Environment artist Leonardo Iezzi talked about the creation of detailed realistic scenes.
I’m Leo. Since I was a child, I have enjoyed playing with Photoshop’s layers, and became quite skilled with it because my parents are graphic designers. It was at this age that my love for the first PlayStation along with Bandicoot’s family started. This was the first time I met video games.
In high school I studied graphics design. It was there that I have improved my knowledge of arts and I learned a little bit of 3D by myself. Then I joined Bigrock Training Center. There I learned almost everything about 3D that I could have learned. For the last 3 years until September 2014, I worked in 3D video games industry and developed some mobile games.
Since September 2014 I have been working on a PC game called The Town of Light, and hey, it’s a really interesting project, I suggest you check it out! Anyway, back to me. With a work mate we created a partnership called Contenano, and we worked together during the extra time, which IS the equivalent of a full time job. We provide almost every kind of asset for other companies. So if you need something feel free to contact Contenano!
The Creation of The Tunnel Scene
Everything started when I was scrolling my Facebook’s news feed and I came across to Daniele’s concept. Daniele is a very skilled concept artist as you can see on his portfolio (http://www.dan-ka.com/) and we worked together for a few freelance projects. Anyway I’m not sure why, but it was like falling in love at the first sight, a little weird, I know, usually we fall in love with girls. However, I think that the concept caught me because of the color correction – I love to see pictures with a good color correction – along with the incredible lighting of the lamp, and also maybe for the sci-fi character, but the characters weren’t my focus. So the concept without characters became like a sand box to me. Of course, I searched other references about gates, tubes, mud, and other props. So, to be short, the concept caught me because I saw the potential for my creativity skills to shine, but it also gave me a strong guideline to follow.
Building the Scene
Usually when I’m working on a prop I’m used to hiding the grid to clearly see the objects, but when you are creating modules, the grid’s one of the most important things you have to take care of. Every piece has to be aligned with the grid. This is the first rule for me. The second one is that you have to create the module, trying to avoid the seam with themselves and to do that there are thousands of ways. In my case, I chose to hide the seam with other modules, or joint them in the dark areas, for example, in the cavities.
There is always a workaround if you can’t. For example, for the decals over the seam, use a tileable texture along with the module, and hide the seam with the darkness etc. Another important thing is to take care of modules, it’s the ratio of the pixel per centimeter, because if you create the UV of every object in the scene with different density, the pieces don’t blend very well. The pros of using module pieces is that you are able to create an infinite number of different environments, just using a few models, so, obviously it’s the fastest way to create an environment.
The scale of the scene is managed by guessing. I’m joking. Lol. First of all when I start to create an environment, I always build up a block mesh. Block mesh is just a simple mesh with the biggest volumes, that helps you to walk into the environment and make sure that everything is fine. When everything is perfect you just have to recreate some part of the blockmesh with definitive modules, that’s how I managed the scale of my scene.
Picking Up Unreal Engine 4
For 4 years I have been using Unity for job, but I always preferred Unreal . Maybe the grass is always greener on the other side? So, in my free time or during evening, I learned how to use it by myself. I think that Unity is a very light, fast and versatile engine. It’s very useful to prototype some kind of gameplay or strange mechanics and I also think it’s the best choice for the mobile game industry.
Unreal is quite heavy but with a incredible output. Plus I think Unreal Engine is more for the artistic crowd. For example, If you want to make a custom material in Unreal you have to open the material editor and connect a few nodes. In Unity you have to write a shader, and usually the artists don’t know how to code. So I choose Unreal for having the best output, and to avoid problems with coding and scripting. I think Unreal is quite more stable than Unity.
Building the Lights
Lightning is a very important part of your environment. I used an emissive material for the main lamp and thanks to Unreal it was almost a nice lighting. Unfortunately, it was too dizzy so I created a light set with some point-light close to the main source, and with some arrangements the light set was done. Then I baked it with the global illumination, but it was too warm as light, so along, with the electricity flickering, I used an animated cold-light point. As you can see on the screenshots, almost every one has a part of warm light and another part of cold light. It was the result that I was looking for. Plus, the electricity flickering gave me a very nice rim light from some pov (point of views). For every asset in the scene I used physically based rendering (PBR) material, with the metalness and roughness technique. I really have to say that the PBR works very well and very realistic. I love them. Another thing that helped me to reach what I wanted was the post-processing a.k.a. (also known as) color correction. Of course, I tried to use the same color correction of the concept. For example, the dark parts turns into violet and other arrangements.
Breathing Life into the Scene
Yes, as I said before, the concept without characters looked too empty. So I searched some image references. What I wanted was to create other big volumes to break the feeling of emptiness. So I created some gates, a pipeline with modular pieces, I broke the straight line of mud, I created elements like dropped wires to make a better experience when you walk through, and of course other smaller props like cans, food boxes, milk boxes and others. Then I put all of them as randomly as I could… Yeah, not quite randomly but a sort of. The best way to create some kind of life in the environment is to create a sort of story about that, I think. So I did it. Story is very important for every process of the environment – when you’re modeling, when you’re texturing and also when you’re assembling the scene.
Making Beautiful Mud
I think water (which I call mud), looks so amazing, but actually it was very simple: in Maya I created a plane with subdivision. Then I created the material and that’s it. Lol, joking. Anyway I created the plane with subdivision because I was thinking about vertex painting in Unreal. Still In Unreal I created a custom material, where I blended the same texture with different properties with the alpha of vertex color for each channel except for the water layer, for that I used a water normal map. Then for each channel I set an height so I connected the heights of the different layers blended by the alpha of vertex color, all into the “word position offset”, and at the end I created a panner to animating the water normal map. That’s it.
Using Maya to Build Assets
In Maya I use a plugin for the UV. It’s very helpful. It’s called “UVDeluxe” and it works fine for every version of Maya, I suppose. It’s very helpful because you can set the density of the pixel per centimeter, you can straightly align the UVs, and other cool stuff. Anyway, after creating low poly and high poly (for some models I created the high poly by using zBrush and exported to maya), with xNormal I baked the normal map and occlusion.
We all know that xNormal has a creepy interface but with powerful stuff. Then, with the same exported models, I used Substance Designer that helped me to not waste time in texturing, It lets me create a generic node for all metal pieces. So I only had to connect some baked maps and the textures were, more or less, fine.
Of course, for other pieces I create new graphs. I’m not friendly to get the Substance graphs into Unreal, so I adopted the legacy way by exporting map in bitmap: base color, normal map, and roughness, metalness, and occlusion in one channel divided map.
Using Unreal Engine I created a master material and I use it for every model. I just worked on Photoshop to create the decals of graffiti exporting their alpha in one channel, divided map, and coloring them in Unreal Material. For every model I used FBX pipeline that works with every software, except for the ugly xNormal which uses obj.