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Very impressive article Jake! You are very talented.
nice article! i love seeing the breakdowns.
Here’s a nice 3d environment production breakdown from Josh Krook. Beautiful work with lighting and reflective materials.
I first started creating levels as a teenager using Goldsource then Source, getting involved in various community competitions, mods and so on. Back then I relied on community advice, tutorials and dev forums to gain inspiration and feedback, learning a considerable amount over the years. After several years of BSP-based design I made the shift over to 3D modelling and I’m now working exclusively with UE4.
In 2016 I founded Atreyu Games and we’re currently working on our courtroom drama, “Twelve Absent Men”. I’m working as a freelancer on a few other projects for various clients, helping to create interesting levels with a rich sense of history.
When I began using UE4 I was searching for a level idea that was small, compact yet complicated enough to sink my teeth into. I thought a courtroom scene was perfect because it would give me the ability to test out the lighting system while building various assets.
The aim was to make something that I could later showcase in a portfolio.
Over time, I began thinking I could use the court towards a game project, so I started creating assets for that purpose, focusing on creating a homogenous look, with all the wood types working well together.
Inspiration and Process
One of my main references was this image from Boston Legal, where I particularly liked the light bouncing in from the three main windows.
I also liked this image of a judge’s chambers, and began thinking of how I could incorporate these sorts of features at the back of the court, making notes on the necessary props.
I started by making a few modular assets in Blender, making a basic set of wooden panels and a doorframe first, followed by some chairs and tables. The wooden panels ended up being the main component of the scene, duplicated around the court to make the wall. I exported this to UE4 without a texture and began whiteboxing before redesigning with a texture in mind.
Next, I worked on the various materials for the level, keeping in mind that the colour scheme had to be largely uniform. All of my references showed that courts tended to be largely built out of the same wooden material and that chairs and objects tended to be of a similar colour to the walls, desks and so on. Hence, I designed all materials with this in mind, keeping a muted, light brown colour scheme.
I played with the roughness to get a highly reflective surface, making sure the wood looked clean and polished.
For the judge’s chambers I used some assets from the Retro Office Environment on the UE4 Marketplace, along with my own props and materials. At this point it was clear that I wanted the office to be slightly stylized and I wanted the desk to have a messy, disorganized look. I created some post-it notes, pens and some prestigious looking books to place on the shelves.
The scene’s lighting is mainly reliant on a directional light with a very high intensity, along with some white planes to bounce light in from the windows. I added a low intensity skylight to the scene with a slight blue tinge. Finally, I added several spotlights, again from the window, to increase the over-exposed effect.
I think the main thing I learnt from this project is to start small and build up from there. By focussing on a room or two, I could drastically increase the speed of production whilst testing out engine features, such as lighting.
Gathering references and ideas from film and television was crucially important, as it allowed me to develop the layout of the court and quickly prototype that layout. If you don’t have a concept artist to work with, then references become even more important, to make sure your work reflects a ‘real life’ environment, even if it is to be stylized.
It takes a lot of small tweaking in lighting and effects to make an environment ‘feel’ right. There are several assets I had to rework or tweak during the process, especially as it became clear that I wanted the entire environment to feel seamless and homogenous. I think planning this even earlier would have sped up the production process, but that’s the thing with level design, you always learn something new.