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Making a Sacred Japanese Cave Shrine in UE4

Vincent Letang talked about his UE4 project The Shrine of the Lost Children that embodied Japanese cultural elements from Shinto and Buddhism. 


Hi everyone! My name is Vincent Letang. I am 24 years old and I’m an environment artist from Valenciennes, France. I’m specializing in level art. I love to tell stories, communicate strong emotions throughout the environment, and play with the player’s feelings when they discover an area or a panorama. During my studies at Rubika Supinfogame, I realised that I loved to play and experiment in the game engine as well as create environments with a special ambiance. As the first step, I learned to create scenery with Unity.

Currently, I’m finishing the 5th year at my school. The Shrine of the Lost Children is my first UE4 project and I’ll explain step by step how I made this scene. It was a challenge for me. After Unity, I wanted to make a complete environment in Unreal Engine 4 and through this project, I learned how to bake lights in UE4, make props, and shaders. 

Next year, I'll be finishing my Master’s Degree.

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The Shrine of the Lost Children: Idea and Goals

After my The Last Guardian Fan Art project, I wanted to make a Japanese scene. Since childhood, I've been in love with Japanese culture – the historical legacy, landscapes, and so many artists in various media. However, I have never been to Japan. Perhaps one day, my childhood dream to travel there will come true. This environment is in some ways a fantasy image of what I know about Japan. 

The first idea for this scene appeared after playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. At one point, the player was taken by Shimenawa to a divine kingdom (1). This magic instantly reminded me of when I was a kid and discovered Princess Mononoke (2) for the first time. At the same time, I had fallen in love with the visuals of some Buddhas in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (3). Why not combine Shinto’s spirits and Buddhist statues in one scene? This is the main question that drove my concept.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice concept art (1,3) and Kodama Scene from Princess Mononoke (2):

Shinto and Buddhism in Japan

I did some historical research. This work allows me to bring new ideas and consolidate my concept. I learned how Japanese people approach Shinto and Buddhism – I'll explain it but I still might have made some mistakes. If you note any, please feel free to contact me or write a comment. Shinto is a religion originating in Japan. Its practitioners often regard it as Japan's indigenous religion and as a natural religion. Shinto is polytheistic and based around the spirits and supernatural entities believed to inhabit all things. In this image, we can see the iconic Itsukushima Torii, a Shinto shrine near Hiroshima.

And Buddhism is a religion that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and resulting interpreted philosophies. It originated in ancient India as a Sramana tradition sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE and spread in Japan in 552 C. In the second image, we can see the famous Buddha of Kamakura in Kanagawa, Japan.

From what I have read, Shinto and Buddhism are both practiced in Japan. The principal goal of these two religions is respect for nature and spirits. Also, these religions are based on a search for wisdom. That’s why both of them live together there. The most important fact that I learned is that Shinto is more ancient than Buddhism in Japan. Thanks to that, I got the idea to make an abandoned Buddhist shrine with some spirits inspired by Shinto as if these spirits from the older religion were curious about this sanctuary.

Mixing References

The visuals of the statues of the Buddhist deity Jizo, dressed in bibs by parents who have lost children brought me some ideas. Jizô Bosatsu is a Buddhist divinity dedicated to the protection of travelers and young childrens. He has the mission to help men and souls to cross a passage, complete a journey. In the bereavement, parents' stillborn babies are reliant on Jizô. He helps the infant’s lost soul to cross the Sanzu River in the direction of paradise. Jizo statues are dressed in red clothes, infant’s color. Despite the smile, Jizô performs a painful mission. I wanted to make a shrine with this strong theme.

Temple Zōjō-ji (1), Iwayasan Cave (2), Goa Jomblang Cave (3,6), Khao Luang Cave (4), Les-Planches-près-Arbois, La Cascade des Tufs (5):

Then, I found this shrine called Iwayasan Cave (2) and was very impressed by what people did with it. I wanted to transform this location into a hidden place and make a humid cavern with rare holes for the sunlight.

I was also inspired by Jomblang Cave (3), especially its depth of field and step-stair construction.

In this image from Thailand (4), the lighting creates the main focus area and I used it to enhance the main Buddha statue in my scene.

I also liked this plateau with small waterfalls in the foreground from France (5). I didn’t want to make big waterfalls like the one in the background that could distract the viewer from the focus area.

And on the farthest side, I wanted to add a well of light to illuminate the background.

Nostalgic Emotions

I wanted spectators to sense the same feelings that I had when I discovered a magical and mysterious environment as a child – a feeling of an ethereal and timeless world, a desire to explore this mysterious place, a sense of wonder and warmth, almost as if they were in a fantasy novel that they read when they were children. A little frightening but enticing at the same time.

When I read children's books, I looked everywhere for details. Sometimes, I found mysterious numbers or clues that were hidden in the environment. I loved this feeling of discovering an unexpected thing and imagining the purpose of it.

Art Direction

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is my principal reference for the artistic direction here, especially this artwork (1). That was my main reference and the guiding star, I recreate the colors, materials, mood, or even particles from it.

My main Buddha statue in the center was recreated from here (2) but in stone. I like how FromSoftware’s concept artist adds multiple instances of the same element on an object. That multiplication adds a sense of madness in certain circumstances.

Next, I wanted to make little spirits for my scene, as if children’s souls manifested themselves through them. Obviously, I was inspired by Princess Mononoke’s Kodamas (3) but I didn't want to use the cel-shading effect on these creatures. I preferred a translucent material like for the Corrupted Monk in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (4).

I was inspired by the way The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker (5) designed their forest spirits. At a glance, we recognize what environment these spirits live in. And for the design of the spirits' masks, I chose two references. Firstly, this primitive stone mask from the neolithic period dating back to 7000 BC from the Musée Bible et Terre Sainte in Paris (perhaps, the oldest mask in the world) (6). Secondly, the shape of this Kokeisai Sanshō's mask called “Exaggerated Hyottoko Mask", late 19th/early 20th century, Japan (7).

Primitive Blockout 

First of all, I needed to add placeholders in my scene before I sculpted it in detail. I started with primitives (1). I wanted multiple strata to make the scenery more interesting. 

After that, I placed my main camera (2), it helped me to focus on the area. I chose a bottom view as I wanted to show the bridge, low strata, and most importantly, the props of my main Buddha in the foreground. This step allowed me to make some iterations on the main volumes in my scene.

Modeling Props

I chose three references for my main Buddha. For the concept, as I already mentioned, I used a piece from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Artbook. The statue is located in a humid environment, so I needed to add moss and water degradation on talismans (1, 2).

When I the initial blockout, I started making the main Buddha, the most important prop in my scene. It was my first advanced prop and I wanted to see how much of Sekiro’s concept I could reproduce before pushing the complexity of the placeholder. First, I took a very rough model of Buddha as a base mesh (1). I added two arms (2), then built the footing and a seat back (3). Then, I erased some parts of the mesh and added chamfers, cracks, and asperity (4). After that, I made three-element cloth in Marvelous Designer (5, 6), added holes and torn fibers (7). I also needed to go back to Marvelous Designer for the papers talismans (8). I also added some spiderweb but then I was not convinced and thought it was too much. Then, I made the low poly and the UVs in 3ds Max.

Finally, I moved to Substance Painter and Photoshop the baking and texturing.

UV maps, Diffuse, Normal, Ambient Occlusion, Roughness, and Metallic:

The texture for paper talismans was made in Photoshop. I wanted to add a little clue to the lore into my scene, so I learned some Kanji and I used diagrams for a better understanding. And I added lichen and mildew on the talismans near water.
The final render of my main Buddha:
When I added the main Buddha in my scene, I redefined the blocking.

At the same time, I added little versions of my Buddha in the background and tested other elements like ropes on top of the main Buddha, making sure to let the environment breathe.

“White Flowers” by Ian Jun Wei Chiew and an image of an old water bridge from Alamy.com:

The bridges were made following the same workflow as for the main Buddha. I worked in the same software – 3ds Max, ZBrush, and Substance Painter – relying on references. Then, in UE4, I added a shader for moss and drops of water (6). I’ll talk about it later. At this point, I had the beginning of the structure. I added a stone lantern, mossy stones, and a tree stump from the Quixel Suite.
Then, I had the idea to make a baby buddha in the arms of my main Buddha to accentuate the theme of the lost children. I got inspired by an item from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Artbook (1). I wanted it not to be held directly by the main Buddha, but simply lay down in his arms as if someone put it there. I got this idea thanks to Carlo Maratta’s painting (2). And I tried to reproduce this baby’s pose and cloth (3).
Firstly, I sculpted a rough blockout of the head and added placeholders for the rest of the body (1). It allowed me to easily create a pose (2). Then, I merged all elements and sculpted details (3). Like for my main Buddha, I made cloth in Marvelous Designer (4). Then, I made the low poly and unwrapped the model in 3ds Max. And finally, I did baking and texturing in Substance Painter and Photoshop. 
The final render of the baby buddha:

Material Function 

I wanted some effects on my props to reproduce the mood of a humid cavern. Every prop in my scene has special effects added through functions. I followed the Youtube tutorials from Ben Cloward and Lukas’ Ramblings on these subjects. Firstly, a mossy function, it's useful for blending some objects.

Secondly, a few drops on horizontal surfaces. 
And thirdly, some drops on vertical surfaces. I wanted my effects to remain discreet. 


I made two materials for my spirits. The shader for souls is translucent and the wood and moss are standard materials. In some ways, they melt into the background.

I added a blue flame into a primitive wooden mask, then made some holes in it for us to see the soul inside. Then, I assembled some cloth with moss and added a flame of the same color to the body.
Finally, I added different Mixamo animations – I wanted unique animations for every spirit to add more life to my scene.

Environment FX

Firstly, I made drizzle, fog and some water drops. I wanted to reproduce the feeling of dampness.

In some ways, these drizzles are similar to godrays. This gives an impression of divine light.

I chose Tharlevfx’s free pack from UE4 Marketplace. This is a complete pack and I recommend it for any beginners.  

Secondly, I made suspended particles to add a sense of magic.
And thirdly, I made particles around the characters. These are more chaotic, more alive.

Lighting and Composition Tips for Beginners

For beginners in UE4, I will demonstrate some composition guidelines, like the Rule of Thirds. It’s a composition technique beginner photographers usually start with. In my composition, I prefer to place the main subject in the center. Do you see the four points where the lines intersect? These are the thirds of the image. If you add your focus areas in these points, your subject will be accentuated in some ways.

I was inspired by this composition from Opera Noth's Don Giovanni in 2018 (see above). We can see some guiding lines in these images; such lines help lead the viewer's eyes through the image and focus attention on a specific area. Anything like paths, walls, ropes, patterns, etc. can be used as leading lines.

In the image above, you can see how I added a ceiling of stalagmites like opera curtains. This is a ‘frame within the frame’. It helped me accentuate depth. For this purpose, you can use windows, arches, or props. The ‘frame’ does not necessarily have to surround the entire scene to be effective. In some ways, we can reproduce this effect with vignette in post-processing. 

I also added some Japanese incense and a lot of buddhas behind the stone lantern. We can see this area on the left side of the main shot. These details bring more richness to the environment. I’m inspired by Iwayasan Cave with a lot of Buddha statues in its walls. 

My directional light comes from the ceiling and highlights the main statue. With additional lights, I illuminated some places around the focus area. All of the lights are static and baked. 

Below I’ll show how you can use some useful modes in the viewport.

In the unlit view from buffer visualizations, we can see the object's color. We can see green, brown, and grey colors from vegetation, cavern walls, stalagmites, landscape, and moss. I choose analogous colors for the overall scene. Then, I added complementary colors for my focus area. Thanks to that, the spectator's eyes are drawn to the main Buddha. And finally, I chose triadic colors for my characters. This small addition makes them more attractive.

Thanks to the depth view, we can see the silhouettes of the characters and important places standing out. This is an easy way to see if your elements are well placed.
In the only lighting view, we can see how lighting affects the environment. It’s more practical for the initial placement of the lights. 
It should be noted that another way to see if your lighting is effective is to desaturate your scene in post-processing. After that, if you are satisfied with how the features of your scene are highlighted, you can add your image in Photoshop or other software to see the levels of white and dark. For example, in my shot, I had the following settings: It can be interesting to have stairs-like levels, this effect can be recognized in photography or wallpapers. However, you can have a nice image even without it. 
Below is my final render. I added some image effects like Ambient Occlusion, modified the Color Grading and the film effects like Slope, Toe, and Shoulder in post-processing.


I am definitely happy with the final result. It’s my first environment in UE4 and I’m very proud of it. At the same time, I made my first advanced props and learned how to optimize the workflow and save time for my next projects. If you have any questions, tips, or suggestions, feel free to contact me.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to my mentors in environment design, Michael Desfroyennes and Xavier le Guen, who shared with me a lot of knowledge. And Alex Calvarez – I've learned a lot on how to create a story through the environment thanks to my summer internship. 

Vincent Letang, Environment Artist

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Comments 2

  • lu luxjuve

    楼上那位,那么大个UE4 的logo 你没看到吗……


    lu luxjuve

    ·3 years ago·
  • Anonymous user



    Anonymous user

    ·3 years ago·

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