19-year old artist talked a little about his experiments with environments in UE4.
My name is Mihai Muscan. I’m 19 years old and I was born and raised in Bistrita, a Transylvanian town from Romania. Currently, I’m a student in the first year at De Montfort University in the UK and a freelance 3D artist.
Three years ago, when I got my very first high-end PC, I started learning Photoshop by myself just for fun, only to discover later that this program is one the most fundamental in game and film art. After one year, the 3D world and Environment art said “Hello!”. You know what happened next? 4 hours sleep became casual, especially during high-school.
I was fortunate enough to get my very first gig into the gaming industry while I was still in my final year of high-school. The excitement was overwhelming me since I could actually work as a paid 3D artist for a gaming company. Little did I know the following period would be the hardest months I ever had because my final exams were coming and work had to be done.
Planning a Scene
Whenever I play a game, the first thing that I am interested in is the environment. Being immersed in a new world, different from reality, has always fascinated me. Creating an environment can take a while and requires different iterations and dressing up phases to be completed.
That’s why I need to make sure I understand what I want to achieve. What is my art direction? What location and time period is the action happening? What colors am I using? What are the focal points? What are the people/creatures using that area for? Is it still used or left to rot? Way before I even start creating the first prop I consider all these things.
For this project, I wanted to get better at doing materials, lighting and mood. I decided to take the cyber-punk theme and to make a Japanese narrow street at night. Also, I wanted to illustrate the difference between the classic-modern style (using warm and bright colours – ramen shop) to the futuristic/cyber-punk style (cold and dark colours).
Then I move onto reference gathering. I don’t draw my scenes on paper as it is enough for me to have references and photobash pictures together. I imagine a prop or a scene in 3D from simple primitives to the final product, so 2D doesn’t work that well for me. Reference gathering is one of the most important aspects when creating a project and it is often omitted by many beginner artists.
For this project, I documented enough to encounter a photographer that became my favourite, the one and only: Masashi Wakui. His style of photography was similar to what I had in mind regarding the mood, lights and settlement (Japan). I used Kuadro (free software) to manage dozens of images on my screen nicely. I took reference of almost anything, from different walls to ramen bowls. I found a great sense of inspiration in anime/tv shows (such as Psycho-pass , Akira, Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, Batman beyond, etc.) and in games (Wolfenstein: the New Order, Dying Light, Remember me, Sleeping Dogs, Tom Clancy: The Division, etc.).
After I had a clear idea about what the project was about, I started to work on it by creating primitive shapes such as boxes and cylinders inside Unreal Engine 4 to have a rough idea about the number of props I would have to create, not to mention how many interesting silhouette of shops I needed to have.
Building Assets and Materials
Having the greyboxes sorted out inside UE4 I started creating the assets. I used the following softwares to build my scene: 3ds Max, Quixel Suite 2.0, Photoshop, and of course, Unreal Engine 4. I made some tileable textures to be used across the level but most of the assets had been textured individually. Furthermore, some assets were re-used to expand the level in dimension and complexity. I had to avoid the monotony of having a copy of a pillar next to another one, for example, by adding a different prop on it or different decal.
All the walls, floors, ceilings and all big assets are snapping to the UE4’s grid to increase efficiency and the production speed. 90% of the project’s assets were made to be modular. I cut down the number of tris by deleting all the faces of an asset that the player will never, ever see. ‘Why render it if nobody will see it?’.
Since the theme is cyber-punk, a lot of hard surface modeling was required. I spent 1 week and 4 days modeling and UV-ing all the assets. The number of unique assets made for this project is approximately 130 to 140 yeah. Proper folder management was required as well.
Here are some assets prepared to be exported:
All the textures were done using Quixel Suite 2.0 : Albedo, Roughness, Normal, Metalness, and Ambient Occlusion. I used a variety of texture dimension from 512px to 2048px which is the maximum size I used. This piece of software saved me so much time at texturing, therefore creating the materials wasn’t that much of a problem. I wanted to push myself by adding more information into my materials, to make them more readable and basically better. By tweaking the curvature, tightness, etc. in the mask editor and with better UV, I managed to achieve some new breeds of material quality. This is a point I wanted to hit from the beginning of the project.
The post processing volume inside Unreal Engine can make a scene look so much better just by tweaking some values. I always set-up my specification inside UE4 after I create the basic lighting setup.
Lighting and colors
Lighting, one of the most difficult things to do right. At least for me. From my past projects, I was never satisfied with the lighting quality I produced. So, improving my lighting skills was a must.
After I documented myself more about the Lightmass, the different types of lights, IES profiles, how they interact with each other, shadows parameters and so forth, I decided to test my skills by having different colour contrasts in 3 different areas.
Dark, cold with red, pink, blue and purple section; lightened, warm with yellow, orange and red section; neutral with white, grey and green section. The sky is purple tinted because I wanted it to be contrasted with the environment and because I was watching the last season of Batman beyond. Before I iterate the lights, I test the contrasts and light propagation by painting colours using Photoshop over a screenshot of an unlit scene.
I deleted the Sky light and focus only on the static and stationary lights. I added an Atmospheric Fog with a lower default Brightness and a dark blue default light colour. Lowering the Fog Density value and changing the Fog Inscattering colour with pink inside the Exponential Height Fog component, the Blue-purple tinted sky was achieved. Default Light Colours works well when there is no sunlight placed in the level.
I finished this project in 3 weeks and for me, it’s a visible improvement both technically and artistically. I consider that I achieved what I had set myself to improve on.
I could have made the scene more performance friendly by grinding more with the material editor, adding custom LODs for some assets and cutting down the number of lights used throughout the scene. I already started my new project and I will focus more on some other aspects that I noticed I could improve on.
Quite a lot of people ask me how I manage my time between commissions, personal work and studies. The way I do it: I make sure I work at least 4 hours a day on personal projects, every single day. When I do not have commissions, usually I spend most of the day and night working on personal projects and tearing my hair out. But when I do have a commission inquiry, I make it top priority and dedicate 8 hours a day to it, then I start my “At least 4 hours “on personal work. Since I’m in the first year at university, I spend like 2 hours on course work. As for now.