Creating a Visual Story in Environment Design

Alexander Alza did a very detailed breakdown of his fresh new scene, showing the way he creates fantastic 3d environments.

Alexander Alza did a very detailed breakdown of his fresh new scene, showing the way he creates fantastic 3d environments.

Hello, my name is Alexander Alza. I’m a Senior World Artist at High Moon Studios working on the award-winning Destiny universe. Prior to my time at HMS I worked on God of War (2018) and numerous other titles.

I love creating moody and tangible worlds at my job. Like many of you I end up doing multiple personal projects at home – I suspect I’m not alone in having numerous projects at a perpetual 60% complete mark. Thankfully I found the time and discipline to follow through with this personal project I’ve titled Quantum Augustina.­­


I find it helpful to create back-stories to my environments as it helps keep me grounded in times where my imagination may lead me down a crazy rabbit hole. Setting a certain structure can also spark ideas you otherwise may not have thought of and hopefully help avoid the clichés of world building. For instance if you’re making a back alley scene it’s easy to fall into the traps of: needs trash cans, pipes, graffiti, steam rising from vents, etc. Don’t get me wrong there are many kick-ass scenes that share the aforementioned traits; however I’d like to think about injecting more story-telling elements. Perhaps this alley shows the aftermath of a huge parade that just occurred? and it’s Winter? and it’s in Europe? Try to go beyond the practical functions of your environments. I believe injecting some form of beyond-the-surface authenticity in your work produces a more creatively fulfilling scene for you as the artist while hopefully sparking genuine intrigue in the viewer.

In 2017 a team of researchers in China sent a photon from the ground to an orbiting satellite more than 300 miles above through a process known as quantum entanglement.

That event was enough to get my brain thinking, “This seems like a baby step to teleporting humans – when we successfully teleport a human from earth to space, where will it take place? – Once this facility is retired, wouldn’t it be cool if they turned it to a memorial museum site for people to walk the halls where this momentous event took place?” Those kind of silly questions resulted in Quantum Augustina (QA)


For QA I completely improvised the layout. I didn’t work from a concept or had any particular inspirational reference piece – it all started with a white-box scene I was toying around with.

I knew going in that it was important to have a more-clean-less-noise approach both in geometry and material readability. I did not want to concern myself with micro details and instead wanted bolder shapes to tell the visual tale.

I also knew I wanted dramatic directional, complimentary and saturated lighting. (more on this later). Aside from that the rest was a healthy dose of trial and error and iteration.

As usual when working on a scene I start with basic modular pieces to create a layout. I begin setting a handful of compelling camera angles in UE4 (Cntrl + any number 0 to 9 to set, then merely pressing that number again to snap the camera to the saved location for those of you unaware.) When I feel I’m nearing a final state I create cameras in my saved positions and tweak slightly different FOV and DOF values depending on my desired results.


For QA I challenged myself to use only a single 1k x 4k trim sheet texture set for the entire scene. That’s one diffuse, one normal, and one channel packed texture, no alpha channel was used. Thanks to the flexibility of Unreal Engine (using version 4.16) I was able to use the material editor in creative ways to get the most out of my limited source textures.

This was probably the simplest master material I’ve made for a scene. I used parameters to get instances with color and roughness variation and a metallic tint option that allowed me to bypass my source texture for a constant color instead, thus giving me more texture space.

I also used a master banner colors material where I could feed it greyscale and essentially tint a color on it. One of my favorite sites to go to for cool fonts is Fontspace. I went there and looked for a kid-friendly font, installed it and then using 3ds Max’s Shape>Text feature I spelled out the letters I needed, converted them to polygons, optimized them and then made them non-shadow casting floating polygons just above the actual sign. Sure seems like the long way to go for a simple sign but tricks like these helped me stick to my self-imposed texture limit.

Models and Textures

Since I was essentially using a trim sheet for texturing I needed to be conscious of edge flow in my geometry. This workflow actually helped to keep my initial vision of simplicity on track. Unwrapping was slightly more streamlined as well – thankfully 3ds Max has a serviceable Straighten Selection option built in, assuming you have clean quads. There are other elegant alternatives to unwrapping UV strips such as Headus UVLayout however Max worked fine for me in this case.

I should note that the male character and light shaft/dust effects are not counted as part of my texture budget. The character I placed in my scene was downloaded from this site. I needed something simple and not distracting as the character is simply there to establish a sense of scale and not for any focal point/storytelling reasons.

As I mentioned earlier I do enjoy making my own light shafts as it gives me great artistic control. I used the same technique outlined in my previously featured Building a Hotel in UE4 scene only this time I added panning dust particles to the material. I used a single channel packed 256 texture set up like so…

And set it up the material like this…


Lighting was quite pivotal in QA. The challenge one faces when using reflective hard surfaces is having a distracting amount of hot spots and shine everywhere. Thankfully UE4 allows you to tweak with the Min Roughness values on individual lights to reduce or eliminate undesired specular highlights. I also used a planar reflection at my ground level.

Most of my lights in this scene are static point and spotlights. My only stationary lights are the door frame spotlights using IES profiles.

I was mindful of my light placement starting with my main light sources and working from there. In areas where I wasn’t getting the ideal bounce I added some non-shadow casting point lights to add a splash of color and illumination.

It was the combination of adding these “fill” lights and adjusting sphere reflection capture actors that got me to a place where I felt I could control where I wanted a surface to give me the right glimmer in the right location based on the chosen composition.

One of my big focal points was the light coming in from the windows so I wanted to give special priority to the spotlight penetrating the glass. To do this I created light portals framing the windows. Light Portals were introduced in UE 4.11 and they are basically best used covering small openings (in my case the windows) where an important light source is penetrating. Using these portals yields a higher quality light and shadows.

On smaller light sources I checked the Use Emissive for Static Lighting box to avoid gratuitous use of point or spot lights. I also added a dash of blue-tinted Exponential Height Fog in there for some depth.

Due to time constraints I just ended up using a blanket 256 light map resolution on everything instead of being more optimal/selective. I only tweaked the following Lightmass World Settings…

Lastly using UE4’s Post Process volume I changed some values to that worked best with my scene. Here are the settings I tweaked for QA.

I’m a big fan of using a custom look up texture (LUT) for saturation and balance tweaks. Check out the difference in these shots.

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I would be remiss not to thank the following:

  • Chris Abelmann and Jose Dieck for feedback during my progress.
  • The Substance Share community
  • The unsung heroes who create scripts and plug-ins that make our work flow faster and more productive.

Software used: 3ds Max, ZBrush, Photoshop, DDO, Painter, and Unreal Engine 4.

I hope you enjoyed this breakdown of my Quantum Augustina scene! I want to thank 80 Level not only for the opportunity to share my work but for highlighting industry veterans and rookies alike. It’s a great service to the individuals in our industry.

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Alexander Alza, Senior World Artist at High Moon Studios

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