Denys Davydov shared a breakdown of his environment Old Japanese Classroom made during CGMA's UE4 Modular Environments course.
Hi! My name is Denys Davydov, and I'm an Environment Artist from Ukraine. My way in CG started eight years ago. Back in those days, I was in the 3rd year of university studying Civil Engineering and played games a lot. One day, I was curious about the process of making games, and I started to research this topic. It opened to me the whole new world of Game Development and Environment Art in particular. After a few months of trying my best in modeling, I realized that I enjoyed it so much more than doing a calculation of bearing structures. With this in mind, I took a local 10-month class, where students came through the whole pipeline of creating 3D content. After I finished university, I was hired as an Environment Artist in Vostok's Games team to work on their project named Survarium. A year and a half later, I was hired by Plarium for the Environment Artist position, where I'm still today. Here I had an opportunity to work on Raid: Shadow Legends, and also sometimes help out on other projects, such as Stormfall: Rise of Balur; Stormfall: Saga of Survival; Sparta: War of Empires.
Old Japanese Classroom: Start of the Scene
The project initially started within the CGMA UE4 Modular Environments course. My primary goal was to get to know UE4 better, feel more confident inside the engine because I'm using Unity on a daily basis, and I wanted to expand my toolset. Many thanks to Clinton Crumpler for sharing very valuable information and knowledge during the course.
So first thing first, I had to choose a topic of the environment. I felt that I wanted to create something peaceful, with a warm mood, something where light would be a key to the whole scene. With this in mind, I decided that wood material should be primary in my scene because it is a noble material and should add a lot of coziness to the environment which I was looking for. And also, it was supposed to be small enough because I didn't want to spend too much time creating content and wanted to spend more time inside the engine. So, after all these points and some research, I concluded that the classroom from an old Japanese school was the way to go.
The process of gathering references was pretty much straight forward. First of all, I chose the primary reference for the overall scene. It was an Elementary School back in 1888, but now, it is a museum in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture. Thanks to this photo, we can roughly understand what constructive elements and props we will have to make and what materials we will use. After that, I collected refs for lighting and mood.
I love the idea where the light passes through the windows, leaving the shadows of the bars on the floor and walls. It adds details to the scene, and this sort of shadows can direct the viewer's eye to the point of interest.
Of course, for inspiration and more references, I started watching anime. I found Hayao's Miyazaki "The Wind Rises" and Makoto's Shinkai "Your Name" the most valuable in my understanding of what I wanted to see in the end.
Auction sites can come very handy if you are looking for hi-res photos of a specific prop from different angles.
The classroom itself was easy to divide into modules thanks to the elements it consists of. I ended up with five pieces for the walls, three for the ceiling, and one for the floor. For the props such as furniture, I googled dimensions and tried to stick with those numbers.
At this stage, keeping all the objects consistent in the term of dimensions is essential, so don't hesitate to double-check your blocking with reference character and inside the engine.
After I was happy with the blocking, I started working on the modular parts. I made a trim sheet for the wood elements of the wall and ceiling and also tiling materials for stucco and wood planks. The trim sheet was sculpted in ZBrush using a tiling technique. I mainly used the Trim Smooth Border with square alpha, Trim Adaptive, Mallet Fast, and Dam Standard brushes for this. I wanted to add a slightly stylized look for the wood and for the scene itself, and because of that, I exaggerated cracks and edge chipping a bit. Also, I prefer not to overdo sculpts but add details in Substance Painter due to its flexibility.
Looking at the references, I really liked how the desks set the rhythm and what silhouettes they had. Proceeding from the fact that there were many desks in the scene and it was necessary to avoid repetition, I made two types of desks with the ability to change the tabletop. Then there was the sculpting stage. As for the trim sheet, I exaggerated cracks, edge chipping, and silhouettes.
For the rest of the furniture, I chose a slightly different approach. I skipped the stage in ZBrush and did all the details in Substance Painter.
Materials and Texturing
The very first material that I made for the scene was wood. There are many wooden objects in the scene, and I needed a material that I could use with them. The wood material by itself is fairly simple. I exposed a few parameters that allowed me to control color, fiber intensity, damage on the surface, etc. I used a similar technique for the floor material. The ceiling material is almost the same as the floor but with a different seed, planks scale, and some roughness tweaks.
Stucco material is even simpler – just a blend of a bunch of noises.
I used wooden material from above in combination with some other basic materials from Substance Painter for the trim-sheet.
When texturing wood furniture, it is important to pay attention to which direction the wood's grain is going. It's easy to control if you've baked an ID map for horizontal and vertical planks and then masked them for the appropriate material layer where the grain of the wood will match the planks' direction. I also wanted to add some chipped lacquer which exposed the lighter wood. I added chips and scratches using alphas through a stencil.
Posters and Books
To add interest to the posters and books, I decided to sculpt the folds and tears that appear when folding the paper multiple times.
Hieroglyphs on posters and books were a quite challenging task for me because I don't know Japanese at all. I've spent a lot of time googling photos of the books that would be relevant to the school. In the end, I took these photos and made alphas out of them, which I later used in Substance Painter.
For the chalkboard drawing, I chose Sun's face from the Princess Mononoke anime. It was necessary to convey the feeling that the drawing was done with crayons because the original image was just a still from an anime. To do this, I had to tinker with layers and filters in Substance Painter. Below you can see which filter affects what.
I used Vertex blend materials for the walls and floor. Classic setup, nothing fancy. Inside the material, it is possible to tint the base color, change the roughness, and mix up to three different material variations through a custom mask. With this setup, I painted the areas where, supposedly, students walked.
Building the Scene
The process was straightforward. At the blocking stage, I tried to solve the main questions related to composition inside the scene: what is the best place for desks, musical instrument, and TV, and how best to hang posters on the walls. When most of the objects in the scene are ready, you need to start looking at the picture as a whole. At this stage, backtracking and some adjustments here and there are possible and most likely will be required. It is important to look at your scene not only in Lit mode but also switch to Base Color to check if your albedo is within reasonable limits. It also helps a lot to take screenshots of the scene and then translate them into black and white in Photoshop. The color fades away, and it's easier for us to focus on the lightness of the materials in the scene.
I want to express my gratitude to Yeghor Gallagher, who gave me some valuable advice regarding composition and points of interest. Due to its architectural style, the scene is filled with an abundance of straight lines that serve as excellent guidelines for the eye. Thanks to them, the gaze is kept in the center of the composition. That's why it was decided to add a chalk drawing to the board – to make the blackboard attractive for the viewer to look at. And also, because faces are kind of a magnet for our eyes, it is easier to keep them inside the composition. Red backpacks also help to guide the eyes across the scene.
The Importance of What Is Outside
I wanted to achieve the effect of immersion in the scene so that the viewer felt there was a world outside the classroom, and it was alive. For this, just the geometry of the level with textures was not enough. The emptiness outside the windows instantly destroyed this immersive effect.
The buildings on the outside consist of one model, which I have duplicated several times. The primary purpose of this model was to add some information outside of the windows. I also added trees with red and green crowns. The trees are made via SpeedTree. The red one fit perfectly into the overall warm mood of the scene, while the green served as accents in the places I needed.
Lighting was the most challenging and time-consuming stage. I had to try dozens of different settings to be satisfied with the result in the end. And I don't think I will surprise anyone if I say that, but all the necessary knowledge about lighting in UE4 you can get from these great resources: Lighting Academy, Ryan Manning, Video from Epic about lighting.
The lighting scheme by itself is very simple. It's just Skylight and Directional light. I set Skylight to Static with a custom cubemap, which has set almost the whole atmosphere in the scene. Here are the parameters:
Directional light set to Stationary and combined with volumetric fog produces beautiful volumetric god rays from the windows:
And here, you can see how much volumetric fog changes a scene:
I also used several lights that added glare and illuminated the places I wanted. For example, in the first shot of the cinematic, when the camera flies into the room, I added a spotlight that adds highlights to the floor. Without this lamp, the floor would have looked completely flat from this angle.
And behind each curtain, I placed a rectangular light which helps lit them more.
To emphasize the areas of interest even more, reflection probes come in handy. For the classroom itself, I used Box Reflection and Sphere Reflection for small local areas within the room.
I color graded the scene via LUT and made some adjustments in Shadow section:
With this one, I had a lot of fun. You truly have limitless possibilities when you work with a camera in 3D scenes. Stills are good, but if you can make a short cinematic of your scene, I think it's a way to go. Especially now when on Artstation, you can load a video directly inside your post, and it will be autoplayed for the viewer. It's a great way to breakdown stills a bit and make your entire post much more interesting.
Movement in the Scene
For the cinematics of the environments, it is crucial to make some objects moving, because, without this, your scene will probably look boring. It shouldn't be something that takes a lot of attention, but rather the opposite. These movements should complement your scene. For example: waving grass, falling leaves, blinking lights or shadows from the floating clouds, etc. All these kinds of stuff will add believability.
For the dust particles, I used default Ambient Dust. For falling leaves, I used particles from Particles and Wind Control System with different leaves textures.
I believe that camera movements should be as simple and natural as possible. Try to give some time to the viewer to inspect what is in the shot. Avoid crazy spins and turnings. They only distract the viewer from the immersion. But of course, there can be exceptions.
Oh, and yes, try to keep the speed of your camera constant through the shot. In the Sequencer, set the keys interpolation to Linear for the Transforms of the Camera.
Depth of Field
DoF is another excellent tool for storytelling. You can change it through the shot, and in that way, you can lead the viewer's eyes wherever you want.
At the beginning of the project, it is very important to set the quality bar you want to reach and compare your work with it from time to time. It helped me not to drop things halfway and achieve the result I was aiming for.
Another thing that I came to closer to the end of the project was how important it is to set the deadlines for your projects. And it's okay if eventually some deadlines are not met. The main thing is that it will keep you in some kind of tone and not let the project be thrown too much.
Thanks to all of you for reading the article. Peace!