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Environment Design in UE4: Color, Light and Style

Morgan McDermott did a breakdown on his recent project that he worked on during the UE4 Modular Environments course at CGMA and shared his approach to lighting and tileable materials

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Hello! My name is Morgan, and I'm a 3D Generalist. I'm completely self-taught and originally began working as a film compositor in Los Angeles. From there, I started doing matte paintings and full 3D environments. The coolest thing I've worked on is HBO's The Pacific, for which I won a Visual Effects Society Award for my work on the Invasion of Iwo Jima shots. In the past 5 years, I've mostly been freelancing and am mostly working on game and VR projects with Unreal and Unity.

About the UE4 Modular Environments Course

Since I'm freelancing and haven't worked in a traditional game studio, I like to pick up as much industry knowledge I can from game artists online as I don't have the benefit of learning tricks and workflows from my coworkers. My goal is to work full-time at a game studio, so I want to be as capable and prepared as possible for that, plus I really love Clinton Crumpler’s work, so taking the CGMA course was a no-brainer.

About the Project

I was mostly inspired by the film Annihilation. My concept was to create an abandoned and overgrown environment that uses color and light to convey a feeling of sickness. I collected lots of reference for schools and abandoned places, even some still life paintings by the 17th Century Dutch artist Jan Weenix.

Working on Modular Environment Assets

I really wanted to come out of the class with a solid understanding of Trim Sheets and maintaining texel density. I purposefully created a scene without too many unique assets, that was fundamentally simple, so I could focus my time on utilizing and exploring different methods for using trims, tileable materials, and lighting.

Adding Details

The glass material was probably one of the biggest challenges for me. I started with some basic glass material setups I found online and kept expanding on it until I achieved a look I was happy with. The final material is probably a bit too heavy for use in a real game project, it's using a distance-based radial blur that looks great but is pretty computationally intensive. Overall, I wanted to achieve a balance between getting a sense of the exterior but also feeling overgrown and dirty. I used Megascans for all the foliage. Megascans are, of course, awesome and it was great to be able to focus on the parts of the project I was interested in most without spending time on the plants.

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Prior to starting the class, I had been learning Houdini for a few months, which is so amazing, and I really recommend people give it a try even if you've been hesitant in the past. So I used Houdini for the scattering of debris and for the banners. For the debris at the doorway, I used a couple of tileable textures I made and vertex painting.

Working on Color

I was really excited to work on the overall color and lighting and want to create this oppressive and heavy green palette with some intense splashes of other colors (the lockers and the chairs). I spent quite a bit of time tweaking material colors and on the Post-Process LUT. Working on the LUT was really fun because as you iterate through so many variations, it's really easy to get out of control with it but super satisfying when you drill down to your final look.


I knew I wanted the lighting to feel as natural as possible and have the light coming in through the window to hit the lockers and chairs in the front of the room to get those bright hits of color. The scene has 1 main light with a couple of spotlights placed specifically for some of the renders further back in the room to get some extra highlights and silhouettes. Probably one of the settings I played with the most was using a volumetric light to get some dust light beams through the windows. I went back and forth a lot on that, finally deciding not to use it because it didn't really add much to the scene and felt too forced.

The Biggest Challenges

The biggest challenges for me were the lighting and getting the glass and exterior environment to feel correct. Essentially, as with any art project knowing when to stop tweaking is the hardest part. I really came away from this project with a strong understanding of Trim Sheets, which I've been using in my work ever since. As for my next challenge, I'll be focusing on learning more Houdini in my spare time.

Morgan McDermott, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

For more information on CG Master Academy and the UE4 Modular Environments course, please visit the CGMA website, or email 3d.registration@cgmasteracademy.com.

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