Making a Modular Abandoned Diner in UE4

Tommaso Brambilla talked in detail about his Abandoned Diner project made at CGMA: modular approach and modeling stage, texturing with Substance tools and vertex painting, setting up lighting and mood, and more.


Hello everyone, my name is Tommaso Brambilla and I graduated from IED Milano (Istituto Europeo di Design). During the time between now and when I finished my studies, I tried to take advantage of this awful moment to improve my portfolio in order to become a better Environment Artist.

My journey with Computer Graphics started when I was a teenager. During those years I used to experiment with different software like Cinema 4D and Photoshop, but I became truly passionate about this whole world only when I started university and began to learn many different techniques and software solutions.

I have always been very passionate about video games since I was a child: I have always loved all these different scenarios and the ability of different artists to literally immerse players in fantastic imaginary worlds.

Joining CGMA

During my university years, I always admired all the different projects that I would see on ArtStation made by ex-students of CGMA, and I wanted to learn to create an environment from scratch. So, after I graduated, I decided to join the Modular Environment course at CGMA with the objective to finally create my first scene completely by myself.

1 of 5

Abandoned Diner: Idea

I have always been a big fan of the post-apocalyptic theme displayed in games such as Fallout 3 and The Last of Us, so my goal was to create an environment that I would like to explore as a player. At the beginning of the project, when I was still looking for a concept, I came across different images of abandoned diners and immediately fell in love with the design of the space in some of these places.

This was one of the reference images that I used for creating the environment. The scenario I came up with is not an exact replica of the place because my main goal was to do something based purely on my artistic taste.

Modeling the Scene

I started the environment by doing a blocking of the scene in Maya with the purpose of later importing my 3D meshes inside Unreal Engine 4 to check the correct proportions of each object. During this week, with the knowledge of the course, I started my scene in the most modular way possible, so that I could reuse some of the elements inside the scene and fasten up the process overall. Walls, floor, and roof, – they are between one and two meshes, which are repeated inside the engine.

Regarding the polygon density, all objects in the scene are either low poly (to which I applied normal maps derived from their high polys) or simple geometry pieces, with just the right amount of polygons to have a clean control with the vertex paint.

In order to create the environment, I used Maya to model all the base props and modular pieces, having good control over the modular process thanks to the snap grid system inside the software. Furthermore, I used ZBrush for some of the props like the diner seats and the stools, in order to have more interesting normal maps for those objects.

During this part, I was honestly quite inexperienced in creating both modular assets and low poly game-ready props, so I used the pipeline taught by Clinton (mentor) and was able to make a cleaner scene inside Unreal (that could be very easily modified at any moment).

Texturing Stage

Texturing is my favorite part of 3D environment creation. My main goal was to display an abandoned place, so I knew that I had to spend my time refining the overall look of the materials. During the process, I used mainly Substance Designer to create trim and seamless textures, and Substance Painter to finalize all the specific props inside the scene, with a little help of ZBrush for some of the assets.

Regarding roof, floor, and walls, I exclusively used seamless textures created in Substance Designer. My main intent was to make a generator for each type of texture so that I could create different variations of the same pattern in terms of how broken the floor was. Later on, it would allow me to have a nice blend in UE4 using the vertex paint tool. I tried to use this technique mainly to speed up the entire process and focus on creating just one single material instead of three, with different parameters to alter the overall look just by changing some values.

In terms of texturing single props, I decided to use Substance Painter over Designer simply because I could control the overall look of the prop better. While working with Substance Painter I tend not to use smart materials for the sole purpose of wanting to give each object a specific look and not a general one. Regarding my process, I usually start off by creating the Roughness and Metallic maps (if I am texturing metallic props), adding as many details as possible on each map and trying to blend them together in the best way possible. I normally start off by selecting one of the main grunge or noise maps inside the software, which would give me the general look of the object, then I try to make the item as interesting as possible by adding different layers of dirt and scratches. Later on, I start working with the Base Color, where I tend to mimic related references of the object while trying to slightly exaggerate the colors in order to make it more interesting than its original copy. Thus I pass onto the Occlusion and Normal maps which normally are simply derived from the high poly of the model.

When I started this project, I knew that one of the key elements would be the feeling of how abandoned the place was, so I added the option to use vertex paint on each asset inside the scene, both modular pieces and single props. This way, I was able to work on the look of each individual piece inside the texturing software and only add moss in UE4 through vertex painting later. I decided to go with this technique for the sole purpose of having better control over the scene inside Unreal, instead of having to jump back and forth between different software solutions just to apply minor changes.

Small Props and Details

Once I finished making the main props, I then moved on to all of those secondary objects that would add more realism and storytelling to the whole scene. Most of the secondary assets are modeled in Maya and share the same texture pack, except for the plants that come from the Megascans library. Furthermore, I used decal actors for the graffiti and some of the newspapers.

Lighting and Mood

From my perspective, lighting was the hardest part of the entire project, mainly because it was my first time doing it. My intent was to use a physical lighting setup across the scene, so I tried to study it as much as possible by watching different tutorials on physical lighting inside UE4 (most of them were given to me by Clinton).

I started establishing the lighting by setting my main Light Source (Directional Light) and the Skylight. Then, I gave the Directional Light a temperature value of 5000 to simulate a morning light mood. Later on, I placed an HDRI image into the Skylight, which was the same used during the all texturing process inside both Substance Painter and Designer. I knew from the beginning of the project that I wanted to have strong volumetric light coming across the diner and in order to do that, I started experimenting with the volumetric scattering value of the Directional Light and Volumetric Fog. Once I achieved the main look, I placed different Static Spotlights all across the scene to show the materials of different objects at their best.

At the beginning of the project, I tried to create some sort of mood board in order to establish from the get-go the main characteristics of the scene.

My main goal was to have strong light coming from either windows or doors that would set the entire mood of the scene and a very desaturated color palette all across the scene elements. To make things as simple as possible, in UE4 Master Material, I added an option to directly desaturate the Base Color map without having to jump back and forth between different software.

Challenges and Feedback

Personally, the hardest part for me was managing the lighting across the scene, I had to practice a lot before starting to work on the final beauty shot. Since the beginning of the course, I learned so many techniques, from modeling to lighting, and especially how to create efficient modular assets and add storytelling in an environment. During the whole course, Clinton was always available giving us great feedback on how to improve the scene until the end.

I think that you can never stop learning more about the creation of 3D environments, so my main goal is to keep pushing my skills and knowledge (acquired during this course) to become a better artist.

Tommaso Brambilla, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

Keep reading

You may find this article interesting

Join discussion

Comments 0

    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