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Cody Hewitt talked about a sci-fi scene Ruined Lab made in UE4 during Environment Bootcamp at Game Art Institute. If you want to learn more about GAI Environment Artist Bootcamp you can find more information here.
Originally out of high school I had no idea what I wanted to do. I went to community college and took part-time jobs while I tried to figure out if I had a passion for anything out there. While I enjoyed drawing here and there I never considered an artistic career because I was never really that skilled. I ended up taking some time off school to work and in my free time, I just decided to download Blender and have a go at creating a 3D character. The character ended up being awful but I found a love and passion for creating that I never thought I would have. I ended up finding a small art school in San Diego called Platt College, enrolled, and 5 years later I’ve been creating 3D art ever since.
While going to college allowed me to get my foot in the door, the school was more focused on Graphic Design and Web Design. When I got to focus on my major it wasn’t really specific to games and gave more of a basic understanding of 3D software and I only had about 6 months with a 3D focus at the school. Thankfully, the teachers there were really passionate and did their best in that time frame to set us up for success. I ended up graduating the school at 24 and still maintain a good relationship with one of the teachers Mike Smith who set up an art share group for current students and alumni to inspire each other as well as post job opportunities.
Personal Experience at GAI
I never really felt proud of my art and didn’t think it met the standards of the game industry. That’s when I found the Game Art Institute. Going into the course, all I wanted was the feeling that I belong in the game industry and that my art could get me a job. Ryan and other mentors not only helped me push my art but also change the way I think about creating everything from geometry to materials to lighting. The program helped me through learning programs I never toughed like Substance, Unreal, and Marmoset as well as techniques that I didn’t know like trim sheets, high-to-low-poly workflow, and modularity. This environment was the first environment I built and also the first piece that let me know I do truly love this medium. The mentors at GAI are all people who work in the industry. They watch us week to week and look at our progress through our work while offering critiques and ways to improve. If we don’t understand something they take time to further explain and do small demos so we can understand. I can’t understate how much the mentors truly want us to succeed. I truly believe in this program and I encourage anyone who feels they aren’t where they want to be in 3D to take advantage of it because it opens you up to not only a great source of knowledge but also an amazing community of artists who all want to see you succeed.
Idea & Goals
I’ve always had this weird love of scenes like Bryan’s concept where nature is overtaking something that was built by humans. This is why I think I like The Last of Us so much (besides the awesome story and beautiful art). There is that understanding that nature will always win no matter what we do. The scene already had a cool story to tell. I also saw the scene as an easy way to try my had at modularity and foliage. My main goal was just to get an environment completely finished and at the quality appropriate for presentation. Ryan discussed a timeline with us and in order to adhere to it, I simplified the concept a bit, but still tried to match the tone of the piece which was one of my main goals. My focus before this project was always on geometry. It didn’t matter as long as my model was cool and complex. I tried to go away from that and keep most of the pieces very simple and see what I can accomplish when everything is consistent in quality and the focus is the environment in its entirety rather than the pieces that make it up.
Crafting the Scene in Unreal
This was my first time doing a full environment and also using Unreal. I started with a base male body mesh in Maya, measured it out to average height and scaled out the pod and walls according to its height. I then started making my modular pieces like the walls and pipes. This was also my first time truly understanding the use of trim sheets which I used for the pipes, conduits, wires, electrical boxes, and vents. I brought these into Unreal and that’s when I put together my scene and began working on the composition. I was going to follow the concept closely in terms of composition but it was something I worked on throughout the project rather than just at the beginning of the scene because I was still trying to find a good workflow for myself.
As it was my first use of modularity, I wanted to keep it simple to get a good grasp of it. The walls are two variations of a Substance Source material that I tweaked in order to get the results I wanted. I made the ceiling and floor use the same material. The pipes and conduits on the ceiling do a good job of hiding some of that repeated material a bit and to hid it on the floor I decided to experiment with vertex painting in order to make puddles on the ground as well as later down the line add foliage to break it up even more. All the pipes, conduits, wires, electrical boxes, and vents are simple cylinders or cubes. Using very simple materials and geo allowed me to save a bunch of time and allowed me to build the foundation of the scene quickly so I could focus on my hero assets, lighting, and learn how to implement foliage.
For the pod, most of the metal is a combination of smart materials and base materials. I started with a base smart material that fit the metal aspect I was looking for. In the pod’s case, it was the Silver Armor in Substance Painter. I then went into the base metal layer and changed the color, roughness, and metalness in order to achieve the look I wanted. With metal, my goal is to just get a good highlight of the object. I always have to go back and forth with the roughness value in order to make the metal look good and believable. After that, I just layered a few rust and dirt layers with different generators on them to break up the metal material. A cool technique to break up the look of the substance generator from looking too generated that is to add a fill layer with a grunge map over the generator and do a layer subtract (I was taught that by a mentor at GAI). It will break up the substance generator and look more believable. The other metal materials followed a similar process just with different base materials at the start. I added a warmer bronze metal to the accents of the pod to add some color variation.
For the glass, I added an opacity map to the substance file and added grime and variation just like I did with the metal. I then took the node network from the base glass material in Unreal and added my substance maps to it. Then I created a material instance to tweak the refraction and opacity to give it the final look it has in the engine. I duplicated the glass geometry and applied a material instance of the water material in Unreal to change the color and opacity which makes it look like the pod is filled with liquid. Behind the water, there is a quick ZBrush sculpt of a creature I made. The sculpt itself was very basic and not high in quality but all I wanted was a hint of a monster to add to the story and creepiness of the scene which I believe is accomplished.
The foliage is from Megascans. I wanted to dip my toes in foliage and this was my first attempt. The stuff they have in the library is a great and very valuable resource. I brought the vines into Maya and manipulated them in order to make them crawl up the pipes and wires. I sculpted the tree roots in the back in ZBrush which was a fun side project to learn how to build trees from scratch (with Zspheres!). The grass and weed really put that final nail in the piece and further added to the somber but creepy tone I was going for. In future projects, I really want to focus on making the foliage and do a deep dive to make it on my own. But so far, resources like Megascans helped get my tone across and are a great asset for artists.
Lighting this scene and any scene really always seems to be what makes or breaks a piece. I have never really enjoyed it because I could never get the results I wanted, until this piece. Originally, I’d think of lights realistically like they have to come from a light source. I wasn’t really able to break that habit until this project.
I don’t have a locked down method for lighting. I usually start adding in lights that exist in the scene like the sun coming through the roof. I added some fog to get the slight god ray in the back and some dust particles (god rays are cool but try not to overdo them). I then started doing a photoshoot light set up (Main light, fill light, and rim light) with each of the props I wanted to stand out. I then added light anywhere I wanted some color variation or a highlight off the metal for my assets. I added lights to draw the eye to the middle of the scene and used contrasting color temperatures to further play with the materials that I have on my pods.
If there is a cool color on one side of the pod then a warm color hits the other. I think it gives a nice blend and really adds to the composition of the scene. Plus doing warm and cool lights to offset each other was an easy way to break up the sameness that my scene had. The majority of the lighting is warm because I wanted to play off all the cool tones that were in my materials, plus it also gave a sense of the nature coming in and taking over the scene.
Overall, my mentors and this piece really taught me the artistry of lighting and it is no longer something I dread doing but something I actually look forward to.
This project had a lot of “firsts” for me: my first time creating an environment, using Unreal, successfully implementing trim sheets, building modularity, implementing foliage, finding joy in lighting – this means I faced a lot of challenges.
Comparing myself to the trending page on Artstation can make me very disheartened and depressed. However, I learned that the 3D community is filled with people who want to help and see you succeed. Game Art Institute is just one of the many communities you can find. After this project, I saw that I can accomplish goals and feel proud of the work I can produce. Is this piece perfect? No. I know plenty of things I can improve but I’m proud none the less. I’ve taken many lessons from this and started a new environment that is almost done that I believe is far better than this piece. I can’t thank my mentors and peers enough for sticking with me and pushing me to improve my art.
I’m feeling ready to start my career in the games industry and work on awesome new environments.