Making a Research Center in Maya & Unreal Engine 5

Johnny Renquist talked about creating M41 Research Facility, told us about the sources of inspiration, and explained how to work with modular assets.


Hello and welcome! My name is Johnny Renquist, I am a Senior Environment Artist at Remedy Entertainment. A bit of background: I have worked in the industry for more than 14 years, with 8 companies and over 10 games under my belt. I started off getting a degree at the Art Institute of San Diego in California in Game Art and Design. At that time, I didn’t really know what exactly I wanted from it but I was sure I wanted to do something in helping with creating games. While going to Uni, I was given an opportunity for an internship with a smaller studio called BottleRocket Entertainment as an Environment Artist and from then on I knew that this was something I could really enjoy doing with my career. After I graduated I was made full-time and the rest was history. I moved through some pretty fun companies and countries along my way some examples of my experience:

  • Sony in California as an Outsourcer getting to touch many games.
  • Bungie in Washington State as an Environment Artist getting to work on the last Halo game created by them.
  • Foundry 42 in England as a Senior Environment Artist working on Star Citizen. Being able to learn some awesome workflows is nice.
  • Starbreeze in Sweden as a Senior Environment Artist making friends and dealing with Walking Dead stuff.
  • Remedy in Finland as a Senior Environment Artist working with 2 unreleased projects Crossfire and an unannounced project. 

Art Inspiration and Storytelling 

For my M41 project, I took inspiration from multiple films and games. I liked the idea behind The Cabin in the Woods. A government facility underground that housed all types of cryptids with the employees working with the most dangerous things in the universe, treating them as things that pose no danger till something happens. Just another normal 9-5 job.

Another idea I liked was the Blob creature from the movie The Blob. It was something that could be contained in any shape of container and also something that could fill a space quite easily. Having a liquid state that acted as a huge muscle was something I wanted to try and incorporate into a project. Also with the Blob creature, it seemed to function only in warm conditions. In sub-temperature levels, it would freeze. This also gave a nice idea of having the facility based out someplace in the Antarctic area.

The slight brutalist architecture I am using in my project came as an inspiration from seeing a lot of the design in Control while working at Remedy. In Control, they used large concrete structures with limited color palettes. This gave some nice architecture elements that I could pull ideas from. Large open areas could give really great contrast with the correct lighting. The use of retro-style props also adds a type of history and age to the environments.

So looking at the game Inside, I got a lot of really nice ideas from their strong lighting along with the simplistic shapes and colors. Taking references above and combining them into a solid idea worked for my M41 project. 
The result is an underground facility located in the middle of Antarctica that ran tests on cryptids. Something that was so large and vast that the scientists that worked there also lived there for a certain amount of time. The attitude of the employees seen in The Cabin in the Woods gave a bit of character to them as well. For me, this is how I started the idea of what I wanted to do. 

The Style

In the style and post-work of the project, I wanted the assets, lighting, and material to be clear and readable. So with these ideas in mind, I found some style references I liked. Ideas that I could use on top of the inspiration I was working from. I looked at a few artists on ArtStation that helped me find a nice solution to the style I wanted. Some of those artists were Calder Moore, Paul Chadeisson, and Amir Zand. They all had some great work to look at. From this, I had an idea of how it should be built.

As for the lighting, I knew I wanted to have nice indirect lighting and the ability to have it run in real-time so Unreal Engine 5 was perfect to work with. The Lumen setup with the lighting and reflections helped give me what I needed with the soft bounce lighting and the ability to convey my ideas correctly.

The materials setups were quite simple except for a few. For the majority of them, I went with using solid colors for the most part but still using a PBR workflow. Also using very little texture maps only when it was needed like in the bumpiness of the floors. Working this way, I was able to get the results I wanted.

I tied all of it together with a post effect that had some value changes along with color corrections and a material override to get the subtle linework that had some flexibility to it so I could choose how thick the line work needed to be. This on top of the nice lighting and solid colors worked quite well. 

Modular Kits and Assets

Since I have been using Maya for a few years now, I went ahead and used that for my modular assets in this project. The floors, ceilings, and walls are all built to work with one another. I have 3 main wall sets: large, medium, and small kits. They all have a base wall that I work from that starts at 4 meters wide. The heights are what really determine if it falls into the different sets like the larger is 10 meters high, the medium is 6, and the small is 4. This way I was allowed to have a flexible set to get the large enough rooms I wanted – tight corridors with high ceilings or smaller rooms. Also, all the windows and door cut-ins needed to be built to work across all the sets so I could have a seamless transition from one room style to another.

The floor and ceiling sets were a lot easier to set up. I did a few types that had corners, edges, and filler sections. These were made up of 1,2 and 4-meter pieces. The ceilings matched the floor style as well. With these kits built out I was able to get kind of whatever I needed and was able to build any type of room pretty fast.

Small, Medium, and Large modular sets:

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And 3 door sizes to help with the sets I had created:

For some of the assets like the doors, for instance, I went a bit further with the construction. I wanted to do some experiments with having physicalized doors. To be more exact, my double door and the vinyl door curtains asses. 

To create the double doors, I set up a blueprint using the physics constraints as the pivots to the doors placed in the bottom corners of the frame that the doors were attached to. Also having the doors themselves set to simulate physics worked pretty well when the character interacted with them.

For the vinyl door curtains, I went in a similar way and made a blueprint for them as well, but for these I first made the skeleton mesh for one of the curtains.

This contained 5 bones that allowed it to flex and move when walked through when used correctly. In the blueprint for this, the skeleton mesh was brought in and duplicated 8 times to get that "curtain" look and hung from a frame. Having them connected using physics constraints similar to the double doors allowed me to have them react to the player when you passed through them. 

I was pretty happy with the results from these. Made it kind of fun to run through them from room to room even if they might be expensive to use.  
For the assets, I wanted to use a design language that showed age but was still functional. Something that kept that bulky feel of the old CRT computers but also didn't exactly say what time period the project took place in. I decided to use a similar style as Control did with their retro-style assets. It worked perfectly with what I wanted to achieve.

Since I have never been particularly strong at doing characters, I found a nice character set in Unreal Marketplace to work from as a base. The set was done by Studio New Punch and it helped me to get the scientist I needed for my project. 

Small and Large assets:

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For my decals, I ended up using atlas sheets that were used as decal meshes. This way, I could determine if I wanted the post-line work to show up on the details or not. This came in handy in areas that felt like they were becoming too noisy from the line work and decals. As well as with masking set up on the decals I could determine what areas I wanted to have colored certain colors or not. 

Example of the caution signage decals:

Examples of the caution stripes, signage, and spatter decals:

When creating the blob creature I used a few things to get the movement I wanted. Starting with setting up morph targets in Maya to get the wavelike undulations. Once I imported the mesh into Unreal, I used it as a skeleton mesh, so the morph targets came in as well. Then made a blueprint using that mesh and set up timelines to control the movements I made with the morph targets. This gave me some good control over how I wanted the Blob to move around in the scene.

As for a secondary movement, I remember seeing a small demo done by Unreal showing off their noise functions in the materials. So taking some inspiration from that I used the Noise function, so I got some procedural movement on top of the morph targets. I could have used a Normal Map as well to get some more detail but with the line work in the post-process, I chose to not use it. Since this would have been too noisy and not really get the look I wanted. In the end, using the morph targets and noise helped sell the idea of something alive and the end result came out pretty well.

Good Compositions

Finding good compositions was a key point I needed to achieve as well. I used the rules of thirds a lot which helped along with a few other things like knowing when to crop. It's always a good idea not to show everything in one scene. I see lots of artists that have this awesome work but want to show it all at once. In the end, you just get a mess of props with nothing really to focus on and no real story. I mean it's nice to be able to show off what you have worked on but in most cases, showing less is more. I felt that way with this project as well. I had quite a few assets made, but choosing what I should keep in the sense and what I should take out helped add to the storytelling.

Another thing is knowing what color pallets work and what don't. I wanted to keep a lot of the colors subdued and let the light and shadow do most of the talking combined. Along with some accent colors to call out specific areas. I have a few shots that break this idea but for the most part, I went this route. The color pallets are needed to help the image not hinder it.

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For most of my shots, I checked how they worked in black and white as well. Doing this made it easier to concentrate on how the objects are positioned, on their interrelationship, and how they relate to their environment. Reducing distracting colors, objects, and light placements can help you get a better grasp of the overall composition that is chosen. All this played a role in where my cameras would be placed. Using a 16:9 aspect ratio with a narrow focal length for most of the shots gave them a grounded look that felt a bit more personal. 

Wider focal lengths work sometimes but for most of my stuff, I decided against it since it would take away from the focal point by showing too much on screen.

Examples of some camera placements for a few of my shots:

Final Words

With everything I mentioned, it's not at all a set rule on achieving something similar. It's just the way I went about getting to the end result. I would say that using a similar way of working does help formulate an idea. There have been many times I wanted to do a project but with very little thought process behind it or on the opposite and having the project become too grand. More often than not these projects never see the light of day.

But having a solid foundation to work from and having it manageable; a nice idea from a basic story or something a bit more, a general style idea you want "may change throughout the project" and some ideas of the things you may want to have in the project can help a lot. Other advice is having a healthy workflow on the project taking a few day breaks if needed seems to help to recharge ideas. Can also help get past any burnout phases that might come up. 

Johnny Renquist, Senior 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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