Vincent Barbe shared a detailed breakdown of his organic UE4 scene Giant's End Village: modeling assets and trees in Blender, setting up textures and subtle animation, working on the storytelling aspect, and more.
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Hello everyone! My name is Vincent Barbe, I'm an aspiring Environment Artist from France.
I've been passionate about video games and 3D animated movies since I was a kid and I always wanted to do something about it. One day I was introduced to the world of 3D and it was the moment I decided that I wanted to work in the video games industry.
I studied at two 3D schools after I graduated from high school and last year I found Artside which was my trigger to learn environment art. At this point, I wanted to turn my passion into a career.
Giant's End Village: Idea and Goals
This stylized scene was an assignment at Artside and the pitch was to create an environment that could be in a video game. So my goal was to create a beautiful scene with nice storytelling, bright colors, and some VFX to make it more "alive". As I was learning Blender more in-depth recently, this was a perfect time to practice skills on a bigger scene.
I am a big fan of Studio Ghibli's movies and I always wanted to create a scene with this art style so I tried to learn different techniques for Substance Tools and Unreal Engine. For inspiration, I watched a lot of landscape scenes from the Ghibli movies and some pictures from differents video games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Ni no Kuni, Xenoblade, and some others.
I was really inspired by Sam Gao and his amazing project Tactics Empire, and a lot of his tips really helped me. The Bird House scene by Jasmin Habezai-Fekri was inspiring and helpful as well. From all those references, I started to build my PureRef Board:
My board was useful for creating a color palette and getting an idea about lighting. When it came to the mood, that was simple: something close to a Ghibli landscape, with a major detail – the village – and some smaller details like the giant's head or the windmill that would add more storytelling around the village.
The story in the scene was that a long time ago, a metal giant thrust his sword into the ground before dying and ripped the earth creating multiple floating islands in a sea of clouds and people started to live near the sword using the giant's parts to expand their village. The giant was mainly inspired by the movie The Iron Giant.
Start of the Scene
In the beginning, I drew a quick sketch in Photoshop to visualize the composition and the elements I wanted to add. Then, I quickly put it in 3D in Unreal Engine using the basic meshes and set up my camera.
The idea was to have the main object – the giant sword surrounded by the village – in the middle of my screen and some parts of the giant that held the sword, some cogs, and pipes around it on the ground.
After I got my first composition, I started making some elements in Blender like the sword, blockouts of the houses, and other props; to sculpt the rocky islands and the giant's head, I used ZBrush. In the beginning, I wasn't sure as to what the giant was made of (it could be a rock giant but mechanical inside) and it was only later that I decided to pick the Iron Giant as a reference. Also, my mentors told me that metal was better because it would create more color and material variation in my scene; if it was a rock giant, it would probably have the same color as the island and ground.
As things progressed, I changed my camera settings a bit to have a more cinematic ratio and brought the scene closer to my final composition.
I used Blender to create a basemesh of everything. When working on the sword, I tried different shapes, and as I said, I wasn't really sure about the material of the giant, so at first, it was a rock sword. Once I made my basemesh in Blender, I used ZBrush to make refine the shape and add some details. As I was making a stylized scene, I mostly used Orb Brushes because, well, they are really good.
I also had an idea to break the sword and make the broken parts floating in the air like islands which you can see in my initial interations. Once I decided to change the material of the giant, I chose something close to copper for the sword to add a steampunk vibe (I love steampunk) and the shape was simplified to what you can see in my final render.
Due to the size of the hero prop, sculpt was not enough for detailing, so I used a second layer of texture for the moss with some ivy meshes and edge decals to add extra detail.
The rest of the props followed my basic routine: first, a basemesh in Blender, then import and sculpting in ZBrush, a quick retopology in Blender, and UVs and baking in Marmoset Toolbag. Once the bake is done I use Substance Painter to create my textures and Photoshop to add another layer of hand-paint. In the end, I import everything in Unreal Engine.
For the houses, the windmill, and some other props (like the bridge or fences) I made an atlas for the wood so that I could assemble everything in Blender and make different props using the same set. I used the wooden parts and other assets to build the houses around the foundation and a Lattice modifier to get a better-looking shape.
Using my Wood and House parts kits, I created 4 different houses: a standard house (more like a cube), a long house, an "L shape" house, and a tall house. With all of those, it was really easy to build the village.
For the islands, rocks, cliffs, etc. I basically followed the same process.
As I wanted to get a Ghibli style, I was looking for a way to including reflect it in my textures. Fortunately, Jimmy Malachier released an awesome tutorial on how to make Ghibli-style textures in Substance Designer, and I used it as a guide. I also found a really nice close-up screenshot of Hotel Adriano in Porco Rosso that I used as my main reference. Of course, the colors are a bit different because I adjusted them to fit my taste.
The main difficulty was to get the watercolor effect that you can see in many Ghibli movies and in Miyazaki's artworks. I came up with the idea of using slope blur and grunge maps in my textures but it was still really hard to recreate that same style.
I used Substance Designer to create the bricks, the plaster, the ground dirt of my terrain, the rock texture, and the moss; the rest was made with Substance Painter and Photoshop.
Texturing the props was simple: I wanted to have bright colors but not too saturated, so I added a base color, a curvature to highlight the edges with a slope blur filter to create a more "watercolor" look, and an AO map to reinforce the shaded areas. Then, I used a grunge map to add some variation into my textures and create the watercolor effect when some areas are darker or lighter due to the amount of water used during painting.
Once my texturing in Substance Painter was done I imported my base color into Photoshop to add an extra layer of hand-paint to it and rework the edges or shaded areas that SP didn't reach.
In Unreal Engine, I made a simple shader only using the base color, metallic, roughness, and normal and mixed the texture nodes with the heightLerp node so that I could use vertex paint to play with what I made in Substance Designer. This way, I could add more moss onto my houses and blend the brick and plaster textures together.
For the rocks (also, cliffs and islands), I reused the same shader as a base but with a few nodes that allowed me to add moss on top using the normal texture and remove it with vertex paint if I wanted.
Making the foliage was a bit tricky for me because I am not well familiar with the process, so I gathered as much information as I could. During the production of my scene, I also came across a really nice landscape made by David Holland and found a lot of interesting tips there; it was really helpful to find it in the middle of my project.
All my foliage shapes were made in Photoshop with the amazing brushes from Madeleine Bellwoar. For the trees, I used the custom normals technique that I learned from one of my teachers, Romain Durand. But as I used Blender and he uses Maya, I had to adapt that workflow according to my needs.
First, I made a simple shape using three planes to create the leaves, then I made a blob using a sphere and deformed it with the sculpting tool in Blender. Then I scattered the leaves using the particle instance/system, scaled the blob, and selected the leaves to transfer the normals of the blob to them. Remember to select your "sphere" mesh (in my case, the blob) as the source object and check Face Corner Data and Custom Normals. I recommend watching this nice tutorial made by David from Lightning Boy Studio to learn more about scattering with a particle system and custom normals:
The grass and flowers were more tricky, I used Subsurface Color so I had some issues with the color and shadows. I decided to remove the two-sided option in my shader because it was causing problems and I got better results without it. To have the grass texture on both sides of my mesh, I simply duplicated my plane, flipped the normals, and rotated them up.
For the grass shader, I checked Jess Hider's tips on how she created her shader and added a few more things to it.
For the ivy, I used this pack from Dmitriy Dryzhak, his ivy assets are really cool and they fit into my scene.
The lighting was not that complicated, the sun lights everything. I used a DirLight, then checked how Jasmin Habezai-Fekri's set up her lighting – she used a second DirLight to fade and color the shadows – and followed the same process. I used warm orange/yellow for the main light and a colder blue light for the shadows.
I used a Skylight with a Custom cubemap that brightened everything and made the shadows less dark. Also, for the lighting and especially shadows for the foliage, I used Mesh Distance Field – combined with the custom normals this is what helped me give the trees the Ghibli style.
Besides that, I used some Point lights, mostly near the fences and the sign to light up those areas a bit because they were too dark and also create some nice highlights on those assets.
The fog was my biggest struggle in this project. Since my scene is located in the sky and has large floating islands in the sea of clouds, I needed to get the right atmosphere and it was a real pain. I had to play a lot with the post-process settings, the Atmospheric Fog to fade the islands, the Exponential Height Fog, and some local fogs using particle systems to get what I was looking for.
For post-processing, I just reset the exposure by setting the Min Brightness to 1.0 and the Max Brightness to 1.0, added some color grading and a Post-Process Sharpening Material:
Adding Subtle Animation
To breathe life into my scene, I added some movements to it. I made a simple wind effect using Jess Hilder's method – one of its purposes was to create the white lines indicating the wind that you can see in some anime movies, for example, in Princess Mononoke.
The water and the wind trail particles were made following Dean Ashford's tutorials on his YouTube channel. I added rotation to the windmill and cogs using blueprints.
Building the World
Regarding the global composition, I wanted to tell a story and make the world feel believable by putting and bounding everything together. That's why I tried to justify everything, like the village using the cogs and pipes from the giant to generate power with steam, the village's name taken after the giant, the earth break and floating islands created by it – I wanted to build a complete world and not just some things here and there because I like to tell stories through my environments.
So building the village around the sword was an interesting idea because it made sense and helped with composition: the long straights lines of the sword lead to the village and the "visual noise" of the village brings attention back to the sword, leads to the giant's hand and the head. And the more you progress in the image, the more you can feel the story of this world.
I think adding the cogs was also a great idea because it bounds the machinery of the giant with the villagers who used the parts for their needs. Putting in those kinds of elements is really important because small details can add storytelling and enhance the scene.
It was really interesting to work on this project, I learned a lot of new things and improved my skills. It was my first time making stylized VFX and I picked up a lot from the tutorials. The main challenges were the texturing and the ambiance. I knew creating a world in the Ghibli style would be hard and some people warned me about the challenge but I always wanted to do something like that. Luckily, a lot of talented artists made some really cool stuff in the Ghibli style and I could learn from them. I improved my skills in sculpting and texturing, got better at composition. I put a lot of time and effort into this project.
Thank you for reading the article, I hope you enjoyed it!