Making a Vegetation-Consumed City in 3ds Max, Substance & UE5

Raúl Blázquez González talked about creating his first solo environment, explains the working process, and discusses the importance of vegetation in environment art.

Introduction

Hi! My name is Raúl Blázquez González, I have recently finished my studies at the ESAT  (Escuela Superior de Arte y Tecnología) in Valencia where I have studied for 3 years the HND in Computer Game Animation. I finished it a month ago so I have not had the opportunity to join the labor market yet.

Thanks to this past year, I have decided where I wanted to focus my professional career and discovered that what I would really like to be is an Environment Artist. During the last 9 months, I have been able to take part in one of the final projects of the school, which consisted of making a demo for a video game with a team of artists, programmers, and designers. Thanks to the work of everyone involved, the game has finally been published on Steam. Once these 9 months were over, I decided to do this project and now I have started looking for a job. 

The City of Dracaena Project

Once I finished my studies, I wanted to do something where I could show what I have been learning during these three years and enjoy working on it. I felt the necessity to work on a hard-to-make environment, which is something that I always wanted and had to wait until I had finished the course.

This is the first environment that I have done for my own, until now I had not had the opportunity to do a project like this and I really wanted to try it. So, when I saw the fantastic concept of Wubin Xu, there was something in it that inspired me and I knew I had to do it. Visually I've always liked stylized environments so I've tried to focus the work a little bit towards that style. 

Before starting with the blocking I made a reference panel. I always divide it into the same sections, although it variates a little depending on the work I'm doing. In this case, I divided it into the mood or the feeling I wanted to convey in the scene, the style I wanted to approach, some ornamentation references, textures that I needed, and finally vegetation references.  

Blocking, Modeling, and Texturing the Architecture

The first step was to make a blocking in Unreal with very basic shapes which helped me to know the sizes. This helped me to model each of the elements in its correct scale and gave me an approximate idea of how the scene would be.

For this project, I decided to work with Trim Textures for many of the assets of the scene because I think it is a very useful technique when creating an environment like this.

Another thing I did before starting with the modeling was to prepare the Trimsheet and some of the textures I was going to use for the tileset. For the modeling of the assets, I used 3ds Max. Analyzing the original concept, I tried to break down each of the buildings and planned each of the pieces I was going to need to be able to assemble the tileset later in Unreal. I tried to keep and be as faithful as possible to the shapes and structures of the original design. For the modeling of the Trimsheet in particular I used 3ds Max and ZBrush.

With the Trimsheet and a couple of base materials, I have textured all the assets that form the tileset.

Most of the textures have been made in Substance Painter, but some like the tiled floor and the aqueduct blocks that have been made in Substance Designer and painted later in Substance Painter.

Vegetation

I think the vegetation is one of the most important parts of the environment because it is what makes the scene feel alive. In addition, I wanted to convey the feeling that nature was gradually "taking over" the city. I decided to make different variations of bushes with different shapes. The process I followed is the one Dragos Matkovski showed in his article. I found this article awesome for the number of tips and tricks he showed when preparing the vegetation for a scene.

The first thing was to model a shape that would help me as a base and I covered it with the planes that would form the bush, then I used the same base to steal the Normals and apply them to the planes with the 3ds Max plugin called Normal Thief. This way the Normals would behave correctly when the light hit them. For the leaves of the trees, I followed the same process. From there I started to cover the city with vegetation.

Material Setup

There are currently two main master materials in the scene. One is the master material of the tileset assets and the other is the master material of the vegetation.

Regarding the master material of the tileset, I decided to add a macro variation because, although the texture worked properly and the tiling was barely noticeable, I thought it was a good idea to try it and I liked the result. I parameterized each one of the values so that it did not appear in those instances in which I was not interested.

On the other hand, I found it necessary to use the Vertex Paint tool because in some areas I thought it would be interesting to simulate a moss texture to give a little more sense to those areas where I had placed the vegetation.

I tried different possibilities, first I tried with a Megascans texture but it was too realistic, so I finally decided to do it myself and it was the best option since it fits much better with the style I was looking for.

For the vegetation material, I decided to add animation to simulate the wind. At this point, the videos and tips from Prismatica Dev helped me a lot, thanks to his tutorial, I was able to give a little more of life to the environment. This material allowed me to manage through the instances the wind intensity of each of the elements.

Composition, Illumination, and Post-Process

Throughout the whole project, the main composition has been kept, but I had to modify inside the engine the position of some of the structures until I got closer to the composition of the original concept design. Although the first blocking was not very accurate, as soon as I had all the assets modeled I was assembling them in the scene to make a first real approximation of what would be the final composition.

One of the points that contribute the most to the project is the lighting. In this process, William Faucher's videos helped me so much. There are a variety of explanatory videos on his channel about each of the lights, how to illuminate, etc... It has been a great discovery. I took as a reference the lighting of the fantastic concept of Wu Bin Xu although I ended up making some changes that I think are appropriate to achieve the result I was looking for.

As the scene simulates an outside environment, my idea was to use only the Directional Light and the Skylight with which I got pretty good results. Even so, as the environment was not going to be used for gameplay I decided to increase a little the contrast between lights and shadows and I used some point lights in different points to simulate some light bounces.

I used the post-process volume only to reinforce a little the final look, where I focused more on generating some contrast between the illuminated and the shadowed area because I intended to focus all the attention on the main building.

Conclusion

The whole process of The City of Dracaena project has taken me about two weeks. This has been a challenge for me because it is the first environment that I did and it has been a hard experience at times, but very instructive at the same time. It is very satisfying to see how everything is taking shape and the project is going where you want it to go. In addition, it has helped me to consolidate all the knowledge I have been learning over the last three years and to be able to apply it in a real way in an environment.

One of the most complicated parts for me has been the lighting because it is one of the aspects in which I have less experience, but even so, I have enjoyed the whole process.

Working with Unreal Engine 5 has been great, I did not have the opportunity to try it until now. It has not been very complex to work on it because I have not needed to go into detail in any of its new features. In my next project, I am thinking about using some of its new additions such as Nanite.

Finally, I would like to say that doing a project like this is a very interesting experience because you go through all the processes, starting from the modeling to the lighting and finishing with the post-process of a scene. This is great because it allows you to know in detail everything that a project like this needs and you learn a lot about how the workflow should be.

Thanks again to all those who have been giving me feedback. There are things that we, after so many hours of work, do not get to see, and are those little tips that give light to all our projects in the end.

I also wanted to thank 80 Level for this opportunity and I hope everyone who reads this article finds it useful and helpful like many other articles from other artists have been for me.

Raúl Blázquez González, Junior 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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