Designing Sci-Fi Environments: Workflow Tips

Cameron Hillman talked about his approach to designing sci-fi 3D scenes: decals, materials functions, trim sheets, lighting, and more.


Greetings! My name is Cameron Hillman, and I’m a 3D Artist and Instructor at Game-U Enterprises.

I’ve been playing video games my whole life, and have always had an appreciation for the artistry that goes into them, as well as a desire to learn about how it’s all done. I’ve worked on creating assets and environments for several in-house projects, as well as on some non-commercial work including things like the Elder Scrolls Renewal effort. Recently, I’ve also been working with a Paris-based VFX studio called Mathematic on their latest project. 

I don’t have much of a formal education when it comes to environment art. I started out taking courses in programming and found myself wishing that I could have more of a hand in the front-facing visual aspects of games. So I used online resources like Youtube, Udemy, Gnomon Workshop, as well as an absurd amount of trial and error to teach myself how to produce 3D art. 

Important Aspect of Environment Design

When it comes to creating interactive environments, I’d say one of the most important things is to understand that creating beautiful art isn’t enough if it doesn’t make the experience more compelling to play. Ask yourself questions like “Does this convey the mood that we’re going for?” and “Does this emphasize and enhance the level design?”. I think as artists, we occasionally absolve ourselves from that kind of responsibility, so it’s a good idea to always keep the player experience in mind. 

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Pre-Production Stage

For personal pieces, my inspiration usually comes from one of two places: either I see a real-world environment that I find striking, in the photos or in person, or it’s just handed to me by whatever game, movie, or television series I’m consuming at the time. For example, the “Sci-Fi Hallway” project was born out of my playthrough of Doom 2016.

Usually, I start out by deciding on a general concept and mood, then moving on to gathering references. Occasionally, this happens the other way around. Typically, this just involves googling images and creating a mood board. However, there are some other really useful resources I sometimes use, like reference packs sold by other artists. 


Acknowledging the fact that I don’t have a degree in advanced mechanical design and engineering, my process when modeling sci-fi pieces tends to boil down to taking things from the real world, exaggerating their forms a bit, and maybe bolting on some other shapes that look like they make some kind of sense. My go-to modeling software tends to be Maya, but I’ve had a lot of fun recently experimenting in Blender 2.8, which has some really great tools and plugins for hard-surface projects.

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When creating sci-fi textures, I rely on both procedural texturing and unique unwraps. For most assets, I’ll create the base tiling textures in Substance Designer, then use things like material functions and decals in Unreal Engine to add stuff like wear and tear. For hero assets, like the giant door in my Sci-Fi Hallway scene, I’ll use those same materials but imported into Substance Painter, where I can add those extra levels of detail by hand.

Decals, Material Functions, Trim Sheets

In my experience, material functions, decals, and trim sheets are your best friends when it comes to creating environments. Some people seem to only find them useful when trying to save on memory, but they are actually massive time savers, and also serve to keep an environment consistent. I’ve found it useful to sometimes just create the trim sheets and decals before you start working on your final meshes. It’s amazing how much a good trim sheet can guide you when creating the actual geometry of an asset, and really help you to realize how much you don’t need to model.

Decals are also a great way to add some geometry-free detail even after the mesh has been UV’d and textured. Much of the detail on my sci-fi pieces is accomplished just by slapping decals on them, sometimes even after they’ve been brought into the game engine. 

Utilizing material functions can be useful for a variety of reasons, like quickly covering all of the rocks in a scene in snow or moss.

When it comes to adding things like text, I usually use decals, even when working on a hero asset with a unique unwrap. It’s just much easier to change if I decide I need to move its position or even change it completely. I also use things like in-engine material functions to add things like dirt and scratches to many assets without having to create unique texture sets for them.


Whenever I begin to light a scene, I typically make a note of things like where I want the focus to be, what forms and silhouettes I want to highlight, etc. I often end up placing a lot of “fake” lights to actually accomplish that. I also picked up a nice trick from Tim Simpson from Polygon Academy: I look at the scene in black and white. This is super helpful when trying to adjust the values of your light, as you're getting your information in a much more stripped down and readable way.


Without a doubt, my biggest challenge when starting to work on environments was finishing them in a reasonable amount of time. I found that prioritizing certain elements and overall composition in a given scene was the best way around this. Simply realizing that detail on the garbage can in the corner of your screen doesn’t matter as much as making sure all of the shapes and clutter feel natural in the scene is a huge deal.

What's Next?

As for what I plan to do next, I have another personal piece in the pipeline that is somewhat inspired by God of War 2018. Professionally, I’ll mainly be focused on finishing up my work with Mathematic, which I’m hoping is something everyone will get to see sometime soon. 

Cameron Hillman, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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