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Environment artists Lucy Burbidge and Christian Lonsdale talked about the way they’ve created a scene from the iconic world with UE4.
Hi! I’m Lucy and I’m from Leicester. I’ve recently graduated from De Montfort University where I studied Game Art Design. I now specialise in environment art and am currently doing some contract work for Escape VR on an exciting sci-fi VR game.
Hi I’m Chris, also from Leicester and also recently graduated from the same University as Lucy. I’m also an Environment Artist and have worked alongside Lucy with Escape VR. We’re both very excited to work on our next project in Scotland.
Lucy: We’re both big fans of Lord of The Rings, so the inspiration started there really. I’ve always produced sci-fi/space themed projects and I wanted to focus on more organic assets so this project was the perfect opportunity for me to do that. At first, we didn’t have any direction on this piece and were just making assets randomly. The shrine was the first asset I created and we started building everything around that until Chris did some concept art to guide us.
Chris: Yeah as Lucy said, it all stemmed from that sort of childlike wonder we got from Tolkien and The Lord of The Rings growing up. The environment started out very innocently as an hommage to LOTR and some of the props from the films. When we realized we wanted to make an environment following the same theme we were sort of stuck for an idea. That’s when I produced some concept work for the level.
Lucy: I guess we have to thank the set designers from Lord of The Rings for that.
All of the intricate modeling on the shrine – such as the golden details on the top – were created using splines which I then converted into meshes. I’m a sucker for attention to detail, so doing this kind of work is probably my favourite thing! The smaller details on this particular model (gold leaves etc) were all sculpted in ZBrush.
Chris: In terms of reference, the guys from Weta built amazing sets. They used a lot of miniature shots and combined them with sets and green screens. If you look online you can find tonnes of reference of the models. In particular, the exteriors of Rivendell were all miniatures. Modeling wise I handled a lot of the blockier bits of architecture. The stone floor, and the foliage. I find all the foliage relatively easy to model in ZBrush because you can’t really go wrong with the organic shape.
Lucy: With PBR I’ve found it much easier to replicate the physical material, and when you’ve got an item made out of the material you’re trying to create in front of you, it’s a walk in the park.
I don’t tend to use the smart materials in Substance too often, however for this project I did use the marble as a base.
When texturing in Substance, I always add a fill layer on top of everything, turn off all the channels but colour, drag the baked AO map into base colour and set it to multiply.
Chris: First things first, make sure your UVs are packed well so you get decent texture resolution. And generally have all the UV islands separated so everything is unique. When texturing, get some good reference images. Start from the base up with fill layers. Think base metal, colour, shininess. Then work from there. How does the environment affect it. Is it raining, is it muddy, is it old or new? Think about all of this and layer materials on top of materials until you get a realistic result. With details it’s very easy to go in by hand in Substance and just paint directly onto the model. And colour theory is a whole different game, I could go on for hours about colour theory. But basically, make sure your values and colours are harmonious to their surroundings so they fit in.
Chris: Speedtree is relatively straightforward for UE4. In fact your Speedtree save file is the same file you use to import into UE4. It’s all automatic. I tried to make a tree similar to that of which you’d see in the LOTR films in Rivendell. Also at the time of production it was Autumn, with the leaves all falling off the trees. The colours were definitely something we wanted to capture. Beyond the Speedtrees a lot of the main trees were sculpted uniquely. And then the rest are LODs which are just flat planes.
Planning Out the Scene in Unreal Engine 4
Lucy: We knew we wanted to create a scene inspired by Lord of The Rings, but didn’t really know how to go about it. We knew that we needed some sort of centrepiece so I went ahead and created the shrine. Everything else was then placed around it, and we tried to frame the whole scene around this model.
Chris: UE4 is really easy to get around. Loads of tutorials, and it’s free. And you don’t even have to add bloom or antialiasing externally, unlike some engines. Looking at you Unity. Like Lucy said we just started out with the central shrine and a few props and then worked our way out. When we realised we had no idea what we were doing we gave it a few days to do some research and some concept work.
Chris: It’s a relatively simple lighting setup. Directional light (Sun) Sky light (Ambient Light) and then Point lights where the physical light sources are. That’s all there is for the lighting. And then we have atmospheric lighting on to give a sense of distance.
Making 3ds Max and UE4 Work
Lucy: The only major issue I can across when importing into UE4 was with the shrine. I imported the high poly model by mistake to test some materials, and it crashed everything. My main tips would be making sure your pivot point is set to 0,0,0 and you’ve reset your x-form.
Chris: Yeah Lucy, and you imported the shrine with a million polygons for the leaves. That killed my PC too. I was getting a solid 3 FPS. It felt good. I’ve never had an issue with scale and I’ve never used the same measuring units between modeling software and the engine. Everyone is always talking about setting up the units correctly whereas I’d rather just hit R and change the scale. It really makes no difference.
Lucy: Artist wise, Scott Homer and Paul Pepera were huge inspirations to me through university and I still always refer to them when doing personal work. For people just starting out in game art, Scott has some amazing baking tutorials that are a must see.
For texturing, I’d strongly recommend the Substance packages. I used to swear by Quixel, but I’ve found that I get so much more freedom with materials in Substance.
Don’t be afraid to share your work either! I used to be terrified of posting my stuff online, but you’ll receive so much useful feedback from people in and out of the industry. Polycount and ArtStation are fab for this.
Chris: Learn Substance. It’s the best thing for texturing.
It’s good to look at artists for the technical side of things like topology and optimization. But if you want to get really good, study from real life. There’s no use copying an artist’s version of what he thinks metal looks like. That’s like practicing anatomy from someone’s drawing of Naruto or something.
And again, like Lucy says, post your work online or better still ask directly for feedback. Most, if not all people in the industry are quite nice and will help you out.
Don’t hesitate to check out our Artstations where you can drop us a message and have a look around.
Thanks for reading.