Home Scene: Assets and Lighting Appoach

Home Scene: Assets and Lighting Appoach

Lea Kronenberger did a detailed breakdown of her cute Home environment, discussed her workflow with assets from various packs, shared her approach to setting the right mood and light settings. 

Introduction

Hi! I’m Lea Kronenberger, a 3D artist based in Essen, Germany. I love creating game environments, playing around with new tools, and trying out different workflows.
Before doing this, I was originally an architectural draftswoman and then decided to study Game Art at SAE Institute to follow my passion for 3D Art.
Since then, I’ve been working as 3D Artist for small companies and doing freelance work on the side.
At the end of last year, I was hired as a 3D Art Lead at Frictional Games and been happily working there ever since!

About the Home Environment

I discovered the Artbreeder AI a couple of months ago and had the idea of using a generated image from it soon after. It just seemed like a really exciting idea for practicing new things.
Usually, I struggle with creating scenes without concept and since I’m no good at concept art myself, I thought it would be cool to try a randomly generated scene as a concept instead. So I generated a couple of images and then just chose one that I thought seems interesting to do. I experimented with some simple color changes in Affinity Photo but ended up creating a different mood later on.

The rough concept generated with Artbreeder AI.

Color adjusted rough concept, I ended up changing the mood later on.

I decided to look into my Unreal Marketplace library and downloaded just everything that seemed fitting. The main object needed to be custom-built though because I wanted to have at least one thing made myself, and also it would have been very hard to find something like this in third party assets.

For the landscape and set dressing, I didn’t use any additional references and filled the blanks out by what felt fitting. For the clay hut, I used a couple of detailed references but didn’t put too much effort in since it is only seen from afar and not really my goal for this piece. Although I had a small reference board for some detail, that I mostly discarded in the process, but more about this is further below.

Small reference board for the hut

Layout of the Scene

Basic landscape sculpting at an early stage

The landscape was sculpted inside Unreal with the regular landscape tools, and then I used the mountain distance mesh from the Brushify - Environment Shaders Pack and another from Landscape Backgrounds pack all around the scene to cover the background. The transitions are mostly covered up with big trees and simple planes with a water material from the pack, Water Materials.

Landscape setup overview

Early on, I placed a couple of assets from various asset packs manually to fit the composition and create a couple of small points of interest (mainly the thick cables, big foreground trees, and the other buildings) and then added a lot of more vegetation, rocks, and ground scatter with the foliage tool. 

My plan was to focus on the main shot composition first and ignore everything else, then moved on to adjust the landscape and objects around that, so I could have a closed environment and some support screenshots.

Support screenshots showing the area around

I didn’t care too much about the number of assets placed or that everything is perfect. The main goal was to have a nice level overall, so individual pieces didn’t matter that much.

The sculpted area for the hut placement at an earlier stage

For the hut, I had a placeholder mesh for the most time and adjusted the landscape around that to fit before I modeled the clay hut and modified parts of the scene to improve the final composition. For example, the hanging wires and some Megascans assets were only added at the very end to guide the viewer's eye a bit more towards the hut.

Breakdown of composition and guiding lines

Modeling

I created the main model in MODO with the MOP Boolean toolkit on a distorted cube with a bit of regular modeling, then smoothed it out and fixed some mesh issues by hand that the automatic boolean conversion didn’t handle well. Same as already mentioned above, I didn’t really care about having a perfect model here and tried to stay focused on my goals, so I moved on to high poly rather quickly.
I just started learning Houdini, so I used it to generate a high poly version of the hut and applied edge wear to it. For the UV Unwrap, I used The Ministry of Flat automatic UV Unwrap tool and baked the maps in Substance Painter, where I then just applied some different smart materials. 

The clay hut with hay sheets on top and dirt skirt that I both discarded later.

Rough texturing of the hut with details in Substance Painter. I changed the foil later to use another Substance inside Unreal.

The other hut details, like the windmill, were created in MODO as well, but with simple box modeling techniques. For those, I also used the automatic UV tool and some smart materials from my library. All those props don’t look perfect up close but that didn’t matter to me, as they still work for the shot.

The cables were created mostly with Blender, using different techniques that I wanted to try out: cables from regular curves, from extruded vertices and also just drawing them on with the grease pencil surface option - which was my favorite part of the whole project, so much fun! I also tried soft body physics on some of the cables in Houdini.
And I wanted to use Marvelous Designer again, so I came up with the idea that the additional windows in the hut would have been covered up by someone, and the fabric is taped so that only the entrance is free.

Some shots of the completed hut after final cables placement in Blender.

A bit about storytelling in this scene and how I mostly scrapped it in the end:
In my original plan, the fabric was a transparent foil with which I wanted to cover up half the entrance too to indicate that someone might have recently went inside. There’s also a manhole inside the hut. My initial thinking was that someone had taken over an abandoned old clay hut, somewhen in the future, and built new stuff around it. The inhabitant would live beneath this area and uses the hut as a weather-protected passage underground. 

While I liked this idea, and it helped me in the process of making the hut, I realized that I would need to put in way more time into this scene to make it look believable, understandable and looking good up close, but since this was supposed to be a quick practice, and I was already way too excited about the next project I’m working on now, I decided to let it go and only brought it to a state that is vague, but not too confusing - or at least I hope so!

Working with Assets 

My approach was to just open my Unreal marketplace library after I decided on the concept and add everything to a new project that seemed fitting for the environment.
I ended up importing a lot of stuff that I didn’t use in the end, but it provided me with a decent start. I didn’t buy any additional assets for this scene and used only the stuff that I either bought before or that came with the past couple of monthly freebie content.
The packs I ended up using were in no specific order:

  • Abandoned Factory
  • Amplify LUT Pack
  • Brushify Environment Shaders Pack
  • Chameleon Post FX
  • Construction VOL 1+2
  • Dekogon Toolshet Vol 1
  • Dark Forest
  • Dynamic Grass Lite
  • Flowers and Plants Nature Pack
  • Industry Props Pack
  • Particle Effects Demo
  • Landscape Backgrounds
  • Scifi Kitbash Level Builder
  • Spline: Ropes - Hoses - Cables
  • Water Materials
  • and some Megascans assets

 
From all of these, I only used only very few assets each.
As for the Megascans, I only added a few props at the very end (tree stump assets in the foreground, barrel, bench, and a small rocky surface prop) to give it a final touch. The plants and trees are from multiple different packs from the ones mentioned above. When creating an environment in a fairly realistic style, that doesn’t need to be photoreal, you can get away with lots of minor differences, and it’s easier to match third-party assets together for the project. I only tweaked a couple of textures directly inside Unreal to make them fit where needed, otherwise, I just used the assets as they are.
It was a really fun experience to work with so many different packs created by other wonderful artists.

Scene Assembly

I used a premade landscape material setup from the Brushify - Environment Shaders Pack and painted snow, dirt, and the other textures with it, using the landscape paint tool. Some of the bigger trees and other props are placed manually with drag & drop from the content browser and the surface snapping option. 

Overview of all hand placed assets, everything else is placed with the foliage tool

After that, I started painting all other details with the foliage tool, which I like to do a lot for super fast placement and iteration. I started with the bigger trees and bushes, then worked quite a while on painting the moving grass and ended up with placing very small vegetation props like flowers and ground scattering in some areas.

Overview of instances placed with the foliage tool.

I worked on landscape sculpting, painting, and foliage placement back and forth until I was happy with the results. After working on the hut and placing it in the level, I adjusted a couple of props to fit better with it and added more foliage painted details.

Rendering

At the start of the project, I decided to go for fully dynamic lighting, simply to not worry about baking and have super fast iteration times, but also because I think it makes sense for this outdoor scene. As for the basic lighting setup, I didn’t do anything special - it is just a simple directional light for the sun, a skylight to brighten up shadows, a point light for the hut, and a spotlight for the light generator prop, as well as a few helper lights that I placed for the final presentation. I adjusted the color, temperature, and volumetric scattering for most of these to get the desired look.

The dynamic lights on the cables came automatically with the Spline: Ropes - Hoses - Cables asset pack.

Lighting and effects setup

Throughout the making of this scene, I realized that I would like to go for more dynamic colors than in my initial concept. I looked for some mood references and found this awesome piece by Raphaëlle Deslandes, which I used as a rough mood guideline.

More snow artwork by Raphaëlle Deslandes as a rough mood guideline

For the skybox, I just used the default Unreal sky sphere, exponential height fog, and sky atmosphere blueprints. I enabled atmospheric fog and used an HDRI texture from the Flowers and Plants Nature Pack as inscattering color cubemap to get the fog blend nicely with the sky. Then I adjusted the atmosphere in the settings a little to move the lighting scenario more towards the end of the day sunlight instead of super bright midday sun.

The final look of the scene relies heavily on post effects and particles. 

For the main look, I used the default post-process volume with the SettingSun LUT from the AplifyLUTPack at the half intensity and a few other slightly modified settings for fine-tuning. 

The distance fog gradient was achieved with the Chameleon PostFX pack, from which I also used a sharpening effect.

Main mood setup

For further adjustments, I placed 5 fog sheets to help decreasing contrast in non-important areas and also to intensify the warm color near the hut. The snow and ground blow effects add a lot of movement and together with the moving grass that I used from the Dynamic Grass Lite pack are responsible for the scene looking very much alive instead of just static, which adds so much to the overall feel. All particle effects were taken from the Unreal Particle Effects Demo scene.

Lighting setup breakdown

At some point when working on a level, it becomes very hard to see potential issues yourself, so it is always a good idea to ask others for feedback. I can only recommend doing that, at any stage of a project really, but at least once before you call it done.
What I really like to do is to bring it to a stage where I would call it done and then ask others for their opinion. I got lots of valuable feedback with valid points on how to improve this scene from friends and in Discord groups and then changed the scene according to that.

So huge thanks again to all the wonderful people who helped me finish it!

Final stages of the project from what I initially called done (upper) to the final thing (lower) after multiple feedback rounds

Final stages of the project from what I initially called done (upper) to the final thing (lower) after multiple feedback rounds.

Challenges and Lessons

I definitely learned a lot about guiding the viewer’s eye in composition and what makes a scene look interesting. There were a couple of times that people pointed out why something looks weird to them, and when working to improve it, I realized why this is. For example, the hut “antenna” was on the far right and mirrored before, and it just didn’t work that well with the flow of the other guiding lines, so the main focus was shifting a bit too far to the right. Another example would be that I didn’t have a lot of other assets in there as a scaling reference, which made it super hard to see what the hut is supposed to be like. Even when I thought it was totally fine that it is a very vague object, adding some small things like a barrel and fence part helped a lot with the overall feel.

The main challenge with this piece for me was to really try and focus on the goals. I usually tend to get a little lost in details and it was hard for me to just stop modeling and texturing, even though I had a lot of ideas on how to improve it. Then, obviously, I challenged myself to create a good composition without proper concept art, which has always been difficult for me.

When dealing with open scenes, I think it’s important to focus on the main shapes first and not being afraid to change a lot of stuff even halfway through, before adding all the small details. You can create a very interesting looking image even with only basic rough shapes, and then you can improve from there. It also helps me when thinking of the scene from a player's view or rough gameplay perspective. For example, I would try to think how the player would go up to that hut, and then it was clear to me that I needed to add stairs, some kind of poles to mark the way up, and no large foliage that could be blocking the way. Decisions like this help a lot with making an environment believable.

As another example regarding composition: I had partly super-bright clouds before (see the middle shot of the above), which were stealing a lot of the attention that I rather wanted to be directed on the hut. When you realize a certain background asset gets in focus, it’s always good to try and tune it down, even if that means it can hardly be seen anymore.
A good composition should have clear focus points and all the other things are there to help with that.

An already mentioned above, I can’t recommend sharing and asking for feedback enough - it is so helpful to get insights of others on something you work on and especially when looking at a scene for very long, you just won’t notice some issues anymore, so it’s always helpful to have someone look at it with a fresh eye.

As a final comment, I just want to add that I really like finishing a scene up to a point on where I think it is done after applying all feedback, but then take a day or two, come back to it and add some final small touches to push it that tiny bit further before calling it done. I used to just upload a scene when it’s done and then found tiny things that would have been nice to add or change after that, so this approach feels much better to me, and I’m sure some of you can relate.

Lea Kronenberger, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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