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Extraterrestrial Vegetation in 3D Scenes

Environment artist Luiza Tanaka showed how she sculpted and painted the radiation-infused plants and trees for her newest virtual space. This would make a greart VR-game.

Environment artist Luiza Tanaka showed how she sculpted and painted the radiation-infused plants and trees for her newest virtual space. This would make a greart VR-game.


Hey! My name is Luiza Tanaka and I’m a 3D environment artist. I’m originally from Yokohama, Japan, living a few years in Germany and Brazil before moving to the United States 8 years ago. I’m a recent graduate from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, where I’ve worked on a couple student projects as an environment and texture artist.


The idea for Neruza was born when I was looking at pictures of foliage that had been exposed to high levels of nuclear radiation (such as the surroundings of the Fukushima power plant). Much of the foliage had mutated to the point they looked almost alien-like. This led me to the concept of creating a large-scale outdoor environment inhabited by lush extraterrestrial vegetation.

It was important to me that the viewer immediately understood that Neruza was an otherworldly location, so I completely ditched using any earth tones, like greens and browns.

I love vibrant, in-your-face colors, so coming up with Neruza’s color palette was incredibly fun. It was heavily inspired by 80’s Synthwave aesthetic, which has a healthy mix of bright neons and some subdued colors. Mixing organic forms with inorganic colors further reinforces the unearthly look that I’m aiming for. I set some simple color rules for myself to keep the project consistent.

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At the same time, I wanted to avoid the environment from looking too alien-like, thus some of my foliage designs is inspired by marine vegetation. That way it doesn’t look too unfamiliar, but still foreign for a land environment.


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Once the art direction was established, I began by sculpting Neruza’s rocks, as they were some of the more forgiving assets on my list. My pipeline for creating stylized sculpted assets is usually the following:

  • Sculpt out the high poly in ZBrush, while using masking in combination with polypaint to get a stylized albedo started. Masking by AO and smoothness allows you quickly paint in highlights and shadows on your mesh.

  • After I bake everything out to my low poly (which is either a decimated mesh or a retopologized one from Maya) with xNormal, I open all my textures in Photoshop. I overlay my AO and cavity onto my albedo with some slight color, while grabbing the blue channel of my Curvature and setting that on a screen layer.

  • Once I’m happy with the new albedo, I open it in 3D-Coat to paint out seams and add in additional details. 3D-Coat is absolutely amazing for stylized work, mostly because of its simple UI and similarity to painting in Photoshop.

  • After 3D-Coat, I bring everything back to Photoshop and fix the colors and values of my albedo. Since I am aiming for stylized PBR materials, I use Allegorithmic’s B2M to create roughness and specular maps that would fit the material adequately. It takes some tweaking to get the results to be consistent with each other.

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My landscape textures were all sculpted in ZBrush too; I used a very similar workflow to Fanny Vergne’s texturing method. It heavily relies on Photoshop and its layer blends to create depth in the albedo. You may also try using some different Zbrush matcaps and overlay those to see if they yield good results. After doing all these steps, I paint over the composite texture to make everything read nicely.

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All the ground foliage in Neruza fits within two 2k maps. Since they were painted in Photoshop and not sculpted in Zbrush, I was worried they were going to look significantly different than the rest of the assets. Turns out subtle normal maps are sufficient for foliage, saving me time in this project. I modeled all the foliage in Maya, since they are mostly just cards with some edge looping.

The trees and the rest of the sculpted assets were made last, using the method mentioned above. While there are 45 unique assets, some are recolors. I kept worrying that there weren’t enough different plants, only to be completely overwhelmed when set-dressing. I had only one large rock asset, but it was created with versatility in mind so it could squish and stretch to my content. I made sure that it was interesting to look at in all direction, while using a Z-Up material that blended a light and dark version of the albedo vertically. This helped them to look like unique assets when placed around my environment.

Stylized Approach

For me, it was important that Neruza utilized PBR texturing instead of being rendered as diffuse only. While I love hand-painted textures, PBR gives so much more surface information, which in turn creates more realistic materials. Since the beginning, I wanted Neruza to feel believable but look unmistakably stylized, so PBR was an easy choice.

If there is one thing I learned about stylized PBR, is that the albedo map needs to be less detailed compared to stylized non-PBR. A detailed albedo in conjunction to all the info being provided by PBR makes your materials look noisy fast. So balance is the key.


The emissive and particle effects in Neruza largely contribute to the lighting and mood of the environment. I really wanted the whole forest to feel interconnected, so having all the veins pulsating with energy at the same time helped me convey that thought. The sine wave node was great for achieving a gradual on/off effect for my emissive maps.

The lighting for Neruza wasn’t too complex. I used a skylight, a directional light for the moon, a second directional light as a fill, and a handful of point lights around some of my tree assets, with many capture spheres placed throughout. There is also a good amount of fog in my environment to disperse the light a bit.

If there is one general advice I can give is to never pass up using a LUT table in the Post Process Volume. It’s basically real time Photoshop. I would ask a LUT Table out on a date if it were a person, because it’s that neat!

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One of the biggest challenges I had during this project was set-dressing the environment, as I found it difficult at first to make nice clumps of foliage that grew in organic patterns. Nature is the best reference for this situation, but it was tough to determine which of my assets would be used depending on the location. Since it was a large environment, I took advantage of Unreal’s foliage editor, though a great portion was also placed by hand. Feedback from my instructors and colleagues was extremely valuable during this time, as they could look at it with fresh eyes and opinions. At some point, my project became a bit of a purple blur to me, so it became difficult to make good artistic choices. It’s okay to switch tasks when this kind of fatigue occurs, as it can help you re-approach it with a better mindset.

Thank you so much for checking out how I went about creating Neruza! I’d like to thank all my instructors and colleagues who helped and supported me along the way, especially David Bentley and Jason Briney. Shout out to Caitlin Lamb, who puts up with my puns every day.

Luiza R. Tanaka, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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