Forest Ruins: Searching For Atmosphere in 3D Spaces

Forest Ruins: Searching For Atmosphere in 3D Spaces

Steven Hong talked about the way he meshed stylized materials, 3d scans and beautiful 3d models into one astonishing environment.

Steven Hong talked about the way he meshed stylized materials, 3d scans, and beautiful 3d models into one astonishing environment.
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Hello, my name is Steven Hong and currently, I’m pursuing Environment Art. I came from the windy city of Chicago, but I now reside here in Sarasota, Florida, acquiring my BFA for Game Art. Throughout my free time, I have been able to work on a number of personal projects. I even collaborated with a team on a small archviz project. I immediately fell in love with 3D since there was something more satisfying about creating ideas in a 3d space.

Forest Ruins

I started with a general idea of the scene. So I wanted it to be natural and placed in a forest, and that there was going to be some sorta ruin as the focal point.

I drew a lot of inspiration from many different sources but looked at classical painters for inspiration in the beginning. One painting that I appreciated the most was Claude Monet’s, ”The Pave de Chailly in the Fontainbleau Forest”. He created something powerful in this painting with the way he’s able to pull the eye down into the horizon.

Claud Monet. The Pavé de Chailly in the Forest of Fontainebleau, 1865.

Also from the Pixar film “Brave” with how they were able to create an atmosphere through their lighting. My main 2 targets when approaching the scene were creating an atmosphere through lighting and composition, and hint at some narrative through the scene. 


I usually start off with primitive shapes that I made using Maya. Also using the landscape tool to get an idea of how the terrain will look using the sculpting brush. I would advice focusing on building the primary shapes as this will be the building blocks of your scene. That level of simplicity will force you to focus on what’s really important, which is figuring out good composition.

The blockout phase takes the most mental energy especially if you’re not working off of any concept. This is where most of the trial and error is gonna go into, so take your time on this part. Get as much feedback as you can and be open to listening to other artists.

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Hero Assets

So for the archway, I started off with meshes in Maya and built the primary shapes. I feel there’s more control on creating macro shapes in Maya, and then I threw it in Zbrush to get more detailed with the rubble. I created 4 modular shapes that would help me change the shape of the archway in-game to get different ideas of what would work.

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The mask was created in Zbrush as I pulled out the macro shapes and got into detailing. Then brought into Substance Painter to create the textures.

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So Substance Designer is like my baby. I’m in love with the way it can easily create textures. The one issue is you can get carried away with the texture process and it can really be a time sink. Generally, I create a quick pass of the texture in ZBrush, then grab the height map from ZBrush and bring it into Designer. From here I either refine the height map and then create all the other maps in the program.

I tried to save Substance Painter for assets that would need a high level of fidelity. The mask was one of those assets that I brought through using Painter and did a quick pass on materials.


Megascans has a vast library of different textures in the database which is great. I think people feel cautious around it because of blurring the artistic touch. It takes a bit of meddling to get the textures right since scans tend to stick out in a stylized scene. The important thing you want to tweak is colors since in my scenes I tend to push the color values depending on the lighting. I’ll usually take those scans and put them through Photoshop. 


So the trees were created using Speedtree which does an amazing job with producing fast tree meshes. It made creating variation between the tree meshes fast and quick during the production. Then for the ivy, I found that it was easier to paint in moss behind the ivy to help add a fuller effect to the ivy.


The skybox isn’t really all that special, it’s just a texture I took from CG Skies but the mountain was a tad bit more challenging. I made a mountain mesh using World Machine then exported the height map and the mesh from world Machine. I then brought it into Substance Designer where I could create the other maps such as the base color and the normal map.


A lot of the lighting here was about figuring out where I wanted people to look. The focus was placed on the ruins so that’s where I casted most of my light. I had to fake some of the lighting using spot lights to add more highlight on the areas that weren’t getting enough light. Also trying a new feature in 4.14 to cast contact shadows on my directional light helped with generating more detailed shadows on some foliage. The god rays were used to push more depth into the scene and fading out areas that were getting too noisy.

Then the other half of the battle was actually trying to play around with the post process. Here was where I started to add more contrast and color in the areas of shadow. I tried to make sure nothing was falling into complete black, and did this by adding some color grading and playing with the values in Photoshop.

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I think if anything to make it game-ready is to set up boundaries around the environment to keep the player stuck on the path. I think it especially hard in natural environments to do that, and Uncharted makes it feel subtle and unnoticeable. 

Steven Hong, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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