Félix Boutié talks about the challenges of building up a composition filled with tons of tiny details and working on lights and textures in UE4.
My name is Félix Boutié, I am a 20-year old Environment Art student and I currently live in Lyon, France. I started studying at ESMA, a 3D school in order to work in the movie animation industry. But since I did not have artistic knowledge and inspiration it was not successful. That is why I attended a one-year Fine Art course at Emile Cohl Atelier to learn traditional art. It was a good choice because I use this artistic knowledge (composition, value structure, and color theory) in my 3D workflow.
I am currently studying at Artside Online School in order to learn every aspect of the job as a professional Environment Artist. It is quite demanding but it is so much fun. Since I am a student I do not have any professional projects now but my dream would be to work at Santa Monica Studio or Naughty Dog.
Working on the Boat Project
I started this project while at the art school and it had to be a small closed room, with a realistic rendering. I have always loved adventure games, so of course, Naughty Dog's games were a big inspiration. I started with some concepts from The Last of Us Part II, Uncharted, and some real-life boat references. I gathered real-life pictures, concept art, and some in-game captures. I tried to not fall into a cycle of reproduction of an already existing concept and so, I started mixing what I liked about them.
I gathered some lighting references from the website called Shotdeck, looking for a warm dark mood with a tint of green in the shadows.
For the blockout, I went straight to Unreal Engine with some mesh, to find lighting and a camera angle I would like.
I did some paint-over to help me see what I was aiming for. Finally, I used a spreadsheet to make a plan with a deadline, list all the objects in my scene from high- to low-priority ones, and define where I am with every single object and what else needs to be done. I was finally set for production.
I focus my work on the making of the two final shots. So in terms of quality, I was allowed to do highly detailed props, even the ones in the back. All of the props were imported in Unreal Engine before any work was performed on them to make sure they would work in the frame and story-wise.
I modeled everything with Maya. With most of my objects, I used the low poly and high poly detailed bake on them. Marmoset Toolbag was the software I used because of its simplicity and the ability to paint the skew to avoid deformation on the baked version. The materials were then painted in Substance Painter. I only used some plants in the background that come from Quixel Bridge. But working on my boat allowed me to set up my own props ready for some future project.
With my planning, I started with the cabinet. It was big, it was right in the middle of my scene so I baked and textured it on its own map. The smaller assets were grouped by category when I baked and textured them in order to have fewer maps. I also packed them by combining channels like RGB as Metallic Roughness Ambient. I then set up a Master Material in Unreal Engine with parameters to control the Roughness, Color, Normal Strength, and Lightmass color value.
I created an atlas for the paper, magazine, poster, and picture. Then I set up a material with an alpha and a parameter allowing me to vary different assets.
I made the atlas in Photoshop using images I made myself or from the Internet. And from that, I created a mask for the opacity.
My scene contained 4 Master Materials, one for specific assets, one for Atlas, one for glass, and one for tileable texture with the ability to twitch the size and offset. I created the material in Substance Designer.
With one material being clean and the other one being dirty, I put a plane on the floor with some vertex on it and painted directly in the engine a mask with a material I set up.
The same goes for the wall and the ceiling. The beams are also tileable textures but I did not need to vertex paint them. This is the MM with two materials set up for vertex paint.
This is the glass shader allowing me to add dirt.
A material function I created was the color variation to adjust hue, saturation, and brightness.
I also added a lot of Decals to apply details and important little things like dirt, dust, holes in the wall, wet marks, and moisture on the ceiling. I used them to fake high-quality shadows beneath the maps as well.
Finally, I used a material function that I put in the Cubemap to see where the material was too dark or bright with the help of blue and red highlights.
In the end, I added a function allowing a rocking effect through the World Position Offset node in the MM.
Finally, I added some animated floating dust specs that I placed where the God Rays were.
Assembling the Scene
I prefer to start planning the composition at the very beginning, to have the time to really think if it is going to work or not. For instance, in the beginning, I wanted to pin the treasure map on the wall, but seeing it with bake light and some props I had already done made me change my mind, it was confusing and did not work in this scene. The placement of every part of this whole mess was really important and I really struggled to find the right amount of mess and where to put it to make it work. I placed the props in a gradient-ish way to help the visibility and readability.
I use a classic composition with the point of interest occupying about 75% of the image. I used the curve of the beams to make the eyes follow the golden spiral and make us end up looking at the desk. There are also the sunbeams that slice the picture giving it more energy and a natural vignette effect helping us focus on the action.
My lighting was the thing I wanted to fix as soon as possible because of its importance. I started with a slightly warm Directional Light.
I added the Sky Light to fill the dark area with a warmer greener tint.
I added the Spot Light in front of the windows and the hatch, giving them small value but high Volumetric Scattering in order to have small and subtle God Rays.
I added the Post Process Volume to change the saturation and the color of the shadow to have this heavier atmosphere. I could have used a LUT but the result directly from the engine was enough.
Here is a gif showing the entire process.
This project took around 7 full weeks to be completed and I had to spend some of my weekends working on it. Thanks to the teachers who really guided me and taught me a lot about the complexity of UE4 and what the studio’s standards are today, I was able to pull through.
The integration in Unreal Engine was the biggest challenge, with thousands of asset splatters in my scene, the management had to be very consistent and methodic.
I would say that if you are a beginner it is important to create an environment where you would dream to be right now, it creates empathy and believability (for me it was a boat). And if you have a problem do not be afraid to seek help, because it is complicated but not impossible. A good feedback loop really makes the difference.
Thanks to Clément Masset, Anthony Lemétayer, and Florian Potier, and the teachers at Artside who are still helping me learn new skills every day. And many thanks to all of my friends for their feedback and kindness. And for those of you who have read this article. And mostly thanks to 80 Level who allowed me to share my workflow with people of the 3D community and possibly help them.