alice Démaret, I'm a 29-year-old environment artist. I joined the video game industry 2 years ago, following a career change that was mainly self-taught.

I immediately wanted to specialise in environments because they reflect what I'm passionate about in life: landscapes, vegetation, architecture, and crafts.

Most recently, I've been working for Legou Games on the mobile and PC MMORPG Call of Dragons, with an artistic direction inspired by medieval fantasy lore.

The Quiet Mill House Project

I was looking for a new project to work on, a dreamlike, stylised environment. I love Emilie Vaccarini's work, and I came across this windmill that I really liked: I immediately loved the colorimetry and the soothing atmosphere it created.

Here is Emilie Vaccarini’s concept. It ticked several boxes in terms of the personal goals I'd set for myself:

  • A complete scene: to work on my sense of harmony between different materials and
    practice composition.
  • A certain environmental storytelling: the landscape is a character in its own right,
    creating a strong sense of immersion without a profusion of objects or distractions. I
    found this soothing and satisfying.
  • A stylised art direction: straight to the point, with clean, generous lines.
  • A potential in terms of vegetation: this is probably my favourite part. I wanted it to be
    lush, imposing, and varied.
  • A bit of animation and movement.

When I start a project, I try to impose a certain amount of rigour on myself before I start producing. I'm convinced that 'wasting' a bit of time on organisation is a gain in efficiency later on. It gives a clear direction and limits mistakes during the project. So I go through these stages:

  • Researching references: this allows me to ask myself the right questions. In general, I look for references for the objects themselves and for the materials they're made of. This helps me to find the shape I want and where I want to place the cursor in terms of the stylisation of the materials, the sculpting, and so on. I mainly used real-life photos but also illustrated atlases for the plants.
  • Breaking down the concept: this allows me to think about the meshes I need to make, the extent to which I can reuse and/or modularise them, or even iterate meshes (like the trees, for example: make several with different settings to create diversity).
  • Study the general outline: I try to concentrate on the general skeleton of the blockout, the lines that I want to highlight, both on the assets and on the ground. This helps me to position the camera, the angle, and the depth of field but also to sculpt the terrain and place the vegetation afterward.
  • Think about the composition: the concept was initially for a portrait format, but I wanted to turn it into a landscape format. This involved some adaptations in terms of composition. Thus, I used the rule of thirds to help me. So:

The mill was placed to the right-hand side of the scene, which seemed to me to be the most logical because the front of the house is oriented towards the left.

The mill no longer being in the center, I wanted to balance the scene by moving this large tree away from the house in relation to the concept. It thus becomes the second core asset of this scene, an idea that appealed to me.

Between these two main elements, the eye is drawn to the path that goes from the house to the left of the stage, between the trees.

  • Plan the general sizes, placement, and proportions: it’s a scene in a natural environment, which is why it’s important to decorate it in an organic and harmonious way. What vegetation/props? What size? Where? These are the questions I asked myself. I looked at references of forests, how they are composed, what are the scales of the different elements that compose it, and I tried to apply them to my scene.


All the props were modeled in 3ds Max. I didn't make a modular kit since the assets in the scene all have a unique silhouette and they don't repeat in the scene (except for some wooden beams). For most of the assets, the workflow consisted of:

  • Modelling, mapping: 3ds Max and SpeedTree for the foliage.
  • Sculpting: ZBrush
  • Retopology: Maya
  • Baking: Marmoset Toolbag
  • Texturing: Substance 3D Designer and Painter for the assets, and Photoshop for the foliage.
    Rendering: Unreal Engine 5

For the sculpt, I mainly used Orb brushes (Michael Vicente). I import all my meshes into a single ZBrush file so that I have all the scales in front of me when I sculpt to have a consistent and harmonious level of detail between the objects.


Regarding texturing, my workflow depends on the mesh to be textured:

  • For classic materials (such as stone, plaster, wood, straw, etc.), I used Substance 3D Designer. For wooden beams or stone, given that they are sculpted, it was simply a matter of creating an albedo. For the thatched roof, on the other hand, I needed a bit more detail because I started from simple rectangular straw bales in 3ds Max.
  • For the foliage, I hand-painted the various leaves and petals in Photoshop.

Lighting & Rendering

Concerning the lighting, I also observed the concept a lot.

What are the light sources? I noted the orientation of the light and its possible rebounds, the way in which it highlights the different elements, and the opacity of the atmosphere. Thus, I directed my directional light slightly against the light and added localized spot lights to highlight the outline of certain trees, like in the concept. For added credibility, I also wanted the shadows to be soft and diffuse, given the presence of fog and clouds. It also seemed more harmonious in my opinion. To achieve this, I increased the source angle of the directional light.

What are the main nuances/hues? I tried to reproduce this “end of day” lighting with a slightly low sun. It gives interesting shadows and reinforces the warm side of this scene although the colorimetry is rather cold. Furthermore, I stuck to the rule, which says that most of the time a warm light casts a cold shadow, so my point lights are slightly orange, and my shadows (settings in PostProcessVoume) are blue.

Are there any particular weather elements or natural events?

In the concept, it seemed to me that the star of the show was the omnipresent fog. This brings credibility in my opinion, because we often observe this phenomenon precisely in the great plains and especially around bodies of water. So I added a fairly thick blue/purple fog on the river and at the back of the scene.

In addition, I wanted to add particles in the air. I found that they brought credibility and consistency to the scene. One can believe that these are the first fireflies of the evening or pollen suspended in the air. I found that it worked well in this specific case.

As far as the post-production settings are concerned, here’s what I did:

  • Added a bloom: in a stylised natural environment like this, I think it lends itself well to this!
  • Sharpened materials: because with the fog and bloom, I felt the scene had lost resolution. I used this tutorial.
  • Slightly boosted saturation and contrast.


Here are the factors that helped me to be more effective:

  • Be organised: taking the time to lay the foundations of a project before starting to create saves time later on. This means studying the concept at length when there is one, finding the right references, and thinking about the right workflow for each element... I also make myself a to-do list before a work session to set myself objectives, which sometimes brings the satisfaction of fulfilling my objectives for the day! Even a simple habit like naming and filing your files correctly is important.
  • Get a fresh look: I personally find it hard to take a step back from my work in progress, so I use every trick in the book to 'refresh' my eye. At the end of each work session, I take a photo of the WIP and import it into Photoshop to put it in the mirror, black and white, etc. Having an outside opinion also helped me a lot to improve myself.
  • Have fun and experiment! I see personal projects as a way of escaping, a moment for myself where I can have fun without constraints. At the end of the day, I make decisions about the direction my project should take and how much time I want to put into it. It gives me self-confidence and makes me happy to take this time for myself!

Thanks to 80 Level for this wonderful opportunity and to you for reading! I'm very grateful to be able to contribute just a little bit to this community.

A big thank you to Florian Elie for his help and advice throughout the execution of this project. He's one of the most talented artists I know, and I recommend you check out his work!

Alice Démaret, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Gloria Levine

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