Creating a Wild West Environment with UE4 & SpeedTree

Creating a Wild West Environment with UE4 & SpeedTree

Nastya Ermakova presented her vivid Artstation Wild West entry made with Unreal Engine 4, ZBrush and SpeedTree and shared some useful study materials.

Nastya Ermakova presented her vivid Artstation Wild West entry made with Unreal Engine 4, ZBrush and SpeedTree and shared some useful study materials.


Hello again, my name is Nastya Ermakova. Previously I already talked about one of my environments, you can check it here:

It passed more than a year since then and here I am again with another contest entry breakdown. I spent the whole 2017 year at home and didn’t work in the office. It’s so cool to have a lot of free time, but you still have to make yourself to work on your own projects somehow. From the beginning of 2018, I’ve been working as an environment artist at Larian Studios.

Wild West Challenge Entry

This scene was made for Artstation Wild West Challenge. I believe that participating in contests and challenges is a great opportunity to develop your portfolio, as you not only try to squeeze 100% of your possibilities in a certain time range but also learn new stuff and analyze how other participants are solving the same problems. It’s the 6th challenge in my life and more than a half of my portfolio consists of contest entries. This time I tried to work more with vertex paint, plants and some shaders.

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Since I used my own idea and didn’t have a complete picture of what I’m going to do, the whole blockout stage ate a lot of time and was constantly changing through the whole process.

In the beginning, all I wanted was to practice in making a forest scene. As the main reference, I took masterpieces by classic artists Ivan Shishkin and Albert Bierstadt.

These gods of nature could create tremendous paintings even without any story in it. Just calm and majestic nature. It’s wonderful to be able to catch the eye of the viewer with only the landscape. And in my blockout, I tried to catch this mood with the composition and simple light.

Since the final entry should be represented by a few shots, I decided to concentrate on the main view and make all assets to support it. This helped me to plan the composition of the shot in advance. At first, adding the pipe was an experimental idea, but I liked it. With its curvy shape, the pipe supports the calm atmosphere of the forest and makes the eye follow the direction, showing the result of technogenic abuse of nature, directs from the current moment where oil spills to the future result where the forest dies.

Also, the composition is divided into the left and right parts. The left part with a bright green forest, painted wigwams under the rays of the sun represents life and the union between humans and nature, while the right part with the oil pipe and driftwood represents the doom and negative domination of human over nature and its resources. In this composition, the contrast of meaning is supported by lighting and colors.


Nothing special about this, except for I made the objects close to the camera more detailed than those closer to the background and used Substance Painter for the totem texture.

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Rocks were made in ZBrush with the help of alphas from this web resources:

A good practice is exploring photogrammetry rocks in grey shading to understand the shape. I used same rocks for the bank of the river and for cliffs on the rear plan.


As in the beginning, the scene was meant to be a practice in making plants and forest. I could finally get my hands on SpeedTree and try out this wonderful software. By the way, I read a lot of articles about speed tree here on, how different artists deal with the same problem and it helped me very much. Thank you for this!

For highpoly I made few needles in Maya, placed it on a stick and then by copying a small part I created a different variety of big branches.

Then I baked it on a plane, cut it into segments and formed lowpoly sticks.

I didn’t bother much about the polycount and created very bushy sticks so that they look more realistic on close-ups.

One texture was enough to make a big variety of spruce and pines.

For the rest plants, I used Megascans textures.

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Unreal Engine 4 has a great landscape editor, but I feel more comfortable working with vertex blend materials, so I exported the final mesh to FBX and then used as a simple static mesh.

Also, one interesting thing about the ground material is that it has a dark waterline based on world height coordinates.


As the sky takes a significant part of the main shot, it requires special attention. If you look at some of the classic artists, the sky is not there just to fill in space, it’s a part of the composition and it changes the mood of the picture. I tried different HDRI maps and the UltraDynamicSky plugin, but it didn’t give me the desired result.

Then I decided to compose it out of several free Hi-Res photos that I googled and used some color balancing and dark and bright spots to balance it for my shot. This texture was placed on the huge hemisphere and it does not even influence the light. I used simple dynamic distortion to create an illusion of motion, but it’s not really obvious in the video.


Water has a usual set of nodes, depth for opacity and camera distance to make it less transparent at distance. It is all parametrized for easier balancing. The ground shader has a set of nodes to define the waterline and underwater area. It makes it darker close to the waterline and also removes any specularity underwater.


The oil material turned out to be really easy.

First of all, it creates continuous distorted contour, based on vertex paint channel (R) and clouds texture, with various contrast parameters.

And then it takes a color (specified as a parameter for easier use in future) and Hues of the HueShift node and initial mask for Hue Shift Percentage input (I multiplied the mask by 6 but the more is the multiplier, the more rainbow repeats itself).

Also, I added HueShift based on reflection vector to mimic the real behaviour of oil spills.

The same mask was used to mix the oil diffuse and opacity with water and as a final touch, I added oil color to the emissive slot multiplied by Fresnel function, as it had problems seeing from lower angles.

To make it more convenient for use, I separated oil into a material function.


Light setup is my favorite part. I like to see how the grey colored blockout gets the mood and atmosphere. Even the scene with mediocre assets and materials but with good lighting can look a lot better than the scene with awesome assets and materials but with bad lighting. Light and shadows greatly affect perception, you can narrate with light.

In most cases, light in games is a fake. In the real world we have one sun, but in the game engine, we’d better use additional light sources for the better more artistic result. We can also artificially highlight points of interest or add different coloring to specific areas.

It’s better to start setting up the light on early stages where the scene isn’t heavy and light calculations won’t take much time. At the start, I could even build the production quality lighting with GI. But closer to to the deadline, as the scene became heavier with all the props, I could only bake lighting at night and see the result in the morning.


When the blockout was finished and there was obviously a huge pile of work ahead, I had a big trouble with motivation. I lost it and didn’t want to go on. I can’t say I have a method to always stay motivated, but here is something that helped me a bit. I usually take a small break, take a walk (not too far and long otherwise you can end up in a mood for walking and get tired eventually) and then come back and make one small step ahead. It’s hard to push yourself, but it’s that small step that matters.

Also, there is a sort of downfall, when you finish your entry and it turns out you didn’t win anything. It’s not my first contest and I felt a different variety of feelings connected to it, but you always have to think of what new things you have learned, what mistakes you have made and what to avoid next time. This is experience, use it in the future, use it for your personal work, use it for yourself and don’t give up.

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A small piece of advice: try to find people who can give you a constructive feedback and maybe push you when you’re exhausted or think that you’ve achieved enough. Compare your work with other participants and references all the time: during the work on your entry your vision is evolved not only by the image you want to achieve but you also by the details you haven’t seen before. And then same references reveal more subtle stuff.

Nastya Ermakova, 3D Environment Artist at Larian Studios

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev


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