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Designing a Gloomy Road Drowning in Ivy Using Maya, Substance & UE4

Dylan Garner explains how the hypnotic dark alley covered with ivy vines was created, talks about the long process of working on the foliage for the scene from sculpting separate ivy leaves to finalizing the vines in UE4, and shares some wise tips on how to avoid a "beginner look" in your first environments.

Introduction

My name is Dylan Garner and I’m from the UK. I started teaching myself 3D on and off in 2018 while at college, making the decision to turn it into a career, with the aim of joining the games industry. Now, I’m just finishing up my second year of study at Staffordshire University and I’ll be graduating next year. The plan is to break into the games industry as a Junior Environment Artist, and I’m super excited to see what the future holds!

Whenever I’m playing games, if I’m honest, usually I’m just wandering around and staring at the art most of the time. I’ve always loved video games, particularly appreciating the craft of environment art, hence my choice to study this area, and I can’t wait to learn more about it. But I’m also a fan of anything weapon art-related, so you’ll often see me marveling at guns too.

I’d like to break down some key aspects of my latest scene, The Overgrown Road, and also go over some subjects I think any fellow students may find helpful. I myself am still very much a student and have lots to learn. 

Starting the Project

The project began as part of a module on my course. I wanted to use the project as an opportunity to study foliage production workflows, it was an area I’d not really covered before, and I wanted to just dive right into it. The project was also a great opportunity to learn lighting, as well as just improving general workflows and artistic proficiency.

It's no secret a lot of the inspiration behind the environment comes from Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us games. The amount of work and detail that goes into these games is truly inspiring, and I really admire what the team at Naughty Dog put together.

Modular Kit

I made a pretty simple modular kit consisting of walls, roofs, and pipes to build out the scene with. The idea was to try and make the kit as flexible as possible so that it could be used throughout the scene without it looking overly repetitive. The kit itself was textured with tileable materials, two variations of red brick, as well as a trim sheet for any concrete break-ups and the ornamental detailing around the windows. I wanted to run with a standard 512 pixels per meter and I authored my textures with this in mind, so on a 2048px texture sheet, I’d cover about 4 meters.

Trim Sheet and Materials

All materials were made in Substance Designer, I love procedural workflows, and learning to use Designer has been a super fun technical challenge. The trim sheet was heavily inspired by Tim Simpson's amazing tutorial, I really recommend giving all his videos a watch! For the Trim Sheet, I did a sculpting pass in ZBrush, baked it down in Marmoset, and created a few masks. I then made various ornamental patterns procedurally in Substance Designer as well as the base color and roughness.

Making ornamentation procedurally in Substance Designer was lots of fun, it was a new way of working with the software and shows just how flexible it can be. I found the Swirl Greyscale, Transform 2D, Mirror Greyscale, Splatter Circular, and Bevel nodes great for getting relatively complex shapes down.

Sculpting

There weren’t too many opportunities to sculpt assets, since the design and style of the scene didn’t really call for it. Aside from the trim sheet, of course, I managed to find areas for it to be applicable. So I ended up sculpting a few wooden boards as well as the slabs and curbs seen along the walkways on either side of the street. I used the Trim Smooth Border with a square alpha, Clay Tubes, and drag alphas for extra detail. 

Props

A selection of props was made to dress the scene and fill it out more. I found myself coming up with all sorts of fun stories and reasons for props to be placed in certain ways. I also didn’t standardize my workflow for the props, I really wanted to explore different production methods. For example, the air conditioning units were modeled, baked, and textured with a high to low workflow. The shopping cart, however, was made with tileables and an RGB mask that allowed for in-engine parameterization and art direction.

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Texturing in Substance Painter

When texturing props, I just simply build up the layers, primarily focusing on color and roughness variation using masks to paint in detail. Doing general artistic passes, like edge highlighting and darkening of the recess, is really important and helps make assets pop in-engine.

I found myself paying a lot of attention to the roughness, it’s super fun creating interesting surfaces on objects, and I tried to do this with all my assets.

Creating Dense Ivy

Achieving a dense, dark foliage look was one of the goals for the scene, I found that it added an extra layer of visual complexity. For the ivy, I began by making a super simple blockout just so I could get an idea of how the ivy would look scattered throughout the scene, making sure to adhere to realistic growth patterns demonstrated by ivy in the real world.

Ivy Leaves

I began by blocking in some simple leaf shapes and sculpting in detail, making variations to the leaves with the Move and Clay brushes. I then went onto polypainting a base color, establishing a solid base for any further texturing later on in the process. You can generate various masks in ZBrush to achieve certain effects such as curvature and occlusion, I used these to paint in edge highlights and such. I then baked a Height map out of ZBrush and created the Normal and AO in Substance Designer, then created the Opacity and roughness, and also added some final touches to the base color. 

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Ivy Vine Atlas

After finishing up the individual ivy leaves, I cut them out and assembled them into a second ivy atlas with vines, roots, and a few individual leaves. After baking this down using Substance Designer's Transfer Texture to Mesh Baker, I had a complete atlas and could finish up the texturing back in Substance Designer. I then went on to cut out the completed ivy vines again, into the final cards ready to be assembled into meshes. I also applied green vertex color in Maya, this was used as a mask for any wind functions later in Unreal Engine 4.

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Tiling Ivy

For extra density, I also made a tiling ivy texture using the previously sculpted leaves and running them through Substance Designer's Atlas Scatter node. The tiling ivy plane sits behind the ivy cards and acts as a first layer, defining the initial shape of the overall cluster.

Ivy Meshes

To get the thick, dense look, I layered the ivy cards over the tiling ivy and essentially, just built up the forms in as natural a way I could, stacking card over card. I came up with some general larger ivies, but also corner ivies and such so that they could be used in a relatively modular fashion.

Placing the Ivy

I tried to adhere to some simple rules when placing the ivy meshes throughout the scene, though first and foremost, the placement was to be artistic, with contributions to the composition in mind. It was, however, still necessary to make sure that the ivy followed a logical growth pattern, so as the ivy went further up the buildings, there would be less of it. For example, the first level of fire escapes are coated in a thick layer of ivy, but the upper stories thin out considerably. I varied this per building, but with the ivy consistently denser further down, closer to the ground. This had the compositional effect of drawing the eye down and through the street.

Finishing the Ivy

Enabling UE4’s Distance Field Ambient Occlusion really pushed the thickness and density of the ivy by darkening the interior, you can enable it in the project settings under lighting and ticking “Generate Mesh Distance Fields”. This reveals a section in the Skylight where you can edit the properties of the DFAO. Final touches included adding the wind masked by the previously mentioned vertex color, as well as the all-important Sub-Surface Scattering. I ended up pushing the SSS quite far as an artistic choice to really show off the ivy as the light bounces through.

Lighting and Mood

Lighting this scene was an absolute blast, it was an iterative process, building on the cool temperature of the directional light. Naturally, areas of contrast emerged throughout the lighting process, and I tried to keep these balanced throughout the composition. Not having areas that are overly dark is super important when lighting, but contrast is a great tool for creating an interesting image and drawing the eye.

The goal was to convey a somewhat musty, damp, and even claustrophobic feeling with grungy moist detailing. I used spotlights to highlight this as best I could, the spotlights help to draw the eye and also highlight details on a surface such as roughness variation. Here's the scene with and without additional lighting:

My advice is to definitely get lighting blocked in with the blockout as soon as possible. It helps to establish the mood and sets up a solid base for any future lighting passes and iterations. 

Post-Processing

My post-process settings are pretty simple, it's mainly a lot of tweaks to the colour grading. I pushed the Global Saturation, Contrast and Gain up and dialled in a lot of blue to the shadows, making them cooler and complimenting the cool tones in the lighting. The idea was to contribute to the overall moody atmosphere of the scene, keeping that cinematic look and not going overly cartoony with the colours.

Avoiding the “Student Look”

One of the things I tend to notice about a lot of student environment art is the tendency to just ramp up the volumetrics and fog, as a result, student work can often be washed out and just grey. I would encourage students to explore more realistic and interesting lighting setups that don't rely on light shafts and fog for an interesting image.

I would also recommend looking into using cinema-standard aspect ratios, use of Depth of Field, and try experimenting with high or low focal lengths to achieve certain shots. Alec Tucker did an amazing breakdown of this stuff, so go check out his blog posts. Other small things you can do include enabling DFAO (as I mentioned with the ivy) and using built-in console commands as the tonemapper sharpen. Tap Tilde key, then type: r.Tonemapper.Sharpen x, x being a number 1 to 4,  which literally applies a sharpen filter in-engine, just make sure not to overly sharpen!

Pushing Student Work to the Final 90%

This environment actually began as coursework as part of an Environment Art module on my course. Following the coursework submission, it really did surprise me just how much of a difference spending a few extra weeks on a project can make. Polishing the scene was very satisfying and getting feedback proved crucial at this point to really push the quality of the scene.

I ended up adding props, making better decals, iterating on the lighting, and tweaking the post-process to really build up the scene, driving up overall quality. Rather than hitting that publish button on deadline day, I would really recommend taking a look at your work, evaluate it and get opinions so that you take it as far as you can. Taking a short break and coming back a week or so later with fresh eyes can also be super beneficial.

Asking for Feedback

Having the confidence to get your work out there and to ask for help is super important to your personal growth as an artist, and it's never been easier. We’re lucky to have amazing Discord servers like Experience Points and social media networks to reach out to. It’s because of these spaces I’ve been able to push myself with this piece and I think students in particular need to be able to get their work out there, so don't be afraid to do so!

I’ve found that reaching out to fellow students at the university has been a really positive experience, we often push each other further and help each other out, after all, game development is a collaborative effort. As well as this, being able to give, and learning to give feedback or solve problems for others will almost always push your own abilities and skills too. 

Areas to Improve

Following the publishing of The Overgrown Road and reflecting on the whole process, I’d like to just go over some areas I think need improvement. Whereas I previously pointed out having contrast in lighting is important for creating an interesting composition, I think brightening up these darker areas slightly would push it a little further, they’re a little too dark. The tarp material over the car could do with some work, and the plywood boards are a bit too simplistic. 

The way the grass emerges from the asphalt isn’t too convincing. Although there is an underlying layer of vertex painted moss, it doesn’t come through too obviously, and the grass appears to suddenly emerge. Perhaps actually modeling in some cracks and holes would better convey what I was going for.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m super happy with how the scene came together, the response from the community was great, and I’m really grateful for all the comments. I want to say a big thank you to Ben McDonald, a great artist and friend, for all his feedback and help.  

I hope this article helps people out, I’ve learned a lot myself from 80 Level's articles! Also, I recently started using Twitter if anyone's interested in following, of course, you can always find me on ArtStation too. Thanks to 80 Level for giving me the opportunity to write this article, and thanks so much for reading.

Dylan Garner, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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