Violaine Colin has shared the working process behind the Abandoned Military Camp project inspired by The Last of Us franchise, revealed her approach to assets and lighting, and told us how to overcome challenges while learning the new software.
My name is Violaine Colin, and I'm a second-year in 3D and animation student at Limoilou’s General and Vocational College in Quebec City. I started learning 3D two years ago, without any knowledge of the field and if I would have any interest in it. I quickly found a new passion, particularly for creating environments. I am now focusing to be a Lighting or Level Artist in video games. Prior to that, I did a lot of illustration work, which gave me a better understanding of color theory and composition that I now use in all my scenes, like this one.
The environment for my Abandoned Military Camp project was an exercise for my lighting class. The goal was to create an abandoned environment with a predefined layout, which is the Abandoned Apartment Quixel scene by Isac Crafoord.
I knew right away the type of atmosphere I wanted and that I had to use vegetation. Of course, I was heavily inspired by a lot of post-apocalyptic games, such as The Last of Us franchise. Knowing the kind of ambiance I was looking for was not enough to attain my goal, I had to have an idea of what happened in my scene and the story behind it to create convincing storytelling. So, I started thinking about the reason for its destruction and abandonment. My first idea was something related to the ravages of a war which seemed like the most probable and logical reason. I thought about various versions and settled on an old house abandoned because of a nuclear accident long ago and then used again some years later as a precarious military camp.
With the story in mind, I searched for inspiration by searching references online, with a focus on lighting, composition, colors, as well as vegetation. I mainly used pictures of abandoned houses and military camps.
The main challenge was to recreate that feeling of deterioration and abandonment with a limited assets selection, particularly since a lot of them looked clean and new. Since I could not find some of the objects I needed and the time allowed for the exercise was short, I decided to use already made assets from Sketchfab, like Old Style Military Radio by Dungar Singh Balecha, Military Box by pe4atnikov, M725 Military Ambulance by Renafox and Gun M1918 by PurushothamreddyKota.
I slightly customized some assets to my liking by using the texture adjustments in Unreal, like the color or roughness. Finally, to add more wear to the scene, I used decals from Megascans like debris on the floor, dirt on the walls, and moss and vines to add more details to the vegetation.
Since the vegetation is one of the most important pieces of the scene and adds so much to the abandoned feel, I wanted it to be in the center of the composition. To do so, I had to place it logically, asking myself where would plants grow first if it was real. Of course, the answer was through the breach in the wall. I started by the lower section of the breach, adding volume to it with the plants as if they were spilling out of it. I then added the hanging ivy to create a more organic feel. This also helped me to frame the hole a bit more and add details to it.
To finish this part, I put vine decals on the borders of the walls as a final touch to make everything seem more natural and full. Putting plants inside would normally be a bit harder to justify, even more on a wooden floor, but since the planks were broken with water underneath, I took the opportunity to add more plants around it.
Like with the breach in the wall, I added another decal to finish everything, using moss this time. The only place where I did not add any vegetation was where the sun could not illuminate easily and where there was no accessible source of water, either through rain or water infiltration. Since I wanted to put the plants at specific locations, I scattered them by hand, adding more and moving them as I wanted.
Assembling the Scene
The scene went through multiple iterations before the final result. I started by putting basic shapes in the environment to give me an idea and to plan the future position of each object. The goal was to set up a rough composition before starting anything serious.
Once this rough draft was done, I add the final version of each object one by one, starting with the largest one. I tried different positions for each of them to reach the best composition possible. The process to find the right position for each element was more a long trial and error one.
When I thought something was missing or some assets did not look right, I looked for other ones that would fit better on Sketchfab. For example, the truck was not supposed to be in the scene at first. I spent a long time wondering what to do with that empty-looking breach in the wall. That’s when I randomly found this truck and thought it would be the perfect asset. It is now one of the most important objects in the whole scene.
While assembling the scene, I also had to think about my camera angle and place the assets accordingly to create an interesting composition. During this process, I had to keep different things in mind. Firstly, I had to not lose sight of what my main assets were since the whole composition is supposed to revolve around them.
The goal is to always find a way to bring attention to them. This can be done by using assets as guiding tools, lighting, or composition rules. In my case, I used the rule of thirds and the lighting to highlight the truck. Some assets also help by guiding the eye to the truck using lines, like the desk and shelf. Values and color choice were also important factors in my composition. They allowed me to create a significant contrast between the main focus and the rest.
Lightning and Rendering
For the lighting, I used many light sources. Since I already knew that most of it would come from the breach in the wall, I started with a directional light shining through that hole, using it for the base lighting and the god rays.
I simply tweaked the color, intensity, and angle of the rays until I had the desired result. Here are the parameters:
This allowed me to set in place the majority of my lighting. From this point on, it was just a question of adding simpler and smaller lights to add richness to the scene. For example, I added a rect light to the wall breach to exaggerate the bloom effect on it.
I also added a point light in the center to amplify the lighting on the floor. The rest was to illuminate my other camera angles and some small details. Besides, I added an exponential height fog to add more volume to the lighting.
Additionally, because of the breach, I used an HDRI which also allowed me to create more interesting and natural lighting. Finally, using a Skylight I created a more realistic look by adding indirect light.
To complete and polish everything, I used a Post Process Volume, focusing on adding bloom and a vignette. Since there are a lot of assets scattered everywhere and the composition can easily look a bit busy, this allowed me to guide the eye focus on the truck even more.
Nailing the right atmosphere was a bit of a challenge for different reasons. First, I’m still quite new to Unreal, so I had to learn new things as I went through the process of creating this scene. Not being able to create my own assets to perfectly fit my idea was also challenging since I had to work with only what was at my disposition, which means it did not always cater to my need.
To overcome these challenges, the most important things I needed were finding good references to help me stay focused on the type of atmosphere I wanted and not be afraid to spend time looking for the perfect assets. Also, being ready to change, not getting stuck on one idea, and not being afraid to give up my first ideas helped me tremendously. This allowed me to be open to adding new assets, like the truck, and switch some that I really wanted to keep but did not work as well as I wanted. Globally, planning and creating this scene took me approximately 15 hours and it was an amazing learning experience.
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