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Creating an Ancient Hideout in Photoshop and Unreal Engine 5

Keelan Maclear has shared his workflow behind the Monsters Hideout project, revealed how to create an environment using only Quixel and ready-made assets, and showed the lighting setup in Unreal Engine.


Hi there! My name is Keelan Maclear and I’m 23 years old. I am currently studying Game Art in my 3rd year at Breda University of Applied Sciences (BUAS) in the Netherlands.

I focus mostly on hard surface prop/vehicle art and also love to do environment art.

Before going to BUAS, I studied at the Media College of Amsterdam, where I did an internship at KING Art Games located in Bremen, Germany. This was an amazing learning opportunity and I gained a ton of experience.

During my internship, I got to work on some of the mechs for Iron Harvest, I was responsible for the overall design and in-game models. In the image below, you can an example of a mech I worked on.

For my personal projects, I love to combine vehicles, environments, and props into one. Taking something that is supposed to be stationary and putting it on wheels is always a super interesting challenge, mechanically and conceptually. For instance, I created a dumpling restaurant on tank tracks.

Getting Started

Our school organized a Quixel environment challenge, the task was simple: we had to create an environment using only Quixel and ready-made assets so that we could spend our effort on the composition, storytelling, and lighting without having to spend a lot of time on the actual assets. Our only creative constraint was that it had to be a hideout of some kind. This was my first time using UE5, so this was an awesome chance to get familiar with the engine. We were given a week to complete the environment.

As always, I started by gathering references and inspiration on the internet. I had been playing God of War a lot, so I was inspired to go in that direction – a large-scale grand scene with an architectural focal point. I really liked the idea of having a giant door embedded into the rockface making it seem like the entrance to a grand kingdom.

Below you can see some of the images that directly inspired the composition.

Credit: Kyle Bromley

Credit: Luke Berliner


Since we were only allowed to use assets from the Quixel library, I started by thoroughly scanning the library for scans that matched my references and inspiration.

For the rocks, I wanted large, rough, detailed cliff faces so that I could blend them together easily to create unique variations.

And for the architecture, I wanted something that looked ancient and carved out of rock, so that it would fit nicely into the rock faces.

Once I had my scans selected, I started blending them together with different rotations and scales to create new rock formations and shapes.

For the roots coming out of the door, I did the same, I found a nice detailed dead tree branch, duplicated it, and started blending them together in different scales and rotations to rapidly get nice detailed root shapes.

Once I was happy with the main rocks and roots, I started blending them to the ground using more scans. I selected smaller roots and rocks and blended them together.

My general approach was: the closer I got to a wide-open space, the smaller the scale of the scans would be. For example, to blend the massive roots with the mossy rocky ground, I used smaller scans of roots mixed with larger rocks to blend the two together.

When using scans from different packs you sometimes can see major differences in the brightness and the hue of the textures. To fix this and make them blend together nicely, I use the albedo controls in the material of an asset to match each other's values.

Setting Up the Creatures

The creatures were made by a fellow classmate of mine, David van Dijk. So, for this question, I asked him to give a short summary of his process for the creatures.

Here are his responses:

When creating this creature I started off searching for a concept that looked interesting and challenging. After that, I gather references to all parts of the creature. 

When I had a concept and reference, I could start creating a blockout in ZBrush. I started out with a ZShpere and began sculpting the base body. During this phase, I focused mainly on scale and silhouette not paying too much attention to anatomical accuracy. 

Once I had the rough silhouette, I started working on adding proper anatomy, I did this by building up bone landmarks and muscles covered with layers of fat and tissue.

After I was satisfied with the shape, distribution of the muscles, and fat I moved on to detailing. I looked closely at real-world references of skin and scales to make sure that my details had a basis in reality.

My most used brushes were mostly the standard ones like ClayBuildup, DamStandard, and the Move brush. I also downloaded a brush that imitates folded skin. Other than that, I used some Alphas of a caiman for the scales.

When the mesh would not change much anymore, I could retopologize in Maya and re-import the mesh into ZBrush. The new clean retopologized mesh would be projected onto the high poly sculpted mesh to retain the shape. 

The final steps were to import the low poly mesh into Substance 3D Painter and bake the high poly onto the low poly. After that was finished, I textured the model with a lot of different layers.

Stone Gates

The stone gates were actually pretty simple. It was a process of finding a few stone scans that I mixed together.

One of the problems I encountered with the gate was that the brightness and color of the textures didn't match. To solve this, I used the albedo control technique which I mentioned before. Lastly, I covered the gates with some grass.

Lighting and Rendering

For the lighting, I first built up the sky and main light source. I used a directional light as the main light source highlighting the scene's focal point and creating the shadows which act as the frame for the shot. 

Then I added a sky atmosphere and some volumetric clouds, I made sure to enable the clouds to cast a shadow which gives a more realistic look. 

I also added an exponential height fog to add more depth and realism to the scene, making sure to enable the volumetric fog. This makes the fog adapt to the directional light in the scene.

To check if there was any part of the scene that needed some more light or contrast, I would often check the values by looking at the scene in black and white.

I useD spotlights and point lights to give more clarity to subjects that looked too dark in the scene. The goal was to emphasize their silhouette and illuminate details where necessary.

After setting up the sky and the lights I tweaked the post-processing settings.

Starting with the color grading I increased the temperature in the white balance to give the sun a more realistic impact on the scene, after that, I increased the saturation and contrast in the global settings and tweaked the film settings to add some more depth to the values of the shot.

Lastly, I enabled the vignette effect to bring the focus to the center of the scene and added some grain jitter.

These are the specific settings for my lights and postprocessing:

Directional Light source


Colour grading

Image effects

Film settings

To create the final render, I captured a high-resolution screenshot, before doing this I always make sure to set the screen percentage to 200% and set all the engine scalability settings to cinematic.

After I finished the post-processing, I put some birds in the sky to give a nice reference to the scale and added the deers which I got from the UE Marketplace.

Lastly, I added cinematic bars in Photoshop and sharpened the image a bit.


The main trick when creating environments is that you want to get the most out of the assets.

The biggest piece of advice I can give about working with ready-made assets is to play with their settings. You can make the same asset look completely unique just by changing the scale, the rotation, or the color of the textures. Don't be afraid to reuse assets like crazy!

You can get way more depth out of your assets this way. A small branch can become a giant dead tree, a single rock can become a giant detailed cliff face. There are no limits.

Also, don't be afraid to use lots of assets, UE5 Nanite and Lumen enables you to not worry about polycount or light baking when creating environments. Go crazy and add as many details as you want.

Keelan Maclear, 3D Hard Surface/Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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