Eduardo Aguirre shared the production details of his 3D environment Hitman House made in UE4, ZBrush, 3ds Max, and Substance Painter with the help of Quixel Megascans.
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Hi there, my name is Eduardo Aguirre, and I am an environment artist from Monterrey, Mexico. I got a degree in Graphic Design and Animation and while I was still studying, I landed my first job which started my career as a 3D artist. It was at a local outsourcing studio where I had the opportunity to work on various projects with different art styles and technical limitations.
Hitman House: Idea and Goals
I started this project around 6 months ago, and it means a lot to me because it was my first real dive into the whole environment creation process and Unreal Engine workflow, although initially the scope of the project was not focused on creating a full environment. At first, I was only planning on creating a small scene in Marmoset Toolbag attempting to replicate the amazing concept by Michal Kus, from which I immediately wanted to sculpt all the details and different materials.
But then as I continued working, I suddenly wanted to add some grass into the scene, and then after thinking about it for a while I decided that maybe some movement would be nice, such as particles and moving trees. So, I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me to finally learn Unreal Engine and create a full environment.
Then in just a few days, my initial plan and goal changed drastically and now I needed to learn how to navigate the engine, how to properly set up my models with lightmaps, and how to create foliage since I had very little experience in creating vegetation for games.
For my references, I used the workflow by Tim Simpson on his Polygon Academy Youtube channel; in the videos, he showcases the whole process of creating his environment for the Artstation Feudal Japan Challenge. I would really recommend watching his videos since they have helped me a lot in understanding his process and how he creates mood and reference boards. His videos were even a huge source of motivation for me to keep going on when I felt stuck.
Modeling the House
For the main house, I first made a blockout version in 3ds Max with all of the “attachments” and then imported it into ZBrush since it was very important for me to sculpt details where all of the pieces made contact with each other.
For the wall damage, I separated the bricks and grout into different subtools and then I just had to chip away the wall. I made sure to store a morph target or add a layer so I could go back if something was not looking right.
Once I had the main house structure, I started defining the shapes of other props in 3ds Max – for some of these I really like using an FFD modifier or soft selection to give them a more interesting silhouette. This can be done before starting the sculpting process or even applied after baking, it depends on the mesh and how you feel about the main shape.
For the roof, I sculpted 8 different tiles so I could get enough texture variation. Then I baked them out in a 2k texture and duplicated them manually. I really felt they were a focal point in the scene and I was aiming for a “chunky” feel to them, so I decided on this workflow instead of trying to go for a tiling texture.
Vegetation was pretty intimidating for me at the beginning since I was unsure of how to proceed or which workflow would be correct. While searching for examples and tutorials, I found Peyton Varney's approach. He shared an awesome foliage tutorial pdf which was super useful, and I pretty much followed it throughout the way. I only sculpted my main base in ZBrush from scratch and added polypaint so I could render out a Base Color which later could be refined in Substance or Photoshop.
After baking my textures in ZBrush, I applied them to a plane in 3ds Max and started separating them into different cards. Then I could start applying Bend modifiers to them and assembling the whole plant.
Trees were probably the hardest for me to get right, and I still feel there is a lot of improvement to be done. I followed the same workflow but started grouping the cards in branches made from geometry and then duplicating them along the main trunk.
For the placement of the foliage in the scene, I started using the foliage painting tools in Unreal, but I found that it was really hard for me to control the outcome and so I decided to add almost all of the plants by hand. I really wanted the smaller plants growing in the front and then I could gradually make them bigger and larger as they got further away from the main road.
I worked on the textures of the house in Substance Painter, and I also imported the blockout of other props since I wanted to hand paint custom grunge and leakage in the areas of contact.
While working on the roof tiles, I found it better to import the individual tiles next to the whole set. This made it easier for me to identify the unique tiles and hand paint details while watching in real time the whole roof set updating.
For the props, I also used Substance Painter and I made some smart materials that really helped me maintain the scene unified. It saved me a lot of time since I just had to make small tweaks in most textures.
This was really my first time using Substance Designer so I ended up following some of Daniel Thiger’s amazing tutorials and a bunch of other online tutorials on how to create simple but effective materials because I planned on blending them inside of Unreal.
For the ground material, I used the amazing vertex blend material from Quixel Megascans. Since the ground was a landscape mesh, I just had to export it from Unreal and reimport it like any other common 3D object (I don’t know if there is another workaround for this). After that, I was able to apply the material and it worked perfectly for what I needed! It allowed me to vertex blend up to 3 textures, included a puddles channel, and provided me with full control over the materials with different parameters. It is super powerful and you can get some amazing results from using it.
When it came to the final stage of the project, playing with the lighting and laying everything out in the scene was where I spent most of my time. I went through a lot of iterations and even tried a bunch of different lighting scenarios. I really wanted to try to create a rainy or an overcast feel, and watching how Wiktor Öhman worked on his forest scene in UE4 really helped me a lot since he breaks down a lot of his settings and post-production decisions and it was very useful for me to get an idea of how to approach this.
For the composition, I started setting my cameras and I knew that the house had to be the focal point, but I also wanted to focus a lot on the foliage and vegetation, that’s why I started setting some cameras focusing on these elements too. Some of the shots were discovered by just moving the camera around and finding nice spots which then I could polish.
My main goal was to try to get the best out of every corner and shot, by telling even the simplest stories, like a ladder being chained to the window to prevent it from being stolen or some wood left from building the fence.
So, with this mindset, I created a reference board in PureRef with random images of small details I thought would add interest to the scene. This made it easier for me to think of little stories that I could add to the scene to make it feel a lot more convincing, and it all just started coming together after spending some time on it.
The camera shake was an easy effect to pull off with blueprints. First, you need to create a Blueprint and then search for “camera shake”. There you can control various parameters depending on the strength and duration of the effect, and then just assign the blueprint to your camera inside the sequencer in Unreal. You can check the tutorial below, it's super easy and fast to set up:
My main challenge during the whole production was that I needed to learn a lot of new techniques along the way because I didn’t have a lot of experience in working with vegetation and this whole scene depended largely on that. Even working with Substance Designer or learning everything in Unreal was crazy.
I think I spent around 6 months building the whole environment, working in my spare time because I had a full-time job at the time. There were days when I had no energy left to work on this scene after my day job, but it brought me to an understanding of how daily small progress sums up at the end.
If I could give some advice to anyone starting out their first environment – don't get attached to any ideas, don't be afraid of making changes in the scene, keep trying new stuff and you will learn a lot more. I found this helped me the most when I was feeling stuck or just unhappy about the scene. Also asking for feedback is particularly important during the whole process, even if you ask a friend who doesn't work as an artist. It might help you notice stuff that you were not thinking about.
Thanks a lot for reading! And I really hope that you could take something interesting or useful from all of this. I am always open to feedback or questions in case I did not explain some parts correctly!