Building Large-scale Fantasy Scenes in UE4

Building Large-scale Fantasy Scenes in UE4

A recent BAFTA award winner Kevin Mckenna talked about his amazing Black Talon Keep project.

Kevin Mckenna, a student and a recent BAFTA award winner, talked about his huge UE4 scene with an amazing keep.


Hello, my name is Kevin Mckenna. I’m currently a student at Abertay university in Scotland about to graduate from their BA(Hons) Computer Arts course. I have always loved art and games and making them is something I always wanted to do. I have dabbled in a few different projects whilst at University but the biggest, which I am most proud of, is “Among The Stones” which was created with 6 other students. I was the only environment artist on the team so it was challenging as it was a very different art style, but very rewarding and I am very proud of what we achieved. The game went on to win the “Dare to be Digital” contest and was nominated for a BAFTA “Ones to Watch” award, which we recently won! It’s been a fantastic experience and seeing people enjoying the demo at places like GDC and EGX Rezzed was wonderful.

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Black Talon Keep 

So the idea of my Honours project was about investigating current techniques and methods used by 3D artists in the industry. This involved looking into things like modularity, environmental storytelling, Physically Based Rendering and then attempting to apply them to an environment. The project was largely to allow me to fill my own skill and knowledge gaps in preparation for the attempted move to industry. My hope is that students within my university who aspire to become environment artists might read my dissertation and be able to expand their own skills and knowledge. I was very lucky to have, in addition to my amazing tutors, friends within the industry that could give me feedback and mentor me on my work. Kyle Horwood, a material artist who is fantastic with texture work, and Danny Sweeney, a 3D character artist at The Creative Assembly, who has a great eye for detail were a massive help.


When I began the project I already had a loose idea of what I would like to make. I have always loved tales like Castlevania, Dark Souls and Lord of the Rings. So I really wanted to create an environment with an aesthetic influence from these works in mind. I wrote a short narrative and from there began looking at reference images for cathedrals and castles, libraries and crypts. This narrative provided a base to work to and if I started to get off track a way to reign my ideas back in. I have a habit of being overenthusiastic with the scopes of my projects. I usually always box my environments out in 3D, it helps me to get a sense of space and scale and allows for quick iteration and testing. This was the first half of my Honours year working out space and lighting with quick low poly models. I also did some concepts for pillars and archways, mostly just basic shapes to see what could work and fit together well. The final scene and all of its modeling and lighting took about 10 weeks to complete, in addition to my dissertation. I try to use modular practices wherever I can when I model as I believe it is a great time saver, allows for much easier large scale changes and usually you can count on everything to be somewhat cohesive. I modeled everything myself in Maya and sculpted my High-Poly details in ZBrush. If I’m creating a particularly difficult asset the decimate tool in ZBrush is great for making a basic low poly to base your retopology silhouette on.

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The scale is actually something I struggled with, when you look at Gothic architecture and some fantasy worlds everything is built bigger to intimidate and wow the viewer. I wanted to create that sense of awe when you walked through the front doors and see this massive hall. For items like chairs and tables I made them bigger than what would be normal too, to allow the viewer to question the inhabitants of this abandoned place, perhaps they were a larger species? Who knows? Building the scene itself was a lot of iterative design, seeking feedback from peers and testing different rooms and layouts. Due to the modular nature of the assets I never felt as if I was restricted when designing and the keep actually took on a very different appearance than what I originally planned. The challenge was to be able to reach the scale I wanted but also be able to fill it with interesting items and story in the limited time I had available. I remember reading an article on by Jihoon Kim where he mentions the importance of harmony between empty and full, he said “Without the clean space, the eye would not be able to differentiate what is important from what is not”. I tried to keep this in mind as much as possible and have areas of interest divided by wider emptier spaces.

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The Keep

The exterior of the keep is really simple and low poly, there are a bit more vertices than necessary in the walls however for vetex painting. I started to build one wall section with a tileable texture that could be used over and over. This was comprised of one square mesh, a trim for the intersections and a pillar that was broken into three parts, bottom, middle and top. This allowed me for example, to use the bottom pillar with the wall and trim and build vertically or horizontally without incident. Whilst building vertically the trim, wall section and middle pillar could be stacked infinitely as the tiling texture blended seamlessly. This was then capped with the top pillar and the trim. These pieces formed the base of the castle, I would use the wall sections in a hexagon shape for the towers or cut archways out for the doors, it was very effective. From here I made a couple of variants of the pillars, crenellations for the tops of the walls and added murder holes and windows. The snap tools in Unreal 4 were easy to use and because of the vertex set up in Maya there was never any hassle getting the pieces to fit together. I used references from all over for this, various real castles in different states of ruin and images from online. I’m lucky that there are so many nice ancient towers and buildings in Scotland. I had a mossy variant of the wall texture and some other areas that I used with vertex painting in order to break up the tiling and give some more visual interest to areas. Particularly around holes in the castle or where ivy was creeping around.


Many of the aesthetic influences of my scene like Dark Souls for example, feature quite muted colours. I ran with that as I wanted the castle walls and stone to be very cold and grey, then have splashes of colour. I had great feedback early on that I should define an accent colour and really push its saturation to tie my scene together. This came in the form of the reds and golds of the banners, rugs and books within the library, and the orange glows from the firelight dotted around the keep. I really liked the idea of rusty, mossy colours coming into the grey of the stonework where the foliage was. I worked with Substance Designer and Painter to texture my assets and tweaked values in Marmoset Toolbag. Marmoset has a really great importer for Unreal that allowed me to import my materials directly from the viewer to my scene. It was very helpful for setting up things like parallax for the bricks and tiles. I always had to go through and tweak brightness or saturation of certain items as I added to the keep and changed the lighting, it was just a lot of testing until I found something I liked.


This is the first project where I feel I really examined atmosphere and visual storytelling through my assets. I spent a lot of time examining my favourite games and reading through interviews online to learn from great artists. Things like silhouettes and colour temperature were very important in defining the atmosphere I wanted. I was aiming for a kind of dusty, lonesome place, abandoned but still threatening. I looked a lot at Majula, the hub town from Dark Souls II and Balin’s tomb from Lord of The Rings when trying to figure out how to achieve this. I feel like for me really selling the story through seemingly disparate elements around the keep was important to my atmosphere. This was through the rubble and the skeletons, the Griffon inspired statues and elements around the area. I believe it is important to keep in mind your player and how they will view the area. For example, the great hall area with the light rays flooding through the windows illuminating the destruction and the skeletal remains. Would not be nearly as effective if the player was viewing it from a side angle for example. I am still learning the finer points of atmosphere but that, at least, is how I approached this project.

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Lighting has always been a rather big weakness of mine as I prefer scenes that are a bit darker and as a result usually lose a lot of precious details.I frequently tweaked my lighting in an effort to improve my skills. I made sure to investigate other artists work and read many interviews from artists like Otto Ostera, Jihoon Kim, Ognyan Zahariev and Georgi Gavanozov to name a few. I really wanted to maximise the atmosphere I could gain from torchlight and candlelight, especially in the library section. The sunset lighting also fit the lonely atmosphere I was going for, almost like the world was going to sleep. I just set up my directional light where I thought it would best aid the environment, which was to shine through the large windows into the main hall, illuminating the players’ first views of inside the keep. This also somewhat shrouded the front of the keep, adding to its mystery. The final lighting is something I would like to further investigate, especially with the new volumetric lighting updates to Unreal 4 recently.

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Lessons Learnt

I have learnt a lot during the production of this scene, which is easily my largest to date. With the exception of the various technical information I would say that it’s important to always look at your props and your environments history. When you create and detail them, think about their past, what have they been through. How has the environment they are in influenced them? This was important for me to learn and really helped sell my scene as a believable place. As for advice, I am obviously still learning, but talk to your peers and your contacts, get frequent feedback and always iterate on your designs. Don’t be afraid to let go of an idea to improve yourself or your work, there will always be more. There are some great groups and websites out there, like Ten Thousand Hours on Facebook, which will give you honest, in depth feedback and I thoroughly recommend you take advantage of their combined knowledge. They are more than happy to help.

Kevin Mckenna, student, BAFTA award winner

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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    Building Large-scale Fantasy Scenes in UE4