Environment Artist Amadu Shaw shared the workflow behind the Work Shed project, explained how the Life is Strange-like art style was achieved, and talked about working with UE5's Lumen.
Hello everyone, I am Amadu Shaw, a 3D Environment Artist from Midwest Missouri. I am a student at Vertex School Online. I am super excited to share with you my recent project and how I went about creating it. It was my final project for my third term at Vertex School. I currently work at a hospital as a Medical Assistant but once I graduate from Vertex School I plan to start applying to different game studios.
Joining Vertex School
I came across Vertex School while browsing the internet one evening, looking at artworks created by other artists and I saw an ad for a Character Design Course for Games. I knew that there would be an Environment Course for Games too because I also watched Vertex's CEO doing interviews with other artists on YouTube. Back then, I knew Vertex from those videos but I never thought I would end up attending.
I decided to sign up anyway, not knowing whether I can get in or not because I wanted to be an Environment Artist for the longest time, and even though I knew how to create some 3D scenes, I still lacked the knowledge of pipelines and understanding the correct PBR workflow. I chose Vertex School because I was already familiar with their YouTube channel and watching those interviews made it easier for me.
The WorkShed Project
For this project, since it was my final term project, I wanted to solidify my aim and that aim was to tackle creating stylized art pieces as I have not actually successfully created one before. Because of this, I decided to plan carefully on how much time I have and things I wanted to learn. My main goal was to create a stylized scene, but my mentor Jacob Claussen also advised me to choose a stylized game and see if I can mimic that art style because studios would like to see if you can work with their art. I thought to myself that that was actually true, especially for a stylized scene it is easy to get carried away.
So, I gathered lots of references. I used the PureRef tool to organize my reference and I would recommend that tool to every artist and creator who uses references. I decided to use a reference from a game called Tell Me Why but I wanted the style to have more of a Life is Strange-feel to it.
After gathering my references and with a clear understanding of what I wanted to create everything became easier. I also had to keep scope and time in mind and after studying the reference, me and my mentor came to the conclusion of being realistic in time management so I decided to use only part of the reference, adding more later.
I used a planning tool called HacknPlan which allowed me to have good time management as well as a good workflow. I used it to manage the number of props I need to create and when they need to get done to stay at a steady pace and how I would have to texture my scene. Here is a screenshot of it so you can have a better understanding of how I managed my time during this project.
After having everything planned, I went to the fun part of blocking out my scene using the reference as a guide. When blocking out make sure you have a scale reference to use and luckily in Unreal you can use Manny. I called him/her Manny but that is Unreal's dummy you can use to run around the scene. They are already scaled correctly so it makes life easy. Use simple shapes to blockout just as an idea to know where things are or have to be.
After I got my blockout out of the way, I exported the blockout meshes to my special Blender folder with a correct scale. When creating a scene, during the planning phase, make sure your folders are structured correctly so you know where to find things when you start having lots of things in your scene and you should do this even in Unreal Engine. I have a habit of even saving my blockout meshes, not necessary for everyone but it helps me to remember where I started from.
So, after exporting my blockout meshes I used that same blockout as a proxy reference when modeling the props from the reference. It helps to remember what is the final plan of those props and by that I mean how are you going to texture them. Since this project is props-heavy, I get my UVs out of the way earlier so that if I have to make changes the tweaking of the UV would be easier and that is why I planned it so that I can only do a certain amount of props at a given time to not overwhelm myself. I also had to learn how to re-use assets so lots of duplication was occurring because I knew the texturing was going to take lots of time especially figuring out variations. I created the building parts modularly because Lumen does not like combined meshes. Below is an overview of some props I created.
This is the fun part. I already planned it out, so it was just a matter of execution. I wanted to learn how to utilize a good texturing workflow. Luckily, I already had a stylized wood texture I have been meaning to use in order to save time, and because I do not know how to use Substance 3D Designer very well but I do know Substance Painter.
The main thing I did to get the wood style I was looking for was using the Posterize effect to change the original texture. For my whole scene, including my work in Substance 3D Painter, I used the same wood for anything wood-related. I just used colors and Vertex Painting to make lots of variations. I used the same workflow for every prop and instead of some parts being metal, I changed them to wood to save lots of time by doing that because I just created a smart material in SP that I can just take off and add when needed. I knew I wanted to do Life is Strange style, so I tried getting as close as I possibly could after playing Life is Strange: True Colors and Life is Strange 2.
For the materials, I made a simple material that I used for all my props to be economical and added settings to allow me to have different variations and intensity of textures and also Vertex Paint. I basically duplicated the first set of textures and added it so that I can vertex paint and of course added tiling settings to it too and that is already in the engine by default.
The assembly of the scene was already decided at the blockout phase, as I already set up my cameras. I should have mentioned above that when constructing a scene from a composition set up your main camera and others as needed but mostly your main camera. Because I already have my set up camera from blockouts I just replaced those blockout meshes with my actual model, so it was already assembled for me.
Lighting has always been a struggle of mine but with Lumen, things became a little easier. I did many iterations of lighting to match the style I was going for. I watched gameplay, took screenshots from Life is Strange games and tried to match it as close I can, I wanted it to be real-time lighting as well. I had big legendary battles with Lumen, luckily I set aside a couple of weeks to get that lighting correct. The lighting part was one of the biggest challenges for me. I only used one light for the scene which was one of the things I was trying to challenge myself with to see what I can pull off without additional light sources.
For the post-processing, I used the Bloom setting, Exposure, and for the color grading part, I just manipulated my white balance. I usually use other settings in the color grading but it was not needed for this project. I added Volumetric Fog to showcase the God-rays coming through the window. You can boost that with the light shaft settings in your Directional Light. One thing I learned is that for lighting, it is better to start with one light and add as you go but most people work differently so maybe it is different for some people. To make my scene a little brighter I added a Skylight because the light is coming from outside and increased the indirect light in my main Directional Light so that light could bounce around the scene. Lighting alone needs its own reference and time and it is one of the most important parts of art as it can make and break your beautiful textures and your scene so best to spend lots of time on it. I did many iterations on lighting before settling on an outcome. This is my first stylized scene so it was difficult getting the textures right and even more difficult to mimic an art style from a studio.
I did the final touch-ups for the video render in DaVinci Resolve. It is free and a really good video editor. I added an extra post-processing effect for a nice video render in DaVinci as well.
I would advise beginners willing to get into environment art not to take too much work when starting out. Always think about modularity when creating assets and how you can re-use your assets. Making modular projects is a good challenge and essential for working in a team, but also the most effective way to prove your own capabilities and speed. Understanding the PBR workflow is a good thing as it will help with lighting as well. Learn to always gather references. Make sure to get feedback from mentors and peers, also Discord is a good way to get feedback as well as there are lots of artists on there. It is always nice to have different eyes on projects. Rather than quantity focus on quality, as the quantity will come later as your speed improves.
Before I go, I want to thank my Mentor Jacob Claussen for his constant help and guidance, I also want to thank my classmates for their feedback. Also, I want to thank Ryan Kingslien, the CEO of Vertex, and Rebecca Fitz for giving me this opportunity. And, of course, 80 Level for allowing me to share my work. I hope to share more projects in the future.