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Elias Tsirides is an archeology student, who taught himself 3D and now he shares some tips about his huge picturesque scene.
Hello, everyone, my name is Elias Tsirides, I come from Greece and I am an Archaeology and Art History graduate who turned into a self-taught 3D artist and graphic designer. I decided to build my byzantine ruins environment as a portfolio piece that would combine my love for making game art with my keen interest in nature and antiquity.
Scope and Goals
I knew I wanted to create an environment that would feel secluded and isolated and also give a sense of mystery, set in a Mediterranean type of scenery. A complete scene that would allow me to get my hands on different parts of an environment production workflow. This means my goal was trifold. First to work on various nature assets like foliage, rocks, cliffs and ground materials. Second, to work on architecture and figuring out complex forms and how to translate that into game-ready modules. And third, to get myself through managing a larger scale environment where a potential player would be able to move around seamlessly and figure out how to deal with issues that come with it, like what does a player see if they are at point A, how do they get to point B or C and back in a visually interesting as well as functional way and so on.
Scene Preparation and Setup
I started working on this scene by going through references of Byzantine temple ruins and Mediterranean nature in order to figure out what kind of elements are more prominent and hence make a list of different groups of assets and materials that I would need to build. I even went out on walks and hikes to gather my own reference since I am actually leaving in a place where that is close by. Then I started building those and crossing them off the list. I would bring them in the engine each time and see how they work in there and especially with each other and adapt as needed. For example with every new foliage asset I would make, I would put it next to the ones already made to ensure they are cohesive in terms of colour tones and such. This way I created an initial library of assets that I could start with and add if necessary and when necessary. This means that decorative elements like pottery were left for last and in the beginning, I focused more on the main variations of nature assets and architecture modules.
I put together the temple and monastery first on a simple flat surface and used Unreal’s scene management folder functionality to keep them as separate clusters that I could select and move around. I constructed the tower the same way using the monastery modules.
Then I used a draft placement of some of my cliffs at a very large scale as key points for the locations of these structures and used the terrain tool to shape roughly the layout of the land in between them.
At this point, I played around trying to figure out my main shots for the final showcase and I would adapt the scene by moving the main architecture clusters and their rough cliff bases around.
Landscape Generation and Construction
Once I was happy with where everything was I started substituting the rough large scale cliffs with more carefully placed and smaller ones. I then dressed the cliffy parts of the terrain with my rock meshes and since this level doesn’t have any open field like ground areas I decided not to keep terrain patches on the ground but also place cliff meshes there. This made more sense since I knew I would be using a world aligned ground material blend for the cliffs that would always show on top.
As far as the cliff/rock meshes are concerned I figured out that my initial ones didn’t look like one big cliff when put next to each other and I attributed that to the fact that they were quite curvy, so I remade those and I made sure they are angular enough and have adequate flat, yet erosion curved areas to fit well together almost as pieces of a puzzle even when they are rotated around or upside down.
These meshes were sculpted in Zbrush, decimated to get the game version and then baked and painted in Substance Painter. In Painter I used a couple of rock micro surface materials that I made in Substance Designer as a base. I turned that into a smart material to keep visual consistency throughout the cliff variations. I avoided using elements like lichen for the large variations and kept that only for the smaller rocks so I could scale them without having elements on them that would give away their differences in size when used in game.
That allowed me to use smaller scale cliffs close to areas where the potential player would move around that provide some nice detail and larger scale ones in distances and heights further away.
At this point, I also brought in the background mountains that were constructed in a similar manner to add in a better sense of the depth of the scene and the illusion of a much larger world.
The main element of this scene and the one that would be the most challenging was the temple structure. I started building that in maya by prototyping simpler modules that I would later work on with more detail. What helped solve that complex form was starting with the dome. Knowing that in such types of architecture it’s usually the ceiling parts that are the heavier and the rest of the building expands in form and function to support that was really helpful to me in understanding the structure from top to bottom. How that weight gets distributed and divided from the dome to the arches and then the columns and the floor.
I produced walls, floor and roof tiles by sculpting individual pieces or tiles for each case. I reduced those and baked a shared displacement and normal map for them as a group and I then painted them in substance painter. With these parts I built a tileable surface in maya which I then brought back in Zbrush and recreated the finer detail with the use of the earlier produced displacement map. Then I could grab the height information for a tileable texture and the normal map with the Zbrush normal materials. With the colour and roughness information of the smaller parts from Painter I could also render out the colour and roughness maps for the tileable unit by loading them on the tools texture slot. This way I had a tileable material and separate smaller parts that share the same values and that allowed me to build modules that use both of them. This was very useful for building the damaged parts and debris meshes keeping consistency amongst them.
The monastery modules were constructed the same way with a square wall part as a base and a couple of broken or arched variations that were able to be used for this building as well as the tower and the wall around the temple.
With the use of a blend material in Unreal I could paint some plaster or grout I created in Substance Designer on those modules so I can break the repetition up a bit. This was very helpful in the temple cause it would create a nice difference between the exterior surfaces that feature more stone and the interior that are more plaster heavy.
While placing these architecture units in the world I would work with the existing landscape, either adapting the rock meshes to fit their form or location or take advantage of gaps these rocks would create next to each other to expand and compliment the architecture towards them.
Once they were settled in their environment I brought in the more decorative assets to give them more detail, like the chandeliers or the pottery pieces and the murals, which I used decals for.
Natural Assets Construction
For the foliage here I followed a similar mentality with some of the architecture materials to produce the alpha cards.
That means that I started by modeling various small pieces, detailing them in Zbrush and then painting them in groups in Substance Painter. With these ones I could build larger clusters or plant parts in Maya, lay them out in a square space in a way that they could be used for alpha cards and then bring them in Zbrush and render out maps using the bakes from Painter like before. Meaning for example I could load the Painter colour map that the small parts share as a texture for the whole unit in Zbrush and I could get my transparent colour map from there. I would load the small parts roughness map from Painter as a texture map in Zbrush and get the final roughness like that too.
The trees use the same method for the leaves and their barks use materials I created in Substance Designer.
Plants and trees were used at later stages of the scene construction. For areas closer to the buildings I would manually place some trees and bushes for more control of their layout, same with ivy. I left the foliage brush tool work for last, keeping in mind to work in a layered manner. So I painted trees first, grass and pine needles later, trying to keep the needles closer under the trees and to have more grass on the open areas, as would happen in nature. Smaller plants and flowers I tried to keep more spread out and clustered as much as possible. Finally, I added some of the bushes and plants keeping in mind to concentrate them more around the bases of trees, so things look more natural rather than evenly planted.
Lighting and Post Process
I started tweaking the light from quite early on because it was necessary for me for the placement and orientation of elements in the scene. I wanted it to hit the temple from a certain angle in order to create a dramatic ambience in the interior. Since this environment is a unified scene I made sure I found a proper angle for that to happen and for it to also look interesting on the exterior.
I used dynamic lighting so the general setup uses a directional light and a skylight. For the interior of the temple though I elaborated more on the rig by placing a few low intensity point lights in areas that had very hard shadows and made sure to enhance the areas where most of the light would come in, like from the damaged side of the temple, with extra directional lights. I also used some light rays meshes with a translucent material to create a volumetric effect.
In these interior areas, I also increased the bloom a little bit to create a more dusty and hazy effect.
The contact shadows on the directional light and the distant field ambient occlusion were really useful to give more depth to the scene and the use of a LUT table helped create a more moody and colourwise unified result.
I really enjoyed working on this project even if it entailed long hours for about five to six months.
It’s a type of environment that I would enjoy running around in a game and, why not, in real life. It helped me put various tools to good use and experience them in a pipeline type workflow. It also helped to put in practice and explore for myself all the valuable tips, advice and information I got to read from talented artists here in 80.Level!
This project was also a great way for me to see that with patience you can make things that look overwhelming work in the end and that it is ok to drop them or change them, to not waste valuable time to make them work if they don’t. In a way, to work with the environment you are building and not against it.