Keeping Concept Look in 3D Environment

Keeping Concept Look in 3D Environment

Jennifer Carlin talked about the way she managed to achieve 2d-like look with her real-time 3d environment.


My name is Jennifer Carlin, I’m in my third year at Champlain College, pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science in Game Art and Animation. I am focusing on environment and texture art, while also learning modeling and a bit of character design. I have worked on some 2d game projects, and a couple 3d environments and many props in the past few years here at Champlain, but this was the most ambitious project I have taken on.

How did you capture this amazing 2D look in a 3D environment?

The goal of the project was to replicate a piece of concept art as accurately as possible, including camera angle, forms, and lighting and mood. I referenced the painting The Inn at Komodo Gateby Scott Duquette throughout the entire project, from blockout to final lighting pass, trying to capture the scene.

I think a lot of what makes it feel painterly is my personal tendency to keep materials fairly monochromatic. The colored lighting I like to use also overlays highlights across multiple forms, unifying the different models and materials. An exponential height fog in the scene also tends to blur out the background, and in turn makes the foreground the center of interest, like it would in a painting.

The biggest challenge was trying to match up perspective. 2D perspective looks good on paper, but trying to replicate it in 3d required finagling, and sometimes tilting the models at unconventional angles to break verticality and help make the perspective work.

Architectural elements

My professor, Vince Joyal, helped me with pacing, setting weekly goals to meet for modeling and texture creation. This was a ten week project, and had to be completed by semester’s end, so it was a few months of making ambitious milestones and doing my best to meet them. I think budgeting time was one of the most important things I learned while working on this.

 I started with a full blockout with the simplest forms, to get an idea of where the models would need to be placed in the scene, and fine tuning the camera angle. Unreal’s cinema camera was indispensable, being able to set it’s sensor width and height and manipulate focal length helped get the 3d perspective as close as possible to the 2d perspective of the reference painting. To begin with, I set the sensor width and height to match the painting’s dimensions, but ended up tweaking it for composition.

The scene was modeled and imported into Unreal from foreground to background, starting with the archway of the gate and ending with the palace. Because I wanted to work on materials, Vince advised I spend more time on the foreground than the background. This worked out well, because there were more materials and more complicated models here, and the fog helps to blend the background anyway.


The scene is not very modular, most of the models are unique objects. Those that do repeat frequently are the houses, chimneys, clocktower, barrels and crates. There are three different roof styles on the houses in order to create variation in the city, but each was exported as their own object to make it easier to place and replace them in the scene.

All of the models were made using 3ds Max, a program I hadn’t been familiar with until the start of the semester. I was happy to have its tools for this however, I think it made modeling the architectural features smoother than Maya would have. The archway and portcullis particularly were much easier than I predicted they would be.


Most of the material work was in Substance Designer, with the centerpiece sign being the only Substance Painter work. Thirty different materials appear in the scene, along with five decals. Most of them are tiling materials, which was important for the cobblestones, bricks, and stucco. All of the windows are one material, with UVs tailored to pick up different parts of the texture for variation. The decals are the word “Inn” painted on the building, cracks across its facade, and a few very subtle water drips on the side of the building and the bricks in the background.

Designer’s workflow is one of my favorite things to play with, I like being able to tweak values to create completely different textures. It also became helpful in the final days of the project, when it became apparent that the normal maps on my materials were not as defined as they could be. Going through my substance file and setting the values in the height-to-normal node from 5 to 30 on each material made the textures pop more in Unreal’s engine, and was dramatically easier than having to re-do 30 materials.


I made a custom skybox in Photoshop, by combining cloud photos from and blending out the seams. The tall cloud is an image on a large plane, with an opacity mask to make it semi-transparent, and allow the background skybox to show through. I had to adjust these images be much darker than anticipated, because the exponential fog tended to blur the entire background. To make sure the definitions of the cloud plane and skybox showed up, I set the contrasts nearly to maximum in Photoshop. The dark blue and bright fog balanced each other out and allowed me to get the lively blue and defined cloud I wanted to replicate from the original image.


To get a vibrant lighting result, I began by casting light in realistic ways, and then adding point lights where I need them from a narrative or creative standpoint. I reference articles by ArchVis to set up my world settings in every project I do, since they have such amazing results with realistic lighting. When placing lights I started with one directional light, aimed 90 degrees straight down as a fill light. Initially it was set to 3.14, but I dialed it back later to balance with the rest of the lights in the scene. Two more set at slightly different angles pointed to the left to cast light on the houses in the background, and one more angled towards the camera to put rim lighting on the archways and foreground buildings and fill out the palace, for a total of four directional lights.

There is a host of 17 point lights and a couple spotlights scattered around the scene, filling in areas of deep shadow and highlighting places that deserved a bit more attention. For example, in front of the windows are dim white point lights, to give off a little reflection and glow from the glass.  I prefer point lights because they cast a softer glow, a bit like airbrushing in a broad highlight in a painting. Many of these supplementary lights have shadows turned off, so they don’t interfere with the cast shadows from the directional lights.

To create the shadow within the gate, I placed default primitive cubes and scaled them to create large blocks to cast shadows where I needed them to. I used a similar technique to block another directional light on the buildings in the background, so the light would affect and illuminate the palace but not blow out the houses. Again, the exponential height fog helped to smooth out the contrast in the city and bring the whole piece together, with a crisp foreground and softer background.

The most important thing in lighting for me is making sure nearly every light in a scene has some color, and that they harmonize well. Sunlight all has yellow or orange tints, as well as the point lights used to highlight things. A fill light in a shadowy area would need to be a blue or a purple in most scenes, this one included. Highlight lights tend to be medium saturation, whereas shadow fill lights tend to be low saturation.

Finally, a few passes with post processing help to unify everything. In this one, I put a lot of attention into the ambient occlusion options in Unreal’s world settings and in the post processing volume, because I wanted much softer shadows when replicating a painting.

Jennifer Carlin, Student of Game Art & Animation, Champlain College

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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