Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Elisabeth-Rose Smith did a little talk about her outstanding ‘Cat’s Cradle’. This was her main project, when she studied at Ringling College of Art and Design. Great work with colors, beautiful modeling with Maya and Zbrush. All rendered in UE4.
My name is Elisabeth-Rose Smith, but I go by Elisabeth or Lizzie. I was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, and recently graduated from 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. Drawing was always a part of my life, and transitioning into art as a career was a simple one.
Working with my classmates Justine Hamer, Mary Cassin, and Brittany Shively at Ringling was one of my favorite experiences. I was part of a group project we dubbed “Le Vache d’Espace,” about a restaurant deep in the bowels of space (inspired by Hitchhiker’s guide). We only had a month of planning and a month of execution, but the end result was fantastic, and we got a nod from the unreal Twitter, which was pretty neat.
The main project in my portfolio, Cat’s Cradle, was my thesis project at Ringling. It was an opportunity to show off, display everything I’d learned up till now. What I personally wanted to achieve was to create a world people wanted to see more of, and something that felt unique. Keeping everything in scope was also a major goal of mine–we had 8 months for this project, which sounds like a lot, but it was a push even till the end.
Yarn was originally a very key element to the project, but I scaled back on it a bit after Unravel was announced – I didn’t want to run into any issues!
When I first went into this project, my main inspiration came from a semester of learning about Buddhism – I was drawn in by Thai architecture and wanted to base the entire project off of that, despite it being a mostly indoor piece. There are two spaces–a circular/vertical “temple” and the Purrvana garden. Another key motivation was cats—they’re one of my favorite animals and I just wanted an excuse to sculpt a couple! I’m not sure if the Thai influence is still apparent in the final version but the cats sure are.
As for style — my original target was something like Uncharted 2 mixed with Dragon Age Inquisition, but it sort of evolved as I went. I wanted something that felt exaggeratedly realistic, so I pushed my colors and kept the scale and textures as realistically fitting as possible.
For the most part, all my meshes start in whatever Autodesk modeling software I’m using–for Cat’s Cradle it was Maya, but I’ve been learning more 3ds Max recently. Once I had the dimensions I wanted, and the blockouts in their general place in engine so I can confirm if they fit the scene, I go into high poly if necessary.
When I make assets in Maya, one of my favorite tools is the Mirror function. Most of the objects in the scene were made a half or a quarter at a time, and then mirrored to get the other bits exactly right. It’s a bit of a basic strategy, but it works really well for me.
The statues had a different process. They were all Zbrush from the start. It was easier for me to do the blockout using Zspheres for the cats’ organic shapes. Most of the time I build the base in maya and then take it into Zbrush for detailing.
Patterns. Patterns, patterns, patterns. I went into Photoshop and made really high resolution, smooth black and white patterns (Lazy Nezumi was a godsend). I could then append those on top of tiling textures. Most of those tiling textures are from sources like textures.com and similar sites that I adjusted in Photoshop. I’m not afraid to stack textures on top of each other in multiply layers until I get what I want.
For assets like the statues, I used 3D coat and Substance Painter to draw what I wanted onto the model, and then did the actual texture work in Quixel Suite. I didn’t know Designer at the time and that was what was easiest and looked best for me.
For this project, I used Unreal 4.8. 4.10 is the latest release that runs smoothly on my PC, so I wanted to at least be safe from multiple crashes while working on it. It’s the only engine I really know, so to me it’s simple and intuitive, but I know it’s not the case for others. Considering I started with UDK, the material editor and Blueprint are fantastic. I appreciate the artist-friendly interface.
As for worst features, I struggled a lot with the foliage shaders with this project–they’d light weird, or show up black when lighting was built. My personal solution was to add a touch of emissive to the material, but it still plagued me for a while.
My basic idea was to guide the player upwards through the space, from the bottom of the temple up to Purrvana. ‘Heavenly’ was the main adjective I was dealing with–in the temple, to give you a sense of wanting to go up, to cross to wherever that light came from; in Purrvana, to feel like you’re in an otherworldly space. I hope it communicated well.
For the implementation, I had inspiration images on my Pinterest board of fields in a hazy sunset, and a powerful image by SeanSoong on deviantART that inspired the lighting in the temple. I aimed for one main directional, and spotlights supporting and creating ambiance off that main light shaft. There are lanterns in other places in this environment, but the Dominant Directional was always the most important. I started by using exact temperatures to determine the colour and quality of the light, but soon I got a little creative and started altering colour until it looked appealing rather than just technically accurate. After that it was mostly making mistakes until I didn’t cringe at what it looked like, balancing bounce light versus shadows, and iterating on some great feedback. What I’m proudest of is the light bouncing off the platform and hitting the bokeh DOF around the mouse–it was something I turned on for fun and then realized how good it actually looked.
Honestly, the lighting in Cat’s Cradle was one of the most frustrating bits to do for the majority of production, and a skill that I need more work in. The spaces were combined in the same map at the start of the project, which lead to issues with World Settings as well as dealing with the Dominant Directional. Once I separated the two spaces, life suddenly got a lot easier. That was a trial-and-error process that I learned a lot from. Also, early on I accidentally activated a setting that replaced my baked shadows an AO visualization–don’t do that! Because of that, most of the lighting is Dynamic.
What kind of advice would you give to beginners or people, who don’t have the opportunity to go to college, but want to try environment creation?
I went to college so my advice might be moot, but I would say–go back to the basics. Even if you aren’t the best at drawing, sketch and paint and get your hands on some real clay and physical environment making. Knowing how things are made in real life gives you an advantage in design and knowing how things fit together.
Also, don’t go in expecting to do an entire environment at once. It’ll overwhelm you. If you want to learn modeling in Maya or Zbrush, or texturing in Substance, don’t jump into every single program at once, or start by modeling an entire human. My first model was a wall with a built-in window, and it sucked, but I had to start somewhere. Once you are comfortable with the first program (for that I mean you can model, UV, and apply some sort of texture to an object), then move on to something new.
For example, my latest project for the past few months has been a small cottage. It’s got a lot of props, and I felt bogged down by how much I had to do–so I took some of the assets and made a smaller scene with it. It was a much better way to practice, and it was something done, which was the most important thing of all.