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Designing a Stylized Grave Diorama in Maya & Substance Painter

Cloé Molinari talked about creating a stylized diorama in Maya, Substance Painter and MT4 and told us about the importance of working in SP and Marmoset at the same time.


My name is Cloé, I am 27, I am a French 3D Environment Artist. I graduated in 2017, specialized in stylized art direction. I am passionate about video games, I have been playing since I was a kid. My love for 3D art came much later, during my studies.

I studied in a school named Aries, at Lyon in France, one year of MANAA (in English: Skills Upgrade Classes for the Applied Arts), then 3 years of Game Art, where I fell in love with 3D, although I was more interested in 2D at the beginning.

After school, I worked on a few indie games for some studios, as an Environment Artist. Now I am a freelancer, currently working on The Smurfs for Ocellus Studio.

I also continued to work on my personal projects. I learned a lot by watching tutorials and inspiring myself with artists and games that I admire. I am thinking about Michael Vicente – Orb (as you will see, I use a lot of his tools), Fanny Vergne, Romain Durand, Jasmin Habezai-Fekri, Tobias Koepp, and many others.

Little Grave Project

For this project, I just wanted to relax and to make a little cute diorama in my free time, yet with a good level of detail. So, I started searching in my concept art collection on ArtStation, where I save all the concepts that would be interesting and fun to do in 3D, and I had this one for a long time. I really liked the style of this creepy cute grave made by Artemy Manahov, the atmosphere, and the lighting. I wanted to challenge myself to recreate this render in 3D, so this was the only reference I used, as I wanted to stick to the concept. My goals were to have a nice render of the scene, in the absence of good optimization, and to have fun!

So now that I have a concept, let’s start! I will proceed like this:

I will start with a simple blockout in Maya of the grave and the ground, to have the general shape. When it’s done, I will import it to ZBrush, and start sculpting each piece separately. I will do the grass and the candles directly in ZBrush. I will make the coins in Maya because their shape is pretty simple. When the sculpt is done, I will retopologize it on Maya. Thereafter, I will bake and texture the model in Substance Painter. And finally, I will set up my render in Marmoset Toolbag.


I start in Maya to create the blockout. I want to get as close as possible to the shape of the concept, with simple primitives that I model and by not going into too much detail.

The general shape is done, the mesh is pretty clean, and I would change some shapes in ZBrush if necessary. It's a little and simple scene, so the blockout was quick to do, but I did further attempts to find the good shape.

Making a High Poly in ZBrush

Now I will jump into ZBrush for my blockout, and start creating the high poly. I will add all the details that will give the mesh a history, starting from the biggest to the smallest details. They have to be visible from a distance, and simple. I don’t want my small details not giving a realistic look, that’s why I tend to take a look at my scene from a little distance.

To transform my blockout in a high poly:

  • I start to crease the hard edges, with the Crease tool on the Geometry subtool. I change the value until I found the best one, where all the hard edges that I don't want to smooth are creased. If I am not happy with some edges, I use the ZModeller brush to increase or decrease some edges by hand.
  • I divide my mesh multiple times, like 4 or 5 times, then I uncrease all the edges, and divide one more time to have a nice smooth on the edge.
  • I apply a slight polish if necessary to smooth the edges once again.
  • And now I can start sculpting. I do a DynaMesh and begin with Trim-Dynamic and Orb-Flat, to damage all the edges.

For the big break in the stone:

  • I used ClipCurve to create the hole.
  • Then, I cleaned it with some DynaMesh/Divide/Smooth, and I sculpted it with TrimDynamic and OrbFlatten.

I added cracks to continue with the big damage. I used Orb_Cracks with LazyMouse.

As for the faces, I added some cracks and damages with MaskPen, Inflate, and Smooth.

For the skull I:

  • Did a mask directly on a copy of the plate.
  • Separated it with split Masked Points.
  • Cleaned it with GroupsLoops, ZRemesher, then Movetool to refine the shape.
  • Extruded it, and sculpted it, the same as the rest of the grave.

For the candles I:

  • Started with a single cylinder.
  • Worked the general shape with the SnakeHook, Move, Smooth, and Inflate.
  • Increased the resolution while working the shape.
  • Worked the details with Dam Standard and Trim Dynamic.

For the ground:

  • I used the Orb_Rock_Detail and applied the noise at the same time.
  • I added cracks with alpha.
  • I applied a ClayPolish to stylize the crack.
  • I added the little rock with Orb_Rubble.

For the grass:

  • I created a single mesh for the blades of grass.
  • Turned into an Insert mesh.

Since I don’t want to be too picky about the optimization, all the blades (and the coins) are unique and have a single UV. There is no modularity.

Here is the final high poly:

Retopology and UV

Back to Maya! In my final low, I want the bigs/medium details to be in the topology. The more details I will add, the easier the baking will be, and the prettier it will be. But it needs to stay optimized, so I take care not to go too much into polygons. The process is as follows:

  • I do a decimation master on the high poly
  • I import this model to Maya for the retopology
  • I keep the blockout, to help me: I delete faces and create the new details, and keep faces where there are no big changes

For the candles and the grass, as I don’t want to spend too much time on this, I do a ZRemesher and Decimation master. As I said, optimization is not my main concern on this project.

Now time to UV! Even if it’s not my favorite part, I found it can be quite relaxing! I will do one UV set, with all the same texel ratio.

I use the UV Toolkit. In general, I use a lot the Normal Based Mapping > cut edges > unfold.
 Here are some examples:

When all my meshes are unfolded, I gather them all together in one UV set, with the layout option.

Here is the final result:

Now before I jump into Substance Painter, there is one more step to do in Maya. I will split the mesh to bake the Normal, so there is no projection during the baking. For that:

  • I superpose the low and the high in Maya, all the different parts are separated.
  • I select all the parts, I put an animation key on 0 on the timeline.
  • I move in my timeline, I select the same part in the low and the high and translate them together and put a new key, and do that for all the different parts. There must be no more contact anymore between all the objects. It will help to have a nice Normal Map.

Baking in Substance Painter

Now the baking! One of my favorite parts and at the same time the most painful. The baking process is really exciting for me as you can see your low poly comes to life. Steps:

  • Bake Normal, Curvature with the Exploded Mesh.
  • Import the final mesh.
  • Bake other maps' AO position.

The final baked Maps:

Texturing in Substance Painter

In the texturing process, I use a lot of generators with the textures I baked, like Ambient Occlusion and Curvature. I love those maps! But I have to control myself and not abuse it, it has to be subtle.

To texture in Painter, I only work with fill layers and black masks. This is way more controllable than using a paint layer, you can change the value of your channel whenever you want. 

To create my texture I:

  • Start with the base color of all the assets.
  • Apply a general AO and curvature.
  • Add a baking lighting filter to add a little light information in the base color, but not too much as I will light the scene later in Marmoset.
  • Add a general noise.

And when the general texture is homogeneous, I start working on the different parts. The process is pretty same for all of them, I:

  • add variation color and roughness with generally a Grunge map that I tweak according to the texture I am working on. When I add a grunge/noise layer.
  • add more local AO, and curvature, with Generators, or Fill Layers with the appropriate map in a black mask, level, and filters. In those layers, I also work the roughness. Generally in the AO, the roughness will be higher (very rough) and lower for the curvature (glossy)
  • I hand paint (still with a fill layer and a black mask) more details that I want to add and that wasn’t present in the AO and Curvature Maps.

At this point, I create a Marmoset project where I start to create the scene. I do a lot of back and forth between Substance and Marmoset, while I am working on the texture.

For the writing on the plate, I:

  • create a black and white texture in Photoshop.
  • import it as an Alpha to SP.
  • apply this alpha to my brush.
  • create a fill layer, with color and height information, add a black mask on it, and then paint directly on the plate, and tweak the fill layer.

For the candles, in addition to the other steps I:

  • add a thickness layer, to create the SSS with Emissive
  • add a layer of Emissive on the top of the candle and the flame

In the end, I didn’t really like how the candles were rendered in Substance Painter, but they looked nice in Marmoset. It took me a long time to find a good setting.

This is what my outliner looks like at the end, the folder for all the different parts, and on top of that, the layers apply to all the meshes:

Here is the final result in Substance Painter and the final Maps:


This is also one of my favorite parts. I love the rendering and lighting because this is where the scene comes to life. In my opinion, it’s one of the most important phases of a PBR stylized scene. Contrary to a hand-painted scene, where you put all the Lighting, Roughness, and Metallic information in your texture, here you have to highlight those Maps with the lightning. You can have the best texturing asset, if it’s not well rendered, to me, it will be boring.

That’s why I start to create the render scene in Marmoset early, during the texturing. As I said, I was working in SP and Marmoset at the same time especially with the candles.

When the mesh is imported and the WIPs textures are applied, I put a first directional light, and do the first pass on the sky, render, and camera setting, that I set up throughout the process, while the texturing progress.

For each candle, I add a point light with a big intensity and a little range. When I think I am done with the textures, I start the final lighting and post-process. I adjust the lights I already have, and add a blue rim light which adds contrast with the other lights. I spent a lot of time adjusting my scene.

Here is all my final setting for the scene:

And it’s done!

I am really happy with the results, it turned out exactly as I wanted and even better. I think it’s one of my favorite pieces of my book... until the next project! I think I already found what I will do next.

Thank you for reading my breakdown, thanks to all my friends who give me feedback during the process, and thank you 80 Level for the opportunity! 

Cloé Molinari, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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