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Mauriccio Torres talked about the things he learned during the CGMA course Organic World Building in UE4 with Anthony Vaccaro and did a breakdown of his winter environment. You can also read our previous interview with Mauriccio here: Ryan Benno’s Mentorship: Student Experience.
In Mauricco’s blog you will be able to find useful tutorials, detailed breakdowns, and tips to boost your creative process.
Hello! I’m Mauriccio Torres and I currently work as a Level Artist at Ubisoft Chengdu. I was born in Lima, Peru, and I got my bachelor’s degree in software engineering by the age of 22. While my background was very technical I’ve been always fascinated by art for games and eventually became a self-taught artist.
Just before graduating I founded a small game studio called UNF Games with some friends to level up our game-production skills. Since the industry in our country is very small we found that was the best way to sharpen our skills. We worked on several projects using Unreal Engine 4 and I was always responsible for 3D art. Thanks to this experience, I learned a lot not only about 3D but also the technical side of game production.
After almost 3 years of working at that studio, I decided to focus on environment art. I enrolled in Ryan Benno’s mentorship program and then the CGMA course Organic World Building in UE4 taught by Anthony Vaccaro. It was certainly costly, but as a self-taught artist, I can say that this decision was key to get better faster. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
The main goal for me was to get the necessary mindset and skills for the production of large environments. It is definitely different from working on props and other small projects since you need to work smarter in order to complete such a big task. And nowadays, there are a lot of large projects that task the artists with the production of very big worlds, so I felt that Organic World Building was the best choice for me (and it was).
Start of the Scene
The main idea was to create a scene in a very cold environment during winter. During the course, we also had to introduce some man-made elements to add an interesting contrast to the composition and tell a story. I decided to add some Japanese architecture since at that time ArtStation was hosting the Feudal Japan challenge. I took advantage of it and worked on both the course project and the challenge.
When I do the research, I focus on the primary, secondary and tertiary elements that my scene will use. After that, I make a very quick sketch of what could potentially work in it.
Just look at my 5-year-old drawing! It doesn’t have to be perfect as long as it helps your brain to organize the ideas you have in mind.
While the goal was to create a big world, we focused only on a small part of it. The idea was to have a vertical slice and all the necessary assets to expand the area if we have time. It is easy to fail in estimating how big your world should be in order to be completed in 10 weeks. However, during the blockout stage, Anthony gives feedback and if he thinks the scale is right we can be confident that we are on the right path.
For the landscape, I used the terrain tool in UE4. I know many people like to use an external software solution like World Machine to generate the landscape but we were advised to use UE4 since we wanted to keep the project as close to a production scenario as possible and often, you will have to do some landscape sculpting inside an editor like Unreal. I was a little bit skeptical at first but I can definitely see the benefits of it now. Firstly, you have control over your forms and composition. Secondly, it is actually very robust if you look deeper: you can use alphas and paint with some placeholder textures to have a rough idea of the path that the player will see and the flow of the level. Remember that as an environment artist, you should first of all guide the player from one element to another.
For the river, I used a placeholder material until the end. During the course, we actually had a session dedicated to rivers and we were advised to shape the terrain thinking about the way nature would do it if the landscape had a river. For instance, rivers would usually go from a high to a low point and vegetation is more likely to grow alongside the river than other parts. As for the material, I used a free and very nice one from Unreal Marketplace called Water Materials. At that time, Unreal was giving some assets for free and it was one of them. Anthony also advised not to spend time on creating a water material since, at a studio, this type of shader will mostly be a task for a technical artist. I think this mindset is key to becoming a professional environment artist since at big studios the tasks are very specific and you should rather spend more time on other things like the composition and the creation of other assets.
Working on Rocks & Other Assets
To make the assets for the environment, we started by analyzing references and blocking out the required models. We focused on creating big, medium, and small shapes. The idea was to keep the quality over quantity since creating an asset takes a lot of time.
As you can see, there aren’t many assets in my scene. It is the way you use them in your composition that matters. Creating levels takes a lot of time so you want to work smart on them.
We spent 3 weeks on the creation of rocks since they were very important assets, and worked on our Hero or so-called “360 Rock” which was the main one. This asset needed to look different from every angle so that you could rotate and scale it to give the illusion that there are different rocks in the world while in reality, it is just one asset. The key to creating a nice rock is to look at your reference and find the main shapes. When sculpting the rock, we applied the same principles of composition to big, medium and small shapes. Starting in 3ds Max with the main shapes helped to avoid the “blobby” feeling you sometimes get when you start sculpting in ZBrush. Anthony did a great job teaching different rock sculpting techniques as it is a very challenging task for many artists and requires a lot of practice.
After our hero rock was done, we worked on creating some boulders for medium shapes using the same techniques and finally, a rock pile for small shapes. The combination of these 3 elements gives a nice and smooth transition in your environment. And as we learned during the course, transitions can make it or break it.
Speaking about the materials for the rocks, we tried to work smart on them. Anthony showed us several techniques to reuse textures and materials for all our rocks. Also, we took a look at how to create tiling textures inside ZBrush. At first, we used a simple tiling texture, but after a few weeks, we ended up with a very nice Master Material with features like vertex painting, bump offset and slope masks.
Two weeks were spent on flora which included the tree roots and grass to place in the level. I used Quixel Megascans for the alpha cards and arranged the grass planes inside 3ds Max. The tree roots were entirely made in 3ds Max.
Anthony showed us a few ways to create roots in Maya, and even though I am a 3ds Max user, I found it very informative. You can replicate exactly the same asset in any 3D modeling package. Sometimes, people are afraid of enrolling in a course because they use different software, but at the end of the day, those are just tools. And Anthony focused on techniques rather than tools.
For the grass, I used Quixel Megascans to get my alpha cards and then arranged them in Max using some techniques learned in the course. Anthony showed us how to get the most out of a texture sheet and create enough variations to make the environment feel alive. While we didn’t focus on the creation of the texture sheet itself, we worked a lot on the arrangement of the assets which is sometimes overlooked.
Utilizing Quixel Mixer
In the course, we learned how to create our own textures in ZBrush. While I did practice those techniques, I wanted to use them in a different software solution, so I ended by replicating them in Quixel Mixer.
Quixel Mixer is great since you can import your custom alphas and avoid tiling issues. The results I got from it were super fast and iterative. I also learned that changing the textures in your level can greatly affect the way it looks – just try to re-import a new texture and see how the level changes.
I also used Mixer to create some custom alphas that were utilized during the rock creation inside ZBrush. Exporting them and creating a simple script in Photoshop to get an alpha saved a lot of time when I needed to add tertiary details. I highly recommend Quixel Mixer to every artist and nowadays, with its new version, it is even better. The future of 3D content creation is already here!
For post-production, I started looking for some reference to get some mood inspiration. I found that Battlefield 1 had some pretty cool snow environment shots so I tried to match my scene with the reference first. It didn’t turn exactly the same but I used that as a starting point to get the mood first. It definitely adds a lot to the scene and can change its look completely!
After I placed my Directional Light I started playing with Spotlights to get interesting highlights in the scene. It is true that in real open environments you sometimes will only have the sunlight, but in games, we might need to fake the lightning since we have technical limitations. During this stage, we were advised to spend around 80% of the post-production time on the lighting and add the post-process effects at the end. Since solid lighting can work with any post-process values, it is better to focus on the lighting first.
Last but not least, the presentation part. Anthony gave us a few gold bits of advice on how to present the work in such a way that it not only gives a great first impression but also makes it easy for any potential recruiter to understand your specialization and skills. This is often one of the most overlooked aspects of any work but the way you present your project hugely affects the opportunities you could get from it as a professional. Remember that you only have one chance to make the first impression!
If I had the opportunity to take the course again I would do it without thinking. There are many things that I would change now since the scene does not represent my current level of skills. But as Anthony told us: artists never finish, they abandon.