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Learn How to Set Up an Urban Environment with Unreal Engine 5

Calvin Cropley, an Environment and Prop Artist, has shared a breakdown of the Far From Home project, detailing the lighting, modeling, and texturing pipelines and explaining how the environment was rendered in UE5.


I'm Calvin Cropley, a game artist based in Melbourne, Australia. I primarily focus on environment art and props for games and experiment with photorealistic pipelines and workflows. I enjoy numerous types of projects that involve the creation of environments. From prop work, lighting, photogrammetry, and material creation, all the way to set dressing and the construction of a whole scene.

As an Environment Artist, many projects can be done within themselves, it's also important to make sure you reuse your assets. This will save you a ton of time in the process for your projects and you'll enjoy the experience much more knowing this.

From small props to large-scale projects, it is an endless learning experience, we also have the whole world for reference, so going for outside trips to gather ideas is always a great way to start if ever you get stuck or lost with a project. Plus it also takes you away from the desk whenever you need it, and gives you a fresh pair of eyes for when you return. I've also been diving into slight character work with MetaHuman and Unreal Engine 5, and have some characters I'm currently working on that I'd like in my projects for still shots.

About Me

I broke into the industry in 2021. But before then, I've been a photographer for over a decade, and also enjoy painting whenever I get a chance. Even though I still love painting, I find it rare to indulge in it these days. I crave the tranquility and space to immerse myself fully in the process, which I hope to achieve with a dedicated painting room someday.

Most of my knowledge largely stems from a traditional foundation regarding lighting, composition, and overall photographic aesthetics. I always make sure to add certain elements from my visual arts and photography background, either lighting or overall style, as it helps finish the end project and presents it more naturally. I love learning the process that 3D has given me, and there's always room for leveling up.

Backstory to Far From Home

This scene holds immense significance for a kid like me who grew up in the Philippines in the '90s. It embodies memories of my childhood home and the countless late-night gaming sessions I enjoyed upstairs in that cozy apartment – a world away from the home I've established for myself today in Australia. I'm eager to share this memory, this home, exactly as it was back then.

As an artist now, it's incredibly fulfilling to not only accurately portray the building as a reference but also to infuse it with layers of visual narrative. This amplifies the memory and breathes life into where my journey began – as a passionate gamer and now as a 3D artist crafting in the video game industry.

I wanted to revisit a place that I hadn't been since 2017. I wanted to go back to this place and hence lockdowns were a thing, this made me miss the place even more. Knowing I couldn't travel back home for years to come, I decided to go anyway by creating the place. Far from Home isn't just an iconic reference to my favorite comic book movie, but it's also based on what I believe the place represents. I not only wanted to create an environment to take myself out of my comfort zone from what I regularly do but to also get back into environments and to demonstrate how much this place means to me. 

This very place represents my second home that resided in the Philippines. This scene is not only heavily based on the '90s, but it's also based on where I was first introduced to video games and the retrofitting culture! Ultimately landing myself in the games industry.

With time moving on with natural behaviors and the current climate were also factors for this specific location. However, I'd be interested to see how it would have looked otherwise if materials and structures weren't destroyed, but having said so it does give interest to the final composition. Knowing this is a factor, I am eager to create several versions and renditions of this project and mix it up with random fires, floods, and severe weather control. Given the project alone has so much potential for more interesting elements to add in, and I've played around with a few things, and boy it looks good!

I've taken reference and inspiration from particular projects, such as the latest movies and video games that utilized Quixel Megascans and their particular pipelines. The main influence of this project has been primarily based on distant memories and neighborhoods as a child. The scene is a construct of self-made assets, real-life trash, posters, scan data, materials created from my personal collections, Quixel’s Megascans Assets, KitBash3D, and variations from materials from my library.

I didn't want to be limited to not telling the story well, so using as close to real textures, references, and as many assets as I could was extremely important for this project. Here I'll be discussing how I went about creating this project and giving a detailed breakdown of this project and what went into this to what achieved the final result. All post-process was done directly within the engine with additional camera controls, FOV, and adjustments.

Reference was taken directly, from Google Maps from the streets of Cebu, Philippines; as well as many photos and conversations with friends and family. Creating this was achieved by the use of Quixel's Megascans, Substance Suite, Custom Scan Data, additional created Assets with the help of Unreal Engine 5, and the toolkits, such as plugins as well as what was widely available on the marketplace.

The Planning Stage

Most of my planning and reference gathering started with PureRef. Initially, I wanted to stick with that. However, going with something like Miro was much more beneficial for me for on-the-go and the overall scope of the project. As you can see, there are quite a lot of things that I gathered, and we haven't even zoomed in yet!

Streets and Building References

Working on the main props for the scene was quite fun and fulfilling because it gave me a chance to be a little creative with them, as well as to make them close to the reference. Although assumed to be simple, most of these are quite unique. I ended up digging up some dashcam footage, which helped me to get on the right track with the props. These helped me feel more at home and accelerate the story, narrative, the overall completion for these assets, as well as keeping a close eye on the placement. 

Blocking Out and Planning

Finding out the scale based on the references can be a little tricky sometimes, but with a little Photoshop magic and forced perspective, I was able to figure out the scale to match a generic 160 centimeters human figure. Thus, having it right next to the building determines the scale of the world and the building itself. 

This was done by simply screenshotting the Front Z view from Maya, pasting it directly into PureRef, and overlaying it over Photoshop with a locked canvas. Then, I started to force perspective with basic transform tools whilst not destroying the reference image too much.

Overall blocking out and the validation process was quite simple. Once a quick pass was done, I assigned the selected object Green as completed. This helped to visualize and move to the next step quickly. Minor UV Mapping was done here as more of a fail-safe, rather than not having anything at all. In these cases, it was mostly the modular walls and floors that were utilized as the majority of this building was kitbashed using Megascans.

The Legend and Keys

The following props were planned out by marking them up in color for reference and prioritized from largest to smallest.

Green – Powerlines, Orange – Power Pole 01, Brown – Power Pole 02, Red – Exterior Wooden Boards, Pink – Fencing/Metal, Blue – Signs/Rope

The Main Props

Keeping in mind reusability, I was able to get away with the following. As a result, the asset-building process was efficient and fast, minimizing processing time. Additionally, Power Poles, The Signs/Rope and Fencing/Metal, and the Powerlines were utilized as instances. The assets were created using a combination of Maya and Blender for modeling, Substance 3D Painter and Substance 3D Sampler for the texturing process, and custom texture work involving Photoshop and mashing.

Once I was satisfied with my main props, I took all these into Unreal Engine, and then, the majority of the heavy lifting would be continued there. 

The Building Construction

Kitbashing and targeting specific and unique assets was important to help bring the scene alive.
I started this by breaking down what I thought would be more obvious when it came to placement, overall modularity, and uniqueness of the structure for the environment.

Gathering large amounts of assets from the library was a great experience, treating this as my very own outsourcing team. With a variety to choose from, I was able to study and be specific about which materials and props would suit the scene and the world as a whole. This approach not only added realism to the scene but also maintained a unique style within the project.

After downloading and collecting numerous amounts of wood planks, I started to trace around the blockout. First, I started with the sliced partition and the truss support for the roof. Then, I imported the rest of the blockout into Unreal Engine and began the same process with the rest of the building.

Once I had completed most of the crucial areas, I revisited my validation process to ensure that nothing was overlooked or missing before proceeding with the build pass.

For the most part, it looked like a pretty good starting point to bring all the elements together and to have this as a workable draft to continue to build the scene and begin to properly integrate the other assets into place.

Master Materials and Instances

Only two materials used in this scene are custom, specifically a mixture of dirt and two variations of stagnant water. The remaining materials were sourced from the Megascans library, with some minor adjustments made to the values using the Blueprint Editor. By using one master material and instancing it across various base colors, we were able to maintain a consistent color palette while retaining the essential details for showcasing.

Furthermore, a custom dirty material was also developed, using a collection of pre-existing instances created from previous personal projects. These instances were created by combining various images together to achieve the desired outcome. The same approach with instances was also applied to incorporate surface details and create the water pools present within the scene.

Set Dressing

After scouting props and utilizing pre-existing trash assets from the library, as well as my own creations, it was time to cause chaos and really make a mess of things. By referencing various depictions of urban mess, I aimed to incorporate as much random disorder as possible to accurately portray the scene. This particular location holds personal significance as it reflects the chaotic experiences I have encountered firsthand.

Here's a fun fact for you! I ended up eating mostly what you see here, so I could get these flat for the image scan, others were also sources from friends and family. Occasionally, I would get stuck on how to create trash for the street. Google wasn't too nice either, so I decided to make a trip to the local Filipino Food store as well as my pantry, which was full of goodies. It was an interesting part of the task. 

Texturing both sides of the trash was also important here to compensate and avoid excessive repetition with the assets, once placement started. As for the remainder of the assets, such as torn papers, posters, and for-sale signs. These were all sourced from old newspapers and old photographs from family and friends, as well as additional research from map data.

Then, these were upscaled for the resolutions that I needed, and just like the snacks, they were also arranged from largest to smallest, but not eaten this time round.

The Outcome and Foliage

Once I was happy with the results I got from the trash and posters, I started to propagate these into the following, using the foliage brush tool built within Unreal Engine. Playing around with scatter and spread settings, I proceeded to fine-tune the density and placement. Then, I began painting in specific areas that required additional debris, aiming to enhance realism and ensure a more convincing placement within the scene.

Posters were also used as static meshes for the walls. However, most of the smallest papers that came with the poster were scaled down and added to the brush and went along nicely as additional trash for the scatter.

Megascans Graffiti Decals

Sourcing these Custom Graffiti Decals was quite enjoyable, here I was able to fly around on Google Maps and scout some graffiti art and tags found in the local areas. These would be the main art that I'd like to be visible in the scene. The rest would be purely for noise and overall tags to fill in the gaps.

I also incorporated custom graffiti decals into the scene, gathering additional assets from the library that helped unify the composition and add a touch of style to specific areas. To maintain a unique blend, I intentionally avoided using commonly used Megascans assets and instead mixed them with the existing assets I had, creating a harmonious balance. This made the scene pop with colors, showing not only street culture but also a sense of presence within the environment.

The Foreground and Background

Once I was happy with the set dressing for the environment, I started to inspect the silhouette and see how the information was holding up.

Then, I started to focus on the lighting and atmosphere of the scene to give it somewhat of a default vault to start off with. Once the silhouette looked pretty good in the ballpark, I jumped back into the project and continued the rest of my set dressing.

For foreground and background, I utilized The Favelas from KitBash, as they were well-suited for the environment. As for the more distant background, I used simpler assets to create a sense of depth and perspective.

The Composition and Lighting

For lighting, I used Directional Light with some custom adjustments using the Good Sky 2 blueprint, which can be found on the Unreal Engine Marketplace. I recommend it to you if you're looking for flexibility with your sky.

Once I was happy with my adjustment using the plugin for the sky hemisphere, I did my lighting pass with shadows to see what would look best in terms of interest. This way I could tell a story by using only shadows.

The Last Touches

To add the final touches and enhance the overall atmosphere, a post-volume fog effect was implemented. Also, a dust particle system was created to provide an additional layer of realism. Adjustments were made to the atmosphere to create a sense of depth, making the background appear more convincing.

Here you can see the final render:

Calvin Cropley, Environment/Prop Artist

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