3D Environment Artist Luke Chayo shared the workflow behind the Hotel Diorama project, explained how the project's modular pieces were made, and explained how the environment was lit and rendered in Unreal Engine 5.
My name is Luke Chayo, and I currently live in Southern California. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Film at the University of California, Berkeley. My interest in gaming stems from my childhood, filled with countless hours playing Call of Duty and Halo. It's safe to say my first love was first-person shooters. Studying production at Berkeley taught me technical skills that I now want to utilize along with groundbreaking technology to work in the fields I am passionate about, film and video games.
Joining Vertex School
During the pandemic, I struggled to make any real progress with my art. I was already set on environment art but was struggling for a sense of direction. I wanted to develop myself and my skills. It was around that time a relative reached out and linked me to an article about Vertex School.
The key part about Vertex that intrigued me was that they connected students to veterans of the game art community. These were people I wanted to learn from, doing the jobs that I wanted to do. Before I started at Vertex, I knew I wanted to boost my general understanding of the games pipeline. Having previously used Blender for my modeling and sculpting work, I had a basic understanding of modeling, texturing, and UVs. Honestly, UVs used to terrify me to no end, I could never get my head around the process until coming to Vertex.
At Vertex, you really get out of it what you put in. There are tons of resources and mentors to guide you, but the time and effort you devote to the craft are what define you as an artist. I remember at the start of the Vertex Game Artist program, you were introduced to "Pre-Course" modules designed to help prepare you for the coming first term. One of these modules was an optional in-depth guide of sixteen videos on starting in Maya. Those that did the module were familiarized with Maya before the start of the term and had the upper hand when it came time to model compared to those who chose to forgo it.
The Hotel Diorama
After learning the prompt for the project, my mind immediately went to a building that I had seen before while walking around Santa Monica, CA. It had a unique feeling, with popping colors and plenty of details.
Finding references of the building online was easy enough with a google image search. What I found tremendously useful was actually visiting in real life. A close friend of mine lives next to the building that the Routeman Hotel is based upon, this gave me a unique opportunity to view it from perspectives not easily accessible to the public. I found plenty of details that were omitted from pictures online or simply did not fit in the frame when capturing the scale of the building. These details would come to influence the design of the building and the placement of decals.
When looking at concept art, I focused more on the mood and lighting of the scene but overlooked important aspects like composition. This would be a major oversight on my part. My peers that had found concept art to base their work on had a big head start over me when it came to the blockout phase of the project. While I would go on to spend weeks continually iterating on possible compositions for my scene, they had the freedom to focus on other aspects of theirs. This issue would resolve eventually with the decision to add a ground element that would shift the focus of the scene solely onto the hotel.
Choosing Unreal Engine 5
My first real exposure to Unreal came after I had watched Disney’s The Mandalorian. I was blown away by the technology being used and became increasingly interested in the seemingly endless possibilities of Unreal Engine and Virtual Production. After downloading Unreal Engine 4 and Quixel Bridge, I was off down a rabbit hole of youtube tutorials. My entry into the world of environment art was a lonesome one, I worked alone, struggling to figure out how to make the art that I had come to adore. In retrospect, the lack of outside feedback and discourse during this time likely contributed to the stunted progress of my art.
After finding Vertex, the decision to use Unreal Engine 5 for this project seemed like a no-brainer. I wanted to continue to familiarize myself with the engine and keep in mind the ultimate goal of working in virtual production.
Blockout and Modular Pieces
The first step for me was looking at my references and trying to gauge a sense of scale for the building and the pieces that would comprise it. I made simple base models for the different walls and corner pieces that I would later add variations on. These variations included the number of windows, the aspect ratio of the windows, and whether it was an edge piece.
From these pieces, I built a blockout of the scene in Maya. It was here that I would make all the major decisions about the layout of the scene. As I mentioned earlier I went through a few different iterations of how the scene might end up. I had thought to add additional buildings surrounding the main hotel but eventually decided against that.
The Texturing Process
The scene uses primarily tileable textures with the only exceptions being the props. The process of creating a tileable texture was pretty straightforward. I imported a 4x4 meter plane into Substance 3D Painter and kept in mind that the goal of the material was to tile seamlessly. This meant dialing back any dirt or weathering that I would usually add on a prop. Once satisfied with the material, I would export it from SP in the Unreal Packed preset. From there I could import the textures into Unreal and plug them into a basic material instance.
A lot of the material variation in my scene comes from the use of decals. For the most part, I made three different types of decals for the scene; Graffiti, Dirt, and Puddles. Each of them started in Photoshop where I would design the decal. Making a quick stop in Substance 3D Painter before being imported to UE5. Once in the engine, I would layer the decals until I got the desired effect. This is something I would continually iterate on being sure to never get stuck on one idea.
Lighting and Rendering
I had decided pretty early on that I wanted to do a night scene so that I could capitalize on the big neon sign. I always found this aspect of the building interesting and a great avenue for adding a sense of story to the piece.
I started by adding a BP Sky Sphere into my scene, where I could then adjust details like the sun's height and star brightness. While the default star texture is decent, I chose to replace it with another higher-resolution texture I found online. Next, I set up a directional light to simulate the moonlight, activating Atmosphere Sun Light so that I could use the Ctrl+L shortcut to easily rotate the light around my scene. Down the line, I would add a blue tint to the light, a common practice in the film industry when shooting day-for-night scenes. Once the directional light was set up, I added Volumetric Height Fog to enhance the depth and a skylight using a specified cubemap source type to lift the shadows in the scene. The final, albeit the longest step, was adding all of the smaller lights ranging from the street lamps to the small detail lamps.
A big challenge for me was balancing the effect the volumetric fog had on the lights within the scene. Changing the intensity, scattering distribution, and IES texture all greatly affected the way the lights were perceived by the virtual camera.
My mentor throughout this project was Johnny Renquist. What drew me to Johnny initially was his stunning sci-fi work, but under his mentorship, what I came to appreciate was his candid nature. After going through feedback for the project he would happily answer any remaining questions I had related to the industry or stemming from his personal experiences as an artist. Johnny was the one to advise me to explore different diorama layout options, giving me plenty of examples to start with. It was this advice that would motivate me to drastically change my scene for the better.
Salvador Sánchez, a Teachers Assistant at Vertex, was extremely helpful throughout the twelve-week project. It was an early lighting material demo of his in our lab that put me onto the idea of adding flickering lights into my scene. This idea would grow to be an important aspect of the project.
Overall my experience with Vertex has been a very positive one. I found an amazing community of artists ready and willing to help one another. While there is a lot of information to absorb, the modules within the game artist program are broken down in a way that helps to keep the pace from being too overwhelming. I would recommend Vertex to anyone seriously interested in the video game industry.