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Creating a Futuristic Arabian Environment in Maya, Substance & UE4

Shira Eilan shared an extensive breakdown of the futuristic game environment Asha with Arabic vibes, talked about the tools used.


Hello! First of all, thank you - I’m very happy to be here on 80 Level! My name is Shira Eilan, and I am a 3D Environment Artist. In the past 6 months, I have been working on Kena: Bridge of Spirits at Ember Lab.

Since I can remember, I have always loved creating, crafting, and exploring various mediums of art such as drawing, painting, classic animation, stop motion, graphic design, and many more. In 2015 I began studying Blender through a course at the Israeli Animation College. That was the point where I knew that 3D art was my passion – I felt like all the dots lined up in my head. I wanted to continue my education and moved to Vancouver, Canada to study at Think Tank Training Centre.

At Think Tank I chose to specialize in Environments for games. I was attracted to characters as well – but eventually, I couldn’t help myself from going for environments – I could create a whole world!

Before starting my mentorship with Aaron Dodd, I had to choose a concept for my Environment. I looked for a concept that had both Organic and Hard surface modeling and preferred the ones that had more materials options to play with like foliage, metal, glass, plaster, stones, etc.

When I saw Muyang Xu’s beautiful concept I felt a click. I knew it was big, I knew it was challenging – but I loved it and felt ready for the task at hand.

One of the toughest challenges I had with this concept was translating its very abstract lighting and depth into a construct that made sense in 3D. I did some concepting of my own while attempting to preserve a lot of beautiful aspects that I liked in the concept - the timeless feel, the mix of cultures, the peaceful ambiance, and the beautiful silhouettes of the buildings.

I imagined it as a peaceful city that never had wars or natural disasters ruining it, located in some alternate future where the residents and visitors use a clean, otherworldly energy source to thrive while still respecting their past and culture.

For me, creating the backstory of this environment was important. Not only for my sense of artistic direction or logic but to successfully integrate my ideas into a fully realized environment.

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Building Up the Scene

At the Blockout stages, I still tried to stick to the concept’s proportions, which I found out later did not translate well to 3D. I modeled everything in Maya, including the landscape, to see how everything would work together in UE4. 

The first area I started to transfer from the Blockout stages was the Patio – an enclosed environment of its own. That’s where I started to have fun developing the visual language of the scene. I decided to take inspiration from Moorish Architecture, which in itself has a beautiful mix of influences. For the color pallet, I decided to go for a deep blue/turquoise and pale orange/sandstone, which guided me later throughout the scene.

Modeling the patio took some thought as to how to layout the objects in this very distinctive half-crescent shape. I decided to take the odd shape as an advantage and use the corner. I considered it an important part of the city, where all residents and travelers are welcome to visit. The next step was to create the altar of “The Thinker” (the name is a nod to Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture) - I imagined her as the philosopher guardian of the city to whom people bring offerings and in turn, she keeps them safe and content. I wanted to mix up the styles and cultural influences here and went for an altar that is heavily influenced by Buddhist shrines in the far east.

While working, I found out that as long as I used the same base color pallet and similar materials, I could get away with a lot – like mixing up far eastern references with Muslim shapes, or futuristic motifs with ancient patterns.

After Finishing the Palace, it was time for the next part of the city. I had planned to have another focal point which was the closer part of the city, where the train is. I wanted to have the houses set up first, so It was time to start thinking modular. I found a great reference in Star Wars' Naboo as it fits perfectly with my style and colors. I planned 3 different shapes for the houses which are just enough to keep the scene from looking too repetitive – cylindrical, octagon, and square.

Before I modeled, I planned what materials I will need so I could iterate the UV accordingly. I also created a modular trim sheet material in Substance Designer that could work on different parts such as the window frames and footings of the houses.

Since some of the houses are seen closer than others, I had to have some illusion of an inner part of the house. For that, I created a Cubemap material in Photoshop using some of the tileable walls and floor textures I already made and imported into UE4. The houses looked empty without anything in them so I added in the material an overlay texture of some lattices and curtains on top of the Cubemap texture.

The first thing I attended when it came to the background was the clouds, which I created following Tyler Smith’s Tutorial. Using a material instance, I could easily control the clouds' speed, shape, light, and colors.

I then set up a landscape in World Machine – the bridges had to be in front of the landscape and partially hidden by the clouds. I tried to use alpha cards for the bridges in order to save memory and avoid baking issues, but they were just too prominent in the scene and I wanted them to react well to the light. To deal with that, I modeled them using modular parts. The design took several trials & errors until I was happy with the look.


As for the vegetation, the first important area was the bushes on the patio. I used a type of Morning Glory that has large leaves and pretty flowers as a reference.

I sculpted a flower, a twig, and a leaf. I then modified the leaf a little in ZBrush to result in 3 variations.

I decimated the meshes, imported them into Maya, tweaked them a bit more, and assembled them into several different shapes of bushes. I gave different Material ID's for the twigs, leaves, and flower stem. Since the flower is not a card, I created a specified UV for it.

After that, I baked them all in Substance Designer and created the material for them. Then it was quite easy to cut them into different cards in Maya and shape them how I want.

I used the same method for the leaves and flowers at the Altar – I wanted the Altar’s foliage to be unique, and I used this type of foliage only there.

For the trees, I generated 3 variations of trees in SpeedTree which can easily be Imported to UE4. I already made palm leaves which I created in substance painter for the large pots, but I needed more color for the smaller ones. Here I allowed myself some slack and used some ready-made assets –  Flowers and Plants Nature Pack from UE4 Marketplace.

Texturing and Materials

When it comes to texturing and surfacing, I felt comfortable as I think a lot of the work is finding good references and to keep looking at them while I work so I don’t run into questionable decisions.

One of the interesting materials I made is glass. The large stained glass on the palace was really fun to work on as it is one of the few textures that intentionally break the Blue/Sandstone color pallet. I took some inspiration for the overall shapes from Antoni Gaudi’s amazing stained-glass window in La Sagrada Familia and added a symmetrical centerpiece that gave it balance.

I created the mesh for the glass and captured the UV. I then took it to Photoshop and created the outline shape over the UV snapshot and added the base colors.

After creating the metal cage in Maya according to the shape I made in Photoshop, I assembled it in Substance Painter to tweak the colors and create the roughness and AO channels.

Then, in Substance Designer, I used a trick to slightly rotate the normal direction of each piece of glass so it would look more like separate pieces of glass and not one smooth mesh – I attached a B&W png of the shape of the glass to a flood fill node and with the help of Flood Fill to Random Greyscale and Flood Fill to Gradient.

After I attached all the maps in UE4 to a glass material I made, I added some detail normal using a noise texture so the glass wouldn’t appear too smooth.

Since I had a great time setting up the glass material, I wanted to challenge myself and create a tileable one in Substance Designer. I created the pattern for the glass with an SVG and separated the colors into 4 distinct channels using the Color to Mask node.

I exported the base Color Map with a mask in the alpha channel for the metal parts so it won’t be translucent using the glass shader in UE4.

Another texturing method that helped me was ‘recycling’ – for the marble Statue I sculpted, I reused a tileable base material I had created for the environment in Substance Designer and tweaked it according to my needs in Substance Painter.

The Overall Look of the Scene

There were a few elements I used when it comes to the overall composition and visual language of the scene in UE4 and I would like to highlight two of them.

The first is Leveling – I used large 8x8 meters modular cubes to layout most of the city except parts where the composition required a unique piece. The leveling helped the city look more organic – like it is following the natural terrain of the area. I created a gradual leveling, one where the terracing is not too high, not too low – there’s a sweet spot in the middle that’s linked directly to the buildings and foliage scale.

The second is repeating patterns – this one helped me a lot.

In my scene, there are naturally a lot of patterns as the references I used are very ornamental. Since a lot of patterns can feel very cluttery, I chose a few I liked and used them both as alphas when texturing and also on actual architectural parts of the city.

Lighting and Post-Process

The lighting was one of the elements I had tweaked all across the stages of the project.

I used a Directional Stationary light with a slightly warm temperature. I brought in some Rect Lights and spot Lights for highlights. To contrast the warm light of the scene and add the energy effect, I added a blue-ish emissive material with a Flow Map animation to the street lamps and the train bridge’s piers. 

In the post-process, I used a LUT I created in photoshop. I worked with PBR values for my scene and I wanted to make the colors pop and look more vibrant. I think this is a key element that changed the whole ambiance of the environment. To this, I also added a sharpening post-process material to make everything look a little crisper.

Right from the start, I had one important camera to set and that didn’t change too much, and that was the long shot that’s overlooking the entire city. As this shot demands a lot of attention and detail, it made sense to fill up the scene according to it.
When it came to other shots, I had a general idea for the areas I want to show – The top and bottom of the palace, the patio, and the train area. With the rest of the cameras, I found it useful to set up the camera first and work from there. For instance, when I set up a camera under the train, I felt the shot is missing a unique piece there and that’s how the Teleporter came to be.

When it came to editing and refining the shots, I wanted them to tell the story of the environment and got some great advice from my friend Orion Terry who taught me a lot about framing, camera movements, and timing. I think putting some thought into camera animations is worth the effort – sometimes even just switching the camera animation from curve to linear can go a long way when coming to edit the whole thing together.

The whole project took about a year. I estimate around 5 months went into learning all the software and skill set since the majority of them were new to me. When I got back from Vancouver I took a long break to deal with some personal matters and then got back to the concentrated work. Since I was no longer on campus, I had to learn how to self-manage – which was a valuable lesson on its own.

There were a few things that helped me in the process – getting feedback from other artists is an important one, but I also think people outside the industry can give valuable feedback. A few other things that helped me were writing down lists to keep track of everything, switching between hyper-focusing on small tasks and the overall look of the environment, and of course, getting support from family and friends.

Shortly after finishing this project, I started working. Working in a studio has definitely given me a whole other set of skills and a broader perspective and understanding of the industry, which helps me grow as an artist. I know now a project like this would have taken far less time if I did it all over again. But I don’t grudge the time spent – it had taught me a lot and brought me to where I am today.

Thank you for reading, I hope this breakdown provided some insight to some of you!

Shira Eilan, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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