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Designing & Animating a Stylized Scene in Maya and Substance Painter

A Lighting Artist Igor Girko told us about the working process behind the Summer Vibes scene, talked about creating moving wires, and discussed the lighting setup.


Hello everyone, my name is Igor Girko, I work as a Lighting Artist at Saber Interactive in St. Petersburg, Russia. This is my first gamedev experience, before that, I worked in Russian animation studios Parovoz and Melnitsa. I have a degree in Information Security but never worked in IT, my passion was art and 3D so I chose online education in CG and studied modeling and texturing for hundreds of hours before I got my first job as a Texture Artist in an animation studio where I met some awesome Lighting Artists and learned a lot from them.

I've long been fond of stylized environments and was inspired by such games as Genshin Impact, Palia, Spyro, etc. At some point, I felt a desire to give it a try and started my very own stylized project. It was a real soothing process for me and great fun.

After creating Place of Power, I scrolled through Pinterest for ideas and came across a very warm summer wheat field. This was the beginning of the Summer Vibes project, the most simple and quick yet jolly of mine.

The Summer Vibes Project

After some search, I enjoyed the idea of a large sun that gives a radiant, golden August-ish kind of look. I had to create a list of assets from scratch: wheat, a water tower, and a wooden fence, a telegraph pole, and a wooden bridge for the passage of the camera. It was quite a challenge because I tried many tricks for the first time and worried about the outcome, but in the end, it was very much worth it. 

Props and Assets

The rest of the props were pretty easy to make. When it comes to the pipeline for creating assets for such large open scenes, I adhere to the following point of view: making them as simple as possible, with no backing or small details, because they will all be lost in the distance. I only use a custom normal vertex to fake the soft edges effect on the assets that are close to the camera.

This approach allows me to create assets pretty quickly and also iterate over them as needed. The most devastating thing for me was to sit for 2-3 hours creating one asset, make a sculpt, and so on, and later see in Unreal that all these details are drowning in a large picture. Therefore, before putting great time and effort into one asset, better place it in the scene with some draft lighting. Maybe it's just seen as a silhouette and most of your details will be lost.

For the fence, I used a blueprint system. I'll attach a screenshot of my blueprint. I can just stretch the curve and thus easily create a procedural fence.

It took me 2-3 days to create all the assets for this project. About the software: I use Maya for modeling, ZBrush for sculpting, Substance Designer & Painter for textures.

Procedural Textures

For the fences, I used a procedural wood texture that I made a long time ago and it was lying around. After analyzing my resources, I came to the conclusion that it fits well with the stylized style of the project and decided to make a .sbsar file out of it for use in Substance Painter.

The terrain has procedural textures made in Substance Designer. The terrain material itself uses three functions: stone, mud, and grass textures. As well as Virtual Textures Streaming and triplanar projection function. And although the stone is not particularly visible in the scene, it is present in the terrain automaton set up by me. 

The grass is made with three planes rotated 45 degrees relative to each other in order to better hide the lowpoly feel. For the planes themselves, I also set their vertex normals to the top, so that the shading is softer and without harsh shadows.

The tree crowns are made through billboards. Here's a tutorial by Pontus Karlsson where this technique is thoroughly explained.


There are also some animations in the scene: the effect of flying grains and a swinging wire near the pillars. If the first one was intentional, the swinging wires were pure chance and I only saw them after recording the sequence. When the scene is set up, the CableComponent is initialized through which I have wires. It seemed to me that it breathed life into the scene and I decided to leave this effect. The flying grains were made in Niagara, I used a regular texture applied to a solid plate with an alpha.


When planning the mood for the scene, I immediately decided that it would be a very sunny and cozy atmosphere. All lights in the scene are fully dynamic. I used Directional Light paired with Atmospheric Fog + default Sky Light. I also put separate spotlights to emphasize the relief and give additional highlights. I haven't used much post-process. Only Bloom and soft LUT to boost the contrast a bit.

I painted the clouds in Photoshop and decided to add a little touch of traces from flying planes. I thought it would help to liven up the scene even more.


I think the hardest part for me when creating a scene is always a matter of composition. It is the composition that determines how well the work will look at the end. This can be seen at the very beginning of the block when there is no final geometry yet. The scene looks engaging, interesting to look at, and just pleasant to watch.

Unfortunately, the sense of composition only comes with experience. My advice is to watch good movies and animated features, take screenshots and try to repeat the good solutions that you find. You can find ready-made versions of good compositional solutions, such as the rule of thirds, etc.

The hardest part is to put this into practice. So my top tip would be this: spend a good amount of time figuring out how your frame will be constructed. Make many cameras, from different vantage points, with different focal lengths. Move a little further and try to look at the frame from a distance, it helps a lot to omit details and see the main focal point.

Last but not least. If you have people who can give you advice or feedback about composition, colors, etc. while you're working on a piece – feel free to ask them. It is very helpful to bring some fresh vision to your work.

A lot of advice and feedback about my composition was given to me by my fiancée who is a Layout Artist in animation. She works with cameras and composition on a daily basis so I get lucky to get a bit of her wisdom.

Well, that's it. thanks for reading! Follow my Instagram and ArtStation to never miss out on the new content and (maybe) my future tutorials, good luck!

Igor Girko, Lighting Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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