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Making a Stylized Grove in 3ds Max, ZBrush & Unreal Engine

Mohamed Hadiri talked about the work process behind the Minshan Grove project, explained how the sunset was made, and shared some useful YouTube channels that will help you learn Unreal Engine.

Introduction

Hello and welcome, everyone. Let me introduce myself, I am Mohamed Hadiri, a 3D Environment Artist from Tunisia. I studied Game Art at the Institut International de l'Image et du Son 3is in France from 2016 to 2018 and I got my start as a prop artist in 2018 when I joined Realiz3D in Paris. I worked there for almost a year and since then, I have focused more on my personal projects and developing my skills as an artist.

For this article, I will try to make a tutorial and give fellow artists all the resources to inspire them to create a beautiful stylized scene.

The Minshan Grove Project

I've always liked stylized art. I grew up with Crash Bandicoot, World of Warcraft, and many other stylized art games which I hold dear to my heart. So I had the idea to challenge myself and create my own stylized scene. I had some references in mind like the Vale of Eternal Blossoms in World of Warcraft and some arts I found on ArtStation like the Bird House made by incredible artist Jasmin Habezai-Fekri.

Once I had a solid idea of what I'm probably going to build in Unreal Engine, I asked my friend and fellow artist Matthieu Limozin to create an environment concept art based on my idea so I could properly visualize everything and make it easier for me to focus on building the assets.

Modeling and Texturing

For the modeling part, I mainly used 3ds Max for the low poly models. I went with really basic forms like cylinders and rectangles and tried to twist them around as I did for the trees, the windmill, and the fans. Then, I added some slight details in ZBrush, like wood details, some cracks, and slashes.

I used SpeedTree to really block out the tree trunk’s shape and make something really quickly with stylized twisted forms, and SpeedTree was the best tool for that. Then, I added more details using ZBrush.

I used Maya's retopology tools for the tree trunks and the rocks/cliffs to have clean topology and make it easier to unwrap and texture later.

For the textures, I used Substance 3D Painter and for the more complicated tileable textures – Substance 3D Designer.

If you are new, check out 3dEx YouTube channel. It has a lot of videos that demonstrate how to do stylized art from scratch, both for models and textures.

Unreal Engine

On the Stylized Station YouTube channel, I found a lot of people who shared their knowledge and methods on how to create stylized scenes, and what caught my attention was a tutorial made on their platform by amazing artist André Felipe, he called it The Environment Artist's Survival Kit, and it was essential for the start of my adventure. I've been doing 3D art for some years now, so I just needed a push in the right direction and a style I could take inspiration from, especially since this was my second project on Unreal Engine and I hadn’t mastered the basics of the software yet.

In this tutorial, I mainly followed the tree creation pipeline. I watched the rock creation episodes to see his work and way of thinking while creating stylized assets. The first episode helps a lot, so you can properly use Runtime Virtual Texturing: this technique helps a lot to blend the textures of the landscape with the assets so they don't look too clean and actually feel like they've been there for a long time.

The course has so much more to it, like the grass, wind stripes, and more, so I invite you to check it out as it's a good tutorial and will help you a lot to start your journey.

Now, to the Marpetak Dev YouTube channel, this is one of the best stylized channels that you could find, and here's why.

First things first, the stylized grass. For my scene, the grass plays a huge part as it gives life to the environment, and the video made by Marpetak called How to make Stylized Grass in Unreal Engine 4/Blender will show you step by step how to create beautiful grass that changes colors when the wind passes through it. The actual grass is animated, meaning when the wind passes through it, you feel like each blade of the grass moves as if it straightens up. I found the effect really awesome and I wanted to implement it in my scene.

Secondly, I wanted to control the gradients in my assets and create a lot of variations and fake shadows or lights when needed. I got inspiration from the video Upgrade Your Graphics With Gradients on the Marpetak Dev channel, which helped me reach what I wanted.

Lastly, I needed to create some foam in the river, and the video Water Foam (Unreal Engine Tutorial) helped me a lot.

Of course, you can find a lot more that can help you in your journey, so please subscribe to Marpetak’s channel and check out his content.

I used some Vertex Color painting for the assets so I could blend them better with the environment and give them more stories as if they were so old that they started building moss inside the curves and around the edges.

Now, to the effects I used for my scene. For the wind stripes, I found a beautiful tutorial that has some awesome wind stripes found on the Rimaye YouTube channel in the video Niagara: How to Create a Stylized Wind Effect with Leaves - UE4 tutorials [Gradient - Static Mesh]. This video has a complete guide from start to finish on how to create wind stripes accompanied by some falling leaves. The artist behind it really takes the time to explain things and really shows what each node or task does, which is really helpful if you're a beginner.

The video is in French but has English subtitles, so you can follow along easily and later modify things as you like.

For the falling leaves, I was inspired by the video made by a famous YouTube channel Dean Ashford, the video UE4 -Tutorial - Falling Leaves Particles has a very clear and straightforward explanation of how to create a falling leaves particle system, and he explains everything he does in detail.

For the fireflies effect I did, I found a video on YouTube from gameDev Outpost that shows how to do the effect quite extensively. I had to tweak it a bit so that the fireflies only spawn above the river. To do that, I went to 3ds Max, added a shell modifier to my river asset, and then in the Niagara parameters, changed the spawn location from a box to a specific mesh which is the shelled river mesh.

For the water shader, an awesome artist Johannes Burström, whom you can find on YouTube, has a good video called Stylized water tutorial UE4 which can give you a really good base that you can use to create your water shader and you can add some details later as I did. I will show you a screenshot from my actual water shader so you can have an idea of how I did the middle foam that goes from the windmill to the camera.

For inspiration, I highly recommend checking out Georg Klein, Jasmin Habezai-Fekri, Silke Van Der Smissen, Jonatan Ersarp, Johannes Burström and Carlos Perfume. They create really awesome stylized art, and you can find their guides on 80.lv, which is really helpful.

You need to check them out because it can be helpful to get an idea about lighting and composition, which are the hardest parts I faced while working on my scene.

To really have a solid idea and teach myself about composition and lighting, I took a look at the YouTube channel and the tutorial made by one of the best lighting artists in the industry Karim Abou Shousha. I need to mention that the tutorial is in Arabic. He explains his way of thinking when he starts a scene, the way he approaches his compositions, and how he collects references from real life and various other places, like Pixar movies. It really helped me as a beginner in Unreal Engine and in lighting/composition to get a grip on how to approach my scene.

It's essential to check out other people explaining their thought processes while making their scenes and especially the lighting section, so I recommend you to check the Stylized Station YouTube channel, where you will find a lot of people doing so. These two videos are one of the best you could find because they go in depth explaining how they did their scenes:

At the start, I wanted to create a morning scene, with a light/vibrant blue sky like most people do, but step by step with each time I added a new asset to the scene, the morning scene didn't satisfy me for some reason, and when I was struggling to fix the scene, my mentor and good friend Georg Klein suggested to make it a sunset one. The sunset gave the scene so much more depth and mystery, it complemented the scene and gave it a warm feeling that went hand in hand with the windmill and it gave me more room to manipulate the colors. But with new big decisions come new big challenges: how to create a stylized sunset in Unreal? To answer that, I will show you how to do it in the following screenshots:

First of all, I changed the skybox and then added stylized clouds, which I can control and rotate slowly. To do that, I took the base Unreal skybox with all its related assets (Materials, instances, etc.) and then started tweaking them. I created a new gradient for the sky going from yellow up to purple then created the stylized clouds (mclelun's’s video Photoshop Cloud Painting is a good reference) and then I modified the basic Unreal sky material and changed the clouds.

Lighting

When I started working on the project, I went with static light mode then when I added the fans for the windmill and animated them in sequencer, I noticed that the shadows didn't show up since they are moving objects, so I went with the stationary light mode for the scene and later decided to go with full moveable light mode because I found that it yields some decent results and it was a faster working process.

I reduced the shadows' intensity since it's a stylized scene and strong shadows just hid a lot of details and made it feel a bit darker and depressing. I changed the light's color to orange so it matched the sky color and made the scene a bit more vibrant.

For the skylight, I went with a sunset HDRI with blue and purple so I could replicate the sunset lighting and give the whole scene some blue/purple colors to add some better color harmony.

I highly recommend using the fog cards that you can find in the Blueprints lesson provided by Unreal (in the Epic Games Launcher). These assets are just beyond helpful. The Fog Cards blueprint helped me add fog to specific areas.

I modified my own so that when the camera gets close to a fog card, it fades away and they all have an animated material, so the fog effect moves a bit to give them more life. I added a lot of them in my scene so I could blend the colors and assets together in the foreground.

I blocked the viewer's eye with some fog cards on the assets I didn't want them to focus on to try and direct their vision towards the windmill. Then I added Exponential Height Fog in my scene to fade the background, giving the scene more depth.

The Camera

For the camera, I created a basic Cinema Camera Actor which I animated in the Sequencer, and it was a straightforward movement toward the center of the scene.

Conclusion

This is the second project I did in Unreal Engine. It was quite difficult to get into it at first as it was so overwhelming and I didn't have a lot of fun, but step by step, once I started building things up and noticed that there was potential in the project, I just couldn't stop working on it or thinking about it.

I spent most of my time learning Unreal Engine and trying to understand how to make proper lighting for my scene.

Getting feedback from other artists helped me a lot, even though sometimes it was a bit frustrating when I had to redo models or textures, but that helped me progress and I'm really proud of the end result.

My best advice for fellow artists is to:

  1. Properly finish your concept before starting to build things in Unreal. Creating an original concept is fun, but I highly recommend you to do extensive research on references and get some feedback on the concept you make so you can be sure that once it gets into Unreal, you won't waste your time fixing its issues and getting frustrated and redoing things from the start.
  2. The blocking phase in Unreal is really important. Please don't ignore it. Just take your time, create some simple geometry to block out your shapes and lights so it can help you better imagine your scene and rapidly start adding details later in the process.
  3. Feedback: join Unreal or stylized art discords and don't hesitate to show what you're doing even if it's just an idea or a simple blocking in Unreal. People will get to know your project and help you throughout its process. So don't be shy, trust me. Having a fresh set of eyes on your project can help you improve the scene and boost your skills.

I take this moment to thank my mentor and awesome friend Georg Klein who I met during this project. He gave me a lot of feedback, answered all my questions, and helped me every step of the way.

I also thank my Mom, Iyadh Touzri, Lina Touzri, and all my friends for their support and for keeping me focused during this awesome journey.

And this is the end, thank you all for reading this article, I hope you find something useful that can help you in your future awesome projects. If you have any questions, please feel free to message me on ArtStation, don't be shy.

Lastly, a huge thank you to the 80.lv team for reaching out to me and giving me the opportunity to talk about my project. Peace!

Mohamed Hadiri, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

This content is brought to you by 80 Level in collaboration with Unreal Engine. We strive to highlight the best stories in the gamedev and art industries. You can read more Unreal Engine interviews with developers here.

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