Bringing Stylized Scenes to Life in UE4

Bringing Stylized Scenes to Life in UE4

Luis Armstrong discussed the way he’s been working on stylized city bridge scene with the help of Unreal and Substance.

Luis Armstrong discussed the way he’s been working on stylized city bridge scene with the help of Unreal and Substance. 


I’m originally from Puerto Rico, where I grew up with a love for legos and video games.  I later attended a game-art program in Florida, where I also started my first art job. I worked as an environment artist at a small studio that made adventure games for Big Fish games and similar platforms.

Today I work for scientific games, gaming division which makes games for slot machines and similar platforms.  I work as an art generalist, assisting with 3d assets, UI and motion graphics. Usually, I work on many games throughout the year, helping with whatever aspects of production need extra attention.

This is a project I started after watching a tutorial series by Thiago Klafke. After watching his videos I was inspired to make a large-scale environment.  At the time I had also seen a series of pictures of the Manhattan Bridge, and though that kind of a structure would be an interesting exercise in modularity, so I started the project.  After playing with ideas for 2 days, I knew what I wanted to achieve with this project. I wanted to make a large environment that made use of modular assets and modern production techniques.  I wanted to try techniques I don’t do often use in my day-to-day work.


I did not do a lot of planning for this project. Because I’m not very experienced with this workflow, I wanted to give myself a lot of room experiment. I was also excited for an opportunity to work on an environment without a specific end-point in mind.  I looked at a lot of real-world photographs to figure out how the structures would be assembled and to get some ideas of possible points of interest.

I went to the blackout stage almost immediately after gathering reference.  The initial blackout was built with very primitive meshes that were later refined and became the geometry that is currently at the level.

The overall layout changed slowly over time but largely remained close to what I have now.


For this project, the process has been very iterative. I was however very mindful of maintaining a consistent footprint for assets. Even though the assets were iterated on constantly, the layout required very little adjustment as assets generally occupied the same space.  I was also very mindful of making sure that details would read well at a distance, and would not result in a lot of visual noise. I tried to create as many elements as I could early on the project so that I could iterate on them while seeing their overall visual impact on the scene. 

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I have also been getting variation from the textures by using materials that support texture blending based on the vertex colors.  I use Unreal’s HeightLerp function with a custom mask (“PainterlyMask” included with presentation files) to blend between different textures.


Originally I intended to bake all the lighting for this scene. After using the distance field ambient occlusion in Unreal I think it’s a viable option to keep most of the lighting real-time, though I’m still considering doing a pass of light baking.  Ultimately baked lighting will result in the best performance and overall look. 

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For the moment I’m being very economical with shadow-casting lights, and faking some bounce-light by using non-shadow casting lights.

I have also been using planes with an additive material to fake volumetric lights for distant objects, and some of the lights in the foreground.

Final word 

I feel that for environment work it’s important to Identify what elements will have a large impact and focus on those.  It’s very easy to spend a lot of time on assets that ultimately will barely be visible in the finished product.

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Making reusable trim sheets is a huge help, though it’s also important to recognize when something won’t work with the template, and work around it if necessary.

For me setting up a few materials presents in tools such as Substance Painter and Substance Designer can also be a great way to save time.

Luis Armstrong, 3D Artist 

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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