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How to Create a Photorealistic Grand Terrain in Unreal Engine

Gal Ravid-Tal has shared with us how to create a grand landscape using UE, which is a look-dev project inspired by photos of Glaramara, featuring dramatic clouds, diverse grass hues, and a blend of smooth and sharp stones and cliffs.


Hi! I'm Gal Ravid-Tal, a 3D/Unreal Generalist & Compositor, currently working at Platige Image. My experience includes movies, TV shows, commercials, and product visualizations.

Some of my recent favorite projects are Netflix's Obliterated TV series, a commercial for the Lamborghini Revuelto, and a short animated film titled Mossies: Catching Art, produced by Platige Image.

My journey into 3D art began with a deep love for video games, movies, and traveling. I was driven by the desire to bring my imagination to life. Initially, I started with a camera, learning the basics of composition, framing, and lens settings. This foundational knowledge led me to the IAC, where I joined a course in 3D animation. There, I acquired skills in modeling, texturing, look development, and rendering.

Following my studies, I began working at YASHINSKI Studio. This experience expanded my knowledge of compositing and improved my generalist skill set. 

My passion for 3D art continues to grow as I am exposed to more artists, workflows, and techniques. I am dedicated to continuing learning and development, and I thoroughly enjoy the creative journey every day.

Why Unreal Engine?

I chose Unreal Engine due to the incredibly fast and visually stunning results it enables. This speed allows me to create many more iterations, test new ideas, and do it all, without spending precious time waiting for renders. The ability to see my lighting, change material properties, and test new composition ideas in real-time is a huge game-changer for me.

The recent updates, particularly with Nanite and Lumen, have significantly enhanced the artists' experiences. It let artists focus more on the artistic side, rather than dealing with technical difficulties and limitations that were prevalent before. Moreover, Unreal Engine is gaining popularity in the VFX and Virtual Production industry, making it an essential tool for any artist's toolbox.

About the Project

This project, like many others, began with an idea or reference that sparked my imagination. My inspiration comes mostly from nature, movies and video games, and this time, I was looking over some pictures of landscapes from Glaramara. The dramatic clouds, varying hues of grass, the mix of both smooth and sharp stones, and cliffs created an incredibly inspiring image. This project provided a fantastic opportunity to practice environment creation, lighting, and look development. Here's how I approached it:


I started by gathering images of the same or similar locations under different lighting conditions, from dark, overcast skies to clear, sunny days. This helped me understand the varying values across the landscape, allowing me to accurately set the shader parameters to match my references.

Shapes and Composition

I studied both professional photography and everyday images to set my virtual camera, as though it were truly there. I aimed to replicate a cinematic drone movement, which is commonly seen today, alongside capturing the natural feel of a real moment in life. I also focused on the silhouettes of the mountains and the spaces between them to ensure a natural look during the layout stage in 3D.


Analyzing images in various weather conditions and times of day allowed me to determine the physical properties, such as specularity, colors, and the intensity of bump/displacement maps to emulate a natural look. Consistency across different lighting scenarios was crucial before moving to post-production coloring or compositing.

Since I was working with real nature as a reference, I had a clear benchmark to gauge whether I was heading in the right direction. It provided me a solid foundation for my work, which I could then tweak artistically as the project progressed.

Developing an Advanced Material System for Unreal Engine

I created this material system out of a need for greater control. My goal was to develop a non-destructive layering system with custom masks for blending materials, RGB masks for isolating complex assets, and enhanced variation and breakup control for material properties.

Overcoming Traditional Limitations

The traditional material system in Unreal Engine requires you to pre-determine the number of layers and name parameters, and makes it difficult to make changes or updates in more complex setups. My system addresses these limitations, by utilizing Unreal Engine's layering system more effectively.

Key Features and Benefits

My material system allows the creation of a master layer setup with necessary parameters, which can then be transferred to all other layers as instances. Instead of manually updating each layer's parameters, I simply apply the newly added parameters to streamline changes across the board. This approach significantly reduces time spent on development and debugging.

Modular Workflow with Material Functions

I heavily use Material Functions to store different components, parameters, and functionalities. Each function is responsible for a specific aspect, promoting a modular workflow. This modularity makes the material graph cleaner and easier to read, enhancing both usability and efficiency.

About the Whole Scene

Layout & Composition

I began by creating layouts, using my Gaea models as static meshes, rotating, scaling, and transforming them to get a continuous landscape. This dynamic approach allowed me to place elements in different locations, rather than try to have one object to cover everything and by referring to my initial references, I ensured that my layout preserved the desired landmarks.

I centered the scene around a main hero mountain, surrounded by a supportive environment to provide an open view of the area. The relatively flat hero mountain created a natural separation between the primary subject and other areas of the scene.

To emphasize the scale, I created slow camera movements to mimic a drone shot. Using closer foreground objects and distant mountains enhanced the parallax effect, adding depth and interest to the scene.


Lighting was the most enjoyable aspect of this project, and I dedicated significant time to it. My goal was to have a cloudy day with some sun rays breaking through, creating natural contrast and playing a crucial role in the composition and viewer engagement. To replicate natural lighting, I used an HDRI Backdrop for both the scene background and indirect lighting, mimicking the sky's bounce light. For the key sunlight, I choose to use a directional light to control the sun's direction and intensity, offering precise control for the desired effect.


For atmosphere and volumetrics, I utilized Height Fog with adjusted settings for density, scattering distribution, and height falloff to achieve the desired look. My objective was to utilize built-in tools within Unreal Engine, keeping the process relatively simple, while ensuring high quality and flexibility to make changes as needed.

Time Spent

My material system has been in development for the past six months (on and off) as I continually strive to improve, refine, and optimize it.

Challenges & Vision

The main challenges I face revolve around clearly identifying what I want to include in the system, having a clear vision for the settings, parameters, and workflow that will enable artists to work efficiently and maximize their results. To achieve this, I create small personal projects, each with different requirements, to cover a broad spectrum of user needs. I am documenting notes and comments for further development and debugging.

Working with materials in Unreal Engine comes with limitations in shader calculations, so, I must carefully consider each additional feature. Optimization is key, ensuring that any new functionality does not compromise performance.

Future Plans & Community Engagement

Given that Unreal Engine's material and look development controls are somewhat limited compared to other software, I plan to create a demo and tutorial to showcase my material system. I intend to sell it on various platforms, making it accessible to other artists and developers. I'm eager to receive feedback and see if others find it as useful as I do.

Advice for Aspiring Developers

For anyone looking to create something similar, here are some tips:

  • Define your needs: Clearly outline the main parameters and functionalities you require. This focus will help you stay on track and quickly assess your progress.
  • Test with small projects: Use small projects to test your system. This approach helps identify what works and what needs improvement across different assets and levels.
  • Stress tests: Anticipate extreme use cases where the system might fail.
  • Document these scenarios to understand the limitations and address them later, ensuring a stable tool.

Recommended Resources

I highly recommend the YouTube channels Procedural Minds and Hoj Dee, which cover complex topics in an accessible way, making it easy to follow along and learn.to follow along.

Gal Ravid-Tal, 3D Generalist / Unreal Artist & Compositor

Interview conducted by Gloria Levine

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