Thanks a lot for sharing! It's hard to find useful info on lighting.
Wow, that's great. Have to try this out!
We’ve had a chance to talk Eric J. Fitch about his cold UE4 scene full of deadly icebergs and broken frozen ships. What does it take to create this kind of atmosphere inside the Epic’s engine?
Hi! My name is Eric J. Fitch and I am currently a technical artist at Infinity Ward. I grew up in New Jersey and have always been a big gamer and an artist. I finally decided to combine both of my passions when I majored in Game Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design and graduated last year. I’ve been at Infinity Ward since January this year and it is my first job in the games in the games industry! Usually throughout my work day I am working with textures and materials.
I knew in the brainstorming stages of the environment I wanted to do an outdoor scene because at that time I had only created interior environments without much organic models or materials. Eventually after cycling through hundreds of images I found photos of shipwrecks that peaked my interest. After doing even more research I found inspiration from concept art and traditional paintings to help me establish a mood. I knew it would be new challenge in terms of managing the scale of the scene and lighting so I went for it.
This project started by a lot extremely loose blockouts of the scene in Maya and Unreal. I even had to do multiple paint overs of my blockouts. The main reason for this is I knew I had to absolutely nail the composition to sell the scene but also so I would be able to manage the scale of the scene without it looking empty. The early stages of the project was filled with constant change and iteration.
A big contributing factor to the scale of the scene is the use of the glaciers and icebergs that add grandness to the environment. Since glaciers can be found in all sizes, I took inspiration from the larger ones found in life. The use of multiple ships and recognizable ship parts contribute to the scene’s scale immensely. The main ship of the scene has prominent ladders, doors and tires. Familiar references that give people a feel for how big the ship is. The silhouetted birds give the scene some ambient life.
I modeled the ship in Maya and it was the first asset I modeled for the project. I felt having the focal point of the scene locked in early in terms of silhouette and size was important. I actually learned the actual names and functionalities of parts of the ship for easier modeling and easier detailing. I modeled different boats and ships to give the scene variety in broken down assets.
For modeling the ship I broke down the ship into pieces and modeled them one by one. Having a human scale reference model made this a more straightforward process so I would not have to guess how big everything should be. After that I took some creative liberty on where i wanted each of the pieces of the ship but still followed reference to make sure the locations were not without reason. I tested out different shapes and sizes of ships too before I settled on the one I used as the focal point.
The most challenging part of the ship was managing all of it’s parts and making sure it didn’t look too busy because I wanted space to see what was behind the ship to keep the depth of the scene. But I reused parts of the ship and placed them throughout the scene to establish more history in the environment.
The snow ties the environment together nicely. I created the snow material in Substance Designer for the normal map but I used Unreal for all the shader work. I used a strong contrast in color to create a cold, icy atmosphere. This led me to using strong shades of blue in the snow material’s subsurface color shader and environment’s tone overall.
The snow weather in the environment is a simple Unreal particle system, but I also used a dirty lens mask on the camera for the subtle “snow on the camera lens” effect.
The icebergs and glaciers were sculpted in ZBrush. I created few different shapes to avoid any repetition in the scene, but mostly just because I love sculpting. I used my snow material to create a detail normal map that I would combine with the normal bakes I did from the high poly glaciers for additional detail.
Substance Designer is a great tool for large environments. Procedural generation of materials and the flexibility of them are extremely time saving. For this environment I am only using tileable materials and vertex blending for the model textures so substance was a lifesaver here. Another thing I created was a simple world projected snow snader that created a blanket of snow on top of certain materials, this made sure everything in the scene was affected by the snowy weather.
With some good planning, larger environments can be brought to completion with very few assets and materials.
I think having a clear direction when building a believable atmosphere is a good starting point. The main questions I asked myself throughout this project was, “What mood do I want to portray? What emotions do I want to evoke from the viewers? What story am I telling?”. Being flexible is important, but when I have clear end goal it affects the production of all my assets from materials to modeling to VFX. For example Zaria Forman’s work is an amazing painter that inspired the mood of my environment.
In my opinion atmosphere is about the bigger picture, solid color schemes and readable silhouettes are vital when crafting an atmosphere due to how much can be communicated visually with just color. Building up the depth of your environment simultaneously builds up atmosphere as well.
The background of the scene should receive plenty of attention during the production process,an environment feels even bigger when there is a story in the background that creates a sense of mystery. Movement in the scene can spark life into environments, such as weather and other particle effects that create believability.
Lighting is mainly driven by a single directional light. The way the lighting bounces off the bright white snow creates a very strong contrast between the light and dark colors. I placed the red lights on the ship to make it stand out in the scene. I made sure the ship was the only object in the scene using warm colored textures and lighting so that it stood out from the blue hues of the rest of the environment.
I mainly light scenes in Unreal using lights to lead the eye, or to lead the player if it was an in game level. I fake bounce lighting with point lights and use strong rim lights on the bigger assets to make them pop in the scene. I try to learn lighting techniques used in cinematography and photography and apply them to my game environments.
This project was definitely a challenge. My technical skills had to improve due to the scale of the project so I could finish it in a timely manner by using new workflows, but I also had to push my artistic skills such as composition, color and lighting to make the environment interesting visually.
I learned having a plan for creating assets and streamlining your workflow is key to developing large scale environments. Making assets reusable and making solid materials that can be used on multiple assets in the environment instead of uniquely texturing each asset manually. Incorporating procedural techniques and new techniques in general into your workflow can save tons of time on current projects and future projects. This way more focus can be brought upon composition, set dressing and lighting. Many great looking games such as Horizon Zero Dawn and Ghost Recon: Wildlands are using procedural workflows for crafting huge environments that look really cool. But overall just be prepared to work harder, smarter, and don’t be afraid of self-critique during production.