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3d artist Lewis Labram talked about the way he had built his incredibly detailed forest environment. He talked about the material production, composition, production of floral elements and lighting. Great read if you want to learn more about about efficient environment creation workflow.
My name is Lewis Labram, I’m a Senior Environment Artist at Jagex working as the main Environment artist on Chronicle, I have also contributed for years to good old RuneScape. I studied at the University of Portsmouth, England graduating 5 years back. I have also worked out in Beijing for a year at as an intern artist, which was a great (but difficult) experience!
Forgotten Woodland scene
I was heavily inspired by a photo I glanced at on a day I was feeling a bit stumped for inspiration, it caught my eye and I knew I wanted to re-create the scene. I loved how the track wound off in a very misty, gloomy wood, looking as if it was to fall apart at any moment. For the past few projects, I’ve been pushing my technical knowledge, using a masked material texturing workflow that is used in some of the high end games, such as Paragon, The Order, Uncharted etc. As a result, for the Forgotten Woodland scene I decided to use a vertex blended technique that I’ve been using for Chronicle at work as the technique is far simpler and I knew I wouldn’t be attempting to take any close up shots of any of my objects so the hyper detail of the masked workflow wasn’t required. My main goal was to make something that looked nice, yet wasn’t overly complex in technical terms and to get some practice creating foliage as I’ve always felt that was a weak point in my skill set.
The main way I decide which texturing workflow to use is by judging how much time I have to complete my work, the distance I will be approaching the objects, or if performance is a critical requirement. If I have all the time in the world, I tend to try and use the more complicated methods as the final results are always more satisfying. However if I need to create something quickly, I would lean towards unique texturing, or vertex blended texturing. I like how Unreal 4 has vertex blended support in the engine, whilst its sadly not native inside Unity 5.
The main general composition came from my inspiration reference photo, however I did widen the shot, and adjusted some of the foliage around to suit a horizontal shot as the original picture was vertically taken. I also added trees in the foreground to give more interest and depth. The main focus of the shot is the tracks and how they bend off into the mist. I originally prepared the shot by creating a simple whitebox, a standard procedure in environment work to make sure I knew what I was looking at and that I was happy with how the shapes, forms and ideas were looking. I then threw in a few textures to see how things were fitting. In this early version I decided the scene wasn’t interesting enough and some feedback from colleagues all agreed that there should be more foreground items.
Also at this point, I saved some camera views to build the final shot from, a great nifty feature in UE4! Simply his Ctrl+1 or 2,3 etc. and you can save camera points by clicking 1 2 3 which makes shot planning a dream!
Ahhh rocks, the never ending creation of rocks! I made two types of rocks in this and also posted how I made the main foreground stones in another post. This tilable rock was made using Zbrush and Substance Designer. Firstly I created a quick bunch of shapes inside Zbrush, didn’t need to detail them due to knowing that SD will allow me to add in all the noise and variations I wanted. All I had to do was create a few interesting shapes and stack them together inside Zbrush to give me a nice bake. This gave me a great heightmap and I also used the polygroups inside Zbrush to export a mask that let me add in some color variations inside Designer. Once in designer I made some basic nodes to add in damage, cracks, noise and little pebbles n such. This tilable stone texture was used over the entire foreground and down the cliff side.
After looking at the white box, I realized the scene needed a second rock in the background, I had a quick test using one from UE4, (it is visible in the image above) but swapped it out for one I created myself later on. The second rock face material was made from a photo that I made tilable, then passed through B2M as it didn’t need accuracy due to it being in the background.
The trees I made myself. I created a simple low poly tube with a little wibble in, but put more effort into creating the bark and wood textures inside Zbrush, projecting a tilable texture I had made from photographs to get the shapes I was looking for. Afterwards creating a stripped bark texture using the same process. This is where I used the vertex blending in order to give variation to the trees. The blending combined with tessellation meant I could have 2 main tree variations yet, paint different texture patterns on them. The tessellation and vertex blending gives the illusion that each tree looks unique when the two types are branches low, branches high.
The biggest difficulty I had with the tree’s were the actual pines themselves, in fact i’m still not happy with them and will endeavour to make better pines in future.
The foliage was created in a fairly fun way, I got some leaves that I liked, cut them out and placed them into shapes that I can bake out from max, this gives me a nice texture sheet with normals, heights etc that I can use to create foliage clumps. After getting hold of Megascans, I added in some extra colours and leaves to these clumps to give more variation. Quick note, when baking out from max, it can’t read alphas, so the leaves on the left are all cut out, rather than alpha’d. Annoying, but it gets the job done!
I figured all the materials out that I would need back in the whiteboxing stage. Planning is key to any environment project! I jotted down a quick list of materials that would be required, and began to create them all after the whiteboxing stage. This allowed me to throw them in a basic state into a progressing scene. The first iterations had colour values all over the place, it frankly was a mess. However because it was early in the project I could balance out the values easy without causing any real destruction to the workflow. And of course, I ended up with a few extra materials past the original list!
Furthermore, when setting up the shaders in UE4 I added in many parameters that allowed me to adjust the HSL, tints and all sorts inside UE4, so that tweaking values later on using material instancing was very simple and incredible quick.
I’ve always had the mantra, use whatever method gives you decent results in the most efficient way. Doing this on personal projects will translate to work life, there’s no point in my mind spending a week slaving over a specific program when you can get a 98% decent result from another method in an hour. Time is a precious commodity and you’re not gaining anything by doing something a long, slow traditional way when there are more efficient workflows. If the extra time spent can justify the better quality, of course by all means do it, but nobody aside from yourself will notice that 2%. As a student I remember reading somewhere a top artist saying,” If you ever sit there thinking, ‘this is tedious’ you’re probably doing it wrong and there is a better way to do it” and for the most part through my experiences, they were correct and that message has stuck since.
The railroad was a combination of 2 meshes! The tracks on top which was created using a spline, and a single plank, that I can rotate around so it gives 4 variations from mesh. Couple that with the same vertex blending technique used on the trees, I was able to make all the planks look unique and the track itself dirtier. Afterwards I added some foliage on that I had been scattering around the place.
The lighting was all done in Ue4. I added a bunch of post processing inside UE4 to further manipulate the colors and coolness of the scene. It had a warmer color pallet, but using post-processing I brought all the tones of the scene towards teal. After speaking with a friend she suggested that with it being a forgotten track a cooler feel would better fit the narrative. I also changed the Anti aliasing to FX instead of temporal as it was making the foliage all blobby and blurry.
The bright lighting and fog were all done inside UE4, a basic manipulation of the default settings in the atmospheric fog and light values. I increased the fogs density and kept upping the light intensity to give it a feel that made it look like it was day, but deep in the middle of nowhere. With the canopy of the trees the light gives a good punch through that I was happy with.
UE4 definitely helps with my render. The ease and speed of material instancing parameter changes, the ease and speed of post processing tweaks makes it a standout engine for use on these sorts of projects. Whilst I use Unity 5 at work I feel too restricted as a non-tech artist with that engine. Often having to seek help from others to do the most basic of changes when it comes to shaders. With Ue4, the node based system is incredibly simple to use and for a person like me, its wonderful as I don’t need to have a technical mind in order to be able to create shaders that suit my needs. Worst case scenario I can look at documentation that has pictures! Don’t get me wrong, Unity 5 is a great engine, just Ue4 suits my desire to tweak things a little better when I’m messing around at home!
The negative space was heavily inspired by the reference as it also has a lot of negative space, however I really liked how it felt like the track was running close to the edge of cliff so I played along with that idea and sloped the ground off towards the edge of the fog deliberately to give that feeling of a void. Also looking at other peoples forest works, they’re often very dense and cover the entire image, as a result I chose to keep the space empty instead of just building it out and filling it with assets as a small attempt to show something different.
Lewis Labram, Senior Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.