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Environment artist Lenz Monath gave a detailed breakdown of his most recent ‘Telephone Machine’ environment, filled with awesome detailed work. He talked about the modeling of the piece, the small elements, the construction of glass and metal materials. Excellent design.
Hello, I am Lenz. I am into game art for nearly 10 years, now.
Back then, I started doing levels for Half-Life 2 and other Source Engine Games, and grew more and more interested in all the different parts connected to the creation game environments.
I was lucky to contribute to some very successful CounterStrike: Global Offensive Maps: Cache and Museum, together with my friend Shawn.
Currently, I’m studying in a game design program of the Hochschule Darmstadt in Darmstadt, Germany, where I’ll soon graduate.
In the meantime however, I have already been busy working on some projects in the industry: I contributed as a lighting artist on the cutscenes of Batman: Arkham Origins at metricminds in Frankfurt, and as an Environment Artist on the game Dreadnought, currently being developed in Berlin at Yager.
For me, this scene was a great way to showcase my current skill set and try out some new techniques in a small environment.
Focusing on a handful of assets had the advantage that I can go into great detail with what I want to create and really start polishing each element. In my mind it’s much more powerful to have a small but polished scene, which you can finish in a relatively small amount of time, than building a massive scene with tons of assets, that cannot meet the same quality in the end.
I find it much more valuable in a portfolio to have less but more quality content, where you really can show your skill.
The payphone is the centerpiece of this little scene. I knew that I wanted some nice closeup shots in the end, so all the details had to holdup from being viewed up very close. This is why I couldn’t only rely on normal map details for a lot of parts, but actually built a lot of the details into the low poly geometry.
For the high poly I tend to jump between different techniques and softwares, whatever gives me the best result in the shortest amount of time. So, some parts I knew I could create faster in ZBrush, some using the double turbosmooth workflow in 3ds Max, some using the chamfer modifier, etc.
For me it’s always about the context. Everything else derives it.
So, the object is intended to be sort of a cinematic prop, a showcase for materials with attention to small details. This means, I can shoot for a high poly count and texture resolution, and all the planning follows that.
In production, the context might be different, you have more constraints, budget may depend on the performance of your scene and your target platform, your time schedule, etc, but the approach is similar. Knowing the context dictates how you approach the scenario.
Actually, that part was pretty simple. All the glass needed to appear convincing were a small tiling normal map for the rain droplets, a mask for the window stains/dirt and good reflections.
Unreal 4 lately has added a new feature, called planar reflections. They really helped pushing the quality of the glass material, in also reflecting things which are not visible inside the screen space.
All the textured were authored in Substance Painter. The software makes it super fun and easy to work on materials. It let’s you focus on the artistic side of texturing.
In UE4 I simply plugged in the exported textures, no big shader magic needed.
The face of the telephone with numbers and everything is a real work of art. Could you discuss the way you’ve approached the material for this particular element and how did you manage to work on those tiny little details there. It looks mesmerizing.
When approaching materials like this I am always trying to crystalize the unique aspects of each material. What behavior of it makes you recognize it, isn’t it a certain kind of glossiness, the way it is used up at the edges? In my mind, for most materials, there are a few key aspects that you need to nail down to make it believable, the rest is sugar on top.
Knowing the place of a material in the world and keeping the consistency there, is extremely important, too. How old is the object you ́re creating, how and where is it being used and used up. Where would dirt accumulate, does it get cleaned frequently?
You are telling a story with the materials you create!
As an environment artist, the kind of stories I want to tell relate very much to the feel and mood you get from certain places. In a way, these emotions are sometimes very diffuse or not very tangible.
I like to explore that aspect and lose myself in the mood I want to convey.
For this particular piece, it was the coldness and isolation of a modern, almost sci-fi feeling metropolis, with bright cold neon lights, combined with the rather romantic and old school feel of public payphones.
Technically speaking, I started with the image based lighting blueprint, provided with the UE4 starter content. This already gave me an interesting base with some nice reflections.
From there on I added dynamic spotlights to illuminate the scene and draw attention to certain aspects. IES profiles helped to make the lights feel more real.
Playing around with just a couple of lights here, and exploring the shapes that you’re trying to highlight goes a long way in this phase.
Sometimes, you get to a point you start feeling happy with the results you’re getting, but then do not stop and keep on trying different set ups. Often, there is so much more you can squeeze out of your scene. In the end, it’s the lighting that really sells what you ́re trying to portray, so take your time and don’t rush things here.
Seeing the results of your work and iterating on your ideas in real time is invaluable for me. Graphics power of real time rendering improved so much in the last years, that the gap closes more and more to offline rendering and I love to explore what is already possible with game engines today and be a part of that development.
In the end though, I am a game artist, so I want to make the content I create shine in a game engine! Unreal gives you a great toolset to do so.