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Alina Vilhjalmsdottir talked about her Dishonored inspired scene made with UE4 and Substance tools, the prop production, texturing, and more.
My name is Alina Vilhjalmsdottir. I know it’s a mouthful. I always get a lot of question about it. My name is actually a combination of a Russian name and my last name means the daughter of Vilhjalmur. That’s my dad. I currently live in Iceland and aspire to get into the video game industry. The problem is, it’s almost non-existent here in Iceland. So I’m branching out by applying for jobs all over the world. I’m really excited to see more of the world and hopefully experience living somewhere else and get to know other cultures.
Journey into Game Design
I started my art journey in fashion design, but when I realized that that world wasn’t for me, I somehow thought programming was similar. After a year of not really fulfilling my artistic needs, I found a multimedia school in Iceland. There, I found my passion for game design and I have never looked back. I worked on numerous small games with my fellow students. I was finding my footing, still unsure if I wanted to be a character artist or an environment artist. But my skills always led me to produce and become a creative director over all my projects which is something I’m also really passionate about. I certainly want to do more of in the future. The human aspect of game design really intrigues me and I often find myself reading books on communication and leadership in my spare time. After 2 years, I decided to finish my degree and got a BA in Animation production at Arts University Bournemouth. I hoped that it would give me an edge when applying for work in the future.
Looking back, I think I have always really liked video games. I did play with Barbies but I still remember playing Nintendo at my grandparents’ house and getting a PS1 for Christmas. I have never really thought about it but I was a real video game nerd back then, and it has really stuck with me. I have always really liked the stories and worlds that video games can bring to life. That’s my favorite thing about a game, the story it shares with me. It’s very impactful and can stay with you forever.
Goals & Copying Dishonored Style
This project actually started in an Environment artist bootcamp at Game Art Institute. After my 3 years of school, I still felt like I didn’t have the skills I needed to get into the industry at all. So I enrolled in a bootcamp last year and my main focus was just to finish an environment and make it look amazing! I know that sounds like a lot and it was. I, of course, had some basic knowledge in all of the programs but there I dove deep into everything from creating low and high poly assets with the construction in mind to creating believable textures in Substance Painter, touching Substance Designer, Marmoset, and Unreal for the first time and mastering them.
In this scene, I really wanted to showcase that I could match the style of the game Dishonored 2. While analyzing the props and textures from the game you notice that they mix different styles and aren’t always following the same rules. Some of the textures have this oil paint feel while others are closer to reality but with a bit more exaggerated edge damage. I also looked for the concept art of props that have a counterpart in the actual game, like the typewriters, chairs, textures and more. That made it easier for me to match the style as I had an actual 3D reference to look at and replicate. Through the process, I also contacted a few of the people who worked on the game for advice and feedback. Don’t hesitate to do that. If people have the time they will answer you and most of the time it’s really insightful.
Explaining how to match a certain style can be hard. I think it’s all about looking closely at lots of images from the game and analyzing each one, looking at the small texture details, curves, and edges of every object and overall mood. Then it comes to asking yourself how the artists made it and trying to replicate the piece never being afraid of making many iterations until you are happy with the outcome.
When it comes to the props, I think it’s all about time management and not making every prop super detailed and heavy. It’s good to have a mix of beautiful, maybe a bit more high poly props mixed with simple world filler props. I started with a desk based on the concept art with the textures referenced from the game. I made a base texture in Substance Designer and worked my way up from there in Painter. The desk area was then posted separately on my Artstation as well as that bloody typewriter that took more than one iteration to perfect. It’s important to keep your portfolio up to date, try to post regularly, and break down your scenes.
Then, I moved on to the piano. I do feel like it’s a fairly simple prop but I only had the concept art to work from so I didn’t add any extra details. I think it worked because as I said before the game itself has a mix of simple and complex shapes and textures. You don’t want your scene to be overcrowded with complex shapes, it’s about finding the balance. In the concept art I used, there was a radio-like prop on the piano which I decided to change for a metronome from the game because the actual game doesn’t really have any radios. And if you look up you’ll notice a dusty shape above the frames. I took inspiration from the game where Sylvain Fanget had some dust left on the walls around the frames and decided not to model the reptile-like creature from the concept art but make up my very own story of someone having recently stolen it off the wall.
Texturing the Doors & Walls
The doors were a bit tricky. They are quite low poly and the middle details are all baked in. I was having major baking issues at first and did not have a clue as to how to fix it. After pressing all the button and doing a lot of googling I found out I had to turn off average normals and set everything to “only same mesh” name. The first iteration I made was not at all close to the doors you see now. I used way too many layers where I just hand-painted the dirt instead of utilizing great masks and tools Substance has. The vent is also only an image with an alpha instead of being made in Substance Designer with a normal map. It was a good start but later on, I always wanted to redo the walls.
I ended up fixing the high poly model so that the edges would not be 90 degrees as that doesn’t bake as well as when they are a bit slanted. The UV maps also needed to be fixed, it’s very important when you are making walls that they all have the same size. The new transform tools in Maya make it way easier. As well as thinking about what way the UV parts are facing, with wood, you have to look at what way the grain is going. With straight grain, UV will always run parallel to the longest part of the wood piece achieving more integrity. Before, I was only focusing on making it fit without thinking about the grain direction.
In the second version, I still couldn’t make all the wood pieces go in the right direction so I had to make 2 wood layers, one on top of the other. As you can hopefully see the wall is a concrete base with paint on top of it. You should try to stack the layers as you would do in real life. After that, I just stack a bunch of smart masks with different variation and color, plus added discoloration and ground dirt to the overall look. I should say I really over analyzed the references looking at every small dirt detail.
As for the door itself, my secret is in normal maps. I started with wood, paint and a paint peel mask. The wood underneath has a value of 0.4 in normal intensity which makes the grain very visible. I also have lots of dirt masks in variable colors as well as dust, edge paint in a slightly yellower color, and lines where I painted in only some height to fake the wood plank separation.
In the layers, you can also see my love for the bronze armor texture in Substance. I used that for the handle, tweaked it a bit to my liking and added some dust and fingerprints. It can sometimes be as easy as that. The mold layer is also just copied over from the other walls by making it a smart material and placing it over. Don’t rework stuff you have already made and perfected. Going back into your work allows you to see the amazing progress you have made and turning layers and smart masks on and off for a few hours teaches you a lot about what works and what doesn’t and the program itself.
First, I lighted the room without any props when I just finished all the walls. As the textures and props started to come together I noticed the big impact the textures had on the lighting in the room. I was also having some issues with the lighting bleeding and shadows being weird. In my second attempt, I made a box around the whole room to make sure the lighting was not going to bleed through unnecessary places. The lighting process in Unreal Engine is really powerful but at the same time super complex. It has so many sliders, menus, and boxes to tick or untick.
It all started with the directional light coming through the windows to make this beautiful shape on the floor. After I had messed around with the intensity of the skylight and the directional light, I decided to add spotlights from the windows. I used the temperature of 4500 and the cone angle with the indirect lighting intensity set to 40. That light made the right wall way too dark so I added another spotlight with way less intensity opposite to the first one. Then, to light up the side of the desk, I added a spotlight with no shadows to the wall opposite the desk as well as another spotlight to brighten up the top of the desk. Then the hall has a similar set up with three spotlights and one to brighten up the window walls.
I also added dust particles and a prominent god ray to all the windows with a little bit of exponential height fog. And don’t forget to have your sphere reflection captures and lightmass portals. During the lighting process, I asked for feedback from a lot of people in the industry, and it helped me to achieve the final results.
Adjusting the Scene, Shadows & Post-Process
When I was asking for feedback on the lighting, I got quite many amazing tips. For example, your main light sources should be what you notice first and the saturation of the textures really matters. It’s important to recognize subtle differences between light and dark and make small tweaks of the parameters until you get good results. I really felt like I knew what result I wanted to get but it was not obvious how to do it. People also told me that some of the shadow areas were too dark and the contrast between light and dark was not enough. I knew I had a good foundation but it was just too blank and uninteresting.
I lightened up the textures on the green chair as they were too dark compared to the rest of the scene. To enrich the area next to it, I made a little side table which enabled me to tell a story with a book and an ashtray. Then, I changed the desk textures and went back to look at the roughness of the props, because it does change the way lighting reacts.
I’d like to stress the importance of contact shadows as too many people forget about them resulting in floating props. In real life, everything that touches a surface has a small shadow underneath it. You can achieve that in Unreal by turning on the shadows for your lights and using the slider for the contact shadow length.
The post-process also played a big part in the production. Without it, you can’t really get that Dishonored feel. As I’m quite skilled in Photoshop, I did color grading with LUT. added a bit of grain and made other little tweaks. I haven’t found extensive tutorials on post-processing, and I understand now that there is no single or right way to do it. It’s all about having a good eye for what works and what doesn’t.
Adding Small Details to the Props
When working on the props, I have tried to implement the construction way of modeling and texturing things. What I mean by that is when modeling the props I research how they are actually made and painted in real life. That gives you way more information than just looking at the references and guessing how things are put together. For all the wood materials I made a simple material in Substance Designer that had that painterly feel, then added the wood grains, dirt, cracks and other things in Substance Painter. This material is used and tweaked for all the wood in the scene like the desk, chairs, piano, and chair legs. An easy way to make it look different is using levels in Painter to lighten and darken the color for different props. For the normals, I used a similar technique as for the doors where I had a strong wood grain underneath and then blended a lot of dirt layers on top. I focused a lot on the roughness and made sure I didn’t have the contrast between rough and glossy spots too strong.
Since the wood texture itself does not have a lot of wood grain, a super strong normal can create an interesting combination where the dirt seeps into the crevices and gives the textures that nice amount of detail without looking too realistic. As I noticed, in the references the damage is also quite exaggerated so a lot of edge damage was added as well as discoloration and scratches. The small details make the textures more interesting and believable or even can tell a story, for example, with glass indentation and dry splatter of ink or blood with a thin layer of dust on top. Don’t overlook the roughness maps. If your roughness is flat the texture will look flat. A story can be told with the roughness as well as the color.
Challenges & Advice
Throughout the whole process, I’ve learned that sometimes you can be your own worst enemy. When I was working on the walls for the first time, my teacher told me that this would take way less time in a real studio. That made me feel bad and slowed me down even more. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong. Looking back, I know I could have organized my workflow better before starting modeling, however, I accept the amount of time it took me to get the result and there’s nothing wrong with that. When you think of everything you should be doing better it can only make you feel bad and want to stop the work.
In this crazy world of social media, it can be easy to compare your work and progress to other people’s results. But those things only hinder your progress. We are all on our own journey and there is no right way to do things and to get a job in the industry. It’s about never giving up and never stopping to improve yourself. At some point, I doubted if this was really something I wanted to do or if I would ever be good at it. But I kept going and reworked things, fixed things, reached out to people for help and never gave up. When you are lost and really want to give up looking at the portfolios of the most talented artists, remember that they also started somewhere and reached their level because they didn’t give up. Neither should you.
I’m currently looking for a job all around the world and I’m really thrilled to move somewhere exciting and meet new people. I hope I was able to share with you something valuable. Don’t forget to check out my Artstation!
Alina Vilhjalmsdottir, Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
Dirt & Scratches Pack by Emil Skriver is a set of high-quality 4K 16-bit textures. In 3D software, the textures are very powerful when used as material masks or as gloss, normal/bump or metallic variation. In that way, the textures will add definition to your materials that react in a realistic way.