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Making an Italian-Style Greenhouse in Blender, UE5 & Substance 3D

Elena Mačiulaitytė told us about the workflow behind the Villa Maurogordato Winter Garden project, discussed the process of asset production, and shared how mentors at Vertex School helped her during her workflow.

Introduction

Hello, my name is Elena Mačiulaitytė. I am originally from Lithuania but have been living in the United Kingdom for the last 9 years. In 2019, I ended up with some extra time on my hands because of the pandemic, so I decided to research video game development as it's something that has always interested me, and while researching what involves developing a game I came across 3D Environment Art. I’ve slowly started learning 3D modeling from YouTube and absolutely fell in love with it.

Vertex School

In 2021, I made the decision that 3D Environment Art is something I want to do for a career, however, I felt like individual learning was too slow for me, so I researched multiple options online for more structured courses or programs and found the Vertex School. I loved the idea of a structured 9-month-long program where I learn from industry professionals.

Vertex 3D Environment Art Program

The Vertex 3D Environment Art program lasts 9 months and is split into 3 terms. In each term, we learn the industry standard techniques and work on different projects which by the end of the term we can add to our portfolios. Term 1 was about creating a prop following the high poly to low poly method. In Term 2, we learned how to build a modular environment, and in Term 3 we used all our new knowledge and skills to build any environment we wanted.

Inspiration and References

For my final project at Vertex School, I wanted to concentrate on vegetation and some sculpting, so I ended up looking for inspiration on Pinterest and found a handful of options. The Villa Maurogordato winter garden was unique. It fascinated me because the longer I analyzed the references, the more details I noticed.

Another reason why I chose Villa Maurogordato was that it's an actual building, and I could get my hands on a lot of good quality references which I could analyze and refer to at any step of my project. 

Asset Production

I started the process by blocking out the scene in UE5 and setting up the main camera shot. After that, I split the greenhouse into modular parts and decided which parts were going to be mid poly and which ones had to be high poly to low poly.

I modeled all the parts in Blender and started working on one of the harder processes for me – creating all the unique ornaments and patterns. It was quite a time-consuming job, so to save time I ended up kitbashing ornaments from Textures.com. To optimize the texture space, I baked down some of the patterns into trim sheets. Because I had some space left, I packed some extra assets too.

The last asset which I modeled was the lantern. This is because I was anxious and I was putting it off as I have almost no experience sculpting in ZBrush. However, after some encouraging words and a short demo in ZBrush from my mentor Jacob Claussen, I got working on it. After 3 or 4 failed sculpts I’ve ended up with a satisfying result.

Vegetation

Originally, my plan was to make all the vegetation myself and ready assets were just placeholders to set up the scene and lighting, but the quality and diversity provided by the pack were amazing and I knew I couldn't replicate it with the limited time I had. So I changed my game plan to make one type of tree myself to give more variety, and during the rest of the time, to concentrate on Wisteria climbing branches on the greenhouse and ground foliage cover.

As I was not familiar with vegetation pipelines and techniques, Vertex provided me with an Introduction to Foliage in Unreal Engine with Chico Spans tutorial, which walked me through how to make trees. It was a multi-step process that enabled me to learn photogrammetry, taught me how to create texture for branches and canopy, and how to set up tree materials in an unreal engine.

The rest of the vegetation was created using techniques learned from the tutorial. All the trees were placed by hand to achieve composition and lighting with which I wanted to draw attention to the entrance of the greenhouse. Meanwhile, all wisteria branches were placed by hand to break up the symmetry in the scene.

All the small plants, dead leaves, and broken branches were painted using foliage mode at random, to fill up the ground.

Texturing the Greenhouse

For texturing the greenhouse, I used a smart material "Steel Paint Worn" from SP as a base and adjusted it to my needs. I decreased paint coverage, adjusted saturation on rust to achieve a more realistic color, and increased the amount of dirt to get more of the feeling of abandonment.

Rendering

I rendered the final scene in Unreal Engine 5 using the movie render queue, applying high resolution and anti-aliasing settings to attain as crisp images in 4k as possible.

I tried to keep the lighting as simple as possible. I added directional light and adjusted temperature settings to get that afternoon lighting. In the skylight settings, I tested adding a few different HDRI maps until I settled on the one that gave me the best results. As for post-production, I didn't tweak any settings because I achieved the look I wanted with my lighting set-up.

Vertex's Help During the Production

Reflecting on my time at Vertex School, I can definitely say it was the best decision I’ve made. It was a real challenge to spend every free minute on Vertex projects, it was a time-consuming challenge that I would take up again without any doubt because it was worth it.

Before joining Vertex, I never touched a Substance 3D Painter, ZBrush, or Unreal Engine, and now I feel comfortable using them and creating environment scenes from scratch.

I’ve learned so much more than just the latest software techniques in the industry. My mentors taught me how to take feedback and improve my art with it. They were always able to answer my questions and push me in the right way. I was surrounded by people who are passionate about their art and are always ready to support each other. I will always be thankful to all Vertex mentors for what they taught me!

Elena Mačiulaitytė, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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