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Making a Stylized Abandoned Scene in UE4

Zurab Barisashvili talked about creating a stylized scene with an abandoned building and dense vegetation in Maya, Substance, and Unreal Engine 4.


Hello! My name is Zurab Barisashvili, I am a 23-year-old 3D artist and I come from the long-forgotten country of Georgia. 
Games have always been my passion and over the years that passion and love evolved into making games, specifically doing 3D environments. 
Since there wasn't any local source of education towards game art here, I decided to do it the old fashion way, through Google and YouTube.

Although both sources provided enough information about everything I needed, I have always strived to learn more. Putting countless hours and sleepless nights into perfecting my skills and learning new things, eventually, got me into a local company called Storm Bringer Studios. 
I can proudly say that they have taught me everything I needed to know to be a better version of myself. 
I was fortunate enough to get permission from them to do side gigs and work with other studios while working with SBS at the same time.

That opened up more ways for me to advance and the opportunity to learn even more new things. 
Of course, all of that lead to me contributing to countless projects on mobile devices, PCs, and consoles. A lot of them remain unknown and unpublished to this day, but the experience and knowledge I got from every project are priceless and I couldn't ask for more. 


Sadly I didn't have time to work on my portfolio for a long time and I wanted to do something new, something exciting. So I started looking around the web for inspirational concept arts. After days of looking for something special, I came across this artwork by Arthur Gorin.

I was very inspired and motivated to do it justice, but at the same time, I always like to add a bit of myself to everything I do, so naturally, I wanted to change some things, and I started to look for some additional concept arts, and at the same time, I was looking at the things that were already in the original concept art, like trees, grass, bushes, etc.

From the resources gathered I drew a lot of inspiration and overall ideas of what I wanted to do with the whole environment, as well as with smaller assets. 


Setting the foundation which is the landscape was quite interesting. I had few ideas of how I wanted to do it but, in the end, decided to give Unreal Engines landscape a try. 
It ended up being a perfect decision since it gave me a lot of room for experimentation and quick changes here and there. 

I wanted to get the base landscape shape as close as possible to the original reference because I liked the concentrated feel it had.

Soon after I moved on to set up the landscape material which consisted of a 3-way layer setup. The first was lushes green since it was the most used one. The second one was worn out/dried out grass which would go on the edges towards the mud. And the third was the mud layer. 

This setup was specifically put this way since it was the closest and most natural occurrence you could see in real life. The paths that hikers/people/cars/bicycles would go on is always the most used, thus grass tends to not grow in these places, logically the grass at the far sides of those paths would be either completely destroyed or just short and not fully developed. 
I used that knowledge throughout the whole scene that I have set up.

You can see here the first test iteration of that 3 layer setup:

Here you can see the final use of that technique with a much simpler stylized approach:

Modeling and Texturing

Once I was settled with idea that I wanted the whole composition to be focused on the pass point, the main building which was the centerpiece of the whole project. I did a blockout of the building to get the shape, angle, and feel of how it would sit in the scene. I played around with it for a bit to get the result I liked. 

Once that was settled, I began to work on it in more detail. 
I knew that I wanted to make it modular, thus I began to isolate pieces that could be repeated and reused. I ended up with five main pieces that the building was built from. 

Once I had the base meshes established. I made high poly versions, so I could bake some of the details onto low poly meshes.

My goal with high poly was to make something subtle yet distinct enough that would look recognizable from distance. 
Also, I noticed that the top part of the building wouldn't be seen at all so I decided not to spend too much time on it.

After I had low poly and high poly done, I moved to texturing in Substance Painter. 
I decided not to use vertex paint for this project, so my goal was to include all the texture details that I needed right in Substance Painter.

The final result in terms of colors texturing got through a lot of iterations to fit the overall look of the scene better. 

You can see that the bottom parts, as well as the parts that will be tucked away somewhere inside, have a lot of moss built around them. That happens a lot in nature over the years, that was one of the ideas that helped me show that the building has been there for a long time, as well as it gave me a nice gradual progression from ground to the building, which might not seem that noticeable in the final shot, but it definitely affected a lot of its visuals.


Since I had the main building ready and set up, now it was time to move on to the second most important asset in the scene which was grass.
 Definitely, it was the most challenging and the most rewarding part of this project. You can see how many iterations it got through to look like it did at the end.

To achieve the final result, I had to tweak and adjust a lot of things in the material. Here you can see I used a Colored Grudge mask which gives me random color values for the grass, the scale of it can be adjusted to fit the scene. 

Also, you can see that I used Pixel Depth Offset to blend the roots of grass with the ground, which gives a very nice overall feel.

Very important was to disable Tangent Space Normals in main material attributes, which gave the grass a completely different feel. 
It is a good practice to disable cast shadows on the grass and to enable a two-sided feature for a more dense look.

Lastly and most importantly, I wanted to make the grass look more alive, and what makes it more alive than wind sway. 
It was quite easy to achieve using simple grass wind with simple value nodes and vertex color gradient. All of those techniques came in handy with all the rest assets as well. For example, you can see trees and bushes setup as well.

Here you can see all the variations of plants I have used:

For modeling bushes and leaves for the trees, I used a very useful feature that Autodesk Maya provides. 
It's Called MASH and it allows one mesh to be spread across another mesh while the user has all the ability to control the process. It allows you to control the randomness offset scale amount rotation, basically every parameter, which helped me greatly on this project.

Trees were also set up similar to the main building. 
They were modeled, sculpted, baked, and textured. 

Final Result in Unreal Engine:

Assembling the Final Scene

I knew I wanted to do and learn more from this project, and I knew I wanted to make really nice-looking clouds, but I didn't want them just to be 2D panning planes with textures. 
I knew I wanted to do something different. I started researching what I could do and I came across this amazing tutorial. It was just what I was looking for and I went with it. I tweaked the end result a bit to fit my needs and I got this:

It was a simple displacement material with some noise and a bit of transparency. I decided to add a bit of wind effect at the end which made it look even better.

In the end, through some material and shading tweaking, I got pretty fluffy-looking clouds that were generating randomly when I move them, so I was pretty happy with the final result. Once I had all the assets done and everything put together, it was time for a good lighting setup which took the most time in this project. 
Since there were so many objects and I wanted to keep shadows moving and look alive, I decided to go with real-time lighting.

I used one Directional Light for the entire scene and one Spotlight for an extra nice effect. 

Throughout the process, I played with a lot of lighting variation in terms of color, intensity, angle, etc. This was the key to finding that perfect setting that I got at the end. 

This is the directional light setup.
And here is the spotlight setup which is used to simulate extra light rays coming in from the sun's direction. Apart from light sources, I also used Exponential Height Fog for that nice fog in the background and to give the middle ground some nice extra color variety.

Here is the fog setup.

Also at the end, I decided to add a nice HDR backdrop which gave all the vegetation a nice contrasted and pronounced look.

Once I completed this project I was left with a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction because I learned a lot of new things and practiced some things that I wasn't sure about in the past. As an addition, I want to thank 80 Level for featuring me and for letting me share my knowledge and experience with the rest of the community. 

Zurab Barisashvili, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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