Lara D’Adda returns to 80 Level to tell us more about the Ghent Dystopia project and explain how the scene's numerous assets, decals, and dynamic elements were set up.
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My name is Lara D’Adda, I am an Environment/Prop Artist, about to finish my curriculum at DAE Howest.
Since my previous article on 80 Level, I have been busy freelancing and working on my portfolio in the prospect of an internship, besides taking some needed rest back in my hometown. That’s when I came up with the idea for this new project!
I can say by now I feel comfortable when it comes to stylized art, I have more knowledge and experience with that type of look. That’s why I decided to challenge myself with something different for this one, to showcase that I can adapt myself to a different mood and style. The goal of this project was eventually to get a nice result in a quick time and work towards achieving a different atmosphere for this project.
The Ghent Dystopia Project
I spend a lot of my time on ArtStation. I just love scrolling through all the amazing works and getting inspired, and I often save a lot of concepts that I want to make in 3D, waiting for when I actually have time to create them. When I saw this concept by Max Bedulenko, I was immediately drawn to it.
I have been living in Belgium for a few years and by now this country holds a place in my heart, and I thought it would be fun to work on a project inspired by a Belgian city. The goal for this project was to quickly build a scene with a specific mood and atmosphere different then what I am used to. I wanted to create a basic kit for making all the buildings and work with main shaders that could be used for multiple elements and different UV sets in Unreal to get the right materials. I was also excited about the possibility of giving it a personal twist with all the signs holding some of the stuff I like.
To start this project I did two main things. One was to create a rough blockout of the environment with boxes, the other was to study the components of the concept.
In the blockout, I already have a basic lighting setup, a skylight with an HDRI, and a directional light.
This is a step that I always find necessary for understanding the scene, what kind of elements will I need to design what are the most important, how the light works, etc. In this stage, I also have some different camera positions saved, these are going to be my main points of view to use as reference and build my scene around it.
The other step was to take the concept and try to break it down into its components, figuring out what shapes and materials could be repeated and where I could use tiling materials, trim sheets, or specific assets. So I just sketched some notes on the concept to study it. This is something that in the process eventually changes a bit. But also gives me a clear idea of how to start the work instead of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of elements in the concept.
Figuring Out the Workflow
After exporting my blockout from Unreal, I went into modeling the building that was the main focus of the scene. I worked on this first to also look at how I wanted the workflow to be, and to create the main shaders that I would use again in the other buildings. Figuring out my workflow helped me, later on, to proceed faster with modeling and texturing the other parts.
Generally, I wanted this project to proceed quickly, as I didn’t have a lot of free time, so I always tried to go for solutions that could give me good quality but were also smart and could save me some time. I decided to work with different UV sets for most of my models. This way I could use tiling base materials, and use the second uv set to add nice details. Also, the base tiling materials were built starting from Quixel Megascans textures to have a faster workflow, and adding layers of different details on top with noise textures.
For this building only, I ended up sculpting the broken edges, as it was one of the most visible and important ones, I wanted to create this nice detail.
From the sculpted details that I baked on one of the UV sets of the low poly mesh, I exported the Normal Map, an edge mask, and an AO mask. In the shader, I combined these maps with the base tiling material that uses the other UV set to get the final result.
I changed the base color with material functions that I created, to add dirt with a gradient and a noise from the bottom and the top of the object. I also powered the AO Map and blended it with a noise, as well as added color to the edges with my edge mask.
For the Normal, I blend the one from the Megascans textures with my Normal, and a parameter to change the strength. As for the Roughness, I used the Megascans texture and some extra noise to add variations in the Roughness of the material. The noise masks I used had a painterly feeling, as I didn’t want to achieve a fully realistic look but still kept the same vibe as the concept.
Expanding the City
After figuring out how I wanted to work, I started to quickly build the rest of the city. The main shader I previously created was used for all the walls. What I changed in the different instances of the material is that not all models used those extra masks (AO, edges, and extra Normal), so I would not make use of that texture. But for the models that I wanted to have extra details, I sculpted a simple trim texture with sculpted damaged edges.
I again exported the Normal Map and edge mask and used those in the material for the other UV set. This way I could unwrap my models nicely for the UV set of the tiling material, and in the other UV set unwrap the models on the trim texture to have details on the edges.
The buildings were mainly composited out of a lot of simple props, and covered by signs and metal parts. So by mixing and layering all the models, I created the buildings. The hardest part was to make it look believable, and not just a lot of things thrown on a wall. I would create nice compositions, group them, and copy them around.
This way I started to quickly build the scene.
The city has a lot of rusted metallic parts, especially with all the pipes running on the walls. For the metallic parts, I used the same workflow and a similar main shader as the other props. The only difference is that the edge mask texture was used as a mask to reveal another metallic material under the rusted one. So I used that mask to lerp between different textures. This way, by unwrapping my models on the trim sheet in their second UV set, I could have metal wear on the edges very quickly. For the base material, I used Megascans textures.
This main shader was also used for all the spline components for the different pipes. I had three different types of spline models: a normal round pipe, a square one, and a group of cables.
In the concept, the windows were a big part of the mood and colors. While making them in 3D, I decided to build a simple shader to have some depth so that the texture would move based on the point of view. With the bump offset, I created this effect to control the depth. The texture is plugged in the emissive as the windows had light coming out, to make it more realistic I have a noise that I take from combining two Roughness Maps, and creates some areas less emissive. I use those maps also for the roughness and to change base color. To fake the light coming out of the windows I placed some rect lights in front of the glass. For the windows without a light, I used the same shader without the emissive value.
The concept had a lot of signs hanging around. So I took the chance to add some brands I know, and a lot of Belgian beer signs. I textured the planes for the signs in Substance 3D Painter adding dirt and rust, while for the metal frames, I used the metal master material from before. For the led signs I created a material where I could add different types of glitch noise and panning and create instances based on which one I wanted.
To add extra nice details to the scene I used a lot of decals. Most of them were Megascans assets. I used them especially to get more cracks on the walls, and more dirt/leaks on the corners, as well as for some graffiti on the bottom of the buildings.
The most important one was the graffiti on the big wall of the main building. I didn’t want to copy the one from the concept but actually get a drawing from graffiti in Ghent. So I created a decal from a work of Klaas Van der Linden.
In Substance 3D Painter, I edited the picture to get an opacity mask and added layers of ruin and dirt on top. I ended up lowering the opacity a lot in Unreal as well to get a nice blend with the wall. I also used some of the Megascans decals to mix it with and have some broken wall parts.
The atmosphere was going to tie my work all together, so I took some time to get a nice result. For the sky, I looked at the concept and painted the sky in Photoshop making an HDRI texture that I used on a sky sphere. It’s not fully perfect but for the point of view I needed it was working fine. For the fog and clouds, I made big use of the EasyFog tool. I tried creating different layers of fog especially at the bottom of the building and on the far away ones.
While for the lighting I used a simple setup: a skylight with an HDRI, a directional light, and a lot of rect lights with a red tint for the windows. To add some extra light in some areas of the building, I placed spotlights where I wanted to have less dark areas.
The last step was to add some dynamic elements to make the scene pop. Since I wanted to proceed quickly, I used some effects from the UE Marketplace. I used some smoke and sparkle effects around the level. I also wanted to add a flying car, so I took a model from Sketchfab and edited it a bit. In Unreal, I created a blueprint for the car with some smoke, where I moved and rotated the car along a spline in the scene.
After filling up the scene with all the elements I created a LUT for the post process. With this, I removed a bit of the darker shadows and tinted slightly the scene. To create the LUT I first lowered the Toe value in the PostProcessVolume settings and took some screenshots that I edited in Photoshop to see how to change my LUT later.
And with this, I concluded my work.
The overall project took me 8 weeks to complete, working only one or a few days a week on it since I was busy. That’s why I decided that for some of the elements I could use resources from the marketplace or the internet, to make the progress go faster and tie the scene together.
I personally like creating all the elements myself, but it is very useful having good quality resources that can help you achieve the ideas you have in mind faster, and they are a good base to start from, so I definitely advise using them in projects like this.
The main challenge was for me to trust the process, when you have a lot of elements to combine together it's hard personally to see where the work is going. But having figured out in my mind from the beginning how to tackle all elements, definitely helped me progress forward. I’m quite happy about how it turned out that I am considering expanding this concept. I loved working with this type of architecture and setting, especially playing with light and colors for this mysterious dystopian Ghent city.
Thanks to all my friends who gave me feedback, and for making it all the way to the end of the article, I hope this breakdown was helpful in some way, cheers!