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Making an Industrial Environment in ZBrush, Maya & Unreal Engine 4

Mayuko Matsubara told us about the workflow behind the Refinery project and talked about animating the scene.


I’m Mayuko Matsubara. I’ve been working as an Environment Artist in games for years. After graduating from Tama Art University with a degree in Oil Painting in Japan, I jumped into the game industry and participated in several projects. For the past few years, I've worked as an Environment Artist/Generalist at a start-up company and will be looking for the next project to join.

The Refinery Project

The Refinery project was initially started as a submission for the CGMA Modular Environment course I took in the summer of 2021. I have long harbored thoughts about this project and wanted to bring them to life. Inspiration came from my favorite games such as Factorio and Outer Wilds, novels such as Project Hail Mary, old JRPGs, the issues regarding the current state of cobalt mining around the world, and my personal language learning experiences.

In a nutshell, the Refinery is set on another planet, the robot boy tries to learn new languages to communicate with other species and came to this refinery to obtain precious materials. 

I gathered references on the internet. All of the videos of factories I saw on YouTube were cool and sad at the same time, and that inspired me to add animation and sound to this scene.

During the first week of the course, I prepared a simple sketch to help me organize the images scattered in my mind. I knew I wouldn't be able to finish the scene during the course anyway, so I allowed myself to plan a relatively big scene.

The final render:


There is nothing special when it comes to modeling. The modeling tools used were mainly Maya and ZBrush. The props are fairly (if not overly) simple. I made some redundant baked Normal maps when I could’ve just used beveled edges, which I hope to fix in future projects. Most of the props were hard-surface models, not intended to be seen from a first-person perspective, so no detailed sculpting was required, therefore modeling did not take much time. I think it only took about 5% of the total time spent.


At first, I used a fairly basic method for texturing, but as I expanded the scene, the textures and materials became more and more cluttered, so I decided to use layer blend materials in the end. The color palette was decided at the start of the project and consisted of mainly two metallic materials and yellow sand-like material. So using layered materials made a lot of sense since I needed to reuse the same colors over and over again.

This time, I just created what I needed for this scene, but this workflow can be refined in future projects. Most of the props' colors are controlled by material parameters and adjusted in UE4. There are, of course, props that use unique textures too.

I learned how quickly I can create fake interior Cubemaps in UE4 in this project. As for the fake interior material itself, I referred to the material published by Spoondog.

Character Model Creation

Most of the character-related parts were done in a hurry, so I don't remember them clearly, but I modeled and textured them just like I do with environment props.

Characters made of organic materials had to be retopologized to take care of the position of the joints and such. However, for those made of such hard materials, there was no particular problem in the end even if they were retopologized by Decimation Master in ZBrush.


Physics Animations and Blueprints

As you can see, there are some moving objects in this scene. The pop-up speech bubbles are controlled by UMG and Level Blueprint. The conveyor belt carries the Actors spawned in the scene, and the crane moves along the rails using Spline. I'm by no means a Blueprint expert, but it's pure fun to look at the blueprints and think, "What should I do with this?"

I like the mechanics behind game development, so I wanted to try to recreate them, even if it was something that could be easily achieved using Cinematics or loop animations. For the looping staircase-like conveyor, which I later realized I had misunderstood the shape of, I exported an animated mesh baked in Maya as an Alembic file and imported it as a Geometry Cache in UE4.

Character Animation

The basic process is skinning, import it to UE4, remap animations, create the character BP. 

After decimation and texturing, I skinned the boy in Maya with a bone structure that corresponded to UE4's standards and retargeted Mixamo's free animation to it. I also skinned the hair, but I didn't want to spend too much time on it, so it didn't end up moving in the scene.

In UE4, I added neck movement and eye blinking to the character BP. This part was a little hard to understand since I had never properly looked into it before, but thankfully, I learned a lot from these YouTube tutorials:

For the other snake robot body, I just made a skin in Maya and animated it a bit to make it look like it was breathing.

Lighting and Rendering

I can’t say too much about lighting as that’s my weakest skill in environment creation. I always wish I had a friend who’s good at lighting so we can collaborate. In the CGMA course, the lighting part was at the end, and I learned a lot because there were many settings that I was using incorrectly. The directional light was set to Stationary but most of the lightings were baked. Post-processing is kept to a minimum, with only bloom, vignette, and contrast adjustments.

The scene was too dark/dirty and half-finished at the end of the course.

The final lighting


I think I spent more than half of my time on this project dealing with blueprints and lighting iterations. If you want to create a scene where you can control characters and interact with props you've created, this is a very fun project that may require some preparation, planning, and a lot of love. I have always believed that creating a game is just like playing a puzzle game, so if you like games, I think you will enjoy dealing with the problems you face and solving them in the engine. It does take time, though, so I wouldn't actively recommend it to anyone with a full-time job.

Instead, taking an online course was a good option to update your knowledge where you think your understanding is lacking, I learned. It's still hard, and you can't do anything other than working and doing the course while taking it, but I think it's worth it. 

Mayuko Matsubara, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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