Making Art Deco Cinema Environment

Making Art Deco Cinema Environment

Joshua Krook did a breakdown of his 1920s-1930s cinema environment made with Substance Designer, Maya, and Unreal Engine.

Joshua Krook did a breakdown of his 1920s-1930s cinema environment made with Substance DesignerMaya, and Unreal Engine. The level design is created for The Cinema Rosa game. 


Hello, my name is Joshua Krook and I’m the lead designer behind The Cinema Rosa, a puzzle-based exploration game set in an abandoned cinema. My company, Atreyu Games, is based in Sydney, Australia. Our previous games include Twelve Absent Men, a legal drama out on Android.

For the last two years, I’ve been working on an art deco cinema environment based in the 1920s-1930s.

The Cinema Rosa on Kickstarter

Main Goals

Before this project, I had never worked on period-based 3D art. So this project was a good way to test what was possible. The main goal of the project was to recreate a historical cinema, while learning more about Substance Designer, Maya, and Unreal Engine.

Approaching the Scene

The first step to any historical project is to research the time period, gather references and build out a picture of what the scene should look like. I began by researching various art deco cinemas built in the 1920s and 30s. This was the Golden Age of Hollywood – a time when cinema was just starting to enter the mainstream.

Hundreds of cinemas were built at this time, matching the dominant architectural style of the period. In many western countries, these cinemas still stand. Famous examples include Oakland’s Paramount theatre in San Francisco, and my own favorite, the Hayden Orpheum in Sydney.

Working on the Props

All the props in the environment were modeled in Blender or Maya and textured with Substance Designer. The door model was modeled and UV mapped in Maya before being sculpted, to add to the visual feature of indents. Scratches and markings were added to the texture, and the normal map had the texture of a couch/cushions, as these doors are actually padded in real life.

One of the core aspects of the game is restoring the cinema ‘back to life’. I worked heavily with the props in Sequencer, Unreal Engine’s inbuilt video editing software, to create the desired effect. To begin with, I started with a destroyed room. I then moved the props back to their ‘restored’ location, following a sequence of triggers.

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Textures and Details

Textures for the scene were created in part on Substance Designer and in part from online public domain images, reworked in Photoshop. The art deco period is all about sharp geometric shapes, so I used various pattern effects in Substance to create crisscrossing lines and detail. The key was to create something that was eye-catching, without becoming too repetitive. In terms of colors, golds, blues, and reds were my main color palette.

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Lighting the Environment

The lighting can be split into two parts: internal and external. For the internal lighting, I wanted to create the feeling of an abandoned building, with an eerie, mysterious vibe. My color palette was mainly blues and oranges. I started with the feature lights (the hexagons), followed by a few downlights and added highlight lights in blue to the columns. Adding fog also helped increase the ambience of the environment.

The external environment was more complicated. I started with a purple/blue backdrop, reflecting the color of the sky and adding fog via sprite sheets in the distance. As a contrast, I added orange downlights from the streetlights along the road. To light the cinema itself, I added two small red lights over the doors (adding to the aura of ‘mystery’) and orange backlights behind the main ‘Rosa’ sign. This created a contrast making the cinema look both spooky and inviting (explorable) at the same time.

Other areas of the game required a more dominant color palette. The game contains a few dream sequences where environments are lit by a single color or shade (black/white, blue or orange). This makes the dream sequences contrast heavily with the rest of the game, whilst also making them feel surreal and something alien to our everyday experience.


One of the hardest parts of this project was gaining a familiarity with Unreal Engine’s blueprint programming system. While complicated, the system allows a huge amount of flexibility when designing environments. Overall, however, the project was very enjoyable to make.

I hope this article inspires the readers!

Joshua Krook, Environment Artist & Level Designer

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    Making Art Deco Cinema Environment