Cyberpunk Environment Production Techniques

Cyberpunk Environment Production Techniques

Sergei Panin did an excellent breakdown of his gorgeous environment, created for the Beyond Human Artstation challenge. 

Sergei Panin did an excellent breakdown of his gorgeous environment, created for the Beyond Human Artstation challenge. A very nice workflow with Maya, UE4, SP and 3D Coat. Sergei also does a lot of videos, so you should definitely check those out (if you know Russian).


Hello. My name is Sergei Panin and I am a 3d artist from Moscow. Right now, I am working at Mail group on vehicles and environment. I haven’t been in the game industry for so long, so my biggest main project is Ground Wars: Tanks. Also, I worked on some indie projects as a freelance 3d artist before my current job.

By the main education I’m a manufacturing engineer (BMSTU) and I worked in CAD industry after graduating from the university. About 3 years ago I went to Digital Tutors and started learning polygon modeling, because CAD programs were not enough for me. I spent the first year to find myself and understand what is interesting for me. There was lot of software studies but I didn’t think about art skills at all. This was hardly a good way of learning and if you want to get a job in the industry, you better focus on something. But this gave me a clear understanding of what I wanted to do and how. In the second year I realized that I lacked any art skills whatsoever and started to learn concept art and design through online courses (Smirnov School, Russia). When I finished my courses, almost after that I got job at Mail group and have been working on tanks for about a year. This is a great practice in modeling and it gives me fun, but I’m spending all my free time on more environment stuff right now.

Beyond Human Work

Well, I do not work in UE4 on my current work, but I really want to increase my skill as an environment artist. In technical and artistic way. So, I decided to create a cool game location for the contest. I really wanted to build something that would look nice in my portfolio and show my strong sides. Truth be told, I wanted an honorable mention too. Mostly I wanted to prove myself that I could be a good environment artist. The fact that I stream every week helped me too – that was like an 8-episode movie about environment creation. This helped me to get a little bit more organized.


My main shoot is very close to reference and that was one of the tasks I set for myself – not to lose the feeling of the concept. But I think that an environment artist should not just copy a concept art – he should create a world around it and that’s why I created other shots.

At one moment I decided that my scene would not feature any humans – and I lost something in the mood of the keyframe. Lost something about that world and I thought “okay, I can’t just remove the story from the concept − I should give something back”

1 of 2

Second screenshot is moodier, but I am feel that something is lost in the composition and story

And that’s why I created this moment with “seeking human kindness”. Cyberpunk is not very easy to show in a single photo − it’s always about something (any kind of design about something). A simple screenshot from the Matrix or even Ghost in the Shell looks like a simple urban environment − but take a little bit of time and you will feel this world. In details and mood. So, I tried to create a story which I hadn’t had in concept art.

My core assets were vehicles, main shop zone and support beams. All of them were really important for the composition and I put much more time into them, than in other assets. Main blue car plays the role of a focal point, the beams take a lot of space in composition and shop zone – storytelling.

When you compare your scene with concept art you should remember this kind of things:

  • Comparing pictures in greyscale is a very powerful tool
  • I always check my greyscale pictures with levels in photoshop – a lot of artists make their scenes too bright or too dark.
  • Some moments in concept can look not very nice in 3D and some moments can’t be created in 3D without logical mistakes.
  • Mind the perspective. Some concept artists can use even 1 focal point and you will never have the same composition in real 3D. You have to keep that in mind.

This is a great example of how you can compare your screenshot with the concept, Only black and white, nothing else. This was kind of advice from my friend and teacher in concept art, Jane Katsubo.


Usually, I start my blockout in Maya and then export it to UE as a solid mesh. After that, when I understand the scale of elements, I separate elements in different scenes and delete elements from the initial “big” mesh. I had a Maya scene for roads with different road meshes (like traffic lights) or car meshes. It’s much easier to control for me. And in UE it’s better to have a lot of different meshes, which you can assemble in blueprints or spline meshes.

I think we could use an example. At first, I had Maya scene − Scene_BM with all initial blockout and exported it to Unreal. This gave me an understanding of composition and scale of the elements. Then, for example, I chose to work on buildings – I created a new scene with modular floors and windows and deleted all blocks of the buildings in Scene_BM. Then I assembled elements of the buildings in UE4 and reimported the initial blockout mesh. As you can see, in the end my Scene_BM will be a clear screen. Maybe it sounds complicated, but I always know what to change and where to find it.

One of the first blocks with the use of spline meshes and ready tileable textures with simple vertex paint

Blockout from the 2nd or the 3d week. It may look complicated, but in fact it’s just a lot of modular pieces with only one really textured mesh

I always use overpaints just for myself, to remember what I want to fix and what I think is wrong

How do I work fast and why no ready assets? I have used a lot of great examples in Unreal Engine. I have bought the Clinton Crumpler scene and reverse engineered his spline meshes and his main master material. In Unreal you can easily reuse something like that – this is a great basic pattern which gives you a good speed-up at the start and high flexibility during work. Also, I should mention great Epic Games examples of their scenes, like Infiltrator. There are tons of knowledge in these scenes. They are totally free!

About ready assets – if I remember it right, you can’t use something like that for the competition according to the rules. For blockout a simple box or a super game-ready mesh give same result. But I have used a lot of substances from textures, gametextures and substance share. I never use them as my last substance for texture, but it gives me a definition of the material and how it will work with light. And this is important.


If you work in Maya you MUST see this gumroad tutorial – Fuze 07. This is one of the greatest tutorials about complicated Maya modeling. Right now, my main plugins are:

AMTools 0.5 (Beveling hard surface)

QuickPipe 1.5 (Good for pipes)

KTools (Mirror and flipping objects)

Hard Mesh (This is an expensive, but very powerful addon for hard surfaces)

ZhCG_PolyTools (Some powerful tools to straighten lines and making circles out of polygons)

I do not use UV’s in Maya, but there are some great plugins for that too and I can recommend them.

I totally changed my mind about modeling in Maya, when I started my professional work. I bound all my actions, used hotkeys and pop-ups and I’m trying not to move my mouse too much. Same with Zbrush – I use a great shelf from Kingslave guys + a lot of hotkeys. If you have ever played StarCraft or something like that, you will never think twice before using hotkeys and bindings. So, my recommendation – if you are doing something more than twice a day in a program, think on how to reduce the time of this. Maya has fantastic options for scripting (like in Photoshop) when It just repeats your actions and it saves a lot of time.

Right now, I started to learn Blender with the Hard Ops plugin for my hard surface workflow. It’s very strange for me, but interesting. And again, that will save a lot of time for me in my regular actions.


I am an engineer and my first thought was to open the documentation. I just googled how wide the roads should be, how big the cars should be, windows, buildings etc. But this is only the basics. Concept artists do not always think about that. More than that, you have painting magic – perspective can change dimension very much. So, that’s why it’s very important to know about perspective rules and how to do simple concept art. And never work without a human scale figure − it’s really easy to lose dimensions in the environment and you have to check yourself all the time. And don’t forget – there are artists and you have the internet to contact them. So, ask them! Simple 4-5 questions to Helio Frazao saved a lot of hours for me.


It was a real challenge for me in the competition way. When I just started my scene, I thought that modular workflow would work great. I had been cherishing that idea for two weeks (since I first saw concept by Helio Frazao and realized that I wanted to do it). Then I started and… it didn’t not work. Well, it did work, but there were so many aspects for me to control and that it’s not always reasonable. Spline meshes worked perfectly for the streets and the upper section. Also, for wires of course. But the modular system didn’t play well with 5 totally different buildings. Another reason why I wasn’t happy with result, was that spline meshes brought a lot of random effects into the work. That sounds great, but when you are trying to match concept and create a good composition it plays a bad joke on you. At one moment you have a light in the window in one place, you change something and it randomly moves to another place. So be careful about that.

There are different ways, to save your time. Substance Designer, for example. Good tileable UVs with nice materials can give an excellent result. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to use same meshes over and over again, but with different angles. Don’t make high-polys for all your meshes – a simple geo can work very well. But you will save a lot of time on textures. This is a list of techniques, that I used for my scene to create versatility:

Spline Meshes – for all meshes with same dimensions and if there are a lot of them. If you have different meshes of different sizes – that will take a lot of time.

Substance Designer – Tileable meshes with Substance Designer can do real magic. Don’t think about sculpting high-polys all the time – you don’t have time for this. You need speed and good quality. Blending 2-3 good materials in SD with clouds alpha can give you a new unique material. And don’t be afraid of polygons – they are cheap on PC – create something interesting.

Material Blending – There are a lot of interesting ways to blend materials in UE4. You can blend materials by mask, painted in Substance Painter – they have special shader for this. Really nice, if you have something like stone and moss. Another way, there are some blending magic with the direction of polygon faces – there are a few videos about them. It’s a good way for moss and snow.

And my favorite one – vertex paint. With enough polycount it’s a very fast and simple way to create something interesting.

Spline meshes and control of dimensions.


I really love texturing – that is my favorite part of the job. That’s why I sometimes spend a little bit more time on heroic props than really required – I just enjoy this process. So, there are three separate parts of texturing for me – Tileable, heroic props / simple props and decals.

I use 3D-Coat for its UV and Retop modules. I use 3D-Coat for texturing sometimes and even combine it with Substance Painter, but only for hand paint style. But mainly my workflow is in 3D-Coat Retop/UV, then Soft/Hard edges in Maya and/or support loops for baking. Then I bake in Substance Painter of Marmoset – Marmoset rocks for hard surfaces, with tricky bolts and screws. But mostly it’s just Substance Painter and baking by name.

Then I have different workflows for each type of texture. Tileable textures – the cheap way of work – it takes 2-3 ready materials and blending them in Substance Painter/Designer with Clouds mask or something like that. Also, there are very cool nodes in Designer, like wet surface – it’s helped me a lot for my scene. The expensive way of work for tileable – open Substance Designer and go go go.

Main difference between heroic props and simple props is thinking about the future process. You just can’t add too much damage on simple props, because it will be too unique. You always need to keep in mind, that you will use graffiti, damage decals and something like that LATER in the scene. So, don’t paint something like that

It’s looking boring right now, but in the scene with vertex paint and decals it will look awesome

The same. The screen and all texts were designed with shader magic or decals

In my scene, the real heroic prop only one car – all other assets I created without any strong damage, stickers, graffiti, etc. All that was added later in UE4. I cheated only once – for my dumpsters. I created two version of textures – a very dirty one and a “clean” (if you can call it like that) and then blended them with vertex paint.

Cheat mesh – not optimized, but works nice.

And the last words about decals – create one texture and different simple masks. Then don’t forget that there are a lot of types of decals in UE. I used decals even just for normal damage or controlling roughness. They are very flexible.

This decal contains roughness and diffuse information. You can use it change even normal information. A very powerful instrument. And for this one I had several opacity masks.


I started my scene with a simple light and worked with it for about 3 weeks. One key light, fog for the atmosphere and then just 3 weeks of modeling. During that process I added some emissive stuff and played with its settings. In Lighting Academy, I heard the idea that lighting is like sculpting in a way. So, when I keep the important stuff simple – it’s easier to control it. Key light and emissive fonts – are very important parts of the final composition.

I worked with this light for more than 3 weeks I think

Then, from week 4 I added a lot of additional lights and started to play with postprocessor. On week 6 I started adding some fakes, when I realized that couldn’t do anything with simple light.

This concept is very difficult in that way – it wasn’t bright, but not dark either, with a very good lighting composition and very moody.

My last light of the scene was a little bit complicated

So, there was a lot of tweaking every day. I am not a professional lighting artist and what I have learned from this process is that:

  • One strong light gives you very cool and nice shadows and reflections. When you have a lot of light – you can easily lose this effect.
  • Don’t be afraid to totally rework some elements. You can always do it better. Back it up somewhere and just have a fresh look at it. That gave me some nice “happy accidents”. Concept artists know that first ideas are awful very often – don’t think that your first lighting ideas will be great without extensive experience and practice.
  • Don’t count on the post-processor – if you can do it with light, it’s better to do it with light. Post-processor can save you sometimes, but not all the time.
  • Read about fakes in lighting – there are a many interesting lighting effects, like godray and fog effect. They can help you increase the quality of your lighting in the scene so much.
  • Use a nice master material – if you have a roughness control in your master material, you will be very happy. It’s always possible that Unreal will not give good reflections for a roughness of 0.54, but good for 0.55. When you have a slider in the material attributes it’s much easier to catch the effect required of the material.


We develop games and you always have that annoying “problem” – the player’s curiosity. He will check all corners, he will try to find every secret. And if he sees that something is off – he will not believe in your world. Concept artist do a big job – they create a world, that is interesting to research. And this is a difficult task. Our work as 3d artists is to create a world that will guide the player and keep him inside the story. The same goes about the UI artist and the joke “The best UI is no UI”.

Humans are interesting creatures – you can take a look at a poor human art and you will feel something wrong. It applies to the machines and environment, too. Even in a fairy world everything has to make sense (Just take a look at the movie on creating Zootopia. This cartoon so cool, because this world can exist in a logical way and they talk a lot about that)

But I have to say that logic can one day kill your creativity. It was very hard for me to learn not to do straighten lines all the time (that’s why you can find a lot of stylized houses in my portfolio) after years of engineering practice. A good artist can find a balance between creativity and logic and it takes a long way to go.

So, my final worlds will be – think about every step of your work, but don’t try to think through all its aspects at once. If you don’t think about design – your work will lack design. If you don’t think about lighting – your work will have bad lighting. It’s almost impossible to think about everything at the same time, but if you have a good pipeline you will make your work perfect, step by step.

Sergei Panin, Environment Artist at Mail Group

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Cyberpunk Environment Production Techniques