Making a Cute Stylized House in Maya, Substance & Unreal

Tyler Lariscy shared a breakdown of the Cute Stylized House scene, talked about asset creation, and discussed the workflow in Maya, ZBrush, Substance, and Unreal Engine.

Introduction

My name is Tyler Lariscy. I’m a 3D environment artist currently living in North Carolina while looking for work. I graduated from Ringling College of Art & Design with a BFA in Game Art & Design. I’ve worked in the industry for four years mainly on land-based and mobile casino games with my goal being to break into the main game industry as an Environment Artist.

Creating the Cute Stylized House

I had put a lot of effort and time into my main job over the past few years but unfortunately neglected doing much personal work. After finding myself out of a job due to COVID, I realized my current portfolio wasn’t up to industry standards. So my goal was to pick a concept that I would take to a fully polished and finalized state.

I’m always collecting concepts I’d love to work on from ArtStation. This includes props, characters, and environments. Looking through my environments collection I knew there was one concept in particular that I’d love to recreate. That being the piece named HOUSE by Etienne Savoie. What I love about Etienne’s concepts is his overall fun and whimsical designs with really great shape language and beautiful color palettes. This piece in particular was a nice self-contained diorama, meaning I could focus on making this smaller scene really polished.

My goal was to stick pretty close to the concept, only slightly changing or expanding upon a few objects while injecting my own style to further bring detail to this piece. The other nice thing was this house is also part of a larger environment from Etienne titled Green Forest. Eventually, I’ll be reusing the assets from this scene to make that large and beautiful outdoor environment.

Modeling

I approached this project a little differently than I normally would. When starting a new project I tend to overthink, overanalyze and overwhelm myself with everything that needs to be done. So I briefly set up a list of assets, textures, and things that needed to be set up in the scene on a Trello board, yet didn’t give myself a hard deadline. While this was nice to be able to focus on making the best art I could, the project would have benefited from having a more structured timeline and to-do list.

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With that being said, I approached the scene as I normally would by bringing the concept into Maya and blocking out the main shapes. I prefer this to Unreal’s tools as I can more quickly create refined shapes that will eventually be used for the final model. Once I had something solid I then brought it into Unreal Engine. Most artists will tell you that the faster you get your assets into your final scene, the faster the scene comes together.

Since one of my main aims was to utilize trim sheets as much as possible with this project, I actually focused on creating the trim sheets and tileable textures first. Once I had a set style of texturing down I made sure to create the textures which would cover the most area; the tileable stucco brick, tileable wood roof, and the wood trim sheet. At first I roughly UV mapped the block-in assets and applied the materials in UE4 just to get an idea of how they looked in the engine. I then started slowly going through the blockout models and refining them to their final form. Some assets like the wood beams or planks I was pretty happy with from the beginning. Others like the wood roof I reworked till pretty much the end of the project. Looking back I should’ve added an end cap for them onto the wood trim sheet but I didn’t think about that till after the project. If I were to go back I’d use the suggestion I received to sculpt three to four planks, bake them, and use those to create the roof.

One thing that you’ll notice is that the house and overall scene look close to the concept but do not capture it 100% as the overall shapes are more straight and stiff. It wasn’t until the end that I came across a great 80 Level article from Taylor Harris. He has a 10-minute video about matching the perspective and composition of your concept. His trick of setting up a plane with the concept image with a panning mask applied in front of the camera in Unreal was incredibly helpful. I had previously just had my concept on one screen and compared it to my Unreal scene. But this really helped me correct the overall proportions and nail the final look of the piece. 

Unwrapping

For unwrapping, I used a mix of Maya’s base tools but also downloaded Malcolm Andrieshyn’s MEL Script Mega Pack for Maya on Gumroad. It includes a few UV Mapping toolboxes that helped to speed up the process. Most of what I did was to apply the trim sheet textures in Maya and map each of the buildings' different pieces properly to it. In the end, the entire house was merged together as one model with all of the UV maps overlapping along with a second UV set for lightmaps. I’m sure this was not the best way of going about this asset but I was foremost focused on making the scene look good. I applied different materials to each of the pieces so their UVs would line up correctly with the right material. Then I just applied the separate materials within Unreal. The trees, the axe and hook, the tree stump, and the ground plane got their own unique UV sets. After creating their final low poly asset I simply unwrapped their UVs and baked them to their final low poly model inside Substance Painter.

Texturing

While I had previously followed tutorials to create Substance Designer materials, this was my first time creating my own. I referenced a lot of tutorials online and on YouTube as well as purchased a few Designer files. After watching 3dEx’s sped-up YouTube videos with voiceover, I subscribed to his Patreon. I also grabbed Alexander Galloway’s free Overwatch stylized Substance materials and purchased his second set. Breaking down his Substance files gave me a really good understanding of creating stylized shapes and textures. I especially liked his method for creating highlights, top-down lighting, and shadows. This was achieved by plugging the heightmap into a normal node, using a curvature or Grayscale Conversion node, and finally levels to get specific edges. The nice thing with Substance Designer is once you get something you like, you can easily translate it into new assets. So for instance, after I created the wood roof I was able to make some variations to the detail as well as use the Ultimate Trim Generator from Justen Lazzaro to create my wood/metal and stone trim sheets. 

I started out with the most straightforward texture, the stucco brick as it would cover a large area of the house. Most of the tutorials or breakdowns I read suggested it’s better to first work in black and white with the Height and Normal Maps. Start with larger shapes/textures and then continue down to the tiny details such as cracks, scratches, or nicks. After that, you can start to add color. Speaking of color, this for me is always one of the more difficult parts of the process being that I’m slightly colorblind. No, that doesn’t mean I can’t see color though I get that question all the time. I did, however, know a guy who only saw in black and white! I just have trouble discerning certain colors especially when it comes to subtle variations in shade or hue. So the color picker in Photoshop is my greatest ally in making sure I’m sticking to the color palette from the concept. Or if I decide to branch off like I did with this project and make my colors a bit more saturated. I also heavily rely on feedback from friends and the community to make sure my color palette isn’t getting out of hand.

As for the unique models I used Substance Painter for their textures. This was my first time baking my assets straight in Substance Painter but it worked out nicely. I then bought and used 3dEx’s smart material for Substance Painter to make my materials. While I started out using this as a base I was able to adjust the colors, textures, add my own, etc. making my own custom smart material. I then used this across the few assets I brought into Painter.

Animations

I knew for sure that adding in animations would help bring the scene to life. There were the obvious items such as the grass, flowers, the trees, and the weather vane. Then later on I added movement to the hanging hook and the lights flickering in the windows material. I’ve previously created simple grass and tree animations in past projects but I wanted to take a more in-depth dive into setting up wind systems for vegetation. For the grass, I used a mix of Jess Hider’s and Kristian Kebbe’s Lucen Dev. I also bought Kristian’s grass and breaking down the shader was able to blend the two setups together. I have the nice rolling wind, the highlights, cloud shadows that sweep across, and the gentle rustle of the grass. I also applied the wind setup to my flowers. One of the big issues I had was that I wasn’t able to use a landscape as my ground plane has such a specific shape, which I wanted to keep. With landscape, you can turn on this nifty setting called Runtime Virtual Texturing. This allows your scene to capture the colors from the landscape and apply them to your grass meshes. Because I was unable to use the RVT, I had to resort to other means. I ended up creating different mesh instances of my grass and applying different instanced materials changing the color for each one. Then using the foliage tool I was able to blend between the different colors of grass. I also added the Dither TemporalAA and Pixel Depth Offset nodes to create a blend between the bottom of the grass and the ground plane.

The trees were also fairly difficult as they were stylized and didn’t quite follow the setup of normal trees. For the fluffy tree, I found a great tutorial by Pontus Karlson who also translated it to Unreal. By sculpting the shapes I wanted in ZBrush and using a low-poly mesh, I was able to use this method to still retain the shape of the tree, which I really loved but also create fun stylized leaves that could utilize the wind set-up in the material. The pine tree was simply sculpted in ZBrush, however, its animation took till the end to finalize. I used the regular wind for leaves I found online but didn’t like how it looked with the way my leaves were modeled. In the end, I decided to try using a ripple effect in the shader, which I was able to find on an Unreal forum to get a nice effect where the wind would blow outward from the center of the leaves. I combined these two wind shaders with a tree sway shader I found from Ben Cloward along with some tweaks I found on a forum. I ended up using the same nodes that created the tree sway to get a very subtle sway on the rope and hook after painting weights for where I wanted it to move. Finally, the weather vane was a pretty straightforward blueprint that randomly lerped between a negative and positive value on the Z-axis.

Lighting and Rendering

My main inspiration for lighting was artist Jasmin Habezai-Fekri’s latest work Bird House. Like many other artists, her work is incredibly inspiring! Her stylized scenes are beautiful in terms of shapes, color, and overall simplicity! Like her scene, I sought to keep my overall lighting simple. I would have the skylight, directional sunlight, and then a secondary directional light for cool shadows. In past projects, I never really focused on lighting so I wanted to correct that with this project. From the very beginning till the end I tweaked and tweaked my lighting. Especially as I got more and more of my final materials into the scene. The main goal was to balance the sharp shadows on the front of the house with the soft cool shadows on the side of the house. 

I originally started my project out in UE4 but right when I was wrapping it up Epic released the beta for UE5 with the new Lumen lighting. I tested it out by bringing my scene in and really liked the small editions it made to the scene, stuff like emissive materials actually emitting light onto the models for the windows as well as how the lighting overall was a bit softer. I did have to tweak the lighting and shadows settings to replicate some of the cooler AO I lost because Lumen replaces DFAO. 

As far as post-processing inside Unreal goes, I adjusted the Min/Max brightness as is usually suggested for Unreal scenes. I slightly adjusted the Gain and brightened the overall ShadowsMax setting under Shadows. I also slightly boosted the Toe setting under Film to adjust the dark colors in the scene to help reduce the white in the scene so that everything popped just a little more. The final thing I did was to sharpen the overall scene using the same tutorial Jasmin used for her Bird House scene.

Conclusion

Overall this project was done over a few months. As with any scene regardless of the size you always want to make sure to take the time in the beginning to plan everything out. If I had set myself a more definitive deadline and planned out the assets I was unsure of I might have been finished with the scene earlier. The other big piece of advice I’d give for a diorama like this would be to set your camera up in both your modeling and rendering programs immediately. While I had cameras set up, it wasn’t until I followed Taylor Harris’ tutorial of matching perspective and composition that helped solidify my shot towards the end. 

The two areas that were the most challenging for me were lighting and the trim sheets. Even with my simple setup of just three lights, I found myself constantly adjusting and re-adjusting the light settings. I really wanted to balance the warm yellow sunlight with the cool blue of the shadows. Then towards the end when my lighting was almost finalized I decided to switch from UE4 to UE5, which did affect the lighting moving to the new Lumen system. But I thought the benefits were enough to justify it though I wasn’t quite able to recapture the nice blue AO I had achieved in areas like the door in UE4. As for the trim sheets, the texturing process in Substance was pretty easy after I nailed down the wood roof. It was more so getting used to modeling pieces off an existing sheet that took getting used to. I tried looking at stuff like Morten Olsen’s GDC Ultimate Trim talk at GDC and utilized the Ultimate trim plugin from Justen Lazzaro. However, I had issues with areas like the edges of the wood and stone where the models look like separate faces rather than one whole continuous piece. So that’s something I want to work on for future projects.

Thank you again for the awesome opportunity of being able to be interviewed for an 80 Level article! I check this site daily for awesome interviews and breakdowns from other great artists and always hoped to one day see my own article. A lot of the stuff I covered has possibly been brought up in past interviews but I hope I provided someone out there with something that helps them!

I wanted to give special thanks to Sabrina Echouafni! I won a giveaway for a free mentorship from her on Twitter and she took time out of her schedule to give me valuable feedback on my scene! Also, shoutout to the Beyond Extent, The Club, The Handpainters Guild, and Experience Points Discords where I also received valuable feedback! 

Tyler Lariscy, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    wonderful work!

    0

    Anonymous user

    ·2 months ago·

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