Jamey Brand has shared the workflow behind the Havana Modular Building project, explained the process of making modular assets, and showed the lighting setup in Unreal Engine 5.
My name is Jamey Brand. I am 23 years old and I'm currently a third-year game art student studying at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.
Before I started studying at BUAS I studied graphic design at Grafisch Lyceum Rotterdam. In my first year at GLR, I got introduced to Unity as we had to make a small city using pre-made assets. I loved using a real-time engine so in my second year I chose to specialize in 3D art. While the subjects we were taught at GLR regarding 3D art were basic, it was a good way for me to get introduced to the subject and learn about software like 3ds Max and Cinema 4D.
In my third and final year at GLR, I had to do an internship and was lucky to be accepted as a prop-art intern at Vertigo Games. During my time at Vertigo Games, I produced props for the Arizona Sunshine DLCs and their recently released VR game After the Fall.
While I was pretty efficient at creating quality game-ready prop assets, I wanted to further improve my skills as an Environment Artist and started my journey at BUAS.
At the start of my second year at BUAS, we were tasked to create a building using modular elements, from either Vienna, Hanoi, or Havana in the span of 7 weeks. Havana took my interest because I found the decaying architecture really beautiful and unique.
Once I decided to stick to the location of Havana, I started doing research online. I noticed that Havana does not have Google Street View which made it harder to find references. Because of this, I bought a picture reference pack on Artstation which contained loads of detailed pictures with buildings from Havana.
I slightly altered the brief we were given by not replicating one building, but taking multiple parts of different buildings and combining them. The reason for this was mainly that I wanted to challenge myself and create something that had a more personal touch.
Creating Individual Modular Pieces
I started with creating a block out of the building using simple shapes inside of Maya.
I had recently acquired a VR headset when I was working on this project and I wanted to check out the model in VR. This was a great way at the start to observe the building and see how the scaling of everything was lining up. Besides, it gave me a good reason to try out Gravity Sketch.
Once I was satisfied with the rough look of the building, I started planning and creating each specific asset piece by piece.
Because of the limited time we had for the project, I decided to keep the models fairly simple and made it my main goal to have everything at a consistent detail level across the whole building.
Once I finished an asset I made sure to set the pivot on the correct location before bringing it over to Unreal Engine where I could start combining all the elements.
For the cables that go across the building, I created a blueprint I learned from this tutorial.
This was the first time I had to create foliage for a project, it was great because it allowed me to learn a variety of different techniques instead of having to just focus on the building. Because I had no prior experience creating foliage, it was an interesting challenge for me and gave me the ability to leave the building for a bit and solely focus on creating the ivy.
For the creation of the ivy, I started sculpting a set of four different ivy leaves in ZBrush. Once I was done sculpting, I reduced the polycount, imported them into Maya and started placing them on top of a plane for the high poly bake.
Once I had the layout ready, I took it into Substance 3D Painter and baked the high poly leaves on the plane. Inside SP, I changed the shader to “pbr-metal-rough-with-alpha-blending’’ in the shader settings so that I was able to see the alpha cut out of the ivy leaves in the viewport.
To get the Alpha mask for the leaves, I used the Thickness map that I had just baked.
From this folder, I exported the Thickness map and inverted it in Photoshop, imported the inverted texture back into SP, and now used it in my opacity channel as the masking texture for the ivy.
The texturing for the ivy was done using different Smart Masks, adding noise textures, and using the maps I had baked in the beginning, for example, using the baked Curvature map to get the highlights on the veins of the leaves.
Because I had only baked the leaves on the plane and hadn't included the roots of the plant, I added them in Photoshop by manually drawing them in. While this looks fine from a distance, up close it starts to look too stylized. For future ivy creation, I will definitely include these roots in the bake and create them in either ZBrush or Maya.
Texturing of the Building
For the color palette, I wanted to capture the same visual style I had found in my reference, which was these desaturated colors you see on the decayed buildings from Havana.
Texturing of the building was done using Substance 3D Painter. Inside SP, I made use of the Smart Masks/dirt generator tools to quickly achieve the aged/dirty look. I always start with a base color and then add layers on top of that. Because the assets were not intended to be seen from very up close, I kept this process fairly quick not worrying too much about the small details.
When I had all the assets in the engine and the building was assembled, I started adding decals I made myself in Photoshop on top of it to break up the repetitiveness and add that extra layer of detail and smudginess. The decals worked great because the smaller details of the textures would get lost from a distance.
Lighting and Rendering
Even though the project was finished before the deadline given by my university last year, I was not satisfied with the lighting I had done and wanted to take more time to rework it before posting it on my portfolio. Roughly one year later I decided it was time to fully finish the project. This time I opened it in Unreal Engine 5 to try out the new Lumen setting. While I did not do a whole lot of research on how to use Lumen, I immediately noticed the softer and more realistic look this gave to the scene.
During the original start of this project, I lost quite some time halfway through because I was constantly tweaking the lighting and trying out different lighting scenarios. In the end, I decided to go with both a warm daylight scene and a night scenario with some subtle storytelling included (the orange glow coming through the window, implying someone is staying in this building).
For the lighting, I used 2 directional lights in both the day and night scenes as the main light sources. One of them cast a strong light on the left of the building and the other a softer filler light on the right side. I also used some spotlights to create subtle rim lighting on the ivy to make them pop more.
In terms of post-processing, I made some small changes to the color grading, slightly tweaking the saturation, contrast, and gamma.
I also enabled bloom and played with the threshold to give that little bit of glowing effect, mainly prominent on the ivy.
My main challenges were that at one point during the creation of this project I got dissatisfied with where things were heading. During this time, I decided to focus on the creation of foliage and leave the building behind for a bit. I noticed the change of work made me regain motivation and drive for the project.
Also in the early stages of the project, I lost quite some time because I was slightly changing small aspects of the building, for example, changing up the way the balcony looked like or later deciding to tweak the damaged parts on top.
As for tips for beginners wanting to create a modular building, I would say pick something from clear reference and try not to make it too complicated (like how I wanted to combine different parts of different buildings together) so that all your focus can go towards the modeling, texturing and lighting for the project.
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