How can you make planets? Is it hard
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Clinton Crumpler from The Coalition (Gears of War 4) talked about the production of his amazing King Wash Laundromat scene. It’s an exciting environment experiment with beautiful lighting, hyper-realistic look. Clinton was kind enough to go into the smallest details and talked extensively about the pre-production stage, as well as about his search for colors, the creation of materials with Quixel and the general production in UE4.
My name is Clinton Crumpler, and I am a Senior Environment Artist at The Coalition in Vancouver, BC, Canada. We have an amazing team and are almost done with Gears of War 4. My role consists of work on the look, development, and art creation of environmental aspects of “The Swarm,” the newest threat in the Gears of War universe.
Previously, I was an artist at Bethesda’s Battlecry Studios, KIXEYE, Army Game Studio, and various other independent studios and contract projects. My primary focus is environment art, shader development, and art direction. I have also produced a number of video tutorials with Digital Tutors on game art pipelines and production, and I am about to release a collaborative textbook with Sam’s Publishing focusing on game art development using the Unreal Engine.
As for my personal time, I enjoy designing scenes from specific times and places in history. It can be fun taking a seemingly mundane image or idea of a place and giving it character within a 3D environment. Crafting mood or telling a story through visuals is my favorite part of the environment artist’s production process. Working on personal projects also gives me the ability to test my artistic abilities across multiple disciplines of game development such as lighting, composition, and art direction. Below are a few samples of my past personal works:
Past works in Unreal 4
King Wash Laundromat
In the following topics I discuss the process that I use to create the King Wash Laundromat. I step through the general process I use for production and hit on a few key notes of technical or organizational aspects of my process.
When initially determining a location and concept, I stumbled across the image of “Laundromat at Night” This inspired me to delve deeper into the intricacies of a laundromat set in the late 80s to early 90s.
Lori Nix, Laundromat at Night, 2008, from the series The City .
This was the second time I have had the opportunity to work on this project. The first time was in 2011, while I was still learning about environment art production. I really wanted to create an interesting composition out of a seemingly mundane location, while adding a touch of color contrast to enhance the mood. I created this environment using UDK (Unreal Engine 3) and took a couple months in my spare time to create. While I was pleased with the result at the time, upon revisiting this work, I was happy to see how my talents have grown to produce the newest version of the scene. Below are some samples of the original 2011 project.
Original King Wash Laundromat Screenshots from UDK (Unreal 3) created in 2011
Mood and Visual Storytelling
Mood and storytelling is critical when creating a realistic, everyday scene. It can be very easy to simply emulate a real life location such as a bank, car wash, or a laundromat. But because the typical viewer sees these locations on a regular basis, the real challenge as an environment artist is telling a story, evoking a response, that is captivating and inspiring the viewer to look closer at the piece, and investigate the insinuated backstory to the piece. In order to achieve this, it is important to establish the aesthetics of your project early on and understand the mood, tone, and setting you are trying to establish.
While reworking the 2011 project, some of my original ideas changed in terms of what I wanted to achieve in the visuals, as well as its influences. I wanted to create a similar nighttime atmosphere, but add a bit of an eerie and lonely feeling. I wanted to instill that this laundromat was in a more isolated dark area instead of a city. I also still wanted to retain some of the varied colored lights from the original scene. In looking for references, I started to draw more on nighttime photography of isolated nighttime buildings and varying color palettes of nighttime scenes. I really liked the visuals of the softer peach and pink against the moody bluish green cool colors set in the background.
Below are some of the photos and films I found influential in determining the style and look development of the scene:
Meet Me in the Morning: Photos by Henrik Knudsen
The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski.
Photography by Paul Nevison
Referencing these images, I could better understand the tone of the scene and my general lighting scenario that makes each image visually compelling. I could also begin to visualize how to lay out various cameras, lights, and points of interest.
Additionally, I often find visual influence from the games I play. Examining density of scene assets and visual construction of a scene in today’s games provides context for what other developers and artists are producing. With this knowledge, I can judge what level of visual capacity my scenes need in order to meet the latest standards of game art direction.
Some of the most influential games while working on this project in particular were The Division, Batman: Arkham Knight, Dying Light, Rage, and obviously the Gears of War Franchise. All of these games have a good sense of color vibrance and saturation, and all generally have a good contrast range. They all use filmic color grading and visual techniques to make more a more movie-esque visual style. The easiest way to understand and emulate a painting, movie, or game is to take a single frame or still and break it down to its simplest colors. It’s easiest to think of this as a kind of squint test. If I squint or blur my vision and look at the image, I can learn a lot about the palette by asking a few key questions.:
- What colors are easiest seen?
- Where is the focus of the image and how do the colors draw your eye?
- What colors are in proximity to each other?
- Where are the resting places or darker dull colors within the color palette?
Examining the palette can help establish what kind of color style and palette early on in a project.
Below is a screenshot from Batman: Arkham Knight
Batman: Arkham Knight
Below is a blurred perspective of the same image. Notice the color palette becomes more visible. Isolating the color palette to core colors (between 4-7) makes for a strong composition.
Batman: Arkham Knight screenshot blurred to primary colors clearly
Batman: Arkham Knight screenshot color palette
Rage screenshot color palette
The Division screenshot color palette
After examining these games and looking at some of my influential images I landed on this color range for my final outside palette:
King Wash Laundromat Color Palette
I find that while choosing the visual style and language of the scene, it is excessively important to gather as much reference of color palette, composition, style, and asset components. Not only is online reference gathering important, but I love to go out on foot and find real life references. Taking influence from where I live and work every day makes for easier image gathering and the opportunity to get out and actually measure the real world equivalent to the assets I’m making. Establishing the correct scale and real world use of an asset can really help to make or break a scene and help settle all of the individual assets into a scene together. Sometimes the internet just doesn’t cut it and I find myself questioning, “Is this asset the right size?” It may seem strange at first, but understanding real world spatial distances and correlations by taking a ruler out and measuring a door, a window, or a shelf helps my projects and gives me a keener eye for 3D scene creation. Below are a few images I gathered around town to get real world reference for the laundromat.
Gathering as much reference online as possible to fill in the missing gaps allows me to get more creative and combine ideas found in different images. Taking the idea of how the window decals look in one scene and adding it to how the door looks in another helps me culminate my favorite aspects of each image and reference into my project. Below are some random images that helped me establish the final look of the laundromat.
Gathering Online Reference Photos
For collecting even more ideas, I find that using Pinterest can be incredibly helpful. When I tell people this I mostly hear a lot of “Isn’t that for like wedding and cooking ideas?” While this is generally true, there are also an increasing number of images that can be used for reference from photography, film, games, and other inspiring visual media. I also use Pinterest to upload my own images and reference I find anywhere online to collectively bunch my thoughts into one place that I can access from anywhere at anytime online.
My Laundromat Pinterest Board
Goals of the Project
While beginning any project it is important to set goals for yourself.
I had a few goals in mind to improve my own artistic ability and process.
- Better comprehension of lighting and understanding of types of lighting (static, moveable, stationary)
- Deeper investigation into post process and Look Up Tables (LUTs)
- Balancing large and small props while keeping player or camera perspective in mind
- Creating mood and setting visual tone
Time management and understanding how to pace yourself in a project is hugely important while working alone or in a small team. It takes a lot of self motivation and can help to break down each part of development into smaller, more easily digestible chunks of time and effort. Also as a game artist it is vital to not work on in a vacuum and to be observant of new techniques or construction pipelines used by other artists to achieve the best visual results. At the same time, I have to balance how much time to invest with each individual asset compared to looking at big picture. It can be alluring to spend hours perfectly tweaking a small asset or prop and later find that it is almost completely cast in shadow in the end scene. Using time-saving measures can help to ensure overall project success while helping maintain a steady and productive workflow.
Trello is a major part of my production process while working on solo or small group projects. It holds me accountable and is a cheap system for moving forward in a project and tracking progress. While starting out I can easily separate the project into individual tasks or parts. This helps me take production one step at a time. It is also a very helpful reminder tool, documenting bugs and keeping track of where I left off on certain tasks. I typically will use it to show the progress made on certain aspects of the visuals. I may make a list for models and meshes, then another for textures, and then move the “card” per asset from one list to another as I complete different parts of the process. Best of all, it’s persistent online so you can access it from anywhere at anytime.
Trello Board Setup
My primary tools for this project were:
- Maya and Zbrush for modeling
- Quixel and Photoshop for texturing
- Mightbake for texture baking
- UE4 for game engine
When first blocking out the scene, I tried to keep the pieces as modular as possible. At this point in the process it’s best to not force yourself into a corner; I prefer trying multiple placement scenarios of assets and proxy meshes to try and get the most satisfaction overall. Using a quick modular kit can keep the ideas flowing and easily tested. Spending time working out the kinks of the design at this stage can definitely save time for the remainder of the project.
A quick kit of modular pieces used to establish the initial blockout
Using a good scaled model of a person can be another strategy for beginning to block out and understand scale and dimensions. This can help to confirm proper scale measurements in the scene. I typically scale the man to my size but a general rule of thumb is to make your person reference around 5′ 11″ in cm or 180.34 cm.
Scaled reference person asset in scene
After creating a basic asset list using Trello, I started to work on the assets from biggest or most dramatic impact on the scene to the least. A common pitfall is getting to the end of the project and realizing that some of the props or assets you originally set out to make, or made proxies for, are not as important or are outright unnecessary. This is why it is important to create the key pieces first and work down to the less important aspects of the scene. Large assets are also good to check for scaling issues or visual sightlines in the scene so you can make the necessary changes early on in the project.
Laundromat top load washer asset
A few of the assets used in the scene
Typically when creating assets, I work with quick proxy models first to populate the scene and then replace them over the course of the project with the fully developed asset. I typically will apply a brightly colored or simple color fill on the proxy meshes. These placeholder meshes can keep the focus on what assets are missing and serve as reminders for the overall scale of the project still to be completed.
Emergency Light Prop
Lastly, remembering the scale and player perspective is very important for creating assets. If the camera and player are always in 3rd person like in a game like Gears of War or The Division it is important to get a good overall visual read from materials, wear, and silhouettes on assets from a mid level view. Meaning some aspects how you create the asset will need to be exaggerated or slightly enlarged to get a good overall visual for the player. While a first person game such as Dying Light or Call of Duty allows the camera and player to get much closer to the environment and therefore development of the assets needs to be a bit more on the micro level. This is not to say the quality of either is adjusted overall, but instead understanding the distribution of texture density to best suite the type of gameplay perspective for the most optimized game visuals and experience. For the laundromat, I took a third person visual route and placed emphasis on some of the wear and tear and roughness values throughout the scene.
Most of my materials in the scene use one of two master materials. The two primary materials are a generic prop master material and a generic tiling floor, wall, ceiling type material.
Prop Master Material
Prop Master Material Set Up
The prop master material had a few unique functions to make the process of importing new assets and setup much easier. To name of few of the material’s functions and what parts they played:
- RMA Texture packaging – Using the individual channel of a single texture to place my Roughness, Metalness, Ambient Occlusion, and sometimes using the Alpha channel for emissive or subsurface. This allowed me to use less texture memory with only one texture import versus three. I can also easily manage all my textures in one Photoshop file. When using this method, I make sure to change my compression settings appropriately for the texture in UE4.
Channel Packed RMA Texture
- Tuneable roughness and tint separated by whether the area of the mesh is labeled as metallic or nonmetallic. I did this using an If node in the material editor. I controlled the roughness or tint pending whether the material’s metalness was above or below .5 (since most all nonmetals are well below .5 and most metals are above .5).
- Ability to input specific emissive texture, use the alpha of the diffuse as emissive, and control the emissive color injected into the light propagation volume separate of the final emissive glow output. This is done through the lightmass replace node in UE4. I can set the amount of emissive influence injected into the light propagation volume separate the emissive shown in editor. This is really useful if you have a bright light that you want to overdrive the emissive for to get a good bloom, but you don’t want to overpower the lighting within the scene.
Lightmass Replacement Material Setup
Tiling Master Material
For this project I ended up creating and using about 9-10 tiling materials using mostly the same master material. Each would sometimes have two texture sets for a damaged and a non-damaged version. These two versions would be blended in the scene using vertex paint to give the final result. Some other switchable features were a tiling dirt overlay and a water/puddle material that were also both paintable by vertex color.
Material Vertex Transitions
Basic Tiling Materials
Working inside of Quixel Suite on the vending machine
Breakdown of Textures used to compose final television asset
While creating assets for the scene, my primary texturing tool was the Quixel suite. Using ddo allowed me to work through texturing the assets very quickly, while maintaining good quality. Often I can find myself noodling too much with each little part of texturing an asset, especially larger or more complex ones. Before I textured each asset, I used a material mask that I rendered out of Mightybake that labeled each type of material on the asset with a color. Then using the mask, I found that I was quickly able to take on each section of the mesh one at a time and keep a clear vision of moving on to each part while texturing. At the end, I would go back and add smaller detail touches and overlays to get the final material result.
Laundromat Washing Machine rendered in Marmoset
As I use the UE4 engine more and more, there are more cases where a blueprint will make life much easier and will quicken production speed. I know very little about coding or programming, but knowing some basics can help make simple, yet very useful blueprints. While developing a scene, it’s vital to keep in mind that the composition, placement of assets, or lighting may change during its evolution. The better assets are being managed, the easier time you will have as an artist. Even just grouping asset with blueprints can be a big help.
Some of the first assets I remade from the former scene were the laundromat machines (washers and dryers), each of which had doors attached. While placing these assets in the scene I found it quickly frustrating to continue to place a door on each mesh and rotate it to a degree that looked best. In order to combat this I created a blueprint to set a random rotation on the door every time the blueprint is placed in the scene. Then after I tested a few versions of how far it opened, I clamped the number to make sure the door would never open enough to clip into the object next to or in front of it. I also set the random angle that the door was open to favor being closed or nearly closed. This allowed me to quickly move the asset in the scene until I was happy where it was placed and then not have to worry about the accompanying door attachment.
Dryer Door Blueprint Setup
Blueprint in action
Another blueprint that I set up for this scene was the overhead lights. I knew I would be using these lights throughout the scene and didn’t want to have to set up the lighting scenario each time. Also if I decide to change the lighting I can simply do it through the blueprint rather than a per light scenario, saving me lots of time and allowing for quicker iteration and testing.
Lighting has always been a challenge to me, as it is for many other environment artists. It is really about trying to understand the process and how each light behaves and how it plays with the surrounding materials. Even with the perfect setting of materials, lighting them properly can make or break a scene.
In this scene I experimented with a balance between realistic and moody lighting. When I first placed more realistic light setups in the scene, it had little contrast and overall just felt too well-lit for a kind of eery dark nighttime scene. Then when testing with fewer lights, the scene became too dark, which can be an even worse scenario for an environment artist–to make a ton of assets and them place them all in a dark room. To get a better idea of my lighting setup, I turned the saturation within the post processing volume to 0 to get just a grayscale image. This helped to visualize the balance of lights and darks within the scene.
After trying a few lighting scenarios I found a balanced middle ground by using a spot light with a slightly narrower cone with a soft falloff on the sides. Then to emphasis the feeling of concentrated light from the bulb, I added some tube-shaped point lights over each of the bulbs in the ceiling lights. Lastly, in order to add a bit of mood I added a cone-shaped mesh that used a sort of cloudy god ray look. To quickly speed up the process of testing all these lights together and how they would interact, I created a small side scene to test baking the lighting on simple geometry. I also ended up using this room to test materials under different lighting conditions.
Vanilla Lighting test scene
One last thing to keep in mind with lighting is that sometimes hand placing lights can make a huge difference in creating a more visually appealing finished product. Sometimes a single overhead light won’t cut it and can make the scene a bit flat and dull, and by placing a few point or spot lights subjectively around the scene I can help to frame specific assets and points of interest in the final scene. I like taking a few artistic freedoms when it comes with lighting as I find it leads to a more compelling end visual.
Hand placed smaller lights can bring more interest to specific parts of your scene and highlight some assets
Post processing is one of the most rewarding parts of working in the Unreal engine. It really has the potential to turn a good scene into a fantastic scene with simple tweaks within the editor. Post processing in UE4 has a lot of special functions and the ability to add some extra tweaks on your own through blendables. I ended up using a lot of the film and bloom options to achieve the final, more cinematic result. As an additional blendable, I added a simple function to slightly sharpen the final image as well.
Unreal’s many editable post process options
King Wash Laundromat’s post film settings
One of the most influential parts of post processing while working on the laundromat was the use of color grading or Look Up Tables (LUTs). LUTs are used to take the real time rendered image and change how each pixel of color is represented in the final rendered game. Using a lookup table, I can skew or alter the brightness, saturation, contrast, or specific color of any one particular pixel of color in the final scene.
While choosing the LUT of the laundromat scene I referenced some of the games I discussed earlier, as well as look at some influential films to see how they were using color to achieve the movie-esque quality they all shared. Also by focusing on the color palette I discussed earlier, I was able to narrow down my overall look development. With a few small tweaks you can see how dramatically the scene can shift in overall visual quality and contrast adding a nice finished touch to the final product.
King Wash Laundromat with no post processing – Notice the difference between the use of the LUT compared to the final scene
Here is the final screens from the King Wash Laundromat Project:
In closing I really enjoyed revisiting old assets and seeing how I have evolved as an artist–not only in my comprehension of visual language and style but also technically. Looking back and reflecting at old work can be a powerful method to see personal growth and understand areas that you should continue to improve upon.
For more of my work, visit my portfolio or my artist Facebook page for what I am working next. This project can be found on Artstation. I am also currently working on videos to provide more thorough breakdowns of the technical methods I used to create this scene. You can purchase this UE4 scene to take a look for yourself on my Gumroad and Cubebrush. It will also be available directly on the unreal marketplace in the next couple weeks.
Thanks for reading!