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Mixing Various Architectural Styles to Create an Ancient City

An Environment Artist Miha Maruško shared an extensive breakdown of an ancient architecture-inspired New Babylon scene, thoroughly explained the lighting and texturing processes, and showed us how the scene was assembled.

Introduction

My name is Miha Maruško, I’m a self-taught Environment Artist from Slovenia and I'm currently studying Media Communications in my hometown Maribor. Besides my studies, I’ve been expanding my knowledge in environment art. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of my time mastering various programs to catch up with the industry standard.

Sadly, I have no industry experience yet. I made quite a few personal projects that reflect my knowledge and skills, but a lot of them have been shelved from my ArtStation portfolio page since they don’t reflect my current skills in creating environments. Now, I stand with my 2 latest pieces New Babylon and Unresting Watermills.

Getting Started

I’ve always wanted to create an environment that features a dome. Immediately after finishing my previous project, I started to develop new ideas, that would surpass the work I've done before. Since the previous project was successful, I got confident and knew that I wanted to make an original structure of an immense scale. Something that would combine various architectural styles, something that would stand out.

Another thing that was important in my concept was that the architecture had to make sense. For instance, the placement of basic elements such as windows must have had their own meaning in the general layout of the building. I didn’t want towers just to spring out only for the sake of composition. My goal was to place them for both the reasons of composition and architectural meaning.

With that in mind, I started to develop concepts that would feature the main dome. The very first idea I had was to put a dome on a tower-like structure. That was just one of many concepts, that I didn't use, eventually. I created many other iterations that ended up being canned before I settled down with the idea of a classic palace with a dome. 

I wasn’t satisfied until my inner “gut feeling” was excited to work on the project. It’s hard to describe this emotion but I believe all artists will understand what I’m talking about. I usually know that I’ve created a decent concept when I start to feel excitement over a simple sketch or even a grasp visualization in my head.

And having that feeling, at the end of August, I created the basic foundations of my next environment art project which would set New Babylon in motion. 

Goals and Inspiration

I had several goals for my project:

  • Creating a structure that features a dome;
  • Creating a structure that combines architecture;
  • Creating a scene that captures that awe-inspiring moment which you can usually see in the later chapters of an adventure movie;
  • Creating a scene that features dense foliage but still contains the “desert atmosphere”.

Software used:

  • Maya: for modeling and UV mapping;
  • Substance 3D Painter: for texturing;
  • Substance 3D Designer: for material creation;
  • Marmoset Toolbag 4: for baking;
  • Blender: for foliage creation, rock creation, and sculpting;
  • ZBrush: for foliage creation, rock creation, and sculpting;
  • Photoshop: for foliage creation, color correction, and postproduction;
  • Unreal Engine 4: for rendering and presenting. 

I started with my basic composition with rough sketches in my university notebook. I knew I wanted the dome in the center, so everything else would draw the main attention of the image.

One of the biggest inspirations in terms of concepts was the movie Alexander (2004). The scenes where Alexander’s army marches into Babylon are stunning. Not to mention that the interior sets are just jaw-dropping.

In general, I love watching historical films, (that’s my father’s fault). They probably served as the biggest inspiration. I don’t think I need to say this, but I probably watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade around 20-30 times each. Games such as Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: Lost Legacy also really inspired me. Playing these games is like experiencing Raiders all over again. Every little corner is furnished with such care that it’s hard to move along the levels since I’m stuck in photo mode every 10-15 minutes. 

Blockout and Composition

I used one of the Paragon characters models to measure my general height of the building since I didn’t want to lose my sense of scale. It was important not to lose track of proportions as the scene is really large, so I regularly checked if the windows are realistic in terms of scale. 

I first started with the dome blockout, which I finished relatively quickly. I was thinking whether I even should blockout the dome since I knew the general layout of the main elements of the environment.

The very first step was designing and visualizing modular pieces that would be present in both the dome and the palace. The palace mainly features a vertical modular piece that is present on both the left and right wings of the building. I was careful not to keep the repetitive nature of baroque architecture which I broke with overgrown moss and foliage.  

When I was satisfied with my dome, I started adding other elements to the scene that would bring the whole palace to life. At the time I didn’t know how I was going to handle the roof that’s not on the dome. I wanted to feature a roof that’s similar to Versailles. But I later decided that I really dig the overgrown look of the roof. While designing, I put a lot of thought into how I’d make the roof more varied.

In terms of composition, I really focused on making the dome the so-called “stage” of the whole environment. It’s the main attraction of the piece, so I wanted to focus on lighting, composition, architecture, and vibrant colors of the roof to drag the viewers' attention to the center towards the dome.

Another thing that happens to be completely accidental was the inclusion of the golden ratio in my main shot. To be honest, I did not plan for it to appear in the main shot. And it’s even weirder that it aligns so perfectly: the obelisk, the balconies, and the surrounding silhouette matches perfectly with it.

What I did practice though, was the constant mirroring of the main shot. A technique that’s usually present in drawing, turned out to be a helpful tool in balancing the shot and achieving the desired goal.

The Scene's Architecture

New Babylon features around 3 or 4 different architectural styles. These are mainly: European Baroque, Architecture of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamian foundations of Babylon, and a bit of Arabic Architecture.

The main building, as well as the dome, are mainly influenced by the European Baroque with a tad of Greek architecture the way how the entrance is presented. The Dome is mainly built with European architecture in mind, but it features a roof that originates from various Mosques.

The main staircase as well as the huge obelisk in the middle reflect the fundamentals of Egyptian architecture. The Balconies on top of the building are, of course, a direct reference to the Myth of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

As I was starting to texture my modular pieces, I figured that a lot of time has passed since the great architects left New Babylon. It lays abandoned in the lush oasis in the middle of a canyon, so I made the main brick material deliberately used and worn out. I focused on the effects of moisture and rain on buildings, which I implemented with generated water ingress pouring from the top of the modular pieces. That way it looks like the building waited ages to be discovered. 

In the later stages, I also added my own custom-made moss decal, which really enhanced different variations on the surface of the dome and palace. For the mentioned details, I mainly used Substance 3D Painter and Substance 3D Designer where I constructed the materials and the main Opacity Maps.

I initially started with planning and creating main modular pieces that would be featured in the dome as well as in the palace below. After that, I mainly had fun creating and implementing various modular pieces. I think I got my idea of modular pieces back in the day when I played Far Cry 4: Map Editor. At the time, when the game came out the editor really gave me a vast understanding of what a quality modular piece should look like and what’s possible to achieve with just a few objects.

Vegetation

The vegetation used in my environment I purely made myself. Since I live in Slovenia, which is in the middle of Europe, I had to improvise and use vegetation that’s native to our own forest flora.

Nevertheless, eventually, I chose various leaves that seemed like they could belong in a semi-tropical setting. If they didn’t look exotic enough, I modified them a bit in Photoshop and gave them a rather unique look that was based on real tropical plants.

I regularly took trips into my local forest (I live about 30 seconds away from it). I usually took a giant plastic panel with me where I safely stored the desired foliage and brought it home.  

To take the cleanest possible photo of my leaves and plants I made a mini photo studio in my basement. After taking the photo, I polished and cleaned it up in Photoshop to create my base color texture. Later I used it as a reference to sculpt a high-poly version of some of the plants.

I also generated a Normal Map based on the plants' base-color texture which I combined with my sculpted Normal. That way it gave the foliage depth and another layer of real-world detail which originates from various veins that are on the Albedo texture. I prepared a short gallery featuring BTS screenshots and various other shots which I didn’t feature in the final post since they lack in detail and quality, but showcase various other foliage at work.

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Rocks

I sculpted the high poly models of the rocks in Blender since I have a big and vast library of natural rock brushes at disposal there. I first started to collect references of various desert cliffs. It was also important to me to plan the cliffside environment in advance, so I knew how many rocks I’d use in my environment.

I used a few Megascans assets to fill out the empty spaces in-between and to add a tad of scanned objects to the scene which enhanced a lot of details on the side of the canyon.  

Materials and Texturing

After borrowing a few ancient architecture books from the library, I got a grasp of how beautifully crafted roofs are featured on various mosques. I later conceptualized my own versions and decided to go with a shiny blue color that stands out from the whole shot.

Since I already made a brick material I improvised and changed the already made material to generate tiles instead of bricks. At first, I only used the material to test the color balance of the roof. But by the end, it really grew on me. And as a bonus, I didn’t need to create entirely new material, since at the time I still wasn’t sure how I was going to balance my work with the deadline I set.

I first started to bend towards European roof styles, but the roof just didn’t stand out. The small and elegant details that I added with SP lost their details at great distances and the pattern turned into a big blob rather than staying true to its form. 

Another great thing that I learned while building the palace was the effect of range and texture filtering on the environment. Naturally, props lose their details at long-range distances, that's why it’s important to adapt texturing and your art direction, so your building props still look great at long distances. The roof demonstrates this perfectly. 

You can see how the roof looks considerably less noticeable with the golden cross details. The best method to discover texture patterns like this is probably by trial and error and by material exploration.

The architecture on the roof of the left and right section of the palace changes exclusively to the classic Babylon architecture which is made with only one Trim Sheet which I created with the help of Maya and Substance 3D Painter.

Assembling the Final Scene

The most important question that I asked myself while making New Babylon is “What’s actually important in my environment and what’s not?” I paid a lot of attention to parts of the environment that I knew would be in the frame and made sure to put extra pressure to perfect those parts. For the objects far in the distance, I didn’t pay that much attention since they’re being viewed from afar. With the time that had left, it wouldn’t be possible to perfect everything to my liking, so I improvised and focused on the parts that truly mattered.

When it comes to scattering and placing vegetation, I set myself to look at real-life references rather than paintings or already made in-game environments. Mother nature is usually the best reference when it comes to placing overgrown foliage. I primarily focused on how placement influences the playable area. With that, I deliberately used a reference that stretches out of games.

Besides real-life references, I also used the collection of Paradise Lost Illustration since they feature fantastic silhouettes together with breathtaking compositions. I think this can especially be seen at both the left and right sides of the main shot.

What really helped me here was envisioning the so-called “playable area”. That way I focused primarily on the quality of objects in that area, but still maintained a standard for views in the distance.  

Lighting

I set myself a goal to create an environment that would be easy on the eye, even if it features a ton of details. That way I created an environment that’s driven by both soft and hard lighting, so the viewer gets to experience drastic changes between both lit and unlit contrasts. 

I got my main inspiration from various photos of domes that are lit by the rising or setting sun. Since the dome is a layered and eroding structure, the shadows bend with each layer as they wrap themselves around the tower. That way the light creates an interesting balance between the present colors. 

Another important theme that I focused on was guiding the player/viewer. Even though New Babylon isn’t featured in a game I still wanted to convey urgency to communicate with the player/viewer and guide them through the environment. I wanted to push views towards the dome as well as the main staircase that leads to the entrance of the building. Sure, they’re both in the middle of the shot which conveys a sense of urgency, but I wanted to give an extra hint at the way how the sun creates various lines and silhouettes with the help of colors and silhouettes.

When it comes to the difference between shadows and sunlight, I deliberately placed the cliffside behind the palace, so that shadows hide parts in favor of composition. Here’s an out-of-bounds look of the environment. I helped myself a lot with various placed planes to create artificial shadows to balance the composition. 

Speaking of shots like these, I think it’s always nice to get a grasp on how the scene looks outside of the general spectacular screenshot. In general, noclipping your way out of maps/levels reveals a whole mountain of information, and I think it can really help when you get the idea that the “out of bounds” areas aren’t really that important. Besides, it's fun to look at how the whole project is actually made.

If I go back to lighting, it was important for me to convey a strong difference between the shadows and the lighted areas. That way I could better expose various silhouettes which are crucial for creating excellent compositions. I decided to rather use baked lighting since it gave me more freedom to fake various indirect lighting and it wouldn’t be so taxing on the whole scene.

I highly recommend turning your screenshots into the black and white (or mono) perspective. That really gives you a whole new perspective on how well you’re balancing the composition, colors and understanding the values of your shots.

Global Illumination also played a big part in the whole scene. Desert cliffs are usually bright since they feature beige, light-brown, and yellowish colors which are perfect for reflecting sunlight further and further. Automatic Global Illumination generated from the engine was fine at first. But to achieve the desired cinematic effect I had to add fake GI at certain areas. 

After careful evaluation, I also decided to put artistry over realism and pushed various shadows for the sake of composition. Cloud shadows were super important for pushing realism, so I created a custom light propagation volume which I designed in Photoshop and applied it to my directional light. With it, I made the transition from light to shadow on cliffs softer and easier on the eye.

I think we all agree that God's rays are super nice, but only in the right and healthy amount. I was really careful when I implemented them into the scene. Since I didn’t want to hide the details of the scene, I played with the fog setting quite a bit.  

My biggest help in balancing the scenes in terms of color correction was comparing them on different devices. I generally trust my main monitor the most when it comes to colors, but at the same time, I have no idea how others might see the environment since we all have differently calibrated settings. Besides, a lot of viewers will see my art on a mobile device which has its own limitations.

That way I took notice of changes on quite a few devices: my main monitor, my second monitor, my TV which is also hooked up to my PC, and my phone. Once I was satisfied with all of them, I knew that the colors would be somewhat universal across all devices. In the end, I took around 360 images from all of the scenes, just to get the right one in terms of temperature, saturation, sharpness, contrast, etc. 

I recommend this video to anyone that’s even remotely interested in lighting or environment art. Boon and the interviewer capture the whole point of lighting and put it in a bottle that is only 90 minutes long. Nothing was more important than conveying the grand importance of lighting in my environment since I believe it contributes hugely to the presentation of any scene or object. And I’d say presentation counts as much as 90% of the quality in any environment.

Main Challenges and Lessons Learned

The whole environment took me around 14 weeks to complete. By far, the most time-consuming step was balancing the contrast on every shot and general color correction. My goal was to make a fully-fledged environment that would be compatible and worthy of a screenshot from almost all angles. That turned out to be a huge waste of time and probably not a good idea since I cut out a lot of the content and spent a lot of time focusing on details that didn’t end up in any of the screenshots.

I really wanted to avoid unnecessary cut content with careful time management and regular quality checkups, but I couldn’t avoid it in order to maintain quality. Despite the cut content and wasting quite a few hours of work I’m glad I made mistakes like that, and I feel more prepared for my next upcoming project.

Speaking of silly ideas, to make New Babylon on my desired deadline I had to regularly skip school and ignore university tasks quite a lot. I can’t emphasize this enough: don’t be like me and manage time properly and don’t skip school!

What really drove me to finish it so quickly was probably my own determination towards my own deadline. I had a strong motivation for creating the desired environment and I’m still surprised how I maintained and held my discipline to create almost everything on time. If I hadn’t reached my goal at the desired time, I worked overtime until I wasn’t satisfied with the results.

Maintaining Motivation

When it comes to creating huge scenes like New Babylon, I have a few tips on how to maintain your motivation: celebrate the little victories, like finishing a modular piece, being satisfied with the blockout, or finally applying your final_final_final.png Normal Map to an object and being satisfied with the result. I think small things like that drove me throughout my project. Regularly checking my own progress shots before going to bed also helped my confidence in finishing the project.

Another tip that I’d like to share with anyone who can relate to my current situation in finding your own path: dare to explore, dare to ask, and don’t be shy like I was back in the day. At times I still have a bit of a problem with self-esteem but I’m slowly turning around and exploring a lot more in terms of relations and forging connections with other artists and developers.

Miha Maruško, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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