Silke Van Der Smissen shared an extensive breakdown of the Stylized Medieval Village project, showed us the Unreal workflow, and explained how it is possible to create a good-looking environment on a time constraint.
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Hi! My name is Silke Van Der Smissen. I am a 23-year-old 2nd-year game art student at Digital Arts and Entertainment in Kortrijk – Belgium. Before my game art studies, I studied fine arts (with a focus on painting) at Luca School of Arts in Ghent.
This past year has really been the year where I discovered just how much I love creating environments and that environment art really is what I want to focus on and spend most of my time doing. So right now, I’m mostly trying to build a portfolio that showcases my love and passion for environment art in hopes of finding an internship for next spring!
The Stylized Medieval Village Project
Before this project, my previous environments were mostly more realistic ones built with Megascans and/or other asset packs I found online. These were super helpful and fun and they taught me a lot about Unreal Engine, lighting, post-processing, composition, and just in general building an environment from blockout to finished project without having to spend a lot of time on creating assets. If you’re just starting out creating environments, this is really something I’d recommend you do so you can get in the practice and see results really quickly.
After this, I was itching to go a little bigger. I felt ready to take on a bigger task and really wanted to see if I was able to create an environment from scratch. I stumbled across Roman Kuteynikov’s Medieval Town concept and really fell in love with the colors and the way he painted the lighting. Whenever I come across a concept like that where something really sparks my eye, something just clicks in my mind and I get really excited to start working on it!
Before jumping into Unreal, however, I like to do a little preparation in advance, so I can get a clear overview of what it is that I will need and to break it down into smaller pieces, so it doesn’t seem so daunting. This is the time that I like to read up on articles or watch videos of amazing artists who break down environments they made to maybe pick up some techniques that might be useful to me later down the road.
An artist who inspires me a lot is Jasmin Habezai-Fekri who made (among other beautiful pieces) the famous piece: Bird House. The article she wrote on it proved to be super helpful to me. I especially liked the way she set up her trimsheet and the materials.
Here you can see a small breakdown of how I planned to tackle this environment. It’s pretty messy, but I only made it to make things clearer and easier for myself. This was really the first thing I did.
After this, it was time for my blockout. I usually don't spend too much time on this. It’s mostly about getting an idea of where everything will be. Getting a feel for the composition and some very basic lighting setup. I try not to wait too long to start modeling and actually creating the pieces I will need for the environment; my first priority is always to get everything in there. Here you can see the full process from start to finish:
Modeling the Buildings
Right after planning everything and doing the blockout, I jumped straight into modeling, I like to use 3ds Max for this. I looked at some reference pictures of medieval houses and my concept and broke it down into some simple geometry to create my building kit from. A medieval village luckily lends itself really well to modularity, so I didn’t even have to make a lot of pieces. I modeled all of these in just a few hours and with that, I was ready to start building my houses.
These are the final versions of the pieces I used. As you can see, some of the beams have a little bend or curve in them to make it a bit more interesting. But in the beginning, these definitely weren’t there yet. I only added them later when I felt that everything was a little too stiff and rigid.
I only had about a week and a half to finish this entire environment. So it really felt like a race against time. My top priority was always to get the entire environment at a presentable stage as quickly as I could, and then everything after was just icing on the cake. And the quicker I could get that foundation in, the more time I had left to add as much detail, and polish as I could.
This is the final presentation of my modular kit, as you can see the pieces are pretty much the same. I didn’t have to make any other pieces and was able to create the buildings with just those first few parts. The only thing I later added was 3 different-sized beams.
Details and Props
Almost all of the details and props were created in the last 1 or 2 days of the project. I had reached a point where I was looking at the environment and I felt as if something was missing. Sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly is causing this annoying feeling, especially when you’ve been looking at the same environment 8-10+ hours a day. But I soon realized that I hadn’t put in any props yet, the scene felt empty and there wasn’t any story yet. The buildings were just random buildings in a random village where nothing was happening. No functionality whatsoever.
I absolutely wanted to minimize the number of props I had to create uniquely because sculpting, retopology, unwrapping, baking, texturing is all pretty time-consuming and I only had about 1-2 days left. So I came up with props that consisted of metal and wood, 2 elements that I happened to have on my trimsheet. The medieval cart, barrel, apple crate, ladder, bucket, and handles for the signs are all purely made from the trimsheet.
Those already made a huge difference so what was left were the signs, arrows, meat, apples, and cloth for the market stands in the back. Those were made the traditional way. First I made the low poly's in 3ds Max, then from those, I made the BaseMeshes to import to ZBrush to sculpt on, so I could get a nice high poly. Then I baked and textured them in Substance Painter.
Again, not losing track of time was very important here. I always try to keep the big picture in mind and spend my time wisely. There’s no point in spending 5 hours sculpting the perfect apple when no one is going to look at it from up close. It’s better to sculpt a decent apple in 10 minutes and spend the other 4 hours and 50 minutes on more important things in your environment.
Texturing the Scene
I’m fairly new to Substance Designer and have made only a handful of materials so far. For this project, my friend recommended this amazing tutorial by Jimmy Malachier. He explains wonderfully how he made these beautiful painterly materials and I used this as my starting point to make the walls.
Something really important to me was to make sure that the houses blended nicely with the vegetation. So I definitely needed some moss, and I wanted a nice gradient that went from greenish at the bottom to blend with the grass and then all the way to orange at the top.
I also wanted to make sure that not every wall looks the same because it’s really obvious when you have the same crack in every corner. So to achieve all this I needed to make a shader.
First, I made a bare plaster wall material in Substance Designer, and then I also made a plaster wall that had parts of the brick exposed. Then in the shader, I lerp between the 2 textures using a noise texture. This way you can have a bunch of variation and control over how much brick you want to be exposed.
Then, for the moss, I created a gradient from bottom to top and again, use a noise texture to lerp between the moss and the final product of the previous lerps with the plaster/brick.
After the walls were done, I also needed a variation of my trimsheet that had some moss on it to blend with the rest of the scene. Here I basically did the same thing where I create a bottom to top gradient and used noise to lerp the moss and the trim texture with, but the noise I use is a bit softer.
I myself am not by any means a shader genius and still have a lot to learn. A fellow student at my school Yinuo Chen who’s insanely talented and makes amazing, stunning environments actually did a breakdown of her scene over on the DiNusty Twitch channel where she extensively explains how she made her shaders. If you’re looking to learn more on this topic, or just want to learn some neat, amazing tricks I really recommend you check it out because this was very helpful to me and super inspiring!
I wanted to make the scene feel alive. In 3D, things have the tendency to become very static and boring. So to combat that, I made as many things move around as I possibly could.
Making small things move a little is actually really easy and can make such a huge difference in your presentation. For the little flags, I just used a Sine Wave and added that to the world position offset in the material.
For the signs that are swaying in the wind, I made a small blueprint that uses a timeline. To get the back and forth motion, I added a few parameters as well, so I could use the same blueprint for every sign and adjust the timing of the swinging, so it isn’t exactly the same for each sign.
Then finally, I also added some particles as some extra movement in the scene. The leaves were from a free pack I found on the Unreal marketplace and the smoke coming out of the chimney was made by a friend of mine for a group project we worked on together. He was kind enough to let me use it!
Lighting and Rendering
Lighting was my biggest hurdle. I made the mistake of diving into the post-processing setting way too early and initially made the lighting too complex and convoluted. I came to a point where I had to take a step back, delete the post-process volume, delete the lights and start over again. This can be very hard to do because it feels like you are deleting hours of work. But you just have to remember that these aren’t wasted hours, you learned what doesn’t work and it rarely happens that when you do something twice it’s worse the second time around.
When I started over, I made it my goal to get the scene looking good with as few lights as possible. This resulted in a really basic but in my opinion very effective setup.
A SkyLight, warm yellow-orange toned SunLight, and a cool Blue-Purple Light with no shadows to brighten up the darker parts. And finally, a few spotlights to brighten up some focal areas.
I kept the same idea for the post-processing as well. I came to a point where I felt pretty good about the light setup, so now I just wanted to enhance a few things, make some really minor changes but keep it minimal. I adjusted the temperature a little and did some minor color grading mostly to turn down the whites and make them a little less bright.
As I already mentioned, lighting was by far the hardest part, as well as the part that I spent the most time on. This might be surprising considering how simple the setup eventually turned out. But I think that that’s one of the pitfalls of having to make an environment in such a short amount of time. Sometimes it’s helpful in cases like this to take a step back from your work and not look at it for a few days so you can then later return with a fresh pair of eyes. Unfortunately, when you only have a week and a half you can’t afford to do that. But all things considered, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out! I learned a ton and can’t wait to make my next environment.
A major thing I noticed is that sometimes having a huge time constraint like this can actually be beneficial, especially for a stylized scene. It forces you to focus on the big picture and not lose yourself in unnecessary details. You just can’t afford to spend 10 hours sculpting the perfect wood for your trimsheet and as it turns out you really don’t need to. Stylization is all about getting to the core of what makes an object look or feel like that object and then exaggerating that property.
Another thing I found really helpful which was actually suggested by my friend Milan De Laet who helped me out a lot and gave amazing feedback was to make it my priority to get everything in unreal as quickly as possible. If you need to make 3 Substance Designer materials just make them, give them color in Substance, and put them in Unreal. If you will need a trimsheet, just block one out in color in Photoshop and throw it in there. You’ll need assets? Make really quick blockout versions of them and get them in. This will make it easier in the future to start working on them because they’re already in there and Unreal makes it really easy to then update them.
Thanks again for this wonderful opportunity! Thank you for getting all the way to the end if you’re reading this, I hope it was helpful in some way.
Special thanks to Milan for helping me out. He’s super talented and makes amazing environments so I definitely recommend checking him out!