Cuban Kitchen: Making Props and Set Dressing a Scene with a Story

The team of 6 artists – Luís Mesquita, Kevin Buck, Lloyd James, Gordon Neill, Tim Groß, and Abdullahi, – talked about their mutual project Cuban Kitchen made during one of the Beyond Extent Team Challenges.

About the Beyond Extent Team Challenge

Our real-time Cuban Kitchen scene was created as part of a team challenge hosted by the Beyond Extent community. Beyond Extent is an online community of environment artists that also provides weekly art tips and resources for Patreon members, with a growing Discord channel full of amazing people (check it out here: It was the first team challenge organized by Timothy Dries (owner of BE) and Lloyd James, joining 12 environment artists of varying styles and skill levels together and splitting them into two teams of 6, with one volunteer leader in each. The Cuban Kitchen theme was defined by the organizers who also provided a shared Google Drive folder where the whole team could have access to their Unreal Engine project, as well as guidelines on how to set everything up. The whole point was to develop our skills and learn together in our spare time during the course of 1 month, and this is what we got:

Team and Organization

Our team was composed of:

  • Luís Mesquita - Graduated in Animation Cinema and Digital Arts from UFMG/Brazil and received a Master of Fine Arts degree through the Media Art and Design master's course at Bauhaus Universität-Weimar/Germany. Currently works in Germany as a 3D artist for the automotive industry. With around 6 years of professional experience as a 3D artist in diverse areas, he’s working towards a kickstart in the games industry as a 3D environment artist.
  • Kevin Buck - Recent graduate of the Game Art & 3D Animation program at SAE Institute Zurich. Currently works full-time on his portfolio and is looking for his first job in the games industry.
  • Lloyd James - Self-taught environment artist from the UK, still working towards getting into the industry, and the main organiser of the Beyond Extent Collaborative Challenge with support from Timothy Dries.
  • Gordon Neill - Left his job as an engineer in 2012 to pursue his dream of working in games. Attended UWS Paisley to study 3D Animation with VFX and interned at AXIS Studios in 2017 before graduating. Also got to work on several indie games including Mask of Semblance for Red Essence Games. He runs the Digital Artcast podcast where artists from around the world are interviewed.
  • Tim Groß - 29 years old, from Germany. Currently working as an engineer. For his private 3D work he mostly focuses on hard-surface objects and weapons.
  • Abdullahi - 21 years old, recently graduated with a Games Art degree from Coventry University. He’s working on his portfolio and learning more about the environment art pipeline while searching for his first environment art job.
Luís Mesquita was our volunteer leader, keeping everything organised, checking files, guaranteeing a concise art style, and keeping the communication clear. He was assisted closely by Lloyd when unavailable, although everyone did a great job keeping the project tight. We decided to have meetings every Monday to keep track of each other's progress. In the first meeting, we decided on the scope of our project, gathered references (organised in PureRef), established how many hours per week each one could invest, and decided how many assets we needed. An important decision: each team member should get at least one "hero prop" to focus on, so everyone could end up with something equally nice to show in the scene. Luís created a Trello board to keep track of tasks, deadlines, priorities, and basic project guidelines (like file formats, target texel density, etc).

Cuban Kitchen: Mood and Storytelling

It’s important that your environment gives you enough clues to understand the story behind it without words or characters. What we were going for was a common house where a poor Cuban family lives, with a kitchen cluttered with worn or broken objects, including a rusty tap that doesn't work anymore. We wanted to portray a usual day for the resident(s), not necessarily sad or happy, with the pictures on the wall suggesting their religiosity and a family member that might have passed away, hence the difficulty to maintain the house. The warm daylight coming in highlights the recently cooked food and a small table with a radio where someone could have a meal alone.

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Blockout and Proportions

Kevin Buck: "I was responsible for the blockout and for defining the proportions of the room and props in Unreal Engine 4. It was important to understand through our references how Cuban homes, especially the ones of poorer families, looked like and how things were mostly arranged. With the list of previously defined main assets, a rough blockout was made and the first iteration of the composition started to take shape. The challenge here was not to overscope the project, so we decided to only focus on one corner area of the kitchen, where a test camera was placed to roughly mark the main camera shot we wanted. Another challenge was not to make the place feel too empty. Since poor Cuban families may not be able to afford much, we had to balance the amount of prop variation with the distribution around the scene, but at the same time make it feel lived in and believable. With this base ready, now each artist could use those proportions as a reference to build their own props, just re-import them into Unreal and they would automatically update in the scene."

Here is Kevin’s progress from the first blockout to the point where the props were mostly finished:


We had in total around 30 unique props, some smaller and less detailed, others larger and more complex which we tried to distribute between us in a fair way considering the time we could spend. Every time someone finished a model, the files were submitted to the leader (or someone else available) to check if changes needed to be made, and then we followed with feedback, revision if necessary, and approval to move to the texturing phase. The basic guidelines were:

  • There's no target polycount, but use only the necessary to get a nice shape and silhouette variation.
  • Smaller bevels can be baked.
  • Have UVs combined in as few texture sets as possible and stick to the texel density of 1024 pixels per meter.
  • Pack textures as MRAO (Metallic - Roughness - Ambient Occlusion) with Opacity Mask in the alpha channel of the Base Color when necessary.

Luís Mesquita: “I was responsible for modeling and texturing everything related to the counter/sink, shelf, pot hooks, stool, and modular pipes. They were modeled in Blender and textured in Quixel Mixer, with a quick Marvelous Designer simulation for the red curtain, and all combined in 3 UV sets. For the texturing, my focus was on making the props look worn out by layering different materials and adding damage and dirt from top to bottom. For tiles, roughness variation got some extra attention to make the reflections more interesting. I had little experience with texturing packages, so the biggest challenge was to learn Quixel Mixer and texture the assets in only 3 days.”

Kevin Buck: “I modeled and textured the frame pictures, the cupboard, and the window shutters. They had a rather simple form and thus face weighted bevels were used. It was a challenge to give them interesting details, especially the cupboard. This was done via the prop's texture by adding spots where the paint would be more faded as well as by disconnecting a hinge for one of the cupboard’s doors and making it slightly crooked. For the window shutters, only the left part was modeled and textured. The right side is a mirrored version of the left one with the wood slats rearranged to give a sense of variation. They both use the same texture set. Everything was done in Maya and Substance Painter.”

Tim Groß: “The stove model was a perfect fit for me due to my interest in hard-surface and weapons. I built the stove and the broom using a standard high to low-poly workflow. For modeling I used Blender, my current baking program of choice is Marmoset Toolbag and I textured all assets inside of Substance Painter.”

Abdullahi: “I was assigned the radio and the bottles and cups that litter the cupboards. I approached the bottles and cups as simply as possible, trying to keep the polycount minimal. For the radio, however, I didn’t mind adding the bevels into the low-poly as it was a hero prop anyway. I used 256 and 512 textures for the small props, but for the radio, I used a 2k texture and a separate 512 for the glass. I used Maya for the modeling and then Substance Painter for the texturing.”

Gordon Neill: “I was responsible for the pots and pans and the medium-sized cooking table with a drawer. It started with simple shapes in Maya following our PureRef reference panel plus some extra ones. After getting the basic shapes, handles and lids were added for extra variation. Even though the table had a simple shape I tried to bring out a lot of storytelling in the texture stage. This was where I felt I could make the scene shine by really paying attention to the scene and adjusting the textures as needed. The more I use Substance the more impressed I get with its potential. On the first pass, the table wasn’t working quite well so Llyod suggested trying to use a more distressed peeling paint texture. Luckily, Substance Share had just what I needed so I played around with some settings and got the final look pretty quickly using masks and generators. The pots and pans were a lot simpler; they didn’t need to stand out but I was still trying to give them some wear and basic scratches so they didn’t look brand new and could blend better with the scene. The final stretch was using a paint brush alpha and painting over the top of some of the detail on the table. I imagined that the family tried to repaint it at some point.”

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Wall and Floor Materials

Lloyd James was the man behind the wall and floor textures made in Substance Designer.

Lloyd James: “I started with reference for the floor tiles, looking for the patterns, colours, and wear/ damage. I started with large macro shapes using several Tile samplers to form my base tile set up – one to control the tilt, one for height variation, etc. Then I blended them together using a mask. I chose this approach as it gave me a great amount of control over the number of tiles that were tilted or damaged. Linking all the tile samplers by exposing common parameters meant I could affect multiple tile samplers at once rather than having to individually change them. For the rest of the material, I continued to layer on the details from large to tiny. People often talk about layering different details but one bit of feedback I received during the creation of the material was to create primary/secondary/tertiary layers within each detail. An example of this is creating areas of damage within the smaller damaged areas/islands which really adds an extra level of depth and realism to the material like seen here:”

Lloyd also created most of the master materials we used, including a vertex color blending material used to paint different levels of wall and floor damage with the red and green channels.

Set Dressing

Luís Mesquita: “When all props were finished, we ended up with a very solid base especially regarding the main prop's positioning, which made the next step easier for me to take over. At that point I noticed a problem: all the props had a similar brown/orange tone, destroying the idea of color randomness across the assets observed in the references. I decided to go back and adjust the counter/sink colors, making the blue tiles more saturated, adding more color to the worn paint of its concrete base, and giving a more saturated red to the curtain. The next thing we observed was that prop variation was key to convey the overcrowded feeling of having lots of small objects spread all over the place. Even though we had a good amount of props, we still needed to reuse the small ones, scaling, rotating to show different angles and with color variation through material instances. I populated the scene with those small assets, and also repositioned some of the shelves in a way that allowed a person to easily reach them and the pipes considering that the water was supposed to flow from one or two improvised water tanks in the roof. The radio was also moved to the table where the lighting would help giving it more focus. The windows were rotated outside, allowing more light to come in. With the help of Lloyd's vertex painting material, some damage was added on the walls in the appropriate places. I also made a few color tests and we decided together that green paint was fitting better.”


Luís Mesquita: “The lighting is what can make or break a scene. My main idea here was to try to use the lighting to give importance to all of the most relevant props made by every team member, while still sticking to the storytelling and mood defined. I was the one responsible for bringing the lighting to the final result.

We only had the window to bring natural sunlight inside the scene, so we decided to go for baked lighting. Since it's a naturally dark interior we really needed those light bounces to light everything up properly. The first step was to readjust the lightmap resolution across every prop for better optimization and lower baking times. Some smaller props had a few lightmap issues so their resolution was kept higher than average as we didn't have enough time to fix it directly in the UVs. I added a temporary directional light for testing. The production bake time was cut from 20 minutes to less than 2 minutes.

A problem showed after the first bake test: the scene was way too dark. With such a small window that was kind of expected. I did four things to fix that. First, added a portal in the window frame to guide the light rays in. Second, adjusted the exposure (or eye adaptation) until it looked decent for both bright and dark areas. Third, cranked up the indirect lighting contribution by almost 3 times in the post-process volume. It worked fine but the bake still left the scene too saturated and some objects almost black. One important tip is to keep the base colors very flat with low contrast and saturation, and this was the fourth adjustment I did in every texture. The end result was much better.

I went for a usual late afternoon sun scenario, with a lower angle and warmer directional light as the main light source shining across the kitchen. In the frontal camera shots, it's possible to see the triangle made by the direct light on the wall, keeping the viewer's attention around Gordon's pots and Tim's cooker and guiding the eye towards the table and Abdullahi's radio. From other camera angles, it also works very well, highlighting my counter's roughness variation, the sink area, the dirty pan near the window, and Kevin's cupboard. Composition-wise, the main props are always inside the direct light in every shot, and the scene’s boxy shapes help guide the eye to the lit area and delimit the shade. Mission accomplished! Everyone had their main props in focus. The props inside the areas in the shade have reduced importance, filling the scene without demanding too much attention. Some less detailed parts of the walls also serve as very necessary eye-rest spots. A skylight and a sky sphere with blue tones were also used.

Last but not least, we needed better reflections, especially around the pots, counter, and bottles. So I added a box reflection capture covering the whole kitchen and localized smaller sphere reflection captures near the more reflective props.

Here we reached the deadline and that's the final result we delivered for the challenge:”

Final Touches

Luís Mesquita: “After the presentation I decided to push it a little bit further, adding some extra flavour that the time constraints didn't allow before.

The previous result had very little to adjust regarding color grading, so I made just a few tweaks in Photoshop and saved a Color Lookup Table (LUT) with only half intensity in the post-process volume. Some SSAO and a bit of bloom were also used. An exponential height fog was used to get some volumetric god rays coming in from the window, a few palm trees were added outside to give it some movement and break down the bright window frame, as well as a dust particle system. Lastly, I spread decals all over the walls, props, and behind the pipes. I also rendered a video with nice Cuban music to make the scene more alive (you can find the video at the beginning of this article). Here’s my final result:”

Challenges and Teamwork

As incredible as it sounds, the whole process was super smooth. We had almost no problems with planning, the whole team was very open to feedback and did the best they could inside their own time limitations and all the deadlines were respected. When questions or issues showed up, someone was always available to join the voice chat and help a teammate to fix it via screen-sharing. Considering that the project was made over a month in our spare time, we are really happy with what we achieved together. We recommend any student or person trying to get into the industry to work collaboratively with others if you get the chance. Not only does it allow you to create a portfolio piece in a much shorter time, but it also improves invaluable soft skills. It was great to see how committed and professional a random group of artists can be, no matter how experienced they were. We also want to thank Timothy Dries and the rest of the Beyond Extent community for continuous support.

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