Figuring Out Lights in Closed Environments

Figuring Out Lights in Closed Environments

Mihai Muscan gave a super-detailed breakdown of his scene, where he studied the way colors and lights work in 3d space.

Mihai Muscan gave a super-detailed breakdown of his scene, where he studied the way colors and lights work in 3d space.

About myself

Hi! My name is Mihai Muscan, I’m 20 years old and I was born and raised in Bistrita, a Transylvanian town from Romania. I am a self-taught artist and I currently work as a freelance 3D environment artist.

I first started my journey in the freelance world when I was in my final year of high-school. I was overwhelmed by excitement since it was the first time I got contacted by a game company to work for them. Little did I know the following period would be the hardest I ever had because my final exams were coming and work had to be done. After that, I mainly continued working as a freelance artist for various studios and expanding my portfolio.

Idea generation

I was told by many artists, whom I asked to give me some criticism upon my past projects, that I could improve my composition and storytelling skills. Having a smaller environment and playing only with that specific area would be a great exercise. I wasn’t that surprised by their feedback, but I can admit it wasn’t something I wanted to hear. If I want to improve, I must know my weaknesses so that I can fix them.

To do that, I did some more research about games like The Last of Us, The Division, Mirror’s Edge (both of them), Dying Light, Wolfenstein The New Order, Halo, Metro and Doom. I did a lot of research by reading articles from various environment artists and game designers who worked on these titles and re-watched new/old youtube videos regarding environment art in games. Jihoon Kim, Johannes Böhm, Clinton Crumpler, Josh Van Zuylen are just a few names who have great articles here on 80lvl about environment art. I definitely recommend reading them and I can easily say these ones helped me a lot. Also, the pyramid of Stephane “Wootha” Richard is an incredible thing to know ( you can find the link for it here).

In addition to the research, I wrote on sticky notes some points and goals that I really wanted to keep in mind until the end of the new project:

  • Contrast in details & colors & geometry;
  • Do not make another 100% true Sci-fi scene please;
  • Simplistic color palette;
  • The player has to know instantly if the area is dangerous or peaceful = diversity in both gameplay and art;
  • Strong shape language (easily distinguishable silhouette);
  • Eye guidance to a certain point of the environment (middle/ window) using cables/ props/ lights.
  • Let your character dress the environment (He/she lives there, not you). Try to think what, why, where and when would a prop be there, look like or what’s the reason he/she would use it?;
  • Convey a certain atmosphere as best as you can (ex: A warm summer morning, a cold/warm night, etc. ) ;
  • Fill the space with as many environment stories as you can ( bed area, guns area, medicine area, etc.), but they don’t have to look out of place;
  • Make shots of different Day and Night scenarios;
  • Use 1 single light source (the sun) with 2/3 additional light sources to help your main light bounce throughout the whole scene;
  • Use Marvelous Designer for cloths ( t-shirt, jacket) bed sheets/ pillow, tissues and floor;
  • Better lighting quality gosh;

Then I had to choose the type of atmosphere I wanted to build my next project around. I always loved the lighting and overall mood you get when you are in Harran (a city from Dying Light) or in the City of Glass (Mirror’s Edge Catalyst). My best friend and I would keep playing Dying Light even though we had already finished the story and the side quests. We first started playing it in the summer, right after we finished our final high-school exams. The action in DL is happening in the same season thus whenever we get back to the game, we still feel the freedom of killing time doing nothing but playing the game or going out and about in the heat of the sun. For me, the lighting (bloomy, godray-esque) inspired me to make something similar, something that my friend and I can say “Damn son, kinda reminds of that summer you know.”

But I still wasn’t sure what the room should include, what’s the room about. I couldn’t just create another generic room with sunlight that’s coming from the window. I searched the internet but I still couldn’t find something that would make me go outside of my comfort zone and try something different. After a while I noticed how messy I tend to be in my personal space (my room) as well as in the professional space (my desk/ software files). I am not a messy person but when I got a lot to do, sometimes I put my papers where they shouldn’t be, leave them on the desk and put something on top of them. You do it too. It’s a phenomenon that happens to many people and we don’t necessary notice it because even though it’s a mayhem, we still know exactly where a file is located or where we put that particular t-shirt. Something very common most of us do is that we place game related objects (figurines, magazines, etc.) near the monitors so that we feel more comfortable/ motivated. They don’t add necessarily to the creation of our projects, but they keep us motivated and stuff. With this being said, we add our own personality or human touch no matter what or where we do our thing. I found it interesting. So interesting that it was good enough to spark an idea that made me orbit around it for the next 231780571288 hours.

Reference gathering

Having an idea it’s not enough, therefore I needed to create the proper visual library towards that vision. I cannot stress enough how important this stage is, so I moved on and played games, of course. Here are just some of my never ending screenshot examples I took, which played a major role in the making of this project. Since I wanted to create a scene that’s not sci-fi, I had to integrate some of our present/modern influences.

The Division / Dying Light.

Online laboratory images

Clinton Crumpler has a great exercise for understanding colors in various scene by blurring the screenshot in photoshop and seeing what are the primary colors seen. I tried this technique in the screenshots below.

The Division

Dying Light

Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst

While playing these games, I noticed how good I was feeling when I was at a safe house in comparison to the hostile environment from outside. Safe houses/ Safe heavens were almost the only places in the whole map where people didn’t want to kill you and their marks, as being alive, were noticeable by attaching pictures or posters to the walls, putting their backpacks near their bed or simply by adding to the survival of others, by working in various fields (medic, intelligence managing, IT, etc.)

Blocking out

After playing all these games, watched some gameplay on other titles such as The Last of Us and Metro, I had a clear idea about what the project would be about. My first thoughts were to have a room with a single window, an anchor point in the middle and different environmental stories on the sides. The ceiling, walls and floor had to be filled with cables, lots of them (to give the cyberpunk-esc vibe).

In the night scenario, I decided to split the area into 2 sections with various lighting setups. The first one would contain light colors which represent different emotions/ feelings. This area would stand for the protagonist’s safe heaven, where he/she feels at home, free and disconnected by any responsibility. I googled the meaning of some of the colors used:

Yellow – optimism, warmth, sweetness;

Blue – trustworthiness, dependability, responsibility;

Purple – creative, unique, mysterious;

Orange – fun, happiness, joy;

White – pure, innocence, clean;

The second section represents the professional aspect of life. Where you are supposed to work to sustain yourself. Responsibility and repetitiveness are represented here by having dull colors (just blue and white).

I’ve chosen to create a mini laboratory related environment just because I was studying bio-chemistry in high-school and I was supposed to attend medicine courses at a university but here I am. I always thought studying that stuff would be boring as hell. You can interpret this section as you want, honestly, I didn’t focus exactly on one single area of expertise ( a mechanic’s garage, a drug maker’s hood, etc.). I didn’t even have a specific gender in mind for the protagonist.

I started by creating primitive shapes such as boxes and cylinders inside 3ds Max to have a rough idea about the number of props I would have to create and to start the environment composition.

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It’s about time I talk about the corridor. The only reason I did that section is because I needed the room to be linked to something, to another room/ corridor/ etc. I didn’t want the door to be closed, so if it’s gonna be open, I had to show something, right?

The corridor itself wasn’t that hard to do, especially since I went full cyber-punk with it. Given the fact that I am kinda used to this genre, it wasn’t that big of a deal to design. You can see that the only thing rounded and not straight in the whole corridor are the globes/ eyes. The reason is: I wanted to have something out of the ordinary and to break the monotony of the geometry. Adding rounded stuff surrounded by straight lined geometry made a kinda neat contrast.

I used the “eyes” to tell a story as well. There are 2 eyes that are less lit with a disconected cable (the ones closer to the room) and other 2 eyes that are more lit (the ones closer to the camera) but they are connected to other cables. The reason for that is the protagonist needed some additional power for his/her room and the only way to do it is to craft a connection to the eyes outside his room. The eyes less lit means they are out of power and stuff.

Assets and textures

Having the block out sorted out I started creating the assets. I used the following software to build my scene: 3ds Max 2015, Quixel Suite 2.0, Photoshop, Unreal Engine 4.14, xNormal and Marvelous Designer. Nothing fancy with the material editor, just plugged the textures in the UE4 material editor using multipliers, lerps and scalar parameters. I made some tileable textures to be used across the scene (especially for the floor and the glossy surfaces) but most of the assets had been textured individually. I made an asset list that consists of: small bottles, big bottles, weird bottles, different cables, multiple variations of boxes, guns, cans, cloths, medical equipment, gas masks, musical equipment, generators, goggles, cyber-punk stuff, bed sheets, pillows, wardrobes, rubbish can, soda cans, VR head set, monitors, pc, audio equipment and the list goes on.

All the textures were done using Quixel Suite 2.0 : Albedo, Roughness, Normal, Metalness, and Ambient Occlusion. I used a variety of texture dimensions from 512px to 2048px which is the maximum size I used. This piece of software saved me so much time at texturing, therefore creating the materials wasn’t that much of a problem.

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Because there were so many assets, I had to group some of them together and then export as one single object. Even though Unreal Engine reads the group as a single object, I added different ID materials to each asset inside 3ds max and then created the textures separately in Quixel.

Other assets:

I found on gumroad some cables designs that looked close to what I had in mind. I used a mixture between kitbash cables from Adrian Rutkowski and ones made by me to build the fill up cables. I would recommend using kitbash meshes only in special occasions and your project has to show that you could have done them yourself.

I tried Marvelous Designer for the first time after seeing the results you can get from it. It took a while to get used to it though. Doing pillows, different clothing and tissues proved to be great exercises. I will definitely get back to it and explore some more.


And now the lighting phase. Personally, lighting is one of the hardest thing to do right and given the fact that it can take a scene from good to great, nailing it down as best as you can is a must. In fact, one of my goals was to improve my lighting quality. Unreal Engine 4 has a great library full with documentation which helped me a lot. From Lightmass Global Illumination to Anti-Aliasing documentation, I got my questions answered simply by reading the information there.

After I got all of my assets inside Unreal Engine, I did some lighting tests before the actual texturing. I needed to know the spots where you can’t see so well the assets, thus I can add less texture information on those hand picked assets and whatnot. I never did a scene using an actual sun (Directional Light), so most of the tests were taken while tweaking the day lights.

Asset import and Lighting tests

The light had to come from the window and spread throughout the scene, how hard can it be? Unfortunately for me, the lighting process wasn’t a straight forward process. A lot of things happened during this phase. I simply couldn’t achieve that bouncing light I was looking for without adding more than 3 additional point lights, the ambient occlusion in the dark areas was way too high even though I tweaked my post processing volume, the bleeding effect was killing me while the LightmassImportanceVolume was placed, the anti-aliasing for some reason got messed up and out of the blue the materials all turned very reflective and black. I have no idea what I pressed wrong but it took me 3 agonizing days to fix everything. While looking through UE documentation for my problems, I stumbled across interesting topics that I forgot to try. Topics like switching the auto exposure method inside the post processing volume from Histogram to Basic (which resulted a greater spread of light throughout the scene, exactly what I needed) to using static meshes like a sphere with emissive values to act like a light source as well as the sky and Directional Light.

Here the anti-aliasing and the light maps issues still persisted (outlined with red) but the sphere mesh with emissive material and the re-tweaked post-processing volume did the magic regarding the lighting aspect. For anyone who encounters the aa issue, make sure your viewport is set to real time (top left corner where the arrow is). I pressed something on my keyboard and it got switched off automatically. It never happened to me before so I got wild. Regarding the lightmap, you can change the LM resolution inside the mesh editor (but you have to re-build the lighting), it can cost you game performance though. I ended up redoing some LM uvs for some of the more important assets and for the ones that were in great need of it. If it’s a personal project and you don’t want to properly make the uv layout for the lightmap as a second channel, you know the story, you can let the engine do it for you for free but the results will not be so great.

Having a giant sphere with an emissive material isn’t enough. I implemented the Directional Light source to add the warm, yellowish color and atmosphere to the scene. The first test wasn’t that bad but not quite what I was looking for.

I noticed that the DL (Directional light) was covering most of the scene. I ended up going back and forth with values. Here are the following tests:

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You know, sometimes you just have to turn up the values to “see what happens”.

After watching hopelessly the scene looking as bad as the other tests, I tried a different approach. I turned down the intensity of the DL to 2, added 2 godray meshes (which I used as additional lights) and cranked up the emissive value of the sky sphere. I changed the sky’s emissive color to a slightly yellowish tone, but not a 100% yellow since I wanted the white tone to be around. I’ve seen many projects that had blue tinted shadows and a warm orange/ yellow light and I’ve also seen other projects that had the shadows white/ orange tinted with the same light source color. I was wondering what color the shadows actually have in the morning. Therefore I woke up one day, had the luck of my life that the sky was clear (UK man, UK) and I noticed that in my room the shadows were orange-ish. I went outside to see if you get the same result but their color was blue because of the blue sky. I took a walk because the weather was lovely and then got back to finish the lighting.

And here is the same shot with 3 additional lights, without the particle effect and with the lighting rebuilt.

After I was pleased with the lighting, I used various LUTs to get a better color grading and added the materials. Here are some of the final results of the scene:

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For the night scene, I wanted to get as close as possible to a more filmic quality. The night scenario went surprisingly smoothly. After I was sure I do not want any more day time shots, I deleted every single light and then rebuilt the lighting from scratch. From every single light source, I added 1 blue spot light and 1 white point light at the end.


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Final thoughts

Looking at my past projects, I can say I improved in both artistic and technical matters. I tried to nail down every single point from the sticky notes mentioned at the beginning but it’s up to you to decide. As for the goals, I am pretty happy with the result and I consider I achieved what I set myself up to.

I need to mention that I wanted to delete this project more than 4 times throughout the development. I was simply way too insecure about it. I always did full Sci-fi or cyber-punk scenes, personal or commissioned. Taking the modern/not so distant future room approach was a pretty big deal to me. Especially since, like most of us self-taught artists, we don’t get a constant guidance like in university or college (from artistical to the technical troubleshoot matters). If you are an artist who is self-teaching my recommendation, if you do not already know it, is to never let yourself down when shit happens and never be afraid to go outside your comfort zone. No really, it can be very tough sometimes but there is a solution for everything. There are a lot of people who are willing to help you out when you are in need, myself included.

I changed some things here and there while working on this project. Not everything was permanent from the beginning. A great example is the bed area, I changed its design a couple of times before leaving it as you see it now.

Not long after I published this project, I asked multiple artists to critique it and even though I gave everything I had to this project, their responses really showed me how much better I can do stuff, what to avoid, what to improve and what to study to get better (like mechanical design). Leaving behind your fear or ego to hear what you do not want to hear and having another eye on your work can really affect your next projects in a good way.

I wouldn’t recommend my approach of creating stuff as I never do “variations” of an environment. Not even professionally. I do multiple interpretation of a scene only if I am asked by the commissioner. I think very carefully what I want to do, I don’t even block out stuff if I don’t like the vision I have in my head. When I am happy with what I came up with, I go in production with full speed. Professionally, I ask every single question I have that would help me create the one environment that we’ll be using throughout the production. If I can create a scene that everybody is happy with it, why would I create multiple variations and then hope that one would be picked? I decided to take this approach of production after I’ve seen multiple talks of Mike Hill, amazing individual.

Thank you very much for reading and I hope it inspires you!

For more of my works, please visit my portfolio page on Artstation.

Mihai Muscan, Self-studying Environment Art & Level Design

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