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Crafting Magical Library Room Box With Maya, Substance 3D & UE5

Simin Farrokh Ahmadi talked about the Rhymes & Remedies project, explaining how a tribute to her childhood and parents' passion for art was brought to life as a beautiful miniature library in a book, meticulously crafted with Maya, ZBrush, Substance 3D, Marvelous Designer, and Unreal Engine 5.


Hello everyone! My name is Simin Farrokh Ahmadi, also known as Simba, and this is my second interview with 80 Level. You can find my first interview here.

From a young age, I spent nearly every day playing games or diving deep into game walkthroughs, fascinated by the ones with intricate details and captivating visuals. My art journey began in my teenage years when I chose to study at an art conservatory instead of a conventional high school. This path led me to earn a national certificate in fine arts, a bachelor's degree in interior design, and a master's of arts in animation.

With a background in architectural visualization, I realized something was missing – the joy of creating visually stunning projects specifically for games. So I took a leap of faith and left my job to explore and learn new skills in the game industry.

In January 2023, a life-changing event occurred when I was awarded the Warner Bros. Discovery Access Canada Doers and Dreamers Digital Art Scholarship to study at Think Tank Training Centre. I graduated a few weeks ago with a diploma in CG Asset Creation for Games specializing in props & environment, taking a significant step toward realizing my dreams. Persian Afternoon, A Day in Heaven, Silent Elegance, and Rhymes & Remedies are among the projects I created during the 64-week program.

The Rhymes & Remedies Project

Rhymes & Remedies is probably my most personal piece to date. It was my mentorship project at Think Tank, guided by Nikhil Kedige, and inspired by an illustration by Marlowe Lune. The artwork instantly reminded me of our humble childhood library, filled with books that we spent countless hours reading and enjoying. I aimed to capture the warm and safe feeling of that environment and incorporate my dad’s poems into it. This became the core goal of the project.

Gradually, it evolved into a tribute to how my parents inspired and encouraged me to become an artist. Both my mom and dad have worked in healthcare for most of their lives, yet they are artists at heart. This project is dedicated to them and their spark of imagination that breathes life into my passion for art.

Getting Started

I started brainstorming in Miro and developed a shot-by-shot storyboard, aligning my vision with a music piece by Juan Sanchez. Simultaneously, I listed the assets, their variations, and materials. Next, I gathered as many references as possible for the assets and looked for in-game references since the project was going to be real-time. I constantly updated this reference board throughout the creation process.

Nikhil significantly helped me with the storytelling aspects, encouraging me to think backward by creating the reel from the beginning and then developing and refining the assets for it. I am incredibly grateful for his guidance, which helped bring this deeply personal project to life. You can find the comparison between my L1, L2, and final reel here:

Composition & Blockout

To estimate the spatial scale, I imported the illustration image into Autodesk Maya and started modeling each asset to be imported and populated in Unreal Engine. At the same time, I did an initial lighting pass in Unreal while setting up camera movements and angles. I then began polishing each asset. The original concept only had a shelf outside a room, so I decided to convert the room itself into a large book, encouraging the viewer to read my story.

For each asset, I found several reference images for both shape and materials and tried replicating them as precisely as possible. Most of the assets are in a mid-poly range, but for those requiring more intricacy, I used a high to low-poly workflow; the armchair being one of them.

To create the armchair's fabric, I first made the structure in Maya and then imported it into Marvelous Designer. I used the Flatten tool and selected the fabric mesh to get the pattern in the 2D window. Using Pins and Pressure settings, I recreated the leather fabric according to my reference.

I then imported the file into ZBrush to adjust some of the wrinkles using the Dam Standard and hPolish brushes. Afterward, the high-poly mesh was imported into Maya to create an optimized version using the Quad Draw and Retopologize tools. You can see my LV1 mesh, high-poly, and final retopologized version below:

Next, I imported both high and low poly meshes into Substance 3D Painter and baked the details. To add the stitches, I used the Path tool with a bit of height. I also painted the cracks with lighter colors and lowered the roughness to make the fabric look older and less shiny.

The tablecloth under the large book and the female statue's dress were also made in Marvelous Designer and retopologized with the same workflow in Maya.

To create the floral woodwork and ornaments, I primarily relied on drawing EP Curves. I used Generate > Curve Utilities > Attach Brush to Curve, adjusting the Pressure Mappings parameters to control the curve's shape. The global scale shows the widest part of the curve. Also, in Pressure Scale, I put Pressure Map 1 to Scale.

Once satisfied with the curve shape, I converted it to polys using Modify > Convert > Paint Effects to Polygon, and applied a temporary Lambert shader to see the mesh properly. I further refined the details in ZBrush and then baked the normals in Substance 3D Painter to be used in Unreal Engine.

I unwrapped the UVs in Maya using some of the UV Toolkit settings, including  Layout, Distribute, Stitch Together, Unfold, and Optimize. I used a Texel Density of 10.24 with a map size of 2048 for most of the assets, adjusting it as needed.


Texturing was the most exciting part of this project, completed using Adobe Substance 3D Painter, Designer, Sampler, Photoshop, and Unreal Engine. I mainly used real-life images, making them tileable in Substance 3D or Photoshop, and created different channels based on my needs.

I set up a Layered Material system in Unreal with the help of my mentor. This workflow enabled me to create complex materials using reusable procedural textures and RGB masks for both large and small objects. I established a Master material, a Mask blend material, and a Base material, creating instances of them to develop new layered materials.

I basically imported meshes into Substance 3D Painter and painted RGB masks to customize procedural textures where needed. I also used this technique to blend custom normals with the existing normals from textures, which allowed for maintaining mid-poly meshes with normals from high-poly counterparts.

I used a similar technique for the books, using RGB masks to paint a few versions of texts and patterns. For the base color, I combined all eleven mesh variations UVs into one unique texture and adjusted the Tint feature in Unreal to get multiple variations based on my scene composition. 

Using the Advanced Glass Material Pack from the Unreal Engine Marketplace helped me achieve a more realistic look in my project.

For the damaged paper, feathers, and foliage, I used alpha masks in the opacity channel to get the desired effects.


From day one, I had a clear vision of the composition for most of my shots. I followed the structure laid out in my L1 reel and continued refining assets and adjusting camera movements with storytelling in mind. While I aimed to stay true to the original concept art, I also incorporated or modified elements to better fit my narrative.

I wanted to have a progression from a cold mood to a warm and cozy atmosphere, starting with my parents' voices reading one of my dad's poems penned in his own handwriting on the paper. Throughout my reel, you will notice a shift in colors from cooler tones to warmer hues, gradually bringing everything to life (left to right).

To achieve this, I started by adding customized Lookup Tables in the Unreal Post Process Volume, and further enhanced the visuals using Lumetri Color in Adobe Premiere Pro. I also incorporated a touch of chromatic aberration in the Post Process Volume and put Infinite Extent to Unbound.


I used three sources of light in general:

  • I placed multiple large Rect Lights outside the large book to achieve smooth shadows, trying to replicate studio photography setups. These lights aimed to highlight edges and define the boundaries of the room in darkness. I also had a few of these light sources inside the room, whose purpose was to flood smooth lighting and shadows, without being directly visible to the camera, such as behind the armchair or on the right side of the shelf.
  • Emissive Material helped me add luminosity to specific areas that needed extra brightness, such as the chandelier and floor lamp. This helped enhance the overall ambiance and visual interest of those elements.
  • Candle lights infused warmth into the environment, contributing to the cozy atmosphere of the scene. I used a flame image alpha as an opacity mask and tinted it with shades of orange and yellow. I then added a water texture normal map to simulate movement patterns and adjusted the speed with Panner as necessary. Here's a useful tutorial I watched:

To give the washed-out effect to pictures in the frames, I adjusted texture parameters including Brightness, Brightness Curve, Saturation, Hue, and Minimum Alpha. I also used a few decals to create a dirt effect over them.

Editing the reel in Unreal Sequencer with the music allowed me to preview the final product without rendering it, providing a more efficient workflow for reviewing and refining the project. 

I used Cine Cams and lowered the Minimum FStop to maximize the depth of field effect. I also used Manual Focus Distance to direct attention to specific areas and added keyframes to Transforms and Focus Distance of these cameras.

For final image exports, I used Immersive Mode with a Screen Percentage of 200 and took a high-resolution screenshot, adjusting the Screenshot Size Multiplier to 1.5 due to my 4k monitor. It's possible to increase these settings further if you have a good GPU, but going above 200 and 2 is usually not recommended.

In general, you could use some of the settings mentioned in this tutorial for a sharper outcome, but note that the performance could go extremely poor, potentially resulting in GPU crash and engine shutdown:


It took me three and a half months to complete this project, working around 10 hours every day. This time frame included everything from finding the original concept and scheduling to reference gathering, modeling, polishing, texturing, engine setup, and rendering.

One of the biggest challenges was staying motivated and open to feedback. I had to redo some assets several times to achieve the quality I wanted, and this taught me the value of patience and enjoying the creative process. Although I am naturally very independent, I also learned to reach out for help and guidance from others.

As a beginner myself, I have one piece of advice: practice, practice, and practice. Don't give up and avoid comparing your art to others – focus on your own improvement instead. Try to become a better artist every day. Everyone progresses at their own pace, and achieving your dreams often requires sacrifices.

I recommend immersing yourself in artistic sources like ArtStation daily to expose yourself to high-quality art. This will help you develop an eye for top-notch content and compositions over time.

Thank you for reading this interview. I would like to thank Gloria Levine and 80 Level for the opportunity, Warner Bros. Discovery Access Canada, and the amazing Think Tank family including my mentor, supervisors, instructors, and friends. Special thanks to Seyed M. Tabatabaei. Follow my journey on ArtStation, Linkedin, The Rookies, or Instagram for more exciting projects!

Simin Farrokh Ahmadi, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Gloria Levine

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