Escape: Texturing and Lighting a Sci-Fi Scene

Escape: Texturing and Lighting a Sci-Fi Scene

Yuzhi Zhu briefly talked about the texturing and lighting workflows in his UE4 scene Escape.


My name is Yuzhi Zhu, I also go by Steven. I am an Environment/Lighting artist from China. I got my bachelor’s degree at Shawnee State University (SSU) in Portsmouth, Ohio, and I am currently a graduate student at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) focusing on game development (expected graduation date is May 2021).

I first learned about 3D art at SSU back in 2014. It was totally an accident. Before I came to the US, I was majoring in industrial design in China and I was only an exchange student sent by my previous college. Although I did not know 3D art could be a major, I randomly chose game development as my temporary major at SSU. I still remember the moment I felt like I entered a new fantasy after the first lesson in Maya taught by instructor Willow Paquette. It was so cool and badass. I immediately fell in love with it. Later on, I quit my college in China and became a full-time student at SSU studying game development. Special thanks to Professor Greg Lyons for pushing me hard academically.

After I graduated from SSU, I spent a year working on a VR project Mechmayhem and an MMO Ship of Heroes. During that year, I noticed I had so much more to learn, - I thought I was good enough to be in the industry, but apparently, I wasn’t. That was why I came to SCAD to pursue a master’s degree. During my time at SCAD, I have worked on a VR immersive project Search for the Gryphon and a Super Bowl Fox Sports project. Since I am near graduation, I am focusing on my graduate thesis and some personal art pieces at the moment.


When I was at SSU, I have taken classes in Maya, ZBrush, Substance Painter, and a few classes in Unreal Engine 4 mostly taught by Professor Grey Lyons. During my time at SCAD, I have taken a few more ZBrush classes taught by Professor Parrish Baker to improve my hard-surface skills and a tech material class taught by Professor Manuel Prada to improve my Substance Designer workflow (my sci-fi level Escape was created during that class). To improve my lighting skills, I crossed major to take an advanced lighting class taught by Professor Gaynor Bridget from the Visual effects department, and that is when I truly learned about the ideology of lighting. All these classes above are recommended, they are all related to each other and are very useful.

Project Escape:

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Work with Vegetation 

I love nature, I grew up with a lot of trees and plants around me. I generally try to have a clear thought before I paint all the vegetation in my scene. Whenever I work with vegetation, besides looking references up online, I also use my life experience as a reference.

Now Megascans assets are the best thing ever for a 3D environment artist as you can directly export them to Unreal Engine 4. UE4 also has a powerful foliage tool, you can tweak things like scale, offset, intensity, etc. When I worked on my forest level, I spent quite some time to make the landscape material look correct. Otherwise, the foliage will not fit the scene.

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Escape: Idea & General Workflow

As mentioned above, this UE4 scene was made for an environment design class at SCAD. My inspiration came from many different artists in the industry. Every day, I go to Artstation to check out many amazing art pieces and it just reminds me how much more I could learn to achieve the results I see. I love all forms of art, no matter stylized or realistic. Since most of my works are realistic, I thought making something stylized would be very interesting, so I gave it a try.

Some of the biggest differences between 3D stylized and realistic art are edge bevel level, color range, and the amount of details. Stylized objects turn to have big beveled edges, black value is not greater than 20%, and there are not too many micro details. I used Maya to model the initial shape of the objects, then exported them to ZBrush to manually sculpt the details and created the low poly. Next, I exported them back to Maya for UVing. Last, I go to Substance Painter for baking the high poly information to low poly and all the textures, too. One important key to creating a stylized texture is to have fake AO information; instead of black, you could give them red, blue, or any color depending on the object. 


For text elements, I used many ways. Decals and some of the assets are made with the Text Tool in Substance Painter. The texts on notes or the whiteboard are hand-written because that way they look more natural (because well, they are actually hand-written).

In Escape, I used Substance Painter for most objects. The ground and bloody flesh are procedural materials created in Substance Designer; that allowed me to adjust the repetition in the engine. When working in Substance Designer, I always start with height, then color. You want to get the basic forms of the materials first and then work on the details. That way, your material graph will be more organized and it'll be easier to find the problem nodes when something does not work correctly.

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Lighting is my favorite part. To light up the scene, I mainly used a lot of spot lights, and a rectangle blue light to break the symmetry.

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When working with lighting, it's important to think about what could be the main light source in your scene. In my scene, the ceiling light is the main light source for both stages.

Sometimes, the preview can be kind of tricky, - the scene may look good before you bake it, and after baking, you might find you've lost some of the lighting details. The way I usually fix it is to add some point lights, set them with super low value and turn off “cast shadow“.

For the “Before” scene, I used brighter colors to create a clean feeling, because I wanted to show that “everything is fine right now”. For the “After” scene, I tried to present a feeling where “something went wrong, errors appeared”, so flicking and red lights will do the magic here.

The final step of lighting is to bake it, and it's important to adjust the lightmass in the world setting here. No matter what you do, for interior, static lighting level x Indirect lighting smoothness should be =1. I learned that from Ryan Manning‘s tutorial.

Ray-tracing is a new thing I am experimenting with recently. I made my most recent work Corner of Battle with ray-tracing. The best thing about it is the accurate lighting and real-time. I also used some commands in Unreal editor to activate, toggle, and tweak some RTX settings. I learned this from Stephen Honegger, he wrote an article for 80 Level.


Lighting and cinematic render were the biggest challenges of the Escape scene. I made a few versions with different lighting and could not decide which one was the best. Therefore, I asked some of my friends in the industry for advice, got a lot of feedback from them, and finally made my decision.

I tried to make the video as cinematic as possible, so I studied a little bit of camera film theory, for example, camera cut, speed of the camera, focal length, and some other things. Eventually, I created a video that I was very happy with.  

Yuzhi Zhu, Environment/Lighting Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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