Erick Villarreal did a breakdown of his modular environment England World War 2 made at CGMA and gave some advice on what can prepare artists for work in the industry.
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Hello everyone. My name is Erick Villarreal, I am an environment artist who just finished up work on Ghost of Tsushima at Sucker Punch Productions as part of their environment art team. I graduated in 2017 with a BFA in 3D Animation and Game Design with a focus on environment art from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.
While in school I was able to secure an internship position working for a public artist doing renderings for sculpture proposals. This opportunity ultimately became a part-time job I sustained between classes where I felt myself become more confident as an artist. With this experience, I was able to get architectural rendering contracts from my university professor Carlos Lucio who is an architect and visualization expert. These jobs were critical for me as I stayed focused and got the experience to validate my self-growth as an artist.
After graduating I had a large portfolio mainly made up of architecture renderings but my focus was to transition into the game industry. My friend and character artist Carlos Garcia told me about an online program at CGMA and how they assign you a teacher who is an industry veteran and who walks you through the industry-standard workflow. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to get eyes on my most current work, fill any remaining gaps of knowledge in my workflow, and meet 3D artists interested in getting in the industry.
This was just what I needed as an artist, the knowledge helped me attain my most recent contract work at Sucker Punch Productions working on Ghost of Tsushima. While being interviewed and after getting the job at Sucker Punch, one of my leads at the studio continued to reference the work I created at CGMA as a project that got me the job.
Environment art is a passion of mine that keeps me motivated every day to become a better artist. Recently I’ve found a passion for material creation and I’ve been exploring it in my free time. I am excited to see where it takes me.
England World War 2: Inspiration
The project “England World War 2” was inspired by a documentary on Netflix that dove deep into World War 2 and through it showed many beautiful locations come to ruin. This led me to do research on some real-life locations I could reference for my project. This piece was based on a real-life public underground restroom still in use in the UK today that was around during World War 2. I wanted to flex as many 3D muscles through this project as possible like building from an image, storytelling, lighting, and texturing. The goal was to build interest for my project from recruiters. For the mood and lighting, I was really inspired by the film Dunkirk and its use of blues and oranges throughout the film.
One of the most important things I picked up while studying at CGMA was the process of modularity. I had known it was a big part of creating environment pieces for games but there was a technical aspect I could not solve at the time. This was a key component I learned at CGMA that allowed me to create this environment efficiently and within the 10-week time frame. The process of modularity involves blocking out your scene in “gray box”. Only after getting a feel for your space through placing the blocked out scene in the engine can you begin to break down objects into reusable pieces. These pieces are built using the Maya grid while having their axis oriented to their floor corner to make it easier to connect them like legos. The Maya grid gives you a structure to stick to which allows you to build while staying within limitations that help you connect the pieces later on.
Henry Kelly has a great breakdown on his youtube page over this process:
Another element that was very important for being efficient in the creation of the project was vertex painting. Vertex painting is when you use an intersecting point from the polygons for information on where one texture will blend with another. This technique is used a lot in the industry and in the games like in Ghost of Tsushima. This helps you break up the textures so they don't look tileable and instead look like unique individual textures. Using the red, blue, green, and alpha channels lets you layer textures on top of each other to break up the repetition of the material. This has actively become a must-learn part of texturing when making environments. It is created in Unreal Engine by using the vertex color node in its material creation window and its vertex paint tool.
I also recommend looking into texel density. It's very important to have an even texel density so the resolutions of your textures don't clash with one another. You don't want a very clear pristine texel resolution next to an asset with very low texel density resolution. Leonardo Iezzi has a great tutorial on Gumroad expanding on texel density. Substance Designer is a very powerful tool all environment artists should look into. It's used to create very elaborate but seamless textures you can tile many times. Currently, as tileable textures go, ZBrush or Substance Designer is the way to go for creating these tileable textures.
Height Blend Material
A great way to really get the most out of your textures is using the height blend material node found in the material creation window. Unlike the linear interpolation node that lets you paint one texture over another using a vertex color, the height blend material node allows you to use height information to be considered when blending materials. This helps the material blending look more organic and realistic because the materials use their actual height information to blend with one another. This node uses two textures, a vertex color input, a height input and you can add a constant parameter to edit the contrast of your height information. The contrast is a great way to have more control over the blending.
In this project, I used Megascans only for the dust that was settled on the assets throughout the scene using the world aligned blend node. I used their snow material to create this look. I think it's important to show recruiters you are able to go through each process of the environment creation but also that you are clever enough to problem solve when you reach hurdles along the way. For a lot of artists, creating textures from scratch is a big hurdle that can take a few years to achieve. A quick way to begin your journey into environment creation is using assets and materials from the Megascans library. Megascans is also a great way to reference materials to understand how their albedo, roughness, metalness, normal map and ambient occlusion map look if you want to create hyper-realistic materials.
Lighting is a very important part of making your environment look visually interesting. You can have the best assets and layouts but with bad lighting, you can really do yourself a disservice. Take your time with your lighting and identify what color information you want to have in your environment. It's good to look at movies and movie posters to see what colors they use to make their images pop. Most of the time it's the use of complementary colors like blues with oranges, for example.
Aside from having a dynamic looking render, you also want to make sure you’re focusing on the story element. Old broken lights? Flickering lights? Neon futuristic lights? Never lose a chance to tell a story with your environment. The more story the more real it tends to feel to the viewer. Fog is a great way to get some interesting looks from your lighting. It's also a way to get those light rays a lot of people are after in their projects.
Also, it's good to note that when lighting in Unreal Engine you need to pay close attention to the assets' light mass resolution. The resolution of the asset will affect how well your light bakes look. In Unreal, go to “Lit” in the screen options, then scroll to “Optimization Viewmodes”, then slide down to “Lightmap Density”. Red bad, green good.
This is a big one. Basically, if someone was to look at your environment what could they deduce from the objects laid out in the environment? Was there a fight and the objects were scattered? Did a family live in your space? Was the person messy or a heavy smoker? The viewer should be able to answer all these questions with the use of visual narrative. You want to lay out your scene with objects that describe who and what has been in your space and why. Aside from quality, this is what separates your environments from others. The ability to tell a story with your space will make the difference. Great references are films and photos of locations inhabited by people or animals. If you can stomach it, I suggest you go back and watch the movie Seven. Every space the main characters walk in is laid out masterfully and you can tell exactly what happened there.
I'd say the biggest challenge was learning new techniques and implementing them on a timeline. A lot of the time when you have a developed workflow it becomes easier to run through the process to create something. Implementing new skill sets and techniques requires trial and error and lots of tests. My instructor Clinton Crumpler was very helpful in giving us really good breakdowns of our expectations and workflows, and once we implemented the new techniques he would help us refine them to best suit our scene.
You can't know enough about environments, the industry is always growing and we are required to always keep up with the new software. There will always be a new and better way to create something and it's up to you, the artist, to find the best method that's most relevant in the industry. With acquiring the fundamentals, I am confident it will always give you the edge to be a competitive artist in our industry.
Lastly, if you’re wondering what software you should know or what holes you have in your knowledge bag I encourage you to look up some job applications for environment art and see what they’re asking for, then figure out what you do have and what new techniques you need to pick up next along the way. Good luck and I look forward to seeing you all out there.