Nepali Snow: Crafting an Animated Stylized Scene in UE4

Nepali Snow: Crafting an Animated Stylized Scene in UE4

Sophie Rose Stübinger talked in detail about her small stylized environment Nepali Snow: sculpting assets in ZBrush, material workflow in Substance Designer, snow and cloth animation setup in UE4, and more.

Introduction

Hi! My name’s Sophie Rose Stübinger, I'm from Germany, and I’m a freelance 3D Environment and Prop Artist and Game Art student in my second year. Basically, everything stylized is my jam! 

Next to my studies, I’ve been freelancing part-time and I've worked on the game Spiral by Folklore Games. I feel incredibly fortunate that I've already gained some experience as an Environment Artist before graduating. It definitely strengthened me in my desire to be part of the gaming industry, create worlds that bring joy to people, and work alongside passionate and enthusiastic people. 

Growing up, I’ve always been in love with games like Kingdom Hearts, Little Big Planet, The Sims, Minecraft, and many more. And like many other artists, I've always been interested in the art and craft of visual story-telling. It took me a while to realize that I could actually combine my two main interests and pursue a career in video games. After a couple of unrelated jobs and going back to school to do my A-levels in order to study, I discovered a university that offered a study program in Video Game Development with a focus on Game Art. Trying my luck, I applied with mostly 2D pieces and luckily got accepted. It was during the interview when one of my professors asked me if I was interested in 3D since the study program also involves some 3D classes. Wanting to be prepared and to have some basic knowledge before starting my studies, I did some research on 3D and was surprised by how accessible it actually was.

It didn’t take long for me to stumble over Grant Abbitt’s videos about hand-painted 3D art and I immediately got hooked. It felt like there was a whole new world for me to explore and I was incredibly excited to dive deeper into the world of 3D. Discovering artists like Anya Jo Elvidge, Jasmin Habezai-Fekri, Fanny Vergne, Norma Martínez, and many more who’ve been my biggest inspirations and to whom I will forever look up to, definitely made my desire to get into 3D bigger.

I think because I was already familiar with the fundamentals such as color theory, composition, lighting, and so on, the transition from 2D to 3D was quite smooth and I could focus more on the technical aspects of 3D.

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Nepali Snow: Idea

Because this project was part of a school assignment, I also had to pay special attention to time management and set myself little milestones to make sure that I meet my deadlines. In general, my studies are very much about self-learning. While you have the opportunity to ask for feedback, it’s pretty much what you put into it; this, at least for me, helps to focus more on being self-organized and prioritizing what skills I want to improve on and learn. With this project, I wanted to focus on learning Unreal Engine and get more comfortable with the PBR workflow. For this project, the topic was ‘First Snow’. 

To start off, I took a look at some games that feature winter-themed areas to see how people in the industry have tackled this topic. The first game that came to my mind was Overwatch and its beautiful Nepal map which was the main inspiration for this project.

I was incredibly drawn to the combination of warm and cold colors as well as the art and practicality of Nepalese architecture. The color scheme reminded me of the emotions snow can bring. Snow is often associated with something positive, almost magical, and with snow covering the landscape, a scene can bring some sense of calm and quiet peace. But it can be the exact opposite as well considering how destructive some blizzards are. I felt like the combination of warm and cold colors in the context of the scene resembled the contrast of excitement and tragedy. It created an interesting atmosphere that I wanted to explore more and make my own version out of. 

Personally, I like to work with as many references as I can to make sure that I have the general mood and idea visualized. From past projects, I realized that being organised from the start really helps me speed up the entire process. Even though the project goes through many iterations and changes, having a clear overall vision of what you want to go for from the start is very helpful to me. For the art style, I took a lot of inspiration from Overwatch as well as Sea of Thieves and Ghibli movies such as Spirited Away.

Start of the Scene

After the basic idea for the scene was laid out, I did a rough blockout in Blender and tested it inside Unreal Engine. I like to bring my scene into the engine or rendering software as soon as possible since it’s easier for me to keep track of what my scene actually looks like. This also enables me to easily make adjustments along the way and always gives me a clear overview of what needs to be done.

Asset Creation

Because the windows are quite prominent in the scene, I tested out different versions to find the right balance between my own interpretation and real-life references. Overall, the creation of the assets was fairly simple; I started to model the basic shapes in Blender, keeping the characteristics of Nepalese architecture in mind and trying to simplify them without losing their most prominent features. For example, when I did some research on Nepali architecture I realized that a lot of windows are often latticed or grilled, showing the unique wood carving. This is an element that appears in many Nepalese buildings and I tried to incorporate it into my design. Also, when blocking out objects, I try to have a good topology from the start which makes it easier to optimize it furthermore later on. 

Once I felt like the shapes were interesting but still easy to read, I prepared the mesh for the sculpting phase. To do that, I added some creases to the edges that I wanted to remain hard and crisp when subdividing the mesh inside ZBrush. I found this method to be the most effective since it prevents the mesh or parts of it from folding in on themselves when adding damage to the edges. Once everything is set up in ZBrush, I try to keep the sculpt as clean as possible by swapping between Dynamesh and ZRemesh.

With the window being the first mesh to sculpt, I encountered some issues that needed to be tackled before moving onto defining the rest of the assets. Because I wanted to go for an overall smooth look that's easy to read, the first pass felt way too sharp and not very natural. So, I decided to redo the sculpting, add more variety to the depth of the cracks as well as more damage to the edges which made it look more integrated into the scene.

First pass / final pass:

The main brushes that I used for sculpting were hPolish and Trim Dynamic as well as Orb Cracks and Orb ClayTube Smooth from Michael Vicente’s brush pack.

Once I had a better understanding of what sculpting approach was the best, I moved on to working on the other assets I have in the scene. For that, the process was pretty much the same:

  • Looking up references of objects that are characteristic for Nepal (like ancient bells, wooden elements like canopy, railings, and beams)
  • Simplifying the shape and blocking everything out in Blender 
  • Moving the mesh to ZBrush for sculpting, keeping the mesh smooth and the level of detail consistent
When it came to jugs, I wanted to make a broken one as well, showing that they were left outside and that at some point snow started to fall and wind to blow. So, one of the jugs fell over and got broken.  It's just a small and subtle detail but I love discovering little things like that in a scene, no matter how big the story behind the prop is. 

Texturing

Because I haven’t been using Substance Designer for very long yet, a lot of my knowledge is based on breakdowns of other artist’s work and reaching out to people who are more experienced with the software; this helped me achieve something decent-looking.

Roof Tiles

Creating the material for the roof tiles was a lot of fun but also a bit of a challenge to tackle since I had to figure out what type of roof tiles fit the scene the best. It took a lot of experimentation and iterations but because Substance Designer enables you to easily change shapes, I could quickly test out different versions without having to rework the colors, details, and so on.

In the end, I decided to go with Linear Gradients and played around with circular shapes and the transformation node until I got the shape I wanted. To have more variation in the tiles, I created three slightly different versions before plugging them all into a Tile Sampler. I also created some imperfections in the form of little holes with the help of Gaussian Noise, Levels, and Slope Blur to make it visually more interesting.

For the coloring part, I took a look at Jimmy Malachier’s breakdown of his materials; they have a beautiful watercolor hand-painted touch to them which instantly spoke to me. Seeing all the amazing materials other artists can achieve with Substance Designer is incredibly inspiring and it is also one of the reasons why I wanted to get into the software in the first place. 

So, I started off with the Clouds Map and blended it with some uniform colors which created a base to which I could add some brushstrokes with different colors. Like that, I got a nice subtle painterly feeling that I tried to incorporate in my other materials as well.

Bricks

To keep everything consistent, my approach to create the brick material was pretty much the same as the one for the roof tiles. 

Instead of sculpting individual bricks which I had wanted to do initially, I found it less time-consuming to make different variations of bricks inside Designer. With the help of Perlin Noise, Blur, and Transformation I was able to achieve some very basic brick shapes that I plugged into a Tile Sampler later on before moving on to the color creation.  

In-engine, I then used the Hue Color node and blended it with my Texture Sample to make adjustments color-wise without having to move back and forth between different software; this saved me a lot of time.

To give the unique props a texture pass, I used Substance Painter for baking and texturing. For baking, I always do several test bakes to make sure everything is clean before moving on to the texturing part so that I don't get surprised by some weird shading artifacts or overall unclean bakes later on. When it comes to actual texturing, I added some gradients, edge highlights, and some subtle color variation to pretty much all of the meshes.

Vertex Painting

Inside Unreal, I also made use of some simple Vertex Painting to add some snow to the ground. To do that, I brought the textures of the two materials I wanted to blend into the material editor and created a Lerp node for both Albedo textures and another one for both Normal maps. I then added a vertex color to the Alpha channels of the Lerp nodes and plugged it all in to create the material. 

Clouds

For the skybox, I used Photoshop to create some simple clouds. The cloud brushes by Kristof Dedene came in very handy and helped me speed up the process of creating the skybox a lot.

Composition

When bringing the assets into the scene and trying to find the ‘right’ spot for them, there’s no set rule that I follow other than trying to make it as pleasing to the eye as possible which involves a lot of experimentation. 

For a scene that is shown from a specific angle/perspective, I think following art principles is very helpful. To me, it’s important to somehow guide the viewer’s eye through the scene by arranging the assets in a way that feels natural and creates a nice flow. But in the end, it’s all down to experimenting and finding the right balance which applies not only to composition but to the art fundamentals in general. 

This scene changed a lot from start to finish, mainly because of the great feedback I received from my fellow artist friends that I'm incredibly grateful for. Especially when working with my own concepts, I find that it’s very counterproductive to work on a project for weeks without reaching out to others and asking for their opinion. I’m sure there are people who still produce breath-taking art this way and are confident in their art and craft. But personally, getting feedback helps me a lot with blind spots and sparks my creativity. 

Snow and Flags Animation

Initially, I wanted to use Marmoset Toolbag for rendering but I quickly realized that I couldn’t achieve the immersive feeling that I wanted to go for. So, I decided to migrate the project from Toolbag into Unreal and once I did that, I immediately felt less restricted. Making use of Unreal’s particle system for the snow as well as the cloth simulation for the flags hanging off the bells and rope really helped me to breathe in some life to my scene. 

For simulating the falling snow, I followed a tutorial by Christian de Leeuw (see below). I merely changed some of the parameters to make it more believable when putting it in the context of my scene. Since it’s supposed to be quite high up in the mountains and because it’s pretty windy, the snow would get a little bit carried away by the wind instead of simply falling down vertically. 

The flags were also pretty straightforward. To give them some movement, I used Unreal’s cloth simulation. Once that was done, all I had to do was bring in some Wind Directional Source and play around with the parameters such as speed and strength until I was happy with the overall look of how the flags were fluttering in the wind. I also changed the Cloth Bend Weight parameter of the flags to make them look more dynamic and less stiff since the fabric is quite thin.

Lighting and Fog

To make it look more atmospheric and to bring in some more depth, I also added Exponential Height Fog. I kept the density and opacity quite low since I didn’t want it to be too prominent – just a nice subtle effect. I didn’t use any Post-Processing settings because at this point I already felt like the scene had enough depth and didn’t need additional tweaking.

The lighting setup only consists of two directional lights and a point light that are all dynamic.

The sky light has a slightly yellowish tint (as well as the main light) and determines what time of day it is. In this case, it’s somewhere between early hours and midday, evoking this fresh feeling of a cold morning. The second directional light is used to brighten up the shadows and bring in some subtle color variation.

The point light is used to brighten up the place where the jugs are located. The area seemed a little bit too dark because of the shadow resulting from the main light hitting the railing which made the props less noticeable. 

Lessons Learned

One lesson that I learnt from creating this project was that flipping the image isn’t only useful in 2D but is also directly applicable to 3D art. Especially when working on something for a long period of time and/or when the scene or diorama is viewed from a specific angle, I found it very helpful to simply take a screenshot and mirror it. This can really do wonders since it helps to freshen up your mind and see incorrect parts. In the end, I even decided to keep it mirrored because the whole scene felt easier and more natural to read. 

Looking back at it, I definitely had a lot of fun and learnt a lot while creating this piece. Since it was my first time using Unreal, there were a lot of obstacles to overcome, and keeping track of the time and progress can be quite stressful sometimes. But another lesson I learnt was that one shouldn’t get frustrated too quickly. I feel like the last 10% of a project is where the magic happens. Being overly self-critical of your work and progress before passing even 50% of it isn't doing your creativity and motivation any good. So, pushing through that phase and giving this project time to develop took a lot of pressure away from me and made the end result even more rewarding.

In general, I’m really happy with the scene. There are a few things I would change in retrospect but I’ll keep these things in mind for my next project. Also, I’m happy that I could scratch the surface of Unreal a little bit and test the water. And I'm super excited to dive deeper into it in future work.

Afterword

Thank you so much for reading! I hope I could give some insight into my work and if you have any questions, feel free to shoot me a message!

You can find me on ArtStation, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Stay safe and take care!

Sophie Rose Stübinger, 3D Environment and Prop Artist 

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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