Building Snowy Stylized Scenes with UE4 & Substance

Efrem Pivetti gave a talk on his beautiful stylized scenes with an awesome warm mood made with UE4, Substance Painter, Maya, and ZBrush.

Efrem Pivetti gave a talk on his beautiful stylized scenes with an awesome warm mood made with UE4, Substance Painter, Maya, and ZBrush. 


Hi! My name is Efrem Pivetti, I am a student of 3D art from Milan, Italy.

After my Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture at Polimi, I started a 3 years-course of Real-Time Graphics at the Event Horizon School. Now I am a 3rd-year student and, in addition to the school program, I collaborate as a 3D environment artist with the school, and work on asset production for VR Archiviz application as a freelance artist.

At the same time, with my personal projects, I keep practicing every day in order to improve my knowledge and skills as a 3D artist.

The project

The scene was born from the possibility to make a piece for my portfolio. It was built around the little house, that was an asset that I have done as an exercise on ZBrush sculpt and stylized texture.

(The house is based on a concept by Airborn Studios – Albion Online ).

Having a break between school and work projects, I took the opportunity to challenge myself in stylized production and test crunch time environment art, so I gave myself a week to complete the project. 

The house

For the house, I started with a detailed blockout following the concept. I sculpted all the details with ZBrush, using mostly the basic tools (trim dynamic, hpolish, clay), and some brushes from the Orb-brushes pack by Michael Vicente.

After the retopology in Maya, I moved to Substance Painter for the baking and texturing.

For the UV’s I made 2 sets, one for the base and one for the top to achieve a good resolution. With a good level of detail baked from the hi poly mesh, I was able to use some masks with flat colors for the edges and the dirt to obtain a nice-looking stylized texture.

With soft brushes, I made some color adjustment and I used a mask with a light generator to create a cool shade of color to highlight more details.

Environment Production

I had the scene in my mind for a while but before starting I searched for some reference to build the mood, the lighting and assets style.

I also made my color palette based on the colors I used for the house.

The first step for me was to set up a very simple blockout to better visualize the scene with a basic lighting setup that can show me the best direction for the project.

I started creating the rock that in a natural environment usually help me to define the space.

With these 2 assets and with the help of some sketches made on paper I started to compose the scene and made some lighting tests working with hot and cold contrast.

After this, first I made a list of simple and fast props to do, following some reference, I made the blockout out of the meshes and composed the almost definitive scene.

To finalize the assets I followed the same workflow used for the house: details in Zbrush, retopo in Maya, and texturing in Substance.

Thanks to the work previously done for the house I was able to create smart materials and work more quickly on the props texturing, so I adjusted only some color and added some details by hand.

For plants and trees, I just did some planes for the leaves and made my own simple texture using Substance Painter. With the opacity channel, I made the shape of the branches, some color variation and added the snow on the top.

The Mountain

In order to obtain a nice view from the cliff, I thought to create a mountain.

I used World Machine with very simple settings, exported the mesh that I decimated in Zbrush and bake normal and occlusion maps that I used in Unreal 4 with just a flat gray color.

For this asset I really don’t care too much about optimization, the mountain works really good for the scene so that was enough for me.

Materials and Terrain

Regarding the materials, I set up the master materials I need in Unreal 4 with some parameters in order to control with instance materials all the maps in real time.

I use a master material with vertex normal to make the snow fall naturally on the meshes.

For the terrain, I used 3 layers with 2 materials functions for soft snow and ice, I also added a color+normal layer to make some color variation painting by hand.

Using materials instances, I was able to change in no time the textures and balance the parameters to achieve the result that works better for the scene.

For the snow, I used some texture I had in my library and increased the intensity of the dots in Photoshop in order to maximize the reflection on the ground and to get a more toon and soft looking.

For the ice I used this material of which I used only the normal map to keep a more flat style.

Lighting and Post Process

The lighting for me was the most difficult part, from the very first steps I made a lot of small changes. I worked with all static lights and draft settings to see all the changes on the lightmap in less time. I used orange lights to obtain a warm mood near the house and I created a contrast with cold blue from the skylight and the directional light. I also added a green spotlight from the left with the intent to recall northern lights and, thanks to the fog, I obtained a nice shade on the background. To make some details more visible I used some point lights without shadow casting. 

Main lights:

Secondary lights:

Details lights:

The post process finalized the scene. I added a little more saturation to obtain a more toon-like effect, furthermore, I increased the value of the bloom that creates a sort of fairy and peaceful mood.


Considering this exercise as a speed test, I am really happy about the result.

I managed to do all I had in my mind, which means I was able to proportion the size of the project based on my skills. I accomplished the project in 6 days and I use the last one to produce screenshots and cinematic.

This small personal “art test” challenged me to work and think faster moreover I had to carefully manage my time. Thanks to this exciting project, I get some more confidence on my skills for the stylized environments and improved my knowledge of the engine.

I am aware that I still have a lot to learn but I think that this project has taken me a step forward to enter the field as a professional.

Efrem Pivetti, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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