Anouk Donkers revealed the workflow behind the Cauldron Swamp Ruins project and talked about making vegetation and the challenges of getting the right atmosphere.
In case you missed it
You may find these articles interesting
My name is Anouk Donkers, I am a Technical Artist originally from the Netherlands. I studied Design there for 4 years, and after that, I felt like I wanted to specialize in tech art for games, so I decided to continue my studies at Digital Arts and Entertainment in Belgium. Next to my school, I also help develop virtual reality games for physical therapy at inMotion VR. Here, I mostly work on Corpus VR, a virtual reality platform focused on helping patients have a better and more fun treatment.
At my school, I learn a variety of different topics, but I have always been really interested in environment, tech, and procedural art. I love solving problems and making processes easier and more optimized.
The Cauldron Swamp Ruins Project
I knew I wanted to create a ruins scene that gave an ominous mood. Elden Ring was a big inspiration, I just love the environment, the buildings, and, of course, the amazing bosses you fight!
I found this amazing concept by Jef Wu, and it already gave me a good idea of how I could do the composition and lighting. I really liked the use of colors in his scene and knew I wanted to capture that element in mine too.
Lots of references are always important, having concept art is good, but real-life reference is just as important to have. For example, think about what plants would grow there or how a building would look after it has been there for a while. Real-life pictures can answer these questions and help flesh out these details.
I also have a lot of material references: I like to look up pictures of the materials I will use in the scene. I looked up images of old stone, what materials the pots could possibly be made out of, how moss would look, it was important to have a convincing result in the end.
Some other big inspirations were various YouTube tutorials, I love having them play in the background, picking something new every now and then. One of the videos that really helped me is this tutorial on Quixel’s YouTube channel. It explains how to set up a scene so well, try out different ways of lighting, and how you can really make your scene stand out.
Assets & Architecture
I knew the most challenging parts of putting the scene together would be the ground, the way the moss flowed and led to my big focal point, and the leaning tower in the background. I always like to start with a blockout as it is the most crucial part of the progress. It sets all the fundamentals of the scene and it can already give you a rough feeling of how the scene is going to be, it's also a good time to play around with some lighting setups.
The blockout is fully created in Unreal Engine, sometimes I like to use the BSP brushes for modeling the more detailed parts instead of just the regular cubes, they give a bit more freedom to try out different shapes.
I also already placed all the pots in the positions I wanted to see if I could create the nice guiding lines that I was looking for, then, when starting the asset phase, I could easily replace the cylinders with the pots.
After I get the blockout set up in the way I want, I start to experiment with different lighting setups. I knew the focal point of my scene would be the tower, so I tried to light it from the side and make it contrast with the back of my tower so it would really stand out in the scene. The fog was a big help for this, I used Unreal’s Height Fog to create the contrast between the tower and the background.
When the blockout and first lighting pass were finished, I slowly started adding assets. I used a lot of Megascans assets and materials, it has a really nice library full of amazing assets.
The biggest challenge here was that my buildings were quite detailed, so I worked with a modular approach. I downloaded separate blocks and created the buildings myself using these assets:
After I had all the models in place, it was time for a vegetation pass. Here all the details really start to come out.
I love creating vegetation, I think it's so fun to create little plants that I can later scatter around the environment.
There is already a large library of vegetation on Megascans, so it was nice that I could use a lot from there. I knew I was still missing a smaller plant that I could scatter around in my scene, and while I was walking to my class one morning, I saw a lot of tiny plants along the side of the road. So after a long internet search, I found some reference pictures and started working on remaking the plants I saw that morning.
I started with making a texture in Photoshop, from the images. I cut out some leaves and stems, color graded them, and then created a Normal map, also in Photoshop.
Then I used Autodesk Maya to model the plant together, I tried to optimize it to have as little overdraw as possible.
After that, I put the model in Substance 3D Painter. I loaded the textures I made into Photoshop, then added a Roughness map, and started painting in some variety and gradients. It's always nice to have a dark gradient from the bottom to the top of the plants so they blend in nicely with the environment.
I created a pretty straightforward custom shader in Unreal Engine. In the material editor, you can set the shading model to use two-sided foliage, this will make it so that light goes through your foliage a bit, and that gives a really nice and realistic effect.
And now the fun part begins! I can finally import my plant and add it to UE's amazing foliage painter. I just drag it in and use the brush to paint my new plant everywhere I want!
Most of the materials I used are from Megascans, the assets come with so much possibility to adjust, so I would often adjust the saturation and brightness so it would fit better into my scene. The shaders of the models also often have a lot of extra options to make the materials blend in with everything else.
Megascans also has an amazing decal library, I would often use decals to blend in foliage with their background, for example, to make the ivy look a bit thicker, I would use a green foliage decal behind them. Decals are amazing to add that last bit of personality to your scene!
Assemble the Final Scene
Detailing is always one of the most fun parts for me, it is really where the story comes in and the scene gets its own feeling.
A big part of detailing was placing all the pots in the right places, I wanted the pots to naturally lead your eyes to the tower. They also had vegetation growing inside them. I set up a couple of assets together, and Unreal Engine has an amazing setting where you can make one asset from a group of assets, so to organize and reuse elements, I used that function a lot. And that's how I placed all the grass inside every pot in the scene.
When all the vegetation was in place, it was time for the last detailing pass, where I added custom fog and some particles.
I love creating shaders, so getting to play with the fog cards was really fun! I tried to paint a nice cloud in Photoshop, and then let the shader do the rest. The most important part of the shader is the Depth Fade, so it would blend in nicely with the environment.
Then I placed the fog to add extra contrast in certain places. The fog cards were also used to create subtle god rays in front of the tower.
Composition is something I try to get right in the first step of the process. I tried following some of the basic composition rules: having nice leading lines towards your focal point and having good contrast between your focal point and the background.
I knew I would create the guiding lines mostly with the pots, the buildings, and the lighting; everything should point towards the tilted tower in the middle.
Framing was the thing that I still changed later, in the beginning, I had the camera more to the right, but then the building on the side would take a bit too much space, so I decided to move it around a bit later in the process.
The main light source for the scene was definitely my directional light. The new Lumen in Unreal Engine 5 works amazingly well and gives such a nice feeling to the scene almost instantly.
To add a bit more depth, I also used a lot of spotlights. I like placing spotlights on foliage to make it stand out a bit more.
To create nice light gradients on the buildings, I placed some shadow cubes in the background. I wanted the tower to be lit, but at the top, it should be covered in shadows.
Then, when all the lighting was done, I looked at the Post Processing Volume in Unreal Engine. I tried to get the colors exactly the way I wanted with the color adjustment sliders. With this scene, I had two color setups I really liked, so it was difficult to pick one, but I decided to stick to the original concept and go for bluer color tones.
I love Unreal Engine 5’s Lumen, it is amazing to see how easy it is to use and how fun it is to create a realistic environment in a relatively easy way.
It's also great that Megascans is now integrated, however, using your own assets is always a good choice too. Unreal Engine 5 has a lot of nice features that really help speed up the process of creating an environment, for example, the foliage painter was definitely a big help! It is easy to quickly place a lot of different tiny assets and give them a different scale and rotation, it just adds the variation you want very fast into your scene.
Overall, Unreal Engine 5 is the go-to program for creating realistic environments!
The Souls Atmosphere
Getting the right atmosphere was definitely the hardest challenge, making the scene gloomy but not too dark and still having a lot of color. That’s why having a good concept and realistic references is key! There is so much material out there to draw inspiration from.
Dark Souls and Elden Ring are amazing games, and because I knew I wanted to get that same feeling, it was important for me to really dive into the visualization of these games and see how they approached creating their environments.
It is always difficult for me to say that I am done with an environment, I always want to add more, or try out more variations. I worked on this environment for around 4 days, with the blockout and initial asset creation taking the longest. So that for me is also the biggest challenge, I want to feel good about my blockout and first setup before I continue the detailing. It is sometimes hard to not get lost in always wanting to iterate everything; giving yourself a deadline and comparing different setups always makes sure you stay on track!
It was so fun to create an environment inspired by one of my favorite games! Next time, I would love to create some procedural asset and material tools around the environment to make the process even more optimal.
I am happy with the result and can’t wait to start on my next projects!