Using Photography Tricks in Environment Design

Using Photography Tricks in Environment Design

Thomas Walker did a breakdown of his Pied Paper scene made with UE4, Marmoset tools, 3Ds Max, ZBrush, and Substance Painter.


Hi, 80 Level! I’m Thomas Walker from Leeds, UK. Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. 80 level has been an invaluable asset to learn from during my development as an artist! And a big thank you to my colleagues who have provided me with lots of feedback during the production of this environment.

I currently work as a junior environment artist at DS Dambuster in Nottingham, working on an unannounced project. I have been in this position for just over 6 months and this is my first job in the games industry.

It wasn’t until I decided to change career that I had even thought about making video games, although I have always been an avid gamer. I saw a games design course at a local university and decided to do it. After doing an environment art assignment during my final year, I decided that this was the route I wanted to specialize in. After completing my degree I was offered the opportunity to lecture games design at my university. This also provided me with the time I needed to focus on creating a couple of scenes to a high enough standard to get a job as a junior artist.

Main Goal

After getting into the industry I wanted to utilize the skills and techniques I was learning at work and incorporate them into my personal work. I’d had the idea of doing a classroom in the back of my mind for a while after finding some images on Pinterest of Victorian/Edwardian classrooms and decided I would create one in this era. I wanted to show variety in my portfolio and had not attempted a scene from a different era before.

When creating environments I think it is important to start with the story and use color palettes and shapes to enhance it. I wanted to show the classroom was a safe place where children were gathering before being evacuated. This meant that the color palette had to be warm and welcoming inside the classroom, whilst the exterior needed to be gloomy and grey; using a pathetic fallacy emphasized the story of the evacuation.

I had to be mindful of the props I used to avoid making the environment appear too dark. Although I have used a dunce hat I strongly avoided using other forms of school punishment as I wanted to show that the classroom was a safe space.


At the start of a project I spend a bit of time gathering reference, I generally use Pinterest, Flickr and Artstation to find references. Whenever I find something interesting I will drop the image into Pureref. I take my favorite image to use as my main reference and break down what I need to create in Photoshop. I will then create a series of smaller moodboards for each individual prop that will need to be created to sell and add a story to the environment.

Tip: Snipping Tool can be really useful on Flickr when you cannot download an image someone has posted.

I don’t want to be trapped into certain camera angles or get tunnel vision when working on a scene so I generally use the rule of thirds as my main compositional tool with the help of DoF and Vignette.

I also use the scene depth buffer visualization in Unreal a lot to check that I have a good foreground, midground, and background.


A lot of the techniques I use are from an awesome book called The Photographer’s Mind by Michael Freeman.

Asset Production

The mesh production is fairly standard. I look online for the dimensions of each asset that I am going to make and then I create a greybox of each piece, at this point, I’m not too fussy if there are bugs or problems I just want to be as fast as possible.

Once the environment is grey-boxed I put it into UE4 before taking the meshes any further. This gives me the opportunity to see how it will look in game and if anything important needs changing like the scale. Making sure you do this step is critical as changing a greybox asset is far easier than changing a final asset which could have even more knock-on effects.  

Tip: Key binding select similar to a hotkey in max can really speed up your workflow when editing things that share the same properties.

Once the greybox is complete, I start to take each piece to final and this is when I start to think about materials as this would determine the production of each piece. For example,

1.Is it going to be a tiling texture? If so I’ll use Quixel Mixer. It’s fast and easy to use and has a great library of scan data. If the type of material I want is not there I’ll look at some of the scanned Substance Source materials. I make sure I’ve made two versions of the same texture to eliminate tiling and add more interest such as cracks and damage.

2.If it’s going to be a trim then I’ll model the high poly trims in 3ds Max/ZBrush and then bake down onto a 200x200cm plane. Once this is done I can just treat it like any other mesh in Substance Painter and apply the materials I want to it. In the example I had half the UV space left, rather than wasting it I decided to put a tiling material of the same material which I could also use.

3.Is it going to be baked? If so I’ll generally create a SubD Model in 3ds Max. If it needs extra details or booleans I’ll then take it into ZBrush. I keep the Low poly mesh as simple as possible and as one contained mesh.

Once I have verified the outcome of each mesh I’ll create the biggest pieces first and work my way down to the smallest.

When it comes to packing UVs for my meshes, I’ll duplicate parts of the mesh that are the same so I can keep a higher Texel ratio. I’ll also group the smaller meshes out into one texture set.

One of my biggest weaknesses is not knowing Substance Designer well enough to get the quality I want from my materials (something I want to remedy). Due to this I generally use Quixel Mixer for most of my tiling materials. If there isn’t a base material in the Megascans library that I’m looking for I will look on or Substance Source for the scanned material that I want. I can then bring that into Mixer and then edit it to get what I want from it. In my experience whilst working at a studio as an environment artist, I have found you will have access and will be expected to pull from a material library. I see Megascans and Substance Source the same way. If there are things I can use to speed up production then I will use them as this means I am able to spend more time on the bigger picture of the environment.

When baking down from a high poly I start off in Marmoset Toolbag and get the normal and AO. The reason I use Marmoset Toolbag is due to the speed, ease of use and being able to fix any normal maps skewing. I leave the other maps to bake out in Substance Painter.

Looking at my reference there was a lot of variation in the types of woods used, which I knew would be important to replicate. I created 4 different types of wood in painter. I started off with a base layer from Mixer or Substance Source, I then added procedural elements to it using the layer stack to add a little color variation, roughness variation and little details like scratches and bumps. Once I was happy with the outcomes and everything matched up with my ref, I turned them into smart materials so I could use them any time I needed to. I did this with a variety of materials that were going to be used multiple times.  The great thing about working this way is you can build up a library of smart materials for future projects.

When bringing in a completed asset I make sure to apply the material, lightmap resolution, collision, Full precision UVs in the object properties.

I used two master materials one was for the tiling textures which was the standard Megascans one. The second was a very simple Props one. The third was for the glass which was Michal Orzelek’s, which has recently been added to the free content for Unreal collection (you should check it out !).

I also make sure to use the buffer visualization to check the albedo, roughness, and normals of the mesh. I find having the buffer visualization options key bound on alt 1,2,3,4,5 to be really useful to quickly cycle through them.


I think having contrast in lighting in a scene is important in order for things to be visually interesting. My only problem was that I wanted a gloomy day which has very little contrast. This meant that it took many iterations of testing and increasing/decreasing numbers until I got something I was happy with.

In the end, I decided not to use a directional light as it was giving me too much direct lighting. I also used an HDRI on a sphere for my sky light.

To mimic the sun light I used a skylight which was set to stationary, put lightmass portals inside the windows and a plane outside the windows to get more bounce lighting inside the room.

For the lights on the inside, I used a subsurface material with one pointlight set to static to act as the light source, one pointlight as dynamic to act as the bulb and a spot light set to static to fill the area more.

To add some more little highlight to areas that looked a little flat I took some more spotlights that cast no shadows and placed them in areas to add a little more contrast and interest. I also make sure to place sphere reflection captures around the scene, one main one that captures the full scene and then supporting ones on a lower radius.

I make sure each of my meshes is hitting the green lighting map value before I do a bake to get the best possible results, without it being overkill. Setting the right world settings is also really important, when doing so you can eliminate lightmap seams from modular pieces and increase the overall look of the final lighting.


Playing with the post-processing settings is one of my favorite parts of creating a scene, it can help elevate the render into a more cinematic one. I create a LUT in photoshop for my color grading. This is where I can get my image more the color palette I was going for. I also increase the contrast a little. I used the bloom, Vignette, Chromatic Aberration and DoF to get a more realistic look.

One of the more important settings to get right I find is the AO as the standard settings come in a way too strong for my taste.


The biggest challenges I faced during the production of this environment was getting the lighting right. If the lighting looks good then it can really make your scene sing. Another thing that was hard to adjust to was the amount of time I would get to work on it – while studying you have an abundance of time to dedicate to a project but while working realistically you only get a couple of hours a day, a little more on weekends. I also have a tendency to go long periods of time without communicating in communities, which I think is super important to do. Going into my next project I want to make sure I am blogging and getting as much feedback as possible from different communities.

In the end, I am happy with how the project turned out and I feel like I have been able to increase the quality of my work, thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope you gained something from it!

For more of my work or if you have any questions check out my Artstation.

Thomas Walker, Junior Environment Artist at Deep Silver Dambuster

Interview Conducted by Kirill Tokarev

Join discussion

Comments 6

  • maxnix

    Nice images, they tell an intriguing story. I enjoyed the breakdown thanks for sharing!



    ·a year ago·
  • Josh Baker

    We're using Unity (Quarter Circle Games). I'm happy to give an interview and some of my lighting/PP techniques.
    You can view out game here:


    Josh Baker

    ·a year ago·
  • rayen

    use unity connect you find many artists



    ·a year ago·
  • sanek94cool

    >Evangelion on TV

    I see you're man of the culture,  Thomas :)



    ·a year ago·
  • Kirill Tokarev

    give me some names. Who's doing great environment work with Unity these days? I'd be happy to interview anyone who's showing some cool stuff!


    Kirill Tokarev

    ·a year ago·
  • rayen

    guys post some article with unity most of your post are based on UE4



    ·a year ago·

You might also like

We need your consent

We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more

Using Photography Tricks in Environment Design