Victoria Zavhorodnia talked about the Golden Carp scene, shared the modeling and texturing workflows, and explained how different lighting scenarios were set up.
My name is Victoria Zavhorodnia, and I am a 3D Environment Artist from Kyiv, Ukraine. This year I went deeper into environment art, lighting, and Unreal Engine education. I have finished a great course, Lighting in Unreal Engine, from Smirnov School, mentored by Slava Bushuev. This course gave me a great understanding of lighting techniques, and after this course, lighting became my passion. For half a year, I worked as a Level Designer and learned a lot about designing levels not only from art but also from game design and player experience perspectives. Also, it was a great practice of composition skills. This practice changed my approaches to scene creation a bit. Now it has become much easier to create scene blockout.
I like stylized art, games, cartoons, anime, and fantasy. The most significant influence for me was the Genshin Impact game, which inspired me so much, so I decided to try to create my first stylized location. That was Fishing at the Old Chapel scene. I found the Stylized Station course The Environment Artist's Survival Kit, which helped me with stylized art learning. And I understood that I want to work with stylized art more.
The Golden Carp Scene
I like challenges. They give new knowledge, friends, experience, and opportunities. During the ArtStation challenge Untamed: When Animals Ruled the World, I created the Golden Carp scene, the production phase lasted for seven weeks. And when I saw the challenge, I knew that I would take part in it.
From the beginning, I wanted to create a stylized environment for frogs. I decided to work on my idea and not use ready concept art. I found on the internet many beautiful frogs character designs dressed like Japanese Frogs that live near water and can be found near swamps, rivers, lakes, and I chose the biome for my environment easily. And I started searching for exciting vegetation growing in swamps and found a lot of Lotus pictures. Then, I realized that I needed to use this plant in my scene. After that, I found an attractive lotus building in China, which gave me an idea of my frog's house visually.
Because I thought of toads as Japanese, I decided to take Asian culture as my primary art style. I found many small statues near shrines when I gathered references, and I took this idea for my scene. I wanted to create small frog statues that stood in the water.
When I thought about my stage, I thought about street food festivals. At first, I wanted to create a water-based street with food courts. And I decided to add fish-shaped Chinese lanterns. Real festival street. But after the first iterations of blockout, I understood that the lotus-shaped house idea was more vital and looked more beautiful for me. So I left fish-shaped lanterns and decided to make the main lotus house a restaurant.
After gathering all the references that I needed to fill all gaps in my idea, I made a blockout, and almost from the first iteration, everything started working. The only problem that I had was the background space, and I decided what to do with it only in the final stages of my work.
First of all, I wrote a list of assets needed for the scene. I began the content creation process from the hero asset – the lotus house. I used a modular approach for it. I wanted to have an opportunity to place lotus leaves differently for every home. So I made the central cone and three different-shaped leaves. I made the basic shapes in Maya and then sculpted every part of it uniquely in ZBrush. Because the house is a plant, I carved many small lines like veins in plants. Lotus flower-house was a significant hero asset, so these veins on a Normal Map added a better sense of form and scale.
When I work on environment creation, I like to have as many assets as possible. It gives me a chance to be very flexible in object creation. For bridges, I made unique sculpted wooden planks of various lengths. And after that, created bridges inside the engine.
As for the giant lotus leaves, I decided to create four leaves and leaves' legs of various lengths and shapes. I made the main form of lotus leaves starting from the cylinder. It was my low poly mesh. And after that, I prepared this mesh for smooth adding some extra details, and converted mesh preview to polygons. It was my high poly mesh. And after that, I baked everything in Marmoset Toolbag 4.
Materials and Textures
Green, pink, and blue is my favorite color palette used for environment creation. The main goal for the Golden Carp scene was to achieve the effect when the sun's rays shine through the plant, foliage shines, and the veins cast a shadow to achieve a subsurface scattering effect.
I textured everything uniquely in Adobe Substance 3D Painter. I was using different smart masks and filters. I also commonly used some techniques learned from the Stylised Station.
To achieve a hand-painted look, we can add Slope Blur and Directional Blur to the layer and play with it, adding different granges or whatever we want. After finishing lotus cone texturing, I created smart material and applied it to lotus leaves with small tweaks for some masks and granges. I used the same method for giant lotus leaves, but he painted the veins myself. An important part of texturing is a mask based on a Curvature showing the leaves' veins.
Also, I modified this mask in Photoshop to add additional details. And we need an inverted mask for the night light scene. It is also useful to add a low brightness emission to lotus parts in the shadow for more volume. The main magic happened in the Unreal Engine. I used the same simple master material for all lotus parts: two-sided, masked.
For foliage, I used pretty much the same shader. Algae and water lily leaves were made using an Opacity mask. Lotus bushes and water lily flowers are meshed-based foliage. For lotus bushes, I used the same texture made for giant leaves. I created an Opacity mask using a standard tree shape in Photoshop for algae and painted water lily leaves forms.
Night Lighting Scenario
I wanted to make a day-night changing cycle from the beginning, but I'm not skilled enough in technical art to make changes in textures and objects that change with the day-night cycle. That's why I made lighting with Real-Time Capture turned on, and I decided not to turn off this function and try to do lighting this way. Lighting was made in UE5.
The basic setup for all lighting conditions is Directional Light, Skylight, SkyAtmosphere, Exponential Height Fog, Post Process, and BP_Sky_Sphere. All the settings are shown in screenshots. I use Sharpen post-process material from a tutorial by Dominique Buttiens for all my scenes. Also, I almost didn't change Color Grading parameters in the post-process and made all color corrections in Photoshop using LUT texture.
To create believable and fabulous night light, I needed a starry sky. To get the starry night sky in UE I used the tutorial from Hawaii Film School, shown above. But that wasn't enough, and I created a stars card to add more volume into the night sky. At first, I even had a vast and beautiful moon, but it took all my attention, and I deleted it. Also, I wanted to breathe life in my lotus flower houses, and I found a tutorial from Paul Neale on making a flashing light blueprint. I tried to create that feeling like they were breathing.
I played with Emissive and SSS to make lotus houses shine using veins mask, and inverted veins mask. Adding flashing light inside gave more depth to these shining. This method allowed me to make my lotus shine in any color I wanted, and it still looks like a plant.
An important part of the night scene was flying fish-shaped lanterns. I used emission to make them shine, but that wasn't enough, and I added rectangle lights to make them brighter. Also, I faked a moon shining on the water in the foreground, using Rectangle Light to make the water seem deeper and more interesting. All bridge lanterns had a point light above them and emissive shining from inside.
Day Lighting Scenario
Day lighting was the most challenging for me. The lighting setup is pretty much the same as a night light. I often use references when working on lighting, but my perception is also important. I wanted to achieve a mood of calmness, prosperity, and carelessness. Working on lighting, I often turn my scene to black and white to better understand the balance of light without color. If something bothers you in a black and white picture, then you can immediately see what can be corrected in color. It is also helpful in understanding the depth of the image.
Cloud creation was the most exciting process. I always try to keep the environment creation process as simple as possible. A year ago, I found a great SkyCard in the UE Marketplace. I used cloud master material from this package, but I created my sky cards for the scene. I made them in Photoshop. I created a black background layer and painted a cloud-looking shape. After that, I took a light grey brush, painted it above the white color, and then blended it with the Smudge tool. I have made four clouds, which was enough for my location, and used them in all relights playing with preferences.
To create more detail for the daytime scene, I wanted to add a caustic effect to the swamp's bottom. To do that, I added rectangle lights with a simple caustics light function. The Caustics texture used in this material was found on the internet.
Water was an important part of my scene. I needed translucent water to see the bottom but with the depth fade effect. I wanted to have foam, waves, and nice reflections to play with. But I couldn't find such a tutorial on the internet, so I made a Frankenstein monster from different tutorials. With the help of friends, I could achieve all the desired parameters in a pretty simple shader.
But in the end, the water did not feel like water because it did not leave wet traces behind. And I remembered this tutorial from Ben Cloward where he created a wetness decal. I scaled it to fit the water size, achieving a natural-looking wet shoreline on all assets standing in the water.
My primary idea was to create a restaurant based in the lotus house. I even started a story about it: "Heading west, travelers invariably dropped in at Toado's restaurant. Thanks to him, the eastern swamp has become famous for its exceptional cuisine. Gourmets from all over the area were eager to visit this place and try the signature delicacies: a worm stuffed with river silt, a snail marinated in beer, a sweet dung beetle with brown algae... But the most delicious and amazing dish was called "Golden Carp", whoever tasted it once could never forget this wonderful taste and aroma. Therefore, many sought to enjoy this dish again. The old frog Toado was very pleased with such popularity and gave his restaurant an eloquent name – "Golden Carp". As soon as they heard that someone was having dinner at Toado's, the travelers closed their eyes and imagined this amazing dish, which is served only in one place – in a large lotus on the outskirts of the eastern swamps, in the "Golden Сarp" restaurant..."
I was very excited to take part in the ArtStation challenge. People who participated and their incredible works always inspired me. Three years ago, when I first saw this challenge, I didn't have enough skills to participate in it. Аnd now I have finished the challenge, and I am pleased! While working on this location, I received a lot of helpful feedback, and I have learned a lot. I want to thank people from the Leoluch Discord community, my mother, and my friend Nina Popovych. This scene would not so pretty without their support.