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Designing a Scene With Horror Vibes in Unreal Engine 5

Game Artist Justin Hien has told us about the production process behind the Forest Home environment, explained how the scene's assets were modeled and textured, and discussed the lighting setup in UE5.


My name is Justin Hien, and I have been creating for well over 15 years now. Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I directed short films for school projects throughout middle and high school, giving me an interest in videography, photography, and the art of post-processing. Shortly after high school, I studied abroad in England, intending to photograph the street life and architecture London has to offer. At that point, I knew I wanted to create to support any means of living. 

Despite my creative desires, I became a Marketing Major at San Francisco State University. Marketing was my safety net in case making art wasn't viable. I then took a break from school and moved to Tokyo, Japan, for several months with the hopes of amplifying my career as a photographer. However, that didn't work out as planned, and I was back home finishing my Marketing degree at California State University, Long Beach. At this time, I took an interest in creating Instagram filters and discovered 3D as an art form. I started following artists within the 3D space and watching Cinema 4D tutorials on creating environments similar to those I enjoyed photographing. 

Joining Vertex School

Vertex School was one of the more affordable options for learning 3D skills. It was also remote and very flexible with my schedule. I was still determining what I wanted to do with learning 3D and only knew that it excited me and allowed me to create and photograph places nobody had ever been. 

Initially, I only wanted to learn how to model and texture better, but I discovered that when you do 3D, you create a world. Bounded by your imagination, you can make anything your mind can picture. One of the most important skills you can learn at Vertex is the 3D Game Artist Pipeline. Before that, I knew nothing about high poly, low poly, baking, UV'ing, texturing, post-processing, and rendering. 

At Vertex School, I appreciate the one-on-one sessions with my industry professional mentor. I have always preferred a handholding approach when it comes to learning something new, someone who can observe and analyze my work as an individual and tell me my faults and ways to improve. Each term of three offers plenty of time for any individual, experienced or brand-new, to learn industry-standard techniques and strategies used by some of the most respected game studios.

The Forest Home Project

I am a HUGE fan of horror movies and anything scary. I love being scared or creeped out and especially enjoy being the one to instill fear. The Forest Home project is my homage to all horror stories dealing with a home in the middle of the woods. It's dark, quiet, and cold, and you're miles from any civilization; anything can happen.

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I began collecting examples of abandoned homes, overgrown foliage, and natural deterioration. The references helped with seeing the house to be built as a character, one with history, once having occupants and perhaps a summer home for family gatherings, but is now a hazardous, dimly-lit, deserted playground belonging to the forest surrounded by it.

Modeling the Assets

I modeled and UV'd every asset within Maya. Despite starting with Cinema 4D, Vertex taught me to use Maya from the ground up. Now I can't see myself using any other software to model. I approached the construction of the house section by section. Starting with the bottom floor, the top, the roof, the outside patio, below the home, and finally, any exterior pieces. My workflow may be unorthodox, but with an angle and framing in mind, I prioritized what I considered to be the image's primary focus.

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A majority of the assets created in this scene are modular. I had initially wanted each mesh to be entirely different for fear of repetition, but my mentor instructed me that this would go unnoticed in the final image. This tip alone expedited my workflow as I could create fewer variations of the same mesh. 

I've always needed help understanding what it meant for assets to be modular, thinking every piece needed to be 400x400 or only planes. My mentor showed me how modular assets are simply meshes that can connect to other parts without any restrictions to sizing and can be used to create a variety of buildings within a scene. With this in mind, the walls of the top and bottom floors are nearly identical. A single floor mesh is repeating throughout the patio. With most of the scene consisting of wood, it was just a matter of taking several variations of a wooden plank, resizing, and transforming it to create whole modular pieces.

Setting Up the Vegetation

The foliage used is a mixture of Megascans trees and 3D plants available in the Megascans library. I surrounded the home with trees in a U-like shape, placing some in the far background, creating an opening in the sky for any given angle.

I wanted the home to look unoccupied for some time but still used for something, left up to the viewer's interpretation. My mentor had instructed me to study how vegetation grows, where tall grass stands highest and unharmed near the center and is generally smaller where there may be foot traffic. For this, I played with the scaling within Unreal's foliage tool, scattering healthier tall grass and flowers toward the center and smaller sprouting or dried vegetation along the dirt path. 

For the growing ivy on the building, I used IsolatedSoulStudio's Ivy Foliage Pack 4K, found on the Unreal Engine Marketplace. The meshes worked exceptionally well with the foliage tool and assisted me in breaking up some of the tiling found on the awning and roof of the home. I then took individual meshes and placed them manually in front of cameras to enhance the feeling of being deserted. 


Before the project, it had been some time since I had created something following the 3D Game Artist pipeline. Initially, I was going to take every single mesh, UV it, pack it, and give it its custom textures. However, as I continued building out the various sections of the home, I realized I would need more time to provide every mesh that much attention. And truthfully, I wasn't aware of how tileable materials worked. My mentor showed me that I could UV each asset, set the pixel density, and tile them across the UDIM. That easy, huh? You can imagine how much time I wasted not knowing that, but moving forward, texturing became effortless.

I searched the Megascans library for wooden surfaces with the house mainly wood. The texture used for the main walls of the house already had a color base that I preferred. I went with a different texture but the same vibe for the awning and roof, just for some variation in the house's appearance. I brought these into Unreal, played with the tint a bit, and that's what came out of it. Knowing the final image would be heavily contrasted due to my post-processing habits, I went with a calm neutral color to contrast with saturated warm colors.
I saw a lot of painted-white wooden railings for the patio in my references and decided to make that happen for my scene as well. I wanted to exaggerate the rigid feeling of the meshes I was creating and show the wear and tear the house has experienced. Also, a tileable material, I brought down the luminance a bit as it was slightly too bright for my taste. For the planks beneath the floor, I wanted to show that the house had been standing for some time and was ready to fracture at any given moment, thus giving it a more untreated wood texture. I knew things closer to the ground would be grittier, darker, dirtier, and more rustic, and I decided that stone stairs would be a great place to transition out of the wood into the foreground.

When texturing the outdoor shack, I just thought of a self-made shack. I wanted to create a structure that would show all the imperfections of a shed made by someone who was not an expert shack builder. The insulated metal roof is crooked and untreated, the planks of the shack door are misaligned and sloppy, and it looks like the inside of the shack is beginning to mold. Gross!

The Lighting Setup

Lighting was the most fun because that's where my imagination becomes something visual. I had set up my scene in the early stages with a couple of point lights and an HDRI, but I wasn't getting the results I wanted. My mentor suggested I create a Sky Atmosphere, bringing the Sun Height to a negative value. I then added a cool neutral Directional Light to mimic a serious moonlight directed at the front of the house. To polish, I used a variety of squished spheres as light blockers to focus lighting in areas of my preference and trees to provide some shadow in the foreground.

Originally the bright orange glow from the left side was supposed to be a street lamp, but as things got more forest-y, I decided it could be an out-of-frame fire. Although I consider most of the scene realistic, the decision to leave an unidentified light leans more toward stylized. When giving feedback, my peers and mentor asked me about the reasoning behind the red light at the home entrance. When I think about a cabin or home in the woods with a red light at the door, there is no way I am entering.

A tiny rectangular light decreases the shadows to the right side of the house. I wanted things to be contrasted and allow viewers to see what was happening in places where directional light didn't hit. I chose a redder point light to exaggerate the unsettling feeling of the shack. I also like how the tree gets some of that highlight to the side.


My mentor, Cairo Goodbrand, has been helpful every single step. Cairo consistently provided valuable feedback to help me grow as an artist. Working with him allowed me to make my own choices as an artist and learn essential techniques for completing and finishing the project on time. Before this project, it had been a very long time since I had completed an environment. Someone expecting better from you and helping you along the way by providing critical feedback and suggestions is essential to any learning experience.

Vertex provides a community for new and growing artists to become who they want to be. It's beyond just creating art. Vertex has helped me actualize what I want to do as a person. Everything you see in the final renders results from my effort and Vertex's guidance. I started their program with only an interest in 3D, and to complete a project that looks accurate to what I imagined, I thought I'd never be here. But after this project, I am confident that I'll continue creating for the rest of my life. Because they've shown me how fun it is to put yourself out there as an artist and take risks to create something you might not think others will like. I will forever be grateful for what Vertex has given me.

Justin Hien, Game Arts Student

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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