Leah Augustine showed how she uses beautiful lighting in the production of simple and moody environments.
Hi, my name is Leah Augustine and I’m a 3D Environment Artist. I graduated back in December from the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy at the University of Central Florida, where I studied game art. Recently, I’ve moved to Atlanta, Georgia and currently work at Hi-Rez Studios on an unannounced project.
About the Project
The last few months were a bit hectic for me. In a span of about a month or two, I graduated, moved states, and started a new job. I always try to work on some sort of personal project, but during that time I wasn’t working on anything. It took me a bit of time to find a routine, but once I felt more settled in I decided to start small. That’s how The Hallway scene came to be. I had a similar idea floating around for a bit and decided to combine it with a past project that I had never finished from a few months back.
With most of my projects, I tend to choose a few elements or concepts to focus on. This helps me drive where I want the project to go. In general, it’s usually something I want to learn or get better at. In this case, I wanted to keep the scope small and forgiving on myself since I knew I only had a few hours a week to work on it. I chose to focus on lighting and mood for this project. I also wanted to try and keep the assets down to a small number of modular pieces.
As I mentioned before, I combined this project with a past unfinished project. This is how far I got on that past project:
As you can see, not very far.
But I still really liked the idea of a simple hallway with stairs. It could meet all the criteria I wanted to focus on – interesting lighting, mood, and could be built from a few modular assets.
Once I had an idea of what I was making, I started to gather references. I usually use Pinterest to gather any interesting images and then save my favorite images to a large Photoshop document.
For most of these references, I focused on finding images that had interesting lighting or matched the mood that I wanted to achieve. A few images also became inspirations for the composition of some of my shots.
The first thing I do with every project is to block out my main shot using simple geometry and set up my cameras. Since I know that I’ll want to render out screenshots and videos of my environment, getting my cameras in early helps me start thinking about composition early. It also helps me compartmentalize the scene into a few key interest points.
Luckily, since I was using assets from before, I was able to reuse them to block out my scene quite quickly. There’s nothing special about any of the meshes in this scene. Most are simple shapes, built and snapped to the grid.
The blood trail was an idea in my head from the beginning of the project to add a bit of story. Because of that the lighting then needed to reflect that tone and mood.
From past projects and mistakes, I’ve learned that keeping your lighting simple and saving post process tweaks until the end is usually your best choice. If you start messing around with post processing early, you end up fighting against it when you go to the light.
I first placed in a post process volume and only changed the Auto Exposure Min and Max Brightness to 1.0. This way I don’t have to worry about Unreal auto adjusting the scene, allowing me to have more control. I also changed the Environment Color under the World Settings to a dark blueish color. I recommend always changing this to something that is not pure black, as nothing is really ever truly black in the world.
Once that’s all set up, I start lighting. I initially started with a directional light, sky light, and three-point lights for the overhead light fixtures. The directional light is set to a very low intensity of 1 and given a slightly cool temperature to represent moonlight from outside. I used an IES light profile for the three-point lights to get a more realistic casting effect.
After I felt the lighting was at a good starting point, I added extra lights and spherical reflection probes to help the materials look less flat and to brighten up areas that I felt were too dark. These lights were all baked and kept at a very low intensity.
In general, I try and keep most of my lights static/baked unless necessary. For this project, I ended up having the blinking light movable, as well as having the other two point lights for the light fixtures set to stationary.
Basically, every asset in this scene was textured using tileable textures and material instances. I set up a master material to allow for vertex painting as well as world aligned tiling. This allowed me to only have six sets of textures: wall tiles, broken/missing wall tiles, concrete tiles, metal, rust, and concrete. I used Substance Designer to create the textures.
I tried to kept the base color on all the textures fairly light and neutral. This allowed me easily change the color of the textures in different material instances in the engine.
I used vertex painting to add things like broken tiles and rust to the scene. This helped hide repetition. Another trick to add variation is to add a mixmap to your master material. For this project, I set up a mixmap with three different grunge packed into the RGB channels. I used this map to blend with the roughness and base color. This allowed me to add subtle break-up and variation in my materials in UE4.
Decals played a huge role in this project. Since there are so few assets and materials in the scene, decals really helped break up areas and provide interest. Everything from the graffiti, blood trail, footprints, trash, and grime are just hand placed decals.
One cool trick that I like to do is use decals with just roughness (no base color or normal) to provide very subtle detail over surfaces. It provides just a little bit of break up with the right lighting.
I really wanted to create a moody, cinematic feel for this project. I tend to look to photography or film for inspiration on color grading and rendering. David Fincher’s use of blue and green tones was a big influence on this project.
I love the post process volume inside of UE4. I’m such a sucker for it and I’ll be the first to admit that I have a habit of overusing it sometimes. Playing around with the different sliders is one of my favorite things to do inside a scene. To keep myself in check, I only mess with post-process settings when I feel like the lighting is in a good place on its own.
For this project, I ended up tweaking bloom, screen space reflections (to really try and push highlights), vignetting, screen space ambient occlusion, tonemapping, and indirect lighting quality. For color corrections, I used a Lookup Table created in Photoshop.
Cameras and Rendering
For setting up my cameras I used Unreal’s Cine Camera Actor. What’s nice about this camera is that there are several different options on aspect ratios, focal length, aperture settings etc. It feels a little like using an actual camera. You can see this in some of the screenshots, but I initially set up the camera at a standard 16:9 aspect ratio. As I progressed in the project, I felt that a wider shot made the whole scene feel a bit more cinematic.
I think what really helped bring the scene together was movement. Every environment needs some kind of movement in my opinion. That’s why I added the flickering light and ambient dust (the dust is from the UE4 starter content). It helps set the atmosphere, but also breathed a bit of life into the scene.
In the end, I had a lot of fun with this project and feel ready to tackle something larger. I hope someone can find my breakdown helpful and if anyone has any questions please feel free to contact me.
I also want to give a big thanks to Kirill Tokarev and 80 LEVEL for letting me share my process with you guys.