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Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
A talented young designer Everett Gunther, whose work was recently showcased by Unreal Engine, told 80.lv about the advantages of UE4 for environmental artists and the best tools for the digital artist.
You might have seen some work by Everett Gunther on Unreal Engine blog. This talented environment artist has been showing a lot of promise, boasting some very interesting designs. We’ve talked with the holder of the Best Environment Art Award (Entelechy Awards 2014) and talked about the tools and middleware that helps him to create incredible visual pictures.
Who is Everett Gunther?
I got started in digital graphics about 8 years ago and have been specifically an environment artist for games for the past 4 or so. For the past 3 years I’ve been studying game development at Savannah College of Art and Design. As of now my only work experience was my internship at Kiz Studios, last year, where I worked on a few projects, including their mobile battle game Might and Mayhem. I’m still only three years into my degree, so the vast majority of the work I’ve produced has been for personal projects to strengthen my portfolio.
Differences Between Environmental Design and Level Design
I guess it is a common mistake from those unacquainted with the field. Level design is a more systemic, mechanical game design role, where the interactions and pacing of a level is planned out and fine tuned. Environment design/environment art is more about the ability to build a space with aesthetics in mind. More often than not an environment artist will be working on a level prototyped by a level designer, so environment art also involves the process of interpreting the basic structure of an area and turning those structures into something stylish and distinct.
One thing I’ve slowly realized since starting as environment artist is how important it is to identify your key angles. You might be making a scene that’s centered around an old boat. The logical way to approach that for a novice in environment design is to build the scene with the boat and then figure out what the best angle to shoot it from is. I prefer to build out the basic structure in a prototype state and then lay out my angles as early as possible.
This allows you to essentially sculpt the entire scene to conform to the aesthetic of those few perfect shots. And this extends to lighting as well. Often in environment art pieces an artist will create a technically impressive scene, but wait until it’s nearly complete to worry about lighting. Once again, I prefer to get my lighting work going when my scene is still in an early prototype state. It allows me to build and position every asset with the target lighting in mind. Really, I think the best way to handle creating those beauty compositions is just to juggle all of these tasks throughout the entire project. Keep adjusting framing, positioning and lighting as you continue to work on the technical stuff of modeling and texturing and your scene can only benefit.
About Unreal Engine 4
Unreal Engine 4 is the best engine I’ve worked with myself, both as an artist and a designer. The toolset is built to be very friendly to artists, and the documentation and learning resources for the engine (especially one so new) outpace anything else out there. Even for those without programming experience, you can create games and experiences using the visual scripting system. The game I’m working on at the moment for school, Battery Jam, was made entirely using visual scripting, believe it or not. It’s a very powerful system.
Unreal 4 uses physically based rendering, so yes, for complex scenes it does require an artist to have a good library of physically accurate sources to draw from. Still, Unreal 4’s material creation is streamlined enough that it’s never much of a bottleneck. My resources depend a lot on the goals of the project. For my more stylized pieces, I painted and sculpted textures by hand in Photoshop or Zbrush. For more grounded scenes, I often get valuable texture photo sources from sites like CGTextures.com. Still, with physically based rendering, using raw photo sourcing can require a good understanding of how to best extract the right ranges from an image for use in a Roughness or a Metalness texture for example. As for modeling and effects work, all of the modeling and effects in my scenes are entirely my own.
Best Tools to Use
My modeling program of choice is actually Blender. I find for game art in particular Blender’s workflow is especially efficient.
For texturing, my base of operations is always Photoshop, but I’ve been using a lot of extra texturing programs over the last few years as well.
Quixel Suite is an extremely powerful piece of software for physically based texturing, and I’ve made heavy use of it in my more recent portfolio environments.
I’ve also used a bit of Substance Designer and it seems very intriguing if nothing else.
As game graphics continue to balloon in standards, we’ll continue to see new tools that make the process of generating art more convenient and efficient for the artists. We’re already seeing it this generation with tools like Quixel Suite and Substance Designer simplifying the process of physically based texturing. Since the big breakthroughs have been made for texturing, I think the next one will have to be for modeling. Something to really simplify the process of managing high and low poly modeling together, and perhaps making low poly creation more automated. As polycount limits get more and more lenient, I think we’re going to be seeing more and more low poly models generated automatically from high poly models. I think the need to handle vertices one by one will get a lot less important in the next 5 or so years.
Sources of Inspiration
Ethan Carter had some great environments. It was a big inspiration for the style of my Lighthouse Shore scene. Some other big inspirations for environment work over the last few years would be The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and even 2D games like Kentucky Route Zero and Rayman Legends.
Programmers VS Artists
I’ve definitely seen the disconnect that can happen there and it can go both ways. Sometimes an artist has a pie-in-the-sky idea for something and a programmer has to sit them down and explain why it can’t be done, or it can be the other way around. I think the problems arise when a team member, be they an artist or a programmer, gets too attached to an idea and starts fighting for it without really considering the reasons against it as mattering.