Robin-Julian Lee did a breakdown of his Mid-Century Hobby Room made in UE4: composition, materials, parallax shader, lighting.
Hey, my name is Robin-Julian Lee and I am a 22-year old 3D Environment Artist from Heidelberg, Germany. I started to learn 3D modeling about one year and a half ago at the Games Academy in Berlin, where I am currently studying Digital Art. Video gaming has always been a huge passion of mine and I always dreamt of becoming a digital artist in the Industry when I was young. While studying I learned a lot about the gaming industry and digital art itself, but most of my knowledge about Environment and Prop creation came from doing tutorials and watching videos on Youtube in my free time.
The Mid-Century Hobby Room was my first attempt to create a scene, which could tell a believable story on its own. It took me 9 weeks to complete and involved a lot of fail and error. I hope that someone can learn from the experiences and mistakes I made. My biggest inspiration for this scene was Jonjo Hemmens’s project Will’s Room and Maarten Hof’s project Grandpa’s attic, which have high-quality assets and a lot of storytelling inside a small room.
Before creating this room, I already had started to build a basement but without a proper plan and many different assets were built on the go. Halfway through I noticed that the props didn’t harmonize with each other, so I started anew with more thought to it. I guess my first lesson here was to always plan far ahead of your projects. For the furniture, I settled with the Mid-Century style, which has a comfy vibe to it, so I decided to build a hobby room instead of a basement.
I started by collecting a lot of reference images on Google, which is something I would like to highly advise one to do before starting a project. By looking through many different images, I slowly started to get a good picture of what I was starting to create in my head. The first assets I created where the main furniture pieces like the desk or the shelf. That way I already had something I could place into my scene to test the overall composition. The first few compositions I tried looked too stiff and perfectly angled, which made the scene look more like a storeroom. After rotating the furniture pieces a bit more, it started to look more like an inhabited room.
Two of the biggest eyecatchers are the desk and the bookshelf, so I collected extra references just for those areas. It was really important to observe how bookshelves in more lively areas are being filled. I realized that people tend to put all kind of stuff there beside books. For the desk, I wanted to create a personal workspace of the person who lives there. For that purpose, I decided to create many personality-defining assets like cigarettes, glasses, etc.
After defining the main areas, it is also important to create little points of interests in between, like postcards or stickers. Those will give even more depth to the storytelling and should not be overlooked. The big task at that point is to balance the density of the objects in one place. Sometimes less can be more.
One of the biggest challenges was to create believable PBR materials which could harmonize with each other, therefore I created a library of smart materials in Substance Painter. As for the Wood, I combined some of the standard Substance Source wood materials which were simply blended together with some techniques I learned over the past year. This is something I would like to highly encourage you to do: by playing around with different materials and blending them together, I was able to get some really interesting results.
For my set-up in Unreal Engine, I created a master material. That way I get more control inside the engine and have the ability to tweak the materials even further. You can create your own master material or just look for one online. There are many good tutorials on how to create one.
To get even more detail and storytelling out of the scene, I used decals as well as Vertex blending for dirt on the walls and the ground. But it is important to keep in mind, that using too many decals can make your scene a bit overloaded, so it is advised to only use them to highlight certain areas.
When it came to the lighting, I wanted to create a warm and cozy mood like in most of my reference pictures. For that, I simply used warm colors on my lights. Since my hobby room is underground, I had to use artificial light sources, so I mainly used spotlights for my scene. The problem here was that the areas which were not affected by light appeared too dark. To counter that, I used some additional point lights to brighten those areas.
It can be a real challenge to get the perfect light set-up that fits your scene. To make that process a bit easier it is important to ask yourself what exactly you want to achieve with the lighting. For me, it was to highlight the main areas like the desk or the shelf.
The parallax shader is a relatively performance-friendly way to create a displacement effect for your materials. It can be used on materials like carpets (like in my case), bricks, stones, etc. The shader utilizes a heightmap as displacement and a colormap which can be created in Substance Designer. For the shader creation, I used a tutorial by Barry Lowndes. I highly recommend his tutorial about parallax occlusion in Unreal:
There were a lot of challenges which emerged throughout the process of creating this scene. One of the major issues I had at first was the overall scaling. I built my first block out without a scale reference and that way my scene always looked a bit off. After putting a human scale reference into my scene, I realized that my small hobby room was as big as a hotel lobby.
Other times there were moments when I would look at my piece and find something missing but couldn’t find out what it was. What helped me during those times was to ask others for advice, often they would find what was missing because they have a more distant view to it.
I would like to thank Johann William Löffler who gave me a lot of advice and helped me with the rendering and presentation of this scene.
And finally, I would like to thank 80.lvl for giving me the opportunity of sharing my thoughts. I hope that I was able to give a small insight into my process of creating a small environment and that it may help others.
Thanks for reading!