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Creating the Abandoned Church Using Substance 3D Designer and Unreal Engine

Sasha Honcharova shared a detailed workflow behind the Abandoned Church project, showed the texturing process and a choice of materials, and explained how the lighting was set up.


My name is Sasha Honcharova, and welcome to a little window into how I approached my first environment in Unreal Engine.

The idea for this environment stemmed from a desire to try out as many game pipeline workflows as possible while learning Unreal Engine and Substance 3D Designer for the first time. Texturing always felt like my weak point, so I knew that I wanted to work on something that would give me an opportunity to really dissect and study the materials from references while allowing me to try out various shader approaches and texturing techniques. Therefore, an already existing space seemed like a no-brainer. The additional deterioration of the materials that gave me an opportunity to practise material layering to accomplish a feeling of decay over time was just a cherry on top. 

The space that I ended up choosing was the dilapidated Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit. I fell in love with its unique architecture, organic curves, and harmonious atmosphere the moment I saw it. Coincidentally, its harmonious design ended up also teaching me a lot about finding a balance between using unique and modular structures. 


99 percent of the assets used for this environment were custom-made. The only downloaded models were a backpack, boxes, books, and crayons that I took from Megascans for some storytelling. The rest of the environment I tried to keep as modular as possible. However, as mentioned previously, due to the very curved nature of this church’s architecture, and the destruction in the left wing of the church, a good part of the main structure ended up being composed of unique geometry. 

The rest I separated into unique small props (organ piano, lecterns, and lanterns), and modular pieces (wall trims, columns, support beams, doors, windows, etc.). 


As mentioned previously, texturing was going to be the area that I wanted to gain the most practice out of. I began by doing extensive research on real-world examples of the materials used in this church and began creating iterations in Substance 3D Designer. Since it was my first time using the software, it took me many iterations to get all the basic materials not only to look the way I wanted but also to make sure they felt cohesive alongside each other. 

Some of my materials and shader set-ups in Unreal Engine were heavily inspired by tutorials. For instance, Daniel Thiger's tutorial on damaged plaster walls was incredibly useful for my decal and trim sheet. It gave me a perfect base for setting up an illusion of sculpted destruction in the scene that I used to bring my other custom-made materials together. 

Trim sheets were an integral part of making this environment come to life. After some planning and research, I ended up creating 3 main trim sheets grouped by different materials: wood, plaster, and stone. Two of them I ended up first modeling in Maya, and then I used baked maps from Marmoset Toolbag for texturing in Substance 3D Designer. 

The last trim sheet was composed of painterly detail rather than sculptural, which gave me an opportunity to have some fun with intricate pattern creation in Substance 3D Designer. 

Since I already had my base wood and plaster materials set up, trim sheet creation ended up being a much more streamlined process than I anticipated. I had a lot of fun creating the designs and was completely blown away by how a few textures went such a long way in transforming the whole environment.

As you can see on the breakdown, the areas where I used trims take up a surprisingly large amount of screen space. So adding that subtle detail to that many surfaces really helped to sell both the scale and the believability of the environment. It is also worth mentioning that I added Parallax Occlusion Mapping to the more 3-dimensional trim sheets in order to get the desired feeling of depth from those surfaces.

Another detrimental texturing technique that I used was RGB masking. I knew that I had too many pieces for unique texture maps, and I didn’t want to add more unnecessary geo for vertex painting. Plus, I was eager to learn another new technique.

Since it was my first time using RGB masking, I ended up learning the shader set-up and the overall RGB mask workflow, and the theory from Dominique Buttiens' Gnomon workshop "Creating a Sci-Fi Hallway in Unreal Engine 5". I can’t recommend this workshop enough. I used his setup as a base and added tweaks to it to serve the specific needs of my environment. For instance, I added a 5th alpha channel layer that I used for the trim sheet alphas on the roof beams of my church. I also ended up adjusting the layer blending portion of the material to personalize it to my personal preferences.

Stained Glass Material

One of the elements that allowed me to add a personalized touch to the designs of this environment was the stained glass windows. To me, this environment has not just been an abandoned space, but it rather became an opportunity to seek something beautiful, innocent, and serene in the aftermath of destruction. I saw the windows as a perfect opportunity to breathe more life and meaning into the piece by incorporating organic Ukrainian designs that reminded me of home. 

Needless to say, I absolutely fell in love with the process of this material creation. The majority of my inspiration came from the stained glass materials for The Last of Us Part I by Jonathan Benainous. I began by hand painting 2 initial maps in Procreate: the mask for the metallic edges of the frames of the glass, and the basic color pass to guide further color randomization within Substance 3D Designer.

I only painted the color for the 2 glass panes that had more recognizable designs. The remaining designs were much more abstract and therefore didn't require as much precision. I ended up driving their colors by splitting the sections using the flood fill to the bounding box size in order to keep the symmetry of the selected glass pane sections and then controlled various color masks using Histogram scans


Last but not least, all of this was brought to life through lighting. Since there are no interior lights in this environment, I was mostly relying on the exterior light sources. In my progress breakdowns, you can see how I began by cranking up the Skylight. However, as time went on, I wanted to gain more control and, therefore, ended up relying on more localized lights instead. In the end, I ended up having a lot of fun by approaching the process of lighting this environment from a painterly perspective. 

Throughout this project, I was incredibly lucky to receive a lot of mentorship from Gabriel Cervantes and Anton Napierala. Huge thank you to both of them for all of their guidance, as it has been crucial in my growth as an artist. Another big thank you goes to my friends, Rain Rouhani, Hasan Efendi, and Adam Eli for all of their support and help. 

Sasha Honcharova, 3D Artist

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Comments 1

  • _ Gabriel Cervantes

    Stunning work Sasha!


    _ Gabriel Cervantes

    ·10 months ago·

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