Aspiring 3D Environment Artist Lily Lee has told us more about the Harujinja project, showing just how easy it is to get started with Unreal Engine 5 as a beginner.
Hi, I'm Lily Lee, and I'm an Environment Artist from Vancouver, Canada. I've always been interested in art and animation/games but was unsure of how to pursue it as a career.
I enjoyed drawing traditional landscapes, and in 2021, I finally had the time and resources to start studying with the Think Tank Training Centre. When I began the program, I didn't know much about 3D, but during the intensive 16 months, I immersed myself in the software and projects and developed a deep understanding of how to create environments in both the film and game workflows.
Since completing the program early this year, I have worked with WingFox – an online art learning platform to produce an art course demonstrating how to create a 3D environment in Unreal Engine. In the course, I explain each step of the environment creation process, from concept ideation to final renders in the engine. Now I am working with Leartes Studios to create a playable Unreal Engine 5 environment.
Getting Started With Unreal Engine
I learned about Unreal Engine midway through my studies – I was working on a large modular asset environment and was recommended to light the scene in Unreal Engine. Before this, I only considered Unreal Engine as a game engine that required a lot of programming knowledge to work in. However, when I learned it could be used as a lighting engine, I got curious and started researching it. I came across some videos on the Unreal Engine YouTube channel and was blown away by the lighting and how nice the scenes looked with Unreal Engine rendering. I also saw a behind-the-scenes video of the Mandalorian where they used a curved screen with Unreal-animated scenes as backgrounds during the live taping, which I thought was a great integration of real-time engine software in film production.
Although I didn't have the time to integrate Unreal Engine 5 into my project that term, I decided to make a goal for myself to learn Unreal Engine for my final term. I pivoted from my original 3D film path, and for my mentorship, I searched for a games industry mentor to help me learn the game's workflow. My first UE5 project, Harujinja, was created with the assistance of my mentor, Declan Hart, a very talented artist from Digital Extremes. He is a Principal Environment Artist on the game Warframe and was very helpful during my transition from offline rendering to a real-time engine.
When I began using Unreal Engine in my final term at Think Tank, I had a year of experience building 3D environments in Maya and rendering in V-Ray, but I didn't have any experience with real-time engines. It was intimidating at first because I wasn't sure where to start.
Before the start of my mentorship, I decided to try to learn the basics of the engine on my own. I looked up starter tutorials on YouTube, read up on the Unreal Engine documentation, and found some resources from my school's online portal that helped explain the UI setup. I was unsure about a lot of details, such as which version of Unreal Engine to download and what kind of project template best suited my scene. Luckily, the large availability of up-to-date resources, as well as active 3D art communities helped me with the decision-making process.
These resources helped introduce me to Unreal, but it wasn't until I started working with the engine that I started to gain a better understanding of the software. The navigation is similar to other modeling programs, so it was quite easy to pick up. Having the content browser host all the asset meshes, textures, and materials of each project made it easy to keep organized and start building out my scene efficiently. My mentor was also very helpful in guiding me through some technical questions throughout the term.
The Engine's Main Advantages For Beginners
Unreal Engine has many strengths for artists and developers. A big one for junior artists like myself is the accessibility and availability of learning resources. Unlike 3D software of similar quality, Unreal Engine is free to use and is updated frequently. Epic provides many helpful and diverse resources such as Quixel Megascans, which has a huge library of assets, Quixel Bridge, which is built into the engine to make the asset import process very quick and seamless, and the Epic Developer Community, which has educational content from professionals in the industry.
Something I really enjoyed that is unique to Unreal is the ability to jump straight into your scene and control a character in the level by just pressing "play". Without any programming setup aside from choosing the level template, you can preview your level and get instant visual feedback, which is very helpful while developing a game. It's also very rewarding and fun!
Advice for Aspiring Creators
My advice is to jump right in. It will take some time and practice to become proficient and produce a full level or game, but as long as you're interested and willing to learn, then there are plenty of resources and a huge community to support that learning process.
I think this is a great time to be learning Unreal Engine and 3D in general. Last year, UE5 brought Lumen, which has made lighting more dynamic, and Nanite, which allows us to bring in high polygon meshes that still run well in the engine. This bridges the gap for a lot of artists and devs who may not have experience with asset optimization for games. The large asset libraries and Quixel Bridge integration allow many beginners to jump into the engine and start hands-on learning right away.
Detail Lighting with Lumen
Nanite Hero Tree
One thing I think everyone who's interested in getting into Unreal Engine should focus on is what they want to achieve within it personally. Having a personal goal and idea in mind of what you want to do in the engine will help in figuring out where to start and what guides to look for. This goal can be large or small, as long as it's something you're passionate about and will help motivate you.
As for myself, as an Environment Artist, my goal was to create a bright scene with dense foliage. Another strength of Unreal Engine that got me into learning UE5 is its capability of handling dense foliage. Unlike previous software that required add-ons or more complex methods of scattering foliage in my scenes, Unreal has a dedicated editor tool, the Foliage Mode, to paint foliage meshes on various surfaces, which is very intuitive. The use of static mesh foliage is also much easier and more efficient to render compared to static meshes in other render engines. While building my scene, I focused a lot on the foliage LookDev, and that led me to learn Unreal's foliage, landscape, and LOD systems in-depth.
I also believe finding and interacting with other artists is perhaps the most valuable resource. I recommend finding a community that suits you. For me, that community is the Think Tank Training Centre's instructors and students, being surrounded by incredibly talented artists is very inspiring and pushes me to continuously improve. Other communities such as The Rookies and Art Heroes also helped me connect with the wider 3D art space.
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