Constructing Modular Space Stations in UE4

Patrick Ferguson discussed some of the techniques that helped him create ARC Station. Includes the look on the creation of the holographic interface.

3d artist Patrick Ferguson talked about his modular ARC space station created in Unreal Engine 4.  


Hi there! I’m Patrick Ferguson, and I’m an Environment Artist from Memphis, TN. I’m currently a student and set to graduate with honors at East Tennessee State University. Before that I attended Southwest Tennessee Community College and spent roughly 12 years as a web artist for various online gaming communities before coming to ETSU 4 years ago. I’ve always been inspired by the games we play, and especially by the worlds we play them in. As an artist and avid gamer, I found environment art a place to call home.

ARC Station

The origin of this “ARC” (Asteroid Reclamation Colony) Station began as a small test a few years back. I am a lover of all things Sci-Fi and find that space scenes provide an awesome opportunity to allow the creative process to thrive. Taking inspiration from things like the movie Alien, Star Trek, and the International Space Station, I wanted to create a scene that had both elevation changes and separation. Given that, I set out to design a space with two distinct, yet connected areas. The challenge was to figure out how to have them both incorporated into the same scene.

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I started out by drawing a quick top down layout of the area. What does it look like? How is it arranged? Do I need to show every wall? Are their camera angles that I will never show? Keeping that in mind I experimented with a few concept pieces and then took a collection of basic models from Maya into Unreal to create a blockout. This allowed me to test out lighting and see how my camera angles would be affected. As I began the modeling process, I made a decision to make as many models as modular as possible to save time. Out of the roughly 44 models I ended up creating, only a hand full were not modular.

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The focus of this environment was telling a story of an abandoned station on an asteroid that would be essentially reawakened. Just like with an animator and their strong dynamic pose, I wanted to emphasize that moment in time feel. I wanted to show that this place was being “reopened.” To do that I chose to create a generator like machine that would “hotwire” the control room and slowly activate the systems found within it. This meant having a place for the “wires” to go, like a broken floor panel.

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Observation Deck

The second area was a sort of observation deck with a nice view of the asteroid field outside. From the beginning, I had always wanted lighting to be the focus in this area. With that in mind I created a recipe for what I can say ended up stealing the show in this area. First, I set the scene with a basic UE4 skybox and rearranged the way it looks by disconnecting the nodes in its material that enable and control horizon colors. After that I went into Photoshop to create a nebula, using various brushes, filters and layer modes, I ended up with something resembling a sunset in space on a distant plane. And finally to put the proverbial cherry on top, I created another plane with masked silhouettes of distant asteroids to break up the light coming from the nebula plane.


With materials, my aim was to have a consistent set of PBR attributes made in Substance Painter for the entire station. One was a metallic, yet unkempt surface consisting of varying degrees of roughness values. The other was a painted, non-metallic surface that had roughly the same consistency of roughness values. With unreal material instances, I was able to quickly change any value I set to a parameter. This way I would be able to fine tune the base color and roughness on demand without recompiling the shader, and because I used substance painter, I was also able to make any needed changes to all of my meshes by simply replacing attributes found in these two materials before reimporting the textures into unreal. Overall the biggest challenge here was knowing where to put things like dirt and imperfections. It’s easy to get caught up in the design process and start to go crazy with the smart masks found in Substance Painter, but I ultimately found a happy medium of clean and dirty.


The lighting is always a real treat to work with for me. I believe lighting can be the difference between a good shot and a bad shot. I found that the best way to set up lighting in such a scene is to acknowledge that light needs a chance to bounce and blend, and I also wanted to take into account any post process effects that may affect it. The color pallet I chose was that of the tried and true blue and orange. If you take a look at almost any movie poster or scene you will see a variation on this theme of cool and warm colors. The basic procedure I went with is to use a collection of helper lights to help the natural light of the scene, whether it comes from the distance nebula, an orange holographic screen, or a light fixture. By doing this, I was able to create a scene that had the basic 3 point light setup of key, fill, and backlighting. While the lighting may look complex, the actual amount of lights in the scene is fairly low. After setting up the lights I had to make sure that unreal would create as much bounce light as possible, and after that a short lighting build delivers the final result: A scene modeled, textured, and lit in approximately 3-4 weeks.

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To close out I’d like to make a shout out to David Schultz, a Senior Environment Artist over at Red Storm (Ubisoft). Without his valued input, the final version would not look nearly as good. Thanks David!

Patrick Ferguson, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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