Jonathon Ivall did a breakdown of his gorgeous lavishly decorated Abandoned Mansion made with UE4, 3ds Max and Substance Painter.
My name is Jonathon Ivall. I’m a 3D artist and recent graduate from the University of Hertfordshire where I have been studying for a Master’s degree in game art and design. Prior to this, I was employed as an architectural visualization artist where I worked as part of a team on various projects across the architectural and product design sectors.
Whilst I enjoyed working in architecture, my true passion has always been the world of gaming! Near the end of my second year of employment, the team was considering adopting Unreal Engine to create real-time visualizations and it impressed me so much that I decided to return to university and pursue a Master’s in game art. Over the past year, I have been creating 3D environments and assets for games, with my latest project being this environment of an abandoned mansion created in UE4.
My main aim with the mansion scene was to try and convey a story solely through the game environment. I chose the “abandoned mansion” concept because I felt it gave me so many opportunities to get creative with the visual storytelling. I love the idea of a once finely ornate home, slowly turning to ruin and becoming engulfed by nature. I think on a visual level that is instantly fascinating and makes for a fun setting to explore.
I based the mansion in the southern USA inspired by my personal experience of exploring abandoned homes there. It’s a unique experience because the intense heat and muggy air make you wonder how these places could ever have been habitable, to begin with, especially without air conditioning! I wanted to try and convey similar feelings by my game environment by pushing the intensity of the light to emphasize the heat and stuffiness of the mansion. I also wanted to evoke something of the spirit of the lives of those who had lived and maybe died there.
The architectural style is set in the early 1900’s during the end of the American “Gilded Age.” I thought the ornate and decorative style of the wealthy homes of this period would showcase my modeling ability well and also create an interesting visual mix of beautiful architecture, abandonment, and decay.
Interior & Exterior
Both the interior and exterior locations are part of the same map in Unreal. Whilst I personally prefer the interior area, I felt it was really important to include an exterior location so that the player could get a sense of place and scale before exploring the mansion itself. I thought it would be rather disorienting to start the player off inside the building first, so I made sure to factor in enough time to complete both the exterior and interior scenes.
I had to make sure the scale was consistent between both areas and this meant working on the exterior and interior at the same time. I would get as far as I could with the interior areas and then if I wasn’t sure how to proceed, I would continue on the exterior of the building. I think building it this way helped me to work towards a unified design that felt spatially correct.
I began modeling the basic dimensions of the exterior first and this informed how high the interior windows and balcony would be. It did take some tweaking but once I was happy with how the interior space felt in Unreal Engine, the exterior area came together very quickly.
I wanted to make this a fully immersive experience where you can walk up to the windows and peer seamlessly inside. To achieve this I used LOD’s on certain models so that the framerate wouldn’t drop with so many detailed assets appearing in one map.
Entrance Hall: Staircase
The very first thing I created was the staircase seen in the entrance hall. I was heavily inspired by the stairway that appears in the mansion of the Guillermo del Toro film, Crimson Peak. I had been browsing the internet researching “spooky” mansions when I saw an image of this monstrous wooden staircase. I loved the asymmetry of the design and it immediately got me fired up to start 3D modeling. Before I had even blocked anything out I had created a finished staircase asset and its layout actually ended up informing the design for the rest of the room.
The stairway is comprised of several smaller assets that have been repeated throughout the stair area. Each flight of steps is its own asset and the banisters and railings are separate assets as well. The intricate banisters come into the engine together as a set of five, and there are two types: straight and diagonal. The pieces were modular so I could have continued the stairway up to a second floor if I wanted.
Decorations such as the fireplace, chandelier and all the other pieces of furniture were modeled in 3ds Max. I didn’t sculpt any of the details. I created the high-poly models using traditional modeling methods and applying turbo smooth modifiers to create nice and smooth surfaces.
Once I was happy with the high poly models, I simply removed the turbo smooth modifier and cleaned up the mesh so that it was a reasonable amount of polygons for the low poly version. In some cases, I started by modeling the low-poly models first and then adding detail later. Once both versions were complete, I used Substance Painter to bake the details of the high-poly models onto their low-poly counterparts.
The ceiling was created in much the same way as the other assets. I created both a low-poly and high-poly model and baked the details in Substance Painter. The arched sections were created by piecing together a set of Baroque details that I had created in 3ds Max.
By piecing together several smaller details in this way I could form together different patterns. I positioned the details of the panels in 3ds Max and once I was happy I moved the models over to Substance Painter to bake the details down into textures.
All of the panels are modular and come with two unique corner types that make it easy to fit them together. Likewise, the ceiling tiles are all singular models that have been repeated numerous times. The middle detail where the chandelier is hanging from was designed to fit seamlessly into the center of the ceiling.
Even the more organic elements such as the stairway carpet were created using 3ds Max. I would have liked to have tried used something like Marvelous Designer as I hear it is great for making fabric, but unfortunately, it wasn’t available to me at the time I made this. Instead, the carpet was created using a combination of traditional modeling techniques and cloth simulation within 3ds.
I started by cloning the steps of the stairway and adding a shell modifier to these faces so that the carpet had some depth. I then began creating the carpet’s creases by adding edge loops to the geometry and positioning the vertices manually. I toggled between the turbo smooth modifier as I was doing this so that I could see the results this was having on the creases.
With the creases on the steps done, I then used a cloth simulation to create the folded edges of the carpet and attached them to the step segments.
I used the Pro-Optimiser modifier to reduce the high poly carpet and then baked the detail in Substance Painter.
Materials & Textures
Almost all of the materials and textures in the scene were created using Substance Painter. In the case of the carpet, I was able to apply a pattern to it using custom-made alpha masks. I was able to add a unique pattern to the trim and paint it along the edge of the carpet by hand. The whole process was very quick and I can’t stress enough how incredibly helpful Substance Painter was throughout this project. The tattered wallpaper, for example, was made using a material setup that I created and was able to edit individually across a set of assets. Texture sets came in very hand for adding unique details to the walls and floorboards.
Once in the engine, I added some subsurface scattering to the material as well as additional parallax occlusion mapping to make the material feel more like a rough fabric.
I also used Substance to create tillable textures such as the bricks and the roof tiles. I created 3D geometry and then baked them down into seamless textures in Substance.
Perhaps the most important element of the environment was the creeping vines and other pieces of vegetation that are beginning to ensnare the mansion. I thought that it would look really cool to bring greenery into the interior so I invested some time in creating a few foliage pieces that I could repeat throughout the environment.
I started by creating a detailed vine arm that I would bake down onto a single plane. Using materials in Unreal Engine I was able to make this look like an actual 3D model using a technique called parallax occlusion mapping. I then created some leaves on 2D planes using an alpha mask and normal map to simulate the details.
Using the geometry I had modeled for the vine arm I was able to quickly generate a spline path and apply the 2D leaves to them using the “align spacing tool.” Once everything was in place I exported this model to Unreal and manually placed the vines where I thought they would look cool.
Because the planes have four faces I was even able to make it so that the leaves have a little bit of animation too!
For the exterior, I wanted a little more control over the how the vines were growing so I modeled some more complex vines that would grow around the windows. I then layered this up with the individual vine models as well.
Lighting the scene was an iterative process and one that was the most challenging part for me. I was locked into using an older version of Unreal Engine (4.15.1), where many of the lighting features such as volumetric lights, and multiple photon bounces for the skylight were not available. As such I ended up finding an HDRI that had lighting close to what I had in mind and creating my own custom sky dome from it. I used a combination of a Directional light as my key light source and individually placed point lights to simulate the light bouncing around the interior.
I also made use of sphere reflection capture actors to bring in reflections from the sky dome. It was a process of playing around with what I felt looked good and adjusting the settings accordingly. I believe the newer version of the engine handles lighting slightly differently so I am interested in returning to this scene and trying a completely different light setup in the future.
Aside from lighting the scene, the greatest challenge was creating the environment to the scale that I had envisioned. I had to cut a lot of content but overall I am pleased with what I was able to achieve in three months. If I could have a second attempt at this, I wouldn’t worry as much about the tiny details such as making certain corners fit together perfectly, as most people aren’t going to notice whether some elements are intersecting with each other slightly. I wasn’t working from a concept with this so I had to guess how things would be fitting together, and this ended up being where a large portion of my time was spent. In the future, I would like to be less of a perfectionist and instead spend more time working on the storytelling elements and the composition of the scene, as these are what I believe make the environment feel exciting.