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Creating a Spooky Vampire Lair in ZBrush, Substance & UE5

Jared Lewin showed us how the Crypt of The Raven King was created, shared the asset workflow, and explained why Unreal Engine 5 was chosen for this project.


My name is Jared Lewin and I am an environment artist at Arkane Studios currently working on Redfall. Before Arkane I worked for Gunfire Games on Darksiders 3 and Remnant From the Ashes.

So, the Crypt of The Raven King environment was a fun challenge. I keep a hard drive of environment “sketches” where I am constantly blocking out new ideas with graybox iterations. These are usually very basic because they are made before I have a full story idea fleshed out. This particular environment was a graybox I made around December of last year over an hour or two. In graybox form, it was really just a casket shape floating in a position much like the final. I put that gray box to rest for a while and didn’t figure out the story for it until more recently.

The story really began to take form when I asked myself two questions. Where would you lock away a vampire and what would a visually distinct vampire lord look like?

As an Environment Artist, the first question was the easy one. The second one I was determined to answer in a very challenging way. I wanted to define this vampire lord by his casket. The answer to both of those questions created the results of the final image that you see. There is an intimidating vampire lord locked in a coffin buried deep within an ancient crypt. The very last part of this idea was figuring out the “now”. As in what is happening in the crypt at this very moment. The story follows someone that thought it would be a good idea to awaken this vampire in pursuit of gaining eternal life. That’s not quite how it worked out for them though, and that’s where the story-telling of the blood comes in. After I figure the story out I will collect all of my references and start the assets.

Asset Workflow

All of my assets are started in Maya in a blockout form so that I can check their scale. After I am happy with the blockout I go straight into ZBrush and finish the asset modeling completely. The low poly is made in Maya and the UVs are generated there as well. After that is complete I take the assets into Substance 3D Painter where I use materials that I have made in Substance 3D Designer to texture the assets. This is the same workflow I use for all of my assets. My tileables are made completely in SD.

The Casket

The casket was a challenging prop because it had to stand in for the main villain of the piece. All of the skulls and ornaments were made directly in ZBrush. More organic shapes like the skull relied mostly on traditional organic modeling techniques while some of the more geometric or man-made elements of the casket were made using ZModeler and then sculpted towards the end to add imperfections.

Overall this piece took around three weeks on and off. As a professional game dev, there are some days where I’ve been working in ZBrush for the entire day before even getting to work on my personal projects so I prefer to switch to working on Substance 3D Designer or something other than ZBrush instead. But from the first designs to the final textured asset the casket did add up to around two and a half weeks including the time I took off to do other things for the project. This turnaround is a bit slower and more concentrated than some other props I created for the project, but I think it was important to really make sure the design felt both plausible and intimidating in a way that wasn’t cartoonishly Halloween.


All of the scene’s textures were created in either Substance 3D Painter or Substance 3D Designer. The assets were unique bakes in Painter that were textured using materials I created in Designer. The materials I made in Designer include two types of stone, one type of grout, one type of metal, and all decals including blood/stains. Using these materials I create blends in Painter using masks and baked maps to get 85-90% of the way there. I then collapse this down into multiple smart materials.

For example, I created a smart material that was the basic stone material. It blended between grout and stone based on an ID map, then applied all dirt, edge highlights, and gradients based off of baked maps. The last 5-10% were hand-painted maps that included all custom details. I repeated this process for all of the wood and the metal as well. 90% of the assets in the scene were created using either the stone, metal, or wood smart material.
The casket was textured in Painter using my wood smart material and my metal smart material. These smart materials took the baked maps from the casket and generated a majority of the texture work. I handpainted the details like custom stains, some places where rough wood was showing through, a small amount of rust discoloration, and details similar to these. One of the most complicated surfaces was actually the stone. It made up such a large percent of the scene so it had to be very good. The base material was made in Designer and really relied on bringing out the small reads that are characteristic of the type of crypts that I was referencing.

The reason that was so hard was that when you really observe that sort of stone closely, it forms interesting shapes and peculiarities over time. The challenge is that you have to capture all of the unique aspects of the stone while keeping it functioning as a tiling material. The next big goal with that stone was finding the perfect roughness. I put a lot of thought into what the surface of the stone would be like after existing underground for so long. The trick was to pick up that surface profile in the roughness. I think the rest of the details are just nice to have and help the final look, but the really important part is the natural formations and capturing them in the Height Map and the Roughness.

Choosing Between UE4 and UE5

Honestly, I didn’t really notice any challenges with the engine's new version. I feel like the UE5 is just an evolution of UE4. Everything I needed to continue my workflow was there, just with new features that made my life much easier. The biggest part of this was the lighting. As simple as it sounds, just being able to throw in some candles and have them light their spaces correctly was a huge help. And the lighting in UE5 really handles that stuff spectacularly. For the lighting, it was all candles and one off-screen Directional Light with one or two background lights. It all just worked super well with very little hassle.


All of the lighting is Dynamic. The candles were just a single standard Spotlight and Point Light. An Exponential Height Fog was used and then I added a local fog using particle effects. The only post-production effect I used was a bit of film grain and a very light vignette. I really felt like if the lighting was correct I didn’t need any heavy post.


The whole project from starting the casket to the final screenshot took about a month and a half including days off. I think the hardest thing with any personal work is really balancing professional work, personal work, and just taking time to relax. As much as I would like to live completely in ZBrush and Unreal, it’s probably not a very good idea.

Time management is always harder than actual technical skills. The skills are still hard, but at this point in my professional career I learn new skills very regularly in a high-stress environment so learning new skills at home is actually quite relaxing.

Another bottleneck I will mention is really staying agile while iterating. It is very important to not get too attached to any element and keep thinking of the environment as a whole. There were one or two moments I did get a little too focused on one element or another and had to take a step back. For my next environment (which will actually be the exterior of this crypt)I am going to improve my pipeline further and push the next-gen elements that are present within UE5. This includes setting the scene outside to really take advantage of the weather and lighting effects and experimenting with how nature might be handled. I’m very excited to keep using UE5 and can’t wait to get started on the next scene to learn what else it has to offer.

Jared Lewin, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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