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How to Create a Nostalgic and Melancholic Apartment Scene in UE5

In his detailed breakdown of the Eastern Europe Building: Echoes of Decay, Yaroslav Paslavskiy Danko shares his process of creating this realistic, nostalgic scene. He emphasizes the balance between realism and coherence, along with the adjustment of color and roughness variations for storytelling purposes.


Hello! My name is Yaroslav Paslavskiy Danko, and I'm a self-taught environmental artist with a degree in Multimedia Engineering. I was born in Ukraine but grew up in Spain. Interestingly, this background has been crucial for the development of the project "Eastern Europe Building: Echoes of Decay", for which 80 Level has given me the wonderful opportunity to speak about.

To better understand how the achieved result you currently see on ArtStation was accomplished, I consider it necessary to provide a brief introduction about myself. If you want to go straight to the juicy part, you can skip ahead to the next section. That said, let's get into it!

Despite being born in Ukraine and having been exposed to its culture, people, and architecture, I grew up in Spain with a computer at home, playing everything I could get my hands on, from floppy disk video games to the typical flash games on internet gaming websites.

My deep interest in 3D began during a gaming session of The Witcher 3, when in the middle of the game, I had to leave the house to handle a chore. I paused the game and changed from my house clothes to street clothes, opting for something warm because it was raining, although I decided not to take an umbrella since it wasn't raining that heavily. After all, it was just going to be a quick moment. 

My surprise came when I stepped outside and realized it wasn't raining at all; it was a warm, sunny day typical of the Mediterranean. However, it was pouring rain in my game of The Witcher 3. I was so immersed in the game that I believed what was happening in the game was happening outside, on the street.

From then on, I knew I wanted to create immersive worlds and convey the same feeling that gaming sessions gave me.

From there, I experimented with 3D a little, but it wasn't until I took a 3D subject in the Multimedia Engineering degree at the University of Alicante that I realized it was what I wanted to fully dedicate myself to. However, the foundation provided to me in this regard was minimal, so I decided to solidify my knowledge by taking the Environment Art master's program at Voxel School Madrid, where I gained basic notions of 3D. After that, I dedicated myself to learning more about the techniques and tools used in this field on my own, building upon a strong technical foundation from my engineering degree and a sense of composition and color from my hobby of photography and videography.

Beginning of the Project

The beginning of this project is quite a rollercoaster. My goal was to create an environment to consolidate the techniques I already knew and to apply others I hadn't yet worked with. I started with a realistic environment based on a concept art. But after two weeks, struggling in the second one with the perspective and feeling dissatisfied, I made the decision to pivot the project.

I took a couple of days to think about a new direction and ended up with the idea of creating a typical Eastern European staircase block, where I had the opportunity to live for a while and where I knew I could receive direct feedback from my family, as they spent a significant part of their lives there. This project particularly motivated me not only because I could materialize a piece of myself, but also because I was excited about the idea of being able to convey the same feelings that these buildings evoke in me: a sense of nostalgia and melancholy.

References from real photos, a contemporary interior environment, and modular modeling were all new challenges for me; and I was highly motivated. I started by defining the What, Why, Who, and Where, an exercise I recommend to all artists for every project to help visualize the desired outcome.

It was the first time I didn't have a concept art to guide me, so, I began to search for as many photo references from these buildings as possible, placing them on my PureRef board and creating a mental image of how I wanted the result to look (in addition to finding references for props and textures). As a curious fact, I searched these photos using the Russian search engine "Yandex." This ensured that I worked with sources as close to my objective as possible.

Additionally, I used Excel to track the props I wanted/needed to create and a Trello board to keep track of all the tasks I had to do. It was a bit rudimentary, but since I was the only person working on this project, it served its purpose. Although I must admit I'm guilty of not always keeping it up to date every day.


Once I had enough references, I began creating the blockout of my scene in 3ds Max, using architectural blueprint photos of a specific type of Eastern building called "четырех этажк" (four-story building). This initial iteration of the building was very simple and essentially a single block. However, from this point, I started planning and breaking it down into individual modules such as walls, railings, doors, windows, and stairs. Both these modules and the future ones I would implement were iterated upon throughout the project to meet the needs of the scene, while also giving them personality and storytelling elements.

Since scales and measurements are very important in modularity, I used ChatGPT to ask about the measurements of different assets. I had to create and back up its response either by searching it on the internet or measuring it myself with a tape measure. I highly recommend this to all artists: using a tape measure to measure what you need on your own, or at least corroborating what you find on the internet, as it ensures that everything is consistently sized, shaping your mind to it.

With a considerable amount of modules ready, I imported them into Unreal Engine 5 with very simple lights and created a couple of super basic camera shots without overthinking. Some gave me a vision of the environment to see what state it was in, and others were identical to the references that I wanted to recreate no matter what.

Textures & Materials

With the building assembled, it was time to start adding color!

In the past, I had delved into Substance 3D Designer briefly, but this time, I wanted to fully immerse myself in it. I decided that the best step before diving into the nodes was to understand what each of them did, so, I took a day to get to know them. I simply opened a new project, my notepad, the Designer documentation, and went through each node, reading, taking notes, and above all, understanding. This is an exercise I highly recommend. It's an investment in yourself and your knowledge.

This tile floor texture follows a very logical procedure: a base is created and then built upon. We use a tile sampler to get the tiles, add edge wear, as well as modify the heights of each tile. Then, we introduce the concrete between these tiles, add unique breaks and roughness, and finish with the color.

One mistake I realized towards the end of the project is that it's not worth wasting a lot of time trying to make the material look as realistic as possible, thinking that if the color of a tile isn't perfectly saturated, the material's credibility is lost; not at all.

Obviously, it depends on the project one is facing and its objectives, but I realized that the most important thing was, for all objects, to have coherence and complement each other, with none standing out above the others and simply fulfilling their function: that you believe it. If the texture you see in the viewport convinces you, once you place it in your scene in UE5, combine it with other textures, different props and decals, and add good lighting, it will look realistic.

Still, one shouldn't underestimate the result of a good texture. In this sense, what I consider a realistic outcome is:

Color: Ensuring the color has variations, that is, that it changes constantly and isn't just a flat color. If you look at any real material, no matter how simple the color, it has slight variations in it. These variations are what we want to achieve in our textures but be careful that, when adding many small details to the texture, they don't become noise when viewed from a distance. So, it's about finding the balance between small and large-scale details.

Roughness: This goes hand in hand with color, and like color, all materials in the real world have variations in roughness, however minimal they may be (unless they come from a factory). What's most important to consider with this attribute is that it has a significant importance in terms of storytelling. A slight variation in this map can imply that a texture has gone through a completely different life, so, this attribute should be worked with great awareness.

The rest of the maps are no less important; they all have to work together to maximize a material. However, I consider these two to be the fundamental pillars that require the most attention, because if either of these two falls apart, the material may not stand out as much.

Regarding the other textures made and also the work in Substance 3D Painter, I won't delve into it too much because this can extend too far, but basically, I followed the principles I just mentioned.

One thing I find interesting with this program is working with decals as they were some of the elements that gave the most personality to the scene. These can be distinguished into three groups: "Graffitis" — the writings on the walls, "Stickers" — the posters, papers, and banners, and "Dirt" — encompassing dirt, breaks, and leakings.

These decals were sourced from the internet (web search engines and Textures.com), then simply run through Photoshop to extract their masks and/or normals. The graffiti, I made it myself.

When implementing them in Painter, removing some generators that I changed and/or modified to my liking, I followed this very useful and well-explained tutorial from FastTrack. Highly recommended!

Now for the juicy part, the materials in Unreal Engine!

My goal was to increase my knowledge when it came to making these materials and to try to keep them as simple and organized as possible. So, I created a very simple base material into which the corresponding textures (albedo, normal, and ORM) could be inserted and their color, map intensity/values, and tiling modified.

The rest of the more complex materials are based on this first material, one of them, and in my opinion the most remarkable, as it is applied to the walls and achieves that characteristic half-painted wall typical of buildings in Eastern European countries, is the "Vertex Gradient".

This material, as its name suggests, has two parts, the first being the "Vertex Paint" with a "Height Blend", where the base texture is the white wall onto which you can paint breaks on one channel and dirt on another. Both are parameterizable.

The other part, of course, is the gradient, which takes the textures from the base texture and allows you to change its parameters by adding the gradient's own, such as its height or the way it transitions.

Additionally, there's the material that allows you to add various textures based on the RGB mask you implement, being able to personalize the textures of each channel.

To use this material, simply apply the colors Red, Green, and Blue to the asset in Painter according to how you want the textures to be displayed, and apply the resulting mask to the material. Then, add the textures you need as if it were a basic material, and voilà.

I made a few more materials, but they don't have anything noteworthy that I haven't already mentioned.

Final Touches

By this point, it's true that I had already put together a scene that looked "decent," and both the 3D models and textures lightly told the story of the building. However, it was time to refine the storytelling by adding decals and additional props.

When placing them throughout the scene, I simply took real photos, personal experiences and memories, and even family anecdotes as references. Finally, I relied on my imagination: I envisioned the story of each floor, how the entrance of the building witnessed a significant flow of both residents and even visitors from outside, the wear and tear of the stairs, railings, mailboxes... the indifference towards keeping the building clean and organized, as evidenced by the scattered bottles and cans, the untouched wiring since the day it was installed, or how all the walls were graffitied, and even how people wanted to express their stories like the corner of the top floor or the wall painted by a girl with a cat living in the building... All these kinds of things!

Getting Ready for the Photos!

The end of the project was approaching; it was time to showcase it! 

I knew I wanted two types of setups: day-time and night-time, each with a different atmosphere and color palette, but both conveying those feelings of nostalgia and melancholy that I pursued, in addition to looking as realistic as possible, highlighting the work done with the materials. 

To achieve the exact result I wanted, I read several blogs and articles to help me better understand how lighting works in UE5. I watched several videos, but the one that helped me the most and that I highly recommend is William Fauscher's (I highly recommend his channel overall).

For my day-time setup, my lights consisted of the typical: Directional Light, Exponential Fog, Sky Atmospher, and Sky Light with a couple of RectLights in the windows to emphasize the incoming light from outside even more.

An important tip I want to give, which I realized at a very late rendering stage, is that camera angle matters a lot in emphasizing the materials. Depending on how you position the camera, you will receive light rays that bounce off the materials in one way or another.

It's something very obvious but very easy to overlook.

For the night-time setup, I adjusted the parameters of the existing lights to lower values and cooler colors, and I added Point Lights to illuminate the bulbs. In this case, I experimented extensively with the intensity of these point lights and their indirect light to achieve the desired result.

For this atmosphere, I did add several additional RectLights to further emphasize the texture of the materials, as I didn't have the daylight to do so.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Time to take photos!

This is where my hobby of photography comes into play. As I mentioned at the beginning, I didn't have all the camera shots set up from the beginning; in fact, several of them were provisional. The reason for this is that I like to experiment when taking the final camera shots. Just like in real life, I enjoy moving around the scene, finding the best position for a photo, determining which lighting suits it best, and even considering the time of day. The great thing about this is that you can adjust the parameters of the camera you're using. It's like going out on the street in real life and being able to use any camera with any lens you want. It's wonderful!

Finally, with the renders from Unreal Engine done, I wanted to further emphasize the realism of the scene and refine the color correction, using Adobe Lightroom. This could be done with Unreal, but for convenience, I preferred the Adobe program.

Furthermore, at this stage, I chose a color palette that I liked for each environment and followed the rules of different color schemes. As an additional detail, I always like to add a slight chromatic aberration and grainy noise to make the photo appear more like it was taken with a real camera rather than with software.

The result obtained is one that I am more than proud of. And something that makes me very happy is knowing that I have achieved the initial goal of this environment: to convey a feeling of nostalgia and melancholy. All the feedback received, both from family members and from online people who live/have lived in this type of building, has been overwhelmingly positive (Yay!).


In terms of total hours, completing the entire project has taken me just under a month and a half. However, due to working simultaneously and considering this as an additional project, in real time it would be counted as just over three months.

Throughout this time, I've been learning and refining my skills as an artist, with the goal of creating a realistic and above all believable scene being the one that has given me the most headaches. Additionally, creating a modular scene has also been no easy task; a lot of time has been spent researching the sizes of the different elements of the project and fitting them all together.

In conclusion, the entire development of this project has been an experience that was more than interesting, bringing me closer to the less glamorous (but very realistic and present) side of the culture I come from.

I conclude this project with the lesson learned that one should not obsess over everything being perfect down to the smallest detail. While it's true that good work must be done, it's the sum of the individual parts that makes the result exquisite. Therefore, the most important thing is to have a clear idea of the result you want to achieve, have plenty of (useful) references, and most importantly, constantly seek feedback, as your eye becomes accustomed to what it sees and begins to overlook important details or can harm you by making you believe that what you're doing isn't enough when it's not the case.

Many thanks to 80 Level for this tremendous opportunity. I've had a great time writing about this project and sharing details that I don't usually discuss. If you've found anything I've talked about interesting, you can follow me on ArtStation, LinkedIn, or Twitter for more content.

I hope that if you've made it this far, you've learned something, no matter how little!

Yaroslav Paslavskiy Danko, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Gloria Levine

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