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A small team of students from Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences did a nice breakdown of their amazing Aztec Templa. In this post, Ramon Schauer discusses the environment production techniques.
We are a team of 4 students at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences in Germany, currently studying “Animation & Game” in the 6th semester.
I am a 3D artist focusing on environment art.
During my studies I had the chance to work with Deck13 Interactive on the game The Surge. Soon, I will start my bachelor project with the goal of becoming an environment artist in the AAA games industry after graduating.
During the project, I was responsible for designing, building and lighting the temple environment seen below.
I’m an aspiring 3D character artist. Together with Ramon, I did an internship at Deck13 where I gained experience as an environment artist on The Surge. I will have finished my studies by April 2018. On this project, I was responsible ffor all aspects of the character pipeline. This included concept design, production and rigging of the characters as well as setup and implementation of an efficient motion capture workflow.
Hi! I’m an aspiring Lookdev & Lighting TD. Last year I was an intern at Trixter, working on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and now I’m getting ready for my bachelor project.
When I’m not doing 3D stuff, I like to mess around with Linux.
Responsibilities during this projects where prop creation, animatic and Sequencer implementation and lighting of the outdoor environment.
I am an aspiring 3D environment artist and content creator. I have more experience on working on pre-rendered projects as I did for example during my internship at the small visual effects studio Faber Courtial. This was my first real-time project and I really got fond of the whole workflow. Apart from pushing vertices around, I also like to come up with my own concepts and stories.
Responsible for writing, creation and design of the outdoor environment and concept art.
Project idea and goals
Given the semester topic of X-Realities we decided to create a 360° VR experience portraying an Aztec ritual.
While we were always sure that we wanted to focus on creating an immersive, high-quality experience with a focus on atmosphere we changed our main concept during the course of development.
While we changed the story quite a lot during the progress – the experience now deals with the conflict between historical accuracy and blockbuster movie marketing in a humoristic way – the overall goal of the project was still the same.
On the technical side we wanted to use Unreal Engine 4 in combination with Oculus Rift.
The decision for this was made due to Unreal Engines good support for VR while still having the ability to create high quality graphics.
Once we finished the experience we decided that we want to render out the movie as a 360° which we are currently working on.
This was made due to the fact that while the experience itself was running great on Oculus it did not made use of any kinds of positional tracking and therefore would work just as well as a video which would give us the possibility to reach more people.
As always, the whole process starts with the collection of references and a bunch of blockouts which can be iterated further.
During this project not only the overall layout and composition had to be right, we also had to think about how to guide the player’s view to the important areas as we are having a 360° experience with a fixed player position – therefore we could not use different camera angles but had to make everything look good from the player’s position.
Once the overall layout was done, the environment was split into multiple generic modules which could be reused for multiple things.
This includes generic trims and stones of different sizes, pillars, stairs etc.
Overall, the environment consists of surprisingly few modules as quite a lot of them could be reused for different purposes – the ceiling for example consists of a combination of the trim and stairs module.
The modules themselves are fairly simple stone structure (except for the statue in the center) as the details would come from smaller props and vegetation placed later.
When designing the layout it was important for us to have everything feel handcrafted and built by humans and not cavelike/natural as we did not want to portray aztec culture as a primitive culture but as a highly developed civilization.
To further enhance this feeling we used a gold material to accentuate the stone structures as stone further shows wealth and a rich culture.
The composition itself is centered around the statue and altar, on which the priest would prepare his ritual – once again guiding the players view towards what’s important.
The overall environment can be split into two categories: the environment assets used to build the actual temple layout and the smaller props filling the space.
All of the larger environment assets are blocked out in maya and then sculpted by hand in ZBrush. This is especially important for edge damage and cracks as these add a lot to the overall feeling of having actual stone structures.
As the production timeframe was really short we skipped retopology and used a combination of dynamesh and decimation master in order to create the final low poly.
While this workflow was not perfect in terms of topology and optimisation it was enough for our purposes and overall saved a lot of time.
Some smaller assets were used for some workflow experiments: the foliage was created using photogrammetry, the round ground plate was created entirely using Substance Designer.
While this gave no real advantage it was a great learning experience as it was the first time I used this tool – something I will definitely use more in future projects.
In terms of materials, I was mostly relying on the power of Quixel Suite. Using their scanned materials as a base I was able to quickly iterate and work towards the look I wanted. The scene consists of two main materials – the gold and the blue-ish stone surface. The reason we used these two material types as main materials was having a nice contrast between reflecting and more matte materials as this would also affect the way the lighting looks.
In terms of material definition I tend to focus a lot on the normal and roughness map as these two basically define the interaction of the material with light.
Adding subtle noise and/or pattern into the normal map can help break up the highlights a bit while the roughness map is a great way to add details.
Usually I spend a lot of time with this map overlaying different kinds of dirt/wear, scratches etc. onto the base material Quixel has to offer.
The difficult thing here is that you have to see your material under your specific lighting conditions, so it is important to have some lights set up already in your engine and test these often in-engine.
For both of these materials a more neutral, tiling version exists which was used in combination with unique textures in order to integrate sculpted details into the texture and make the overall detailing look more interesting.
For this the ability to create custom smart materials was really helpful as I could save my previously created tileable materials and use these as base for the unique textures which ensures a consistent look throughout the environment.
Another thing I really like to do for unique textures, especially stone, is overlaying a subtle cavity map to give some extra edge definition.
A nice little trick for this is to use the red and green channel of the normal map with the „emboss“ filter in photoshop using a value of 90 for red and 0 for green in order to get a nice, subtle edge highlight without having to bake a full curvature map which can take quite some time for larger textures.
Lighting is my favorite part of the whole environment workflow and in my opinion, can make or break an environment.
You can get away with mediocre models and low res textures if your lighting is good but not the other way around.
This is why I started creating my light setups in parallel with the initial blockout to establish the atmosphere I want as early as possible.
Thinking about light also means thinking about colors so this should be done before the actual asset production starts.
For this environment I wanted to establish a mysterious atmosphere while still keeping it colorful and interesting to look at.
Also, as this environment was done for a 360° experience without a fixed camera lighting is an important tool to guide the viewer – in this case we wanted to have the statue and the altar in front of it as focus point of the environment, which is why the white light coming from the windows highlights the statue.
On the technical side the scene was done entirely using baked lighting.
While this is a bit slower since it has to be baked it gives us the possibility of having baked GI while still being fairly cheap on terms of performance.
This was important at the beginning since we originally planned to have the experience running on Oculus Rift.
When setting up the lights I always start with as few lights as possible – a skylight and a directional light coming through the window in this case.
I then slowly add in additional lights – spotlights highlighting the statue and altar even more, point lights for fire and candles etc.
Luckily for us, Unreal Engine 4.16 added support for volumetric fog which added a lot of overall atmosphere to the scene.
After this is done I do a final pass using a post processing volume – adding a slight vignette, chromatic aberration and a subtle sharpen filter.
Finally I do some final color correction using either the given color correction tools in unreal or a custom LUT.
As we were building a 360° experience with a fixed player position we did not have the possibility to use camera motion in order to make the scene come to life.
Ultimately, we used only a few smaller effects to make the environment feel more alive – subtle wind movement on the vegetation, water dripping from the ceiling and flickering candles and fires.
However it was important that the environment was not the main focus of the experience – the player should concentrate on the character and the overall story while having the environment as a way to build up atmosphere and guide the viewer through lighting and composition.