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Pedro C. Prieto showed how he worked on the amazing UE4-environment inspired by Helder Pinto‘s Arbor Vitae.
Hello, my name is Pedro C. Prieto and I am an extremely passionate artist who is always striving to produce the highest quality work. I was born in Lima Peru but moved to California at the of on 11. I went to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and have lately been taking classes online with CG Masters Academy. I live in San Francisco, and I am actively looking for an opportunity to work as an environment artist in the gaming industry. When creating an environment, my main focus includes lighting, composition, color values, and storytelling. Storytelling is the most important piece when creating immersive worlds for the player to get lost in, and I am a strong believer that environment art and design play a huge role in the narrative of the game.
Ever since I saw Helder Pinto show off Arbor Vitae in a presentation with Gnomon back in 2016, I’d been wanting to recreate my own Arbor Vitae-like version. Its vibrant colors, beautiful lighting, intricate sci-fi designs, and most importantly the narrative behind its creation, made me fall in love with the scene, and it’s what inspired me to attempt creating an environment of that caliber. However, I knew the time to take on this type of project was not right for me, since I was still learning about the use of multiple tools (Substance, UE4, Maya, etc). So, I waited and kept polishing my skills when working on different personal projects.
My first step was to set up my grid in Maya. I made sure that everything would snap to each other, and would follow grid measurements. I knew this was going to be a big project, so re-usability was one of my main pillars. My Maya file was set up to centimeters, and I used this guy as a human height reference. He is about 180 centimeters, so my main blockout piece master guide would be 200 centimeters by 200 centimeters. Then I made sure Maya UV editor would also follow my grid guideline, by defining a 20×20 X and Y length. Then I made different blockout variation pieces, a 200×100 piece, 100×100, 400×400, and some corner pieces. I was technically building a lego set that I would later assemble in UE4.
Once I had imported all my blockout piece into UE4, I started creating the space of my scene. I tried to avoid making my scene feel “blocky” by making it as interesting as I could with these simple pieces. As I started building my blockout, I realized that if I needed new pieces, I would go back to Maya to create them immediately. I ended up with 9 pieces by the end of my blockout phase. Since all my pieces snaped to each other and followed the “grid”, it was quite simple to get creative and come up with different layout variations. However, for my taste, this layout was complete and ready to go. Later on, when I started importing my final walls, floors, and ceiling pieces, I would just quickly swap my blockout pieces, since all of them respected the grid measurements.
Right from the get-go, I knew that I wanted to integrate a hero piece into my scene. So, during my blockout phase, I made sure to leave some space for this unique piece. I wanted this project to be all about speed, so I made a trim sheet dedicated to the hero prop only. I quickly made some rough drafts to eliminate the bad ideas. Unfortunately, I can’t show those models anymore, because I no longer have them. I didn’t want to completely rip off Helder Pinto’s hero piece, so I decided that the bottom piece would be a completely different shape than Arbor Vitae’s. Once I was happy with the basic shape, I took it a step further by adding bevels on the edges, and some additional details on the mesh itself. Lastly, I finalized the hero trim sheet and tested it in Maya before importing it into UE4.
Once I had my walls, floors, and ceiling placed with the Normal and AO maps, I moved into adding color. Since the very beginning of the project, I chose my color palette and stuck to it, with orange as my accent color, and black, white, and silver as supporting colors. I baked my Normal, ID masks, and AO maps using MightyBake, and used substance painter for the rest of the maps (color, roughness, metalness, and emissive). For sci-fi environments, I figured emissive lights play an important role, having them flicker, fade in and out, and on and off. So, I made sure to have a few extra parameters and switches that would handle my emissive maps in my master material.
Here is a picture of my master material, I added a few parameter nodes for value tweaking, especially for my emissive maps, but overall it’s pretty simple. I made one master material in UE4, and all materials with the exception of a few (water, terrain, fog, decals, etc.) inherit from this master mat. I also made a Decal master Mat. Decals were essential for breaking up the modularity repetition and adding sci-fi signs or such.
My main texturing software was the Substance suite. However, I did use some Quixel’s NDO for map conversion on assets that were at a distance from my main focus like the terrain and tree textures. I grabbed these textures from texture.com and converted them using NDO. For the rest of my assets, I used Substance Painter. I created a smart material for each color (orange, white, black, and metal/silver) that would save material values such as color values, rough values, and metal mask. So each time I brought in a new mesh, I would just place the smart material in the corresponding ID color. This technique saved me a lot of time since I was going to paint a lot of meshes for my scene.
The key assets for my scene were definitely my trims and my hero prop. Since the trims were going to be scattered throughout the map, they needed to be high quality. Therefore, I spent extra time polishing them. I made sure I came up with interesting sci-fi shapes for my trim sheet, this was a process that took me quite a few iterations. I ended up with two trim sheets, a horizontal and vertical one. For the hero prop, I made sure that I polished it and made it look as interesting as much as I could since it was going to be the centerpiece and the only unique piece of its kind. It took me 4 tries to come up with the final design, and a total of 2 weeks to have it up and running in UE4. Then my goal was to keep a uniform theme throughout my assets, from the color palette to vision of my scene. I made sure that all my assets felt like they belonged in the same environment, by using the same level of quality and stylization. And last, but definitely not least, I finished up my lighting.
I didn’t touch the lighting until all my assets were placed in the right location with their corresponding textures and materials. I wanted the main room where the hero prop is located to have a warm feeling and a blue-ish tone for the dark areas. I made sure the sunlight was hitting the hero prop to make it stand out. I added artificial lights on some walls, back door, and other assets to make them pop as well, but leaving the backside darker with a blue-tone was key in making the main room stand out. Lastly, I added a little bit of fog on my lights by using the new volumetric fog feature UE4 now provides for a more filmic look. Emissive lights also played an important role during this process, making sure they were evenly distributed, with their proper tones and values.
The project took me around 6 months to complete, it was my first time attempting to create a true game environment where the player could walk around and feel immersed (at least I hope so!). The hardest part was coming up with interesting sci-fi shapes for my normal baking. It was a process that took me several iterations to make it feel like a terraforming machine on the planet. Once I got my shapes ready, everything else developed organically.