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Ronald Houtermans shared with 80 Level editor in chief Kirill Tokarev a breakdown of his beautiful urban environment, which combines scanned materials with beautiful shaders and lovely lighting.
Hi, my name is Ronald Houtermans and I’m an environment artist from the Netherlands. I started at a couple indie studios and for the last two years I’ve been working as an environment artist for Nixxes Software, where I’ve worked on Rise of the Tomb Raider: Blood Ties DLC and am currently working on an unannounced project.
About the project
I came across the ‘behind closed doors’ website for urban exploration and I knew I really wanted to make something amazing looking like the photos on there, I spend a couple hours just browsing all the different types of buildings and saving reference. I felt like an urban setting was really missing from my portfolio, and I’m a big fan of The Last Of Us’ art, so I wanted to make an abandoned looking building and learn more about materials and creating foliage.
I made a reference board that had elements that I really wanted to create, I used certain walls from one environment, and a ceiling from another. Gathering proper reference really helped me out a lot. The main reason for using that website and creating the ref board was that I didn’t want to spend many hours experimenting with layouts and set dressing… which ended up happening anyway, but at least I think I had a more solid base thanks to the crazy amount of reference available.
Above a very early state of the environment,, this wall was my starting point as a test to see what kind of elements I would need and to establish the quality I wanted. I used a blend map for the different coats of paint on the wall. I also used decal projectors to create some unique dirt patches, leaking damage and holes in the wall. Then I created some modular assets like the pipes, vents and cables. I also wanted to paint in a first pass of the foliage. When I was happy with this keyhole scene I started planning out the rest of the scene and assets.
I wanted to learn more about photogrammetry, so after reading up on the subject I took some photos of the side of my apartment building and created a tiling texture using substance designer and painter. I also took a couple of ivy leaves with me that ended up in the scene.
I created a tileable smart material setup in painter that I could easily re-use on all the pipes, beams and other metallic surfaces. The paper press basically has the same workflow, just with a lot more layers and time spends in Substance Painter. It uses one 4k and two 2k textures.
Using scanned materials
Some of the foliage in the scene are Megascan texture assets, like the ferns, moss, and grass. For the paper press I wanted to work with layers, do the texture pass in Substance Painter, model in the spiderwebs and paint in the moss with the UE4 mesh painter.
A quick (unlit material) example of the moss pass I did over the press and some other props in the scene. To make it a bit more fluffy looking I ended up painting the moss pretty dense on the paper press itself. Less so on other areas where it was not that important or less obviously present.
Lighting this scene was harder than I expected. Way too early on I started experimenting with lighting and post-processing, which was a mistake. It was fun, but it took a few hours on the total that I could’ve spent elsewhere. I ended up with something too bright looking, I was in too much of a rush wanting to see the end result I guess, but it did help me to figure out what I didn’t want. I experimented with different light setups, but ended up deleting it all and used a skylight and a directional together with volumetric fog.
Keeping the lighting setup simple really improved the scene a lot. After adding just the skylight and directional light the scene was too dark, I already had a collapsed / open roof, so I removed parts of the ceiling where I wanted the light to hit the paper press and the wall behind it. Adjusting the environment to the directional light helped to make the lighting look more natural, instead of using a lot of point lights to fix darker areas. In the end, I think there are about four soft point lights to help bring more attention to the centerpiece and the doors behind it.
With some optimizing this scene should run fine as a game environment. My biggest priority for this scene was to make it look pretty, but I did keep performance in the back of my mind. The scene is missing proper LOD work, and it’s usually around 2100 draw calls and 60+ FPS minimum in the editor. It should be able to run much faster with some optimizing though. The most surprising part was that the entire scene is around 10+ million triangles, but it still runs great. the entire floor has, for example, is pretty dense to allow for some vertex painting, without LOD’s and higher resolution textures everywhere. I think the moss for the entire scene added another 1 mil triangles, however, the engine handles this wonderfully with grouping up instanced meshes like foliage, etc.
And finally, I got a lot of great feedback on things like set dressing, lighting and pushing color values from communities like polycount, 10k group on Facebook, colleagues, and friends who helped me push this even further. Without them, I would have never taken it this far. Thanks a lot! 🙂
Ronald Houtermans, Environment Artist at Nixxes Software.
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.