Alex Beddows talked about the production of his new scene Safe House crafted with ZBrush, Substance Tools, Marvelous Designer, UE4 & 3DSMax.
Hi there, I’m Alex Beddows, a senior artist at Live 5 Gaming. I studied game art and design at Coventry City College where I was first introduced into game art as a career choice aged 16. The course was 2 years long and we were introduced into the different aspects of the games industry: 3D, Traditional Art, Animation, Script Writing.
I instantly gravitated to the 3D, we didn’t get massively into it so during that 2 years I was only introduced to 3DS Max but that was enough to get me hooked. I chose not to go to university at the time, I knew there was a ton of great online resource I could learn from so I worked multiple jobs ranging from a labourer to retail, teaching myself in my spare time more 3D such as UDK, Zbrush and Substance Painter. After a year of odd jobs, I started my first games job in mobile game development. I was improving at a slow but steady rate, picking up new skills and refining my current ones until 2017, when I stumbled across Jeremy Estrellado’s Youtube while trying to learn more about UE4. From there I joined the DiNusty discord community and my progress spiked, Jeremy and the community played a huge role in working out my weak spots and what I need to do to improve.
Concept and Ideation
This scene came about because I wanted to address the previously mentioned weak spots, whilst giving myself a platform to introduce Substance Designer into my workflow properly and learn some new software such as Marvellous Designer. There were also some key skills I really needed to address such as the quality and speed I can generate props, the storytelling of composition and my lighting.
While browsing for inspiration I came across this beautiful piece of concept art by Jeffrey Chew, I loved the style because it gave me a really clear idea in my head of what I needed to do and gave me the platform to develop my own narrative and interpretation of his scene.
I also saw this piece, after researching trying to find the artist I was unsuccessful, but I loved the TV with a retro game idea. I wanted to incorporate this into my narrative as there is also some beautiful use of puddles and reflections in this piece that I really wanted to utilize for my scene.
The narrative of this scene was that society had collapsed, and a mercenary was using an old prison archive as a Safe House. There was space for him to sleep, drink, modify his gear and unwind playing some Tekken. He is also part of a network of mercenary’s waiting for the broadcast of jobs to come up on the big screen, mainly protecting and escorting civilians between safe zones. Although this is a very loose narrative, it gives me enough to give the space function and meaning which is one of the key things I wanted to keep in mind during this project.
At the start of this scene I wanted to do two things:
- Primarily to get the fundamental pieces of the concept I wished to use into the scene blocked out such as the shape, bed, trap door and entrance.
- Secondary to that was to get the foundations of the scene created so I had solid ground to progress on. These were the modular pipes and the prop shader I would use throughout the scene, the material blend shader for my substance designer material and the spline blueprint I would use a lot in this scene for pipes, hoses, and cables.
The material shader for my substance designer materials was pretty basic, using 3 separate colour channels to blend the paint, concrete and the broken concrete material together, with a height map as the alpha and height lerps used to control where they break away. I used a similar set up for the floor shader too.
This is the shader used for all my props, using a unique Albedo, normal and packed texture (roughness, metallic and AO). I added some parameters to use detail normals and tweak the roughness when necessary to make the shader more versatile.
This is just a basic spline blueprint but proved extremely useful in dressing the scene and giving the whole space a sense of realism with everything being connected with cables, pipes weaving in and out of each other or hoses being draped along the floor.
Approaching this scene the foremost of my priorities was propping, so I purposely chose a scene which needed a lot of them. I split the props into story props which I did first, then filled the space with clutter props. I will hold my hands up now and say that nearly all the assets have 0-1 textures, which in games production you would use a lot more tiling textures and trim sheets, but I really wanted to focus on the props themselves, which is why I made them this way. I set one small stipulation on my props which was that none can go over 10k tri’s, which isn’t anything crazy but it is easy to get carried away with polycounts on props, so I used this as a way to keep myself in check.
While putting the scene together I started with the ‘story’ props of my scene, such as the bed, the tool bench, and the lockers. These would be the parts of the scene you expect the character to interact with regularly and therefore in layouts which suit how the character lives in it. For example, as the lockers are facing an angle this allows the character to walk past, dropping his/her stuff off while walking towards their tool bench to work.
Once story props were in I worked on the clutter, there was a couple of things I used the clutter for, one of which was setting the scene. As I mentioned before, this scene was originally a prison archive which is full of boxes and shelves, so I imagined those items pushed into the corners out of the way, with stuff stacked on top of each other in a chaotic mess. I also filled the clutter with stuff that makes sense to horde in a situation like this, such as weapons and electronics to build and maintain the tech available to him/her.
I wanted the clutter to be placed in such a way that I could maximize the effectiveness of Distance Field AO, which I learned from the UE4 Lighting Academy. I wanted this scene to have a hard contrast of the hot and cold lights, with the claustrophobic feeling you get from these dark cluttered areas and Distance Field really helped achieve this look.
The majority of my props went through a generic high poly bake into low poly, as I previously mentioned this would be far more efficient to do with a tiling material and trim sheet used with floating planes. But this scene was an opportunity to stretch my legs with the props, so I decided to have some fun with them. One thing I did do was reuse parts from previous assets on future assets, for example, this fuse box has some nice baked bolts and mechanic details, which I reused on other props in a similar design.
One thing I wanted to use the scene for was a platform to learn Marvellous Designer, I saw Andrew Averkin’s great work on Utopia and his YouTube video where he showed a WIP of his cloth assets in his game. I knew I needed to pick it up and incorporate it into my workflow as up until now I have avoided these types of assets. Although the assets created are not complex, I think they achieve the look and quality I was after. This cloth was created in order for the character to leave little bolts and nuts on, if you have built Ikea furniture you know building it on the wood floor is infuriating, so this was a logical part to add to the prop that added the level of realism and story I wanted to incorporate into the scene.
Materials & Decals
I explained previously that I treated this scene as a chance to incorporate my new found understanding of substance designer. I used the material I created by following Enrico Tammerkand’s amazing tutorial: using the 3 layers of that material to blend between, this broke the walls up a bit and added some visual interest that was really key to the feeling of this scene. I used this shader technique for the floor too, breaking the floor up with the dirty broken material. I also created a few materials I knew I would be needing for detail normal or tiling materials, such as stone, concrete, and metal.
I used decals a lot for two reasons: either as dirt decals to help seat the prop in the scene, and to help create the look that the prop has been attached to the wall/floor for a long period of time. The other use of decals was for the water puddles, these were just a black and white alpha with the roughness cranked up. It looked really effective, especially as they created a nice glancing reflection in front of the TV.
At the offset, I knew what I wanted to focus on with this scene, skills that I thought would be essential as an environment artist, but I also knew I needed two things in this scene to help bring it along visually and narratively: Guns and VFX. For the weapons I collaborated with the very talented Ankur Kaul, who created all the guns and their components in the scene. The water VFX coming out of the pipe was reversed engineered from the water particles in the Unreal Reflections scene.
In a studio this would be how you would work on a project, I didn’t want to spread myself too thin and invest time into areas I don’t believe would maximize my development in environment art. Also, I really believe it is good to collaborate where possible, to maximize the quality of your projects but also develop the core ‘soft skills’ required to work on larger scale projects.
So, the scene’s lighting from the offset was going to have this harsh contrast of hot vs cold, with the cold lights coming from the ‘foreign’ light sources and the warm light coming from the scenes built-in lights. I need to shout out the DiNusty community at this point because they helped me a lot with refining the lighting. I needed to fix it up as at this point in the development the scene felt very flat, I was trying to use the lights to emphasise the story’s beats, but the whole scene felt mono with the lighting.
I ended up turning both of the big fluorescent lights off and using the big screen and tv screen to almost cut the room in half by using the entrance and pill light to cast warm light, and the screen to cast cold light. The lamp on the table acted as the central light to draw the focus into the centre of the scene. I had to be careful with the volumetric light within the scene as it very quickly flattened the whole shot out, so I had to use it sparingly. But now the core story beats are being highlighted by the lighting, such as the beds, screens and table lamp.
All the lights are movable, I wanted to have dynamic lighting so setting everything to moveable was the best option. As I mentioned before I wanted a clear distinction between hot and cold, so I used temperature to control the light colours which proved to be pretty effective.
Due to the way I built the shaders I managed to keep the shader complexity very low which was one of my goals from the get-go, the lighting complexity gets a bit high around the TV but that is because of all the light sources form different tv’s bouncing around. I did also use a couple of floating fill lights to help certain props pop out a little more such as the TV behind the lockers. I don’t usually do this but for the sake of it looking better I thought it was worthwhile.
I have two thanks to give: firstly the DiNusty community and Jeremy himself, without the community’s feedback I wouldn’t have been able to maximise this scene and get the most out of it. Jeremy helped me understand my shortcomings and what I needed to do to improve through his portfolio reviews and art critiques on his Twitch. For all of their support, I am very thankful.
Secondly, thank you to Kirill for the opportunity to write an article: the work you put in to create this site and to consolidate so much information is a credit and a huge aid to the art community, on behalf of all of us, thank you!
Catch up with me at some point via: