Jesse Larson told us about the workflow behind the Mountain Monastery project, discussed setting up the landscape, and explained how the water shader was created.
Hi, I’m Jesse Larson and I’m a Senior Designer at FOX Sports. My journey to where I’m currently at has been a lot of fun, but a bit indirect. I graduated in 2008 in Graphic Design and worked at a couple of traditional print studios for several years. At the encouragement of one of the Creative Directors I worked with, I started learning 2D motion graphics in 2011.
The following year my wife and I were expecting our first child and I did a name reveal for our baby. That caught the eye of a motion design studio in our area who offered me a job. It was there that I was really able to dive into 3D and learn about modeling, texturing, and lighting. In 2017 I moved to FOX Sports and that happened to coincide with their push into virtual graphics. I was able to learn all about proper modeling for AR/VR, UVs, Substance Painter/Designer, and also began to learn Unreal. The team there has been absolutely stellar and they have really fostered an environment where learning and growing is a big part of what we do.
Part of the challenge of moving from one design field to another is that portfolio expectations change. That can be really daunting as it takes time to build a solid portfolio. In the end, it really comes down to what you are passionate about and then finding/making time to work on those areas and improving bit by bit.
For me, a lot of that ends up being later at night after the rest of the family goes to bed. I’ve learned over the years that giving yourself breaks too is the best way to keep moving forward without burning yourself out. I tend to go in several weeks or months at a time cycle. I need to be all in while I’m working on a personal project in the evening or I’ll just get distracted by the latest game or movie.
The Mountain Monastery Project
Through my work at FOX, I was able to take CGMA’s course Environment Art for Games in UE4. At the start of that course, there was a collection of concept art designs our teacher Peyton Varney had pulled that we could choose from. I wanted a piece that would challenge me but still be one I could finish in the 10 weeks we had for the course. Looking through them, there was one by lok du that really stood out to me. It leaned more toward realism in its design and wasn’t just all wood or stone. It was also helpful that this concept focused mostly on the architectural aspect of the building with very little shown about the surrounding area. It really let me think through this building's purpose and function and allowed me to add my own spin to the area.
Reference gathering is always a fun part of the process for me. After I select a concept or idea, it’s the initial stage of figuring out the direction a project is heading. Reference really helps guide a project forward and starts answering a lot of questions that have already come up or will come up down the road.
Make sure that your reference is organized and not just a bunch of random images scattered together. I used PureRef to organize my reference. It’s an easy drag and drop tool that keeps things tidy. Be purposeful about reference gathering too. For instance, if you’re looking for a wood board reference, figure out what kind of wood you want to use. Are you looking for something that looks like it was pulled from a 100-year-old barn or something you just picked up from a lumber store? Pull reference that supports that direction.
Also, keep your reference image count manageable. It’s more about how helpful that reference is than the number of images you have. If you focus those reference images around things like color, age, lighting, and interaction with other elements your ability to make decisions will be more grounded as the project gets further along.
Setting Up the Landscape
I really wanted this building to serve a purpose and not just be some random structure in some random place. For that, it started with the water wheel. What made that difficult was the placement of the water wheel with the porch. Having the water run over the top of the wheel would require a higher water source that would diminish the perspective of strength for the building as it would have to sit lower compared to the other elements around it. I also wanted the water source to be a lake because lakes are pretty. A water-level right around the back porch was a better fit but required a natural or manmade barrier to keep the water back since the front steps and side porch sat lower than the back porch. In the end, a dam made the most sense that kept the water source lower but also retained the placement of the front steps, front porch, and wheel.
Once that was established I was able to start thinking through where the land was. I knew I wanted to have one of the final images be pretty similar to the composition of the original concept art. With that in mind, I decided to have some land flanking the dam and structure to create a natural vignette at the bottom of that composition. To help rough that in, I sculpted some quick land shapes in Cinema 4D and used those to block in where I wanted the land to be. I played around with more land areas in different places, but in the end, I opted for lower shots looking up to keep the scope of the project manageable.
Coming from a background in motion graphics, my main 3D tool is Cinema 4D. Our first week on this project was to block everything out. Mograph and the Polypen tools in C4D really made quick work of this. I wanted to establish as much as possible that first week to really set the bar for what this project would become. It took a couple more weeks to really figure out the other parts of the building that weren’t shown in the concept art, but having solid reference and the dam environment decided on pretty early made those later decisions feel more like puzzle pieces than like I was starting from scratch.
For the block out, I tried to keep the shapes as simple as possible without being too primitive. It was definitely a balance between defining the shapes without being too detailed. That way I could quickly get through the entire building while allowing for iteration later on. Throughout the blockout stage, I kept referencing the concept art and a humanoid figure to ensure that my proportions were accurate to the concept and also looked right in 3D. Things don’t always translate correctly from 2D to 3D, so that figure really helped make sense of everything.
Modular architectural environments were a new approach for me. Up to this point, everything I have made for work or personal projects were one-off models, so thinking through how I could reuse parts of the building saved a lot of time. Rather than treating each section as a unique area, I could reuse other parts of the building in a way that kept it mostly consistent with the original concept art. It also really helped define those areas that the concept art didn’t show. The most reused part of the building is the tiled roof section. I made a small portion of that and an end cap and built all the roof areas from that.
To further cut back on how much time it would take to finish this project, I kept my final compositions as mid to long shots. This really helped reduce how detailed the textures needed to be. I built several base materials in Substance Designer and used those as a springboard for additional iterations in Unreal. I also used them as the base layer for several props that I ran through Substance Painter.
Assembling the Scene
Since the blockout was finished in week 1, assembling everything in Unreal wasn’t that difficult. It was like following a map with the modularity and grid snapping helping that go smoothly. The biggest challenge for me at this point was getting all the trees in there. I initially painted them in with the foliage brush but was getting some LOD AO issues on the further back trees. I ended up wasting a couple of days trying to troubleshoot this, but since the clock was ticking and nothing was working I ended up hand placing them all so I could move on to other areas that needed more work. This was a good test as it challenged my goal.
For me, I wanted awesome finished renders with the experience of working in Unreal. It was my first time building an environment in Unreal so I wasn’t expecting a perfect AAA game-ready environment that ran with a great FPS. That will come in time. So rather than waste additional days that I didn’t have troubleshooting a problem, I purposefully did it the way I knew would work (even though it wasn’t optimal) so that I could keep pushing toward finishing the project.
I was very fortunate that the HDRI was an easy find. I used Poly Haven, picked a few I thought could work, and found the right one at 16k. That was my base and then I used a Sun Light as my main source. I started off with those and then also adjusted the post-process volume to have a more even look. The default scene in Unreal is very contrasty so knocking that back in the Post Process Volume to get a good start point is pretty helpful. You can also layer your post-process volumes and I took advantage of that as this project moved along. I had one that was my base even-toned look and then another one that brought some of the contrast back and did some color correction. Following a tutorial by Willaim Faucher, I also used a second Sun Light as my fill for the scene. It was really helpful in further cutting back some of the contrast that can happen with a single sun source and it gave me more control of the shadows.
After that, the lighting was really about “painting” in areas that were too dark. This isn’t necessarily a cheat, as pretty much everything bounces light around in the real world. Selectively adding in point lights to key areas is also a bit more efficient than cranking up the ray tracing settings.
I looked through several pre-made water shaders with some crazy complexity but ended up building my own that was pretty simple. I wanted to control the Roughness and normal height of the water since lakes don’t tend to be perfectly flat and also have bits of algae or other “scum” hanging out on the surface that breaks up the Roughness. This material gave me the amount of control I was looking for while staying simple.
A big part of getting through this project was the weekly input from Peyton Varney. Reaching out to him for our weekly homework feedback, weekly Q/A, or over email was a great way to get guidance on the best way to approach different aspects of this environment. I also sought feedback from colleagues and friends to help get more eyes on this. In the end, this was a really great project to work through and finish and I’m looking forward to furthering projects I have in mind.
You may find these articles interesting