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Amazing 3d artist Jack Kirkham talked about the way he creates awesome sci-fi environments. A deeper look into materials, creation of cloth and use of lighting.
Hello! My name is Jack Kirkham, I’m from the UK and I’ve just recently completed a Game Art Degree at the University of Chester, My background is in Graphic and Web Design, I originally started learning 3D to mod Team Fortress 2 and Counter Strike: Source as a hobby before steam workshop was a thing, I only decided to take creating art for games seriously when DayZ Mod was released and I joined the forum team, ever since then I began looking at colleges to attend and from then to University fast forward a few years and now I have completed my course and started as a Junior Environment Artist at Cloud Imperium Games.
After reading Clinton’s incredible interview on the construction of his Laundromat scene, I decided early on to focus on storytelling through the use of props, lighting and atmosphere my tool for this approach was purely experimenting with different lights within UE4.
My primary motive was to build a scene that wasn’t just “Sci-Fi” for the sake of being Sci-Fi.
I took inspiration from the talented artists behind Star Citizen and Infinite Warfare and began to create models that would live within the environment and have a purpose.
Using Tools such as trello is a great way to aid in time management and setting yourself deadlines and keeping track on what stage assets are at.
The overall production process of my scene was to initially block out the level and get the scale correct, to start with I used incredibly simple geometry and in fact a lot of the floors and walls ended up being planes utilizing the texture work to make them stand out, The most important thing for me during this process was keeping everything on the grid as it allowed me to quickly iterate during the block out process, For all the modeling I used 3DS Max with a couple of plugins to speed things up as well as get better results.
Batch Export / Import – This script is incredibly useful for as the name suggests batch exporting all your meshes, It also will center the mesh to 0,0,0 and then move it back to its original place afterwards, it is really a must have.
Weighted Vertex Normals – As I wanted to experiment with face weighted normals this script is essential to getting the crisp high poly look when using chamfers, I utilised this script a lot whenever I used tiling materials.
Extend Borders – Great for getting extrusions on edges in a uniform manner, a must have if you’re creating hard surface meshes.
During this project I decided to experiment with Marvelous Designer which allows for real-time cloth simulations that you can manipulate in real-time, It allows for incredibly quick results and can be used in endless ways however for this project I used it solely for creating tarps, however it is such a powerful tool and can be used for all sorts of things such as clothing, accessories, padding and furniture.
My process for this was simply create a perfectly square “pattern” and running the simulation, from there I was able to drag the pattern around to achieve visually interesting folds for tarps on the floor or walls even using the pinning tool to get parts of the cloth to stick exactly where I wanted it.
As Marvelous Designer outputs considerable high-poly meshes depending on the detail of the folds, to optimise the mesh I utilised Pro-Optimiser in 3DS Max to bring the poly count down drastically, however this ultimately was not the most efficient way and I would personally retopologise it It was going into an actual game.
I also decided that I would drape tarps over existing assets this allowed me to combine an existing prop with a tarp which created a new asset giving me more variations of the same props to break up some of the repetition.
The creation process of the tarp was done solely in Quixel by just creating a normal map and texturing it inside the suite.
Arguably the most time spent on my entire project was setting up and tweaking lighting, from the very early stages of the block out I experimented with lighting the scene to get a feel for the environment, as you can see the level started out as more warmly lit scene that progressed into a cold eerie look in the final stages, I wanted to portray a vast emptiness in the Hangar where the workers would be during their day, I believe lighting plays one of the important parts of an environment as bad lighting can make the best assets in the world look terrible yet good lighting can disguise bad assets making them look much better than they actually are.
I used IES profiles that I got from manufacturers websites that not only gave me realistic intensity values but also a variety of cool and interesting shapes that the lights would cast onto surfaces, this helped break up the scene with different shaped light sources, if working on a project I suggest looking for IES profiles as they are easy to add into UE4 and aid you in lighting a scene.
For the texturing process I primarily used Substance Painter for most of my props and created a few materials in designer for things such as wall pieces etc, I found early on that the Roughness map is one of the most important maps you can author and spending extra time on it can really help sell the material in different lighting conditions as it can really define the materials history without adding in dirt within the albedo, if you take a look at real world examples such as a clean rubber floor if you look at the floor at different angles seeing the light reflect of the surface you’ll be able to make out scuff marks or subtle worn areas where something has scraped the surface or brushed against it, if you were to look at this area from above you’d never notice those subtle details, so in my project I attempted to focus on the roughness allowing it to tell a story.
The camera work like a lot of my inspiration came from Clinton Crumpler, I simply used a standard camera in UE4 and toyed with the FOV, DOF and aspect ratio, this is probably my favourite shot and was achieved using the following settings, I’d recommend just toying with the settings and finding cool angles you like, changing the FOV can really change your perspective of the scene giving a more cinematic feel, although UE4 has a new camera called Cine camera that has a lot of settings that real world cameras have and are worth experimenting with.
The scene took a couple months total as it started off as many different things and I had other University work to do, the main challenge for me was overcoming the scale of the scene, If i had to do the environment again I wouldn’t have decided to build something so large with such a short time frame, as my initial plan was to have a ship for a center piece but ended up removing it due to time constraints, my advice would be to start small and give every part of the environment you’re building the same amount of care and attention and try and rein in the scope of your project.