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Environment artist Chico Spans gave an exclusive look at his amazing Domus Romana environment created in Unreal Engine 4. In this post he talks about the production of the set, the meshes, materials and gorgeous lighting.
My name is Chico Spans I’m from Amsterdam, The Netherlands but currently reside in Breda where I study the International Game Architecture and Design course at NHTV, before I worked at Sticky Game Agency doing various commercial game projects like 300 : Seize Your Glory, Man of steel: Heroes Flight and others.
Roman House Environment
When I started this scene it was actually never meant to become a complete scene, I was looking for a modeling challenge and came across corinthian pillars and was interested in making the rather complicated capital, the first attempt at doing this I actually failed horribly, I did not understand the shapes well enough to build it so I considered the first try a study to understand the shape, and when I woke up the next day I started with version 2, this one was a success and I was so happy with the result that I wanted to explore making a scene with it, for the scene I wanted to explore a look and feel of a rich Roman citizen but also wanted the scene to feel used and have some sense of a story so that is the main reason I am showing roman bricks through the plaster on the wall.
Usually when I decide I am going to make a scene it is usually when I got some free time on hand and when my schedule gets busier afterwards it is hard to keep focussed and motivated to work on it, so with this scene I told my self I would not pick up any other (personal) projects until this one was finished, I posted it up on polycount and got some reactions on it, this helped alot keeping motivated across the project.
Composition of the Scene
To make sure this was a project I could finish, I knew I had to make composition that was visually appealing , simple to understand and not all too time consuming to keep everything manageable and eventually decided on doing a hallway. I kept the sides open to give the impression there is more to it than just the hallway, that is also the reason there is a suggestion of another room in the hallway, to spice it up a little I used a dutch angle on the “main” shot.
Adding the Details
The tools I used for this project are mainly 3Ds Max, Zbrush and Photoshop, I did the pillar first and decided to do a scene after that, so the first step was to build a blockout to sell myself the idea, usually I approach my blockouts as a sketch and not absolute positions, this allows me to have more creative freedom in the next stage. Later in the process I picked up Substance Designer and then realized the power of SD, I figured I would redo the floor because the existing one seemed quite dull after looking at it for a while.
For the placement of the leafs and branches I went with my main tools and added Speedtree to have better control over leaf density and placement. And for all the architectural details I first modelled a base mesh in 3Ds Max which I then smoothed to get better results when eventually using the dynamesh function in Zbrush where I added all the edge damage and smaller details.
At the beginning this workflow seemed quite time consuming but as the project processed I could re-use some shaped I made before and mold them into new assets.
for assets like the floor I created various tilesets to populate the environment. For the walls I wanted a little more variety and could not cut them up like the floor because there weren’t any obvious tiles so I used vertex paint to achieve some variety and not make the wall look tiling. I also use what I would not call a golden rule because there are exceptions but whenever I have a part with a lot of details I make sure to mix it up with a part with low amounts of detail, in most cases this guides the eye better and make the detail really pop out.
Production of the Materials
The materials in the scene are all pretty straightforward except for the vertex paint one but that one also does not require a rocket scientist to work on it, they all use the basic PBR setup utilizing a Albedo,Ambient occlusion, Roughness map, and for all the gold I use a Metalness map, most of them have been made in Xnormal and Photoshop, in Xnormal I bake a Normal,Cavity,Ambient Occlusion and Curvature map and use these as overlays in photoshop and then start picking my colors and use brushes to get variation and paint my primary detail, for the smaller detail I use photo sources and blend them in with my existing texture or take the entire thing to Substance and add more detail there.
The colors in the scene are a product of tweaking across the entire project, when doing colors it is important to have reference available at all times, and preferably reference without a lot of lighting information so you can have a better look at the actual color instead of the color affected by light, also whenever I work on texture and color I always have my pipeline set up in a way that everything is already in-game and I can tweak it there instead of a 3d modeling application, this allows me to tweak the colors based on what they are actually going to look like.
For the colors in Domus Romana I wanted to achieve a warm feeling capturing the roman culture. Most of the items are stone or gold so the colors for those were pretty plain and simple, and looking at reference images I saw the color red was very important in roman culture so I knew I had to do a couple of accents of red to make the scene look more interesting and still have the roman culture in there.
Also I try and collect as many feedback as I can both from forums and co-students , that is where I get industry oriented feedback like “The material on the plant seems to have a too high roughness value” but also from people around me, my girlfriend is a great example of this because she has no clue about the technical struggle of some aspects but that makes the feedback more straightforward and honest in some scenarios. I then think about the feedback and check if I agree with them and make changes based on that.
For the plants I needed to keep in account it was a warm country and it needed to be trees and plants that are capable of growing under those circumstances and made the tree and the cone plant brown and at this point the spherical plants were still very green, a lot of people commented on this but I had some trouble getting the color right so a friend of mine helped me pinpoint the right shade for it.
For the lighting I find it important to keep in control, I add 1 light at a time and make sure to maximize the potential of that light the daylight scene uses 1 directional light which I use as the main light source and shadow caster, I then used another skylight to control the shadow color and density.
For the night scene I used Unreal’s default fire particles, and points lights to cast some shadows and make the orange pop out more, I also changed the color of the sunrays and added a skylight instead of the secondary directional.
The god rays are done using image planes with some stretched UV’s to save some texture space and still have a long ray, it’s an additive material with an opacity map, this version there is no movement applied but sometimes I use this technique and use a secondary opacity panning back and forth over the original opacity mask to create the illusion of movement.
I started working on this scene 9 months ago and only worked on it during my freetime and really saw this as a way to relax and output my creativity, I pursue a full time study as well so the production time was extremely long , it was very hard to keep processing the scene at some points, especially during exams etc. one of the most difficult things to do while working at this scene was keeping the whole style consistent, I also learned and progressed alot during these 9 months and some assets where already below my current quality standard , also because there would be times I did not work on this for weeks it was hard to keep the style the same because I never really got the chance to stay in the same style and had to figure it out again every time I started working in this
I had a great time working on this scene and am really happy with the end result and positive comments gained from the community.