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Death Stranding-Style Scene: Assets, Vegetation, Composition Workflow

Michael Gerard did a breakdown of his Death Stranding-inspired scene and discussed his approach to working with Megascans assets, creating materials in Substance Designer, shared his workflow on vegetation in SpeedTree, talked about lighting setup and landscape composition. 


My name is Michael Gerard, I am a self-taught, landscape artist, and I worked for Ubisoft on Ghost Recon Breakpoint. I came to do landscape art in a very natural way. I tried many things when I started, animation, character, modeling, texturing, programming, and I got passionate about visual design and more precisely about everything related to nature. That's why I do a lot of wild/natural scenes.

About the Scene

I started by immersing myself in the game, I spent many hours there. Then I took references with the photo mode but also on the internet to create a mood board.

My goal was to create something as close as possible to what I could feel in the game.
Setting Up The Initial Landscape

First, I created the mountains in the background with World Creator. Once I got a satisfying result, I exported the heightmaps and the different texture masks.

I imported the masks into photoshop to combine them and create a kind of splat map.

I imported the heightmap of my terrain on World Machine to make a static mesh that I sent to Maya to apply a "Smooth Edge" and adjust the size.

I then imported it into UE4. For the shader, I based myself on the one present in Gökhan Karadayı's packs (thanks to him for his exceptional work) that I adapted to my workflow.

Once my background was ready, I added the terrain of the scene, the river even before the textures, just to fix the curve. Then I added textures, layers, and created the reliefs with the "noise" brush of the terrain tool.

Materials Workflow 

I used Mixer, I only used four textures for this scene. Moss, pebbles, and sand are very simple.

Rock is a little bit more complex but nothing very advanced, it is just the superposition of different surfaces.

I used all these assets and custom material that I use in all my scenes, even if the material available with the new version of the Bridge plugin could do the job. I used it to update my own shader. Using vector parameters is very smart.

I created combined textures, and I added a cover + blending system and a wetness system to my shader.

Some will wonder why I don't use Real-Time Virtual Texturing to create blending, after some tests this technique causes stretching on some models. That's why I don't use it.
For the wetness function, we can see on the GIF that it is a parameter based on world coordinates, that's why it also affects the terrain. It can be disabled, but it was necessary for the river edges. All these functions are not new to those who have followed my course in creating natural scenes, they are the same functions that we create together.
Concerning the models, I didn't make many changes, I simply adjusted the saturation and luminosity to create coherence between all the actors.

Vegetation Approach

For the vegetation, I used Speedtree. 

For the placement, everything is managed by the terrain material with Landscape Grass Types. They follow a mask which allows them to create different scenarios very quickly . 

Working on the Details 

Not totally comfortable with Houdini yet (but I'm working on it), I used the native Procedural Foliage Volume of Unreal.

In addition to giving an organic aspect, it will automatically create actors in the foliage tool. This makes it possible to adjust by hand very easily. 

Lighting Setup 

The lighting is quite simple, I only use directional light and the Sky Atmosphere. Most of the atmosphere is created by post-process and fog. I use a Color Grading (LUT) but also an HDR created directly from Unreal with Nvidia's Ansel plugin in Skylight actor.

For the river, it's a really powerful pack that I barely modified to remove what wasn't useful to me. (SHADERSOURCE - Branching River Tool)
For the rainbow, it is a simple plan with a rainbow created in Photoshop using the gradient tool.

 I simply changed the colors to match with those of the game. 

The shader is relatively simple and common to the cables I'm talking about below.

After a few adjustments, I was able to get the desired effect similar to the one in the game. 

For skylines, I used Substance Designer.

I start with a "square" shape, a 2D transform to make the position easier and a wrap combined with a Perlin Noise to control the effect. Here I use only two, but it is possible to add more.
I export the texture in Unreal and use it in a basic shader.

I use a material parameter to create the animation which gives the impression that the lines come down from the sky.


Biggest Challenges

The most complicated thing in this scene was to keep a coherence between all the assets and, especially, the dressing of the mountains in the background.

Some objects had to be resized to very high values.
It took a long time to find the vegetation in this part of the scene. At first, I started with the idea of covering the visible area with the same ground vegetation as the one in the foreground, but the result was not good enough, it was almost invisible. So I decided to use bushes only, and the result was quite convincing. 

The first lesson I learned is that you should never use a preview version even for a project as small as a scene creation. Basically, this project was started on version 4.26. It was clearly not a good idea.
The main key in my opinion for a scene with the unique atmosphere of Death Stranding is the fracture created by the rocks, stones, cliffs, and mountains. The cold white-blue fog that seems to surround you and prevents you from seeing too far is also important.

Michael Gerard, Landscape Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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