Building a Desert Scene with Modular Kit & Trim Sheets

Chris Sims talked about the production of his recent scene Swallowed by The Desert made in UE4: modular approach, texturing, cloth simulation, sand, and lighting.

Introduction

Greetings. My name is Chris Sims and I’m a self-taught Environment & Level Artist. I first got a taste of working with 3D environments in the Hammer World Editor, which is the level editor for Valve’s Source Engine. I spent a long time creating maps for multiple Source Engine games before eventually transitioning over to Unreal Engine 4. This is when I heard the term “environment artist” used for the first time. I always wanted to do something in the game industry, but I was never sure what exactly. Once I learned what an environment artist was it just clicked inside my head. That’s when I knew I found my passion and I’ve been focusing on those skills ever since.

Swallowed by The Desert

Swallowed by The Desert: Inspiration

With each new personal project, I try to challenge myself and go outside of my comfort zone. I absolutely love desert environments in video games, but I’ve never attempted to create one myself. That's why I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to push myself in working with a biome I’m not familiar with. With that in mind, I went over to Pinterest to start looking around for possible inspiration. I started by searching general terms such as “desert” or “sand”, and then clicking on pictures that interested me. The pictures led me down a rabbit hole of more and more related pictures. Pinterest is easily my favorite way of quickly searching for reference pictures. 

Eventually, I found something that caught my attention. A picture of a room swallowed by sand. The walls had a bright shade of red and it just looked so surreal. I never saw anything like it before. I clicked on the picture for more information and saw that it was from a place called Kolmanskop, Namibia, an abandoned diamond-mining town where all of the buildings have been invaded by sand over the years. After finding the inspiration, I started saving all of the pictures in Pureref, a simple program that allows for easy reference picture management.

I made sure to pay close attention to the sand in each reference. I wanted to avoid randomly filling my scene with sand for the sake of it. The placement and buildup had to make sense or else it wouldn’t feel believable and grounded. In most of the reference pictures, I noticed the sand resting near open windows and doors because it was being blown in from the outside, so I made sure to incorporate that into my environment.

Blockout & Modular Pieces

For this project, I chose a modular approach to build architecture. There were so many repeating windows and walls that it was much easier to create a few modular pieces instead of trying to make everything a unique mesh. I took one of my reference pictures into Photoshop and started breaking down the scene.

I specifically looked for repeating elements that I could turn into a modular kit. The windows were the most obvious ones as they took up a majority of the scene. The ceiling and floor have a lot of repetition as well, but you can see there is some variation in them. The ceiling has a broken section, the floor also looks like there is a big hole missing in the foreground. I used this as inspiration and created destroyed versions of the roof and ceiling.

The most important rule to follow when creating a modular kit is to make sure everything is on the grid. This will save many headaches later when everything fits together at the start. I set my grid spacing to 10.0cm which is the same as Unreal’s grid. A trick I use to ensure everything fits together is to use powers of 2 for the length of your pieces. That way you can divide the bigger meshes into smaller sizes and they will still easily fit together.

For example, the length of this floor piece is 512cm. I divided that number by 2 and the resulting number is 256cm which is the length of the two walls. Having a standard like this guarantees your pieces will always snap together.

Once I finished blocking out the modular kit, I quickly assembled them inside 3ds Max. This way I could test if the walls and floors fit together before exporting everything into Unreal.

Texturing & Trim Sheets

The scene is mostly made up of tiling materials from the Quixel Megascans library and a trim sheet I sculpted in ZBrush before texturing in Painter. I love Megascans because it greatly speeds up my workflow and allows me to focus more on composition and set dressing. One of my favorite materials from the library used in this scene was the “Salt Mine Wall” material. Despite the fact that its name sounds like it belongs rather to a cliff mesh, it was a perfect match for the red plaster walls in my reference pictures.  

Before working on the trim sheet, I went back and looked at the modular reference again. I scanned the image for repeating textures I could use as a trim sheet. The door frame was a perfect contender for it as I would be able to use it all over the scene. For the actual construction of the sheet, I used Tim Simpson’s trim sheet tutorial as a guide. It’s a fantastic resource and I recommend everyone checking him out.

I first started with some low poly geometry in 3ds Max and exported the trim into ZBrush where I began subdividing and chipping away at the edges to create some nice bevels. 

I didn’t go too crazy with the sculpting. I just wanted good bevels and edge damages so that the smart materials in Substance Painter had something to work with. Once I was done, I exported out the sculpted trim and brought it back into Max. Substance Painter has the ability to bake a color ID mask onto your low poly mesh, so I gave each trim a unique color depending on the material type. 

As I’m going to be baking this onto a flat plane, the ID map will allow me to mask out specific trims to apply different smart materials on each one. Once the ID map is baked, you can add “color selection” to a blank mask and pick which color you want to mask.

For most of the wood assets, I used the “Viking Wood” smart material from Substance Share. It’s one of my favorite wood materials. The Viking trim on the wood wasn’t useful to me, so I just removed it thanks to Painter’s non-destructive workflow. 

I used this trim sheet all over the scene. The window and door frames, the molding on the walls and basically anywhere else I could reuse it. The more I reuse the sheet the more texture memory I can save. The door on the right of this screenshot was also textured in Substance Painter, however, I had to split some UVs along the frame and rotate them so that the orientation of the wood was correct. Doing this results in a realistic look as this is how a wooden door in real life would be made.

Sand

I decided to take a simple approach to the sand. The dunes are just flat meshes I deformed using soft selection in 3ds Max. I then placed them around where they would make the most sense such as the open windows and doorway. I added a DitherTemporalAA node to my master material which helps blend the edges of the sand meshes so they don’t have a hard edge when intersecting. I used 0.4 as the default dither amount which gives a decent result. In the gif below you can see how the Dither node helps transition between the sand and the floor.

Cloth Simulation in Marvelous Designer

Marvelous Designer is a great resource for Environment Artists and an easy way to create cloth assets to place in your level. I used it for the rug and curtain props in this scene. Because the rug is a unique mesh that is sitting on top of the broken floor, I had to bring a chunk of the level into Marvelous Designer to use it as a frame. To do that, I selected the part of the level I wanted, then right-clicked and selected “Merge Actors” near the bottom of the menu. This will bring up a dialogue box of the selected meshes. Hit “merge” and that will save a merged version of those meshes. To export them, right-click on the merged mesh in your content browser, highlight “asset actions” and then “export.” This will allow you to export the mesh as a .FBX file that can be used in Marvelous.

Once exported, you can import the mesh into Marvelous by going to File>Import>FBX. Select your .FBX and it will load inside Marvelous. Once I had the level inside Marvelous, I played around with getting different shapes from the simulation. I thought it would be interesting to have a rug hanging off the broken boards of the floor. So I simulated a very basic rectangle on top of the broken section, and the cloth took shape around the floor and wooden beams.

Once I was done simulating, I took the cloth into ZBrush to clean up the mesh using the ZRemesher tool. I set the target poly count to about 1 or 2. Just enough for the rug to not lose its shape. Doing this brings the total active points from 47,000 down to around 2,000.

I’m only scratching the surface of Marvelous Designer. I recommend checking out Marcel Schaika’s Introduction to Marvelous Designer for a detailed look into using this software for Environment Art. 

Lighting

I first started with a lighting template provided by Tim Simpson. It was a great jump start as it allowed me to quickly set the tone of the environment. The template was fully customizable so I tweaked it to get the desired look.

The scene was primarily lit by a stationary light environment. My lightmass settings are below:

Some of the settings, such as Indirect Lighting Bounce and Quality will increase build times, but in my opinion, it’s worth it because it results in some really nice bounced lighting. Although you can still lower it when doing test bakes. I only had to use a few “fake” lights to brighten up the darker spots. I used post-processing to achieve the warm and dusty look by tweaking the contrast on the red side. I also used a tiny amount of film grain to make the textures look a little crisper. Some people don’t like film grain, but it’s honestly a guilty pleasure of mine. There is a tiny amount of bloom added to make the sun glow around the windows. It's easy to go overboard with bloom so I made sure to use it in moderation.

Improving Portfolio

I think having a strong hero shot is important for grabbing people’s attention. If you have a great hero shot as your Artstation thumbnail, it’s going to stand out among other people’s work and won’t get lost in the flood. I recommend researching photography and composition to help understand what makes a shot interesting. The Photographer's Eye by Michael Freeman is a fantastic book covering composition.

I also believe that scenes based on a unique setting or a piece of concept art not many people have seen before will draw attention. There is a lot of competition out there, so having a captivating scene will help your profile stand out. 

Afterword

Overall, I’m very happy with how the scene turned out. The project only took about a month to finish thanks to the modular approach and use of Megascan materials. I also learned about the surreal location of Kolmanskop which is now one of my favorite places on Earth. I hope to visit those sand-filled houses one day. Special thanks to the Quixel Discord for providing feedback along the way as well as 80.lv for giving me the opportunity to break down this scene. I have learned so much from other artists on this site and I’m honored to have the chance to share my scene here. Thanks for reading!

If you want to contact me, use the links below:

 

Chris Sims, Environment & Level Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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    Building a Desert Scene with Modular Kit & Trim Sheets