Creating Environment with Substance & Maya

Creating Environment with Substance & Maya

Giuseppe Fanelli did a great breakdown of his environment scene created within CGMA course Intro to Environment Art under the guidance of Jared Sobotta.

Giuseppe Fanelli did a great breakdown of his environment scene created within CGMA course Intro to Environment Art under the guidance of Jared Sobotta.


Hi, my name is Giuseppe Fanelli, I’m from Italy and I’m an environment artist currently looking for a job in the game industry. My first encounter with the 3D world was at the university when I was studying Computer Science (for an exam, I created some models in Blender). In those years I took a course to learn traditional drawing art and started to study Tai Chi Chuan, a traditional Chinese martial art. These things allowed me to discovered my artistic skills so after the graduation I decided to learn more about 3D Computer Graphics. I took a 6-months course to learn all the basics of 3D, after that I decided to specialize in environment game art, so I enrolled in the CGMA course Intro to Environment Art taught by Jared Sobotta to learn Substance Painter and Designer and understand the game art workflow.


The idea was to create an abandoned entrance. I didn’t have a clear idea of what to do, but since I liked traditional Asian culture I started to look for the images of the ancient Asian temples and found the Cambodian temple Ta Prohm. I was fascinated by the predominance of the big tree, so I started to look at other images of this place, its details. Then I did a few quick sketches in Photoshop to decide what elements would compose my scene, bearing in mind that I would have only 10 weeks to finish it.

First Approach

Following the sketch, I made a blockout of my scene to decide the scale of every object and see if the composition worked. After that, I created the ground material in Substance Designer. It was the first time I opened it, fortunately, the first impact wasn’t so tragic.

Then I started to create the assets. I began with the wall first and created the texture. Meanwhile, my love for Substance Designer grew, I really understood the potential of this program and enjoyed experimenting with the nodes and parameters to see what I can achieve. I applied the texture in Maya to the wall and scaled the UV to find the right texel density, then with the multi-cut tool I isolated a brick and created four variations of it. I used these bricks to create some broken walls. In the beginning, I thought to use these bricks for the rubble on the ground and above the entrance too, but to give more contrast and variation to the scene I decided to make a different texture with some dirt for them and painted it in Substance Painter.

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Working on Vegetation

The moss was created in Substance Designer starting from the creation of the base shape of the moss filament:

Then with two Splatter Circular nodes, I created the filaments cluster and used a Splatter node to randomly place medium and large shapes of it.

For the grass, I used the EP Curve Tool in Maya to create the blades and later I created a base shape and extruded the upper faces along the curve giving some twist and taper to it. Then I created a texture sheet with a plane and baked the high poly information (grass blades) in Substance Designer and texturized it. I found the “GradientLinear1” node useful with the 2 tiling to add the same color of the ground to the base of the grass to better integrate it in the scene.

I finished the textures, imported them into Maya and cut the plane to create 4 different cards. Then I duplicated the cards and created some groups of grass from small to large and used them to compose the scene. 

I followed a similar workflow for the vines and branches of the trees. I created a base mesh for the leaves that I sculpted in Zbrush, reduced the polycount with Decimation Master, reimported it to Maya and placed it along the branches (created like the blades grass). I combined leaves in three different meshes in this way as I had the possibility to give some color variations in Substance Designer using the node “Color To Mask” with the baked map “Color Map from Mesh”. Placing the vines was enjoyable, I tried to position them in a realistic way starting from the tree and going to the right. I think that it’s really important thinking in a realistic way during the placement of every object you make.


As for the trees, I created the small ones in Maya starting with the EP Curve Tool and then I extruded a cylinder along the curve. For the big one, I decided to try another method: I used the ZSphere in ZBrush and before sculpting exported the low poly in Maya and optimized the model. I eliminated all the edges that didn’t change the silhouette. In the beginning, the Big Tree was simpler, but Jared and I decided that it was better to add more base branches to fit the scene. To do this I added some branches created with the EP curve tool to the original mesh.  

To place the branch cards on the trees I set the object “Live” and positioned them, then I change the vertex normal of every card using a half sphere and the function “Transfer Attributes” in Maya. In this way, the leaves behaved more realistically.

In the end, I added a new plant near the door. After reading an article about vegetation creation in ZBrush, I decided to try that workflow, so in ZBrush, I started with a sphere, Dynameshed it and with the Move Brush created the shape I wanted. Then I used Polypaint. I have never used it, so at first, I had some problem but watching some educational videos helped. I realized that this method was very enjoyable and interesting, during the process I found very useful the masks tool in ZBrush, the cavity mask in particular. In ZBrush, I always obtained the albedo and normal map, then created the roughness map in Substance Designer.

Door Creation

The first thing that I did for the door was the creation of the wood texture in Substance Designer.

All the details were done in Maya. First I drew the ornaments in Photoshop following the reference, then I used them in Maya to create the meshes with the EP Curve Tool or starting with a simple cube.

To create the circular detail in the center I made a base shape starting with a cube, duplicated it and used the Bend Deform to give it a round shape.

For the small details in the center and the angles, I first recreated them in Maya, but they were too intricate. To save the time I decided to create them in Substance Designer starting with a Cell node, applicating the material in Substance Painter by creating a fill node and painting the mask. In Substance Painter, I added the moss by using the “Ground Dirty” Smart Mask. I also added some wet effect using the Liquid Stream particles brush. This brush is really powerful because it can add some realistic effect in a short period of time.


The scene was rendered in Marmoset Toolbag 3 with the sky preset “Forest Path” using 3 child light. I added a directional light to better illuminate all the things and a spotlight to focus the attention on the door and the base of the Big Tree. Some post effects were used to give more contrast to emphasize the shadows. I added some saturation, a little bloom, and depth to the scene.


In the beginning, I was not sure about enrolling in this class, because I thought it would be too basic, but I realized that there is always something new to learn. I’m very happy that I’ve changed my mind because Jared has been a great instructor and gave me a lot of feedback and tips. For example, in the below image he told me to break up the perfectly straight line of the columns since it was an abandoned entrance. I found this and other little tips very useful. I think that these things make a difference because they can break up and give some movement to the scene. Ultimately,  I found this class very useful. Now when I see some photos of the scenes that I‘d like to reproduce in 3D I know how to decompose them and how to organize the workflow. So I highly recommend taking the class.

Giuseppe Fanelli, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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