Off-World Hydro-Plant: Building a Unique World in UE4

Off-World Hydro-Plant: Building a Unique World in UE4

James Scanlon did a breakdown of his large-scale project Off-World Hydro-Plant and talked about world production, modeling, texturing, and lighting.

Introduction

My name is James Scanlon. I’m an Environment Artist from the United Kingdom, currently working as a Route Artist for Dovetail Games, focusing on the Train Sim World franchise. I’ve helped develop both the Peninsula Corridor and Rhein-Ruhr Osten DLC titles since joining the team in April 2019. 

My 3D origin story came to light at Staffordshire University, on a Visual Effects bachelor’s degree course. It was here where I quickly fell in love with the modeling processes and became set on improving myself in the discipline.  

My university course operated closely with a large games development course, which by chance, brought Visual Effects students across to try out the Unreal Engine. This was a week-long voluntary ‘give it a go’ trial of the program. I fell in love with the real-time rendering process and the ability to undertake a much more interactive development experience. 

After graduation in 2017, I spent the next year working in 3D train simulation, whilst developing a games portfolio and improving my 3D skills. I was determined to ‘break-into’ the games industry, I kept building projects and applying until I could do so. Fast-forward to the start of 2019 and here we are! 

Beauty of World Building

Capturing and developing unique worlds, with creative identities for people to experience first hand is a rewarding process. The ability to transcribe the imagination into a playable state and witnessing thousands of other talented artists achieve the same thing provides a constant source of motivation. The possibilities are endless, and the challenge is addictive.

Off-World Hydro-Plant

Off-World Hydro-Plant: Choosing the Biome

The Off-World Hydro-Plant project concept dawned not long after Quixel’s Rebirth cinematic was released. I adored the contrasts of man-made and natural materials. I was in awe at the scale of the environment and decided that I was going to set out to accomplish something like-minded. 

Star Citizen was my next go-to for epic sci-fi environment inspiration. In particular, the city of Lorville, on the planet Hurston, with its ‘Central Tower’ corporate headquarters overshadowing the landscape. For my own sci-fi constructions, I turned my attention to old warship bridges, which provided some unique concepts to translate into my project.

Both environments had this large superstructure, each surrounded by a unique gloomy biome that helped sell its own unique otherworldly appearance. This gave me my starting point.

The selected biome would hail from an Icelandic atmosphere, the barren yet colorful landscapes allowed vast distances to be portrayed, with minimal foliage requirements, whilst remaining visually striking. 

It was at this point, the decision was made to utilize Quixel Megascan’s Icelandic foliage pack to tackle the biome. I had been yearning for an opportunity to play with the photoscans and foliage assets, and this was the perfect occasion. 

This would free up the majority of my time to focus on modeling the industrial assets, which would be the hero pieces of the project, and the world-building process itself in the Unreal Engine. 

World Building

I began by hand-carving the world in the Unreal Engine, through heavy use of the sculpt tool. I chose to do this rather than depend on a heightmap as it gave me the ability to immediately dictate some iconic features, which would later define the project's visual framework.

The idea of a waterfall coming down a mountain and cutting through the environment provided a natural path toward the future placement of the superstructure. This would be the first of my ideas to draw attention further into the scene. 

Next, I selected an array of Megascan textures to create the initial landscape groundwork, alongside several rock, cliff, foliage and foreground assets that would make up the river banks and mountains.

These five textures provided the visual map of how I roughly intended the rocks and mountain range assets to be placed. Every flat surface that wasn’t intended to be a rocky hill or cliff face was to be decorated with grey sand or Icelandic moss to create a recognizable biome.

The rocky textures were perfect for tying the assets in to the sand and moss textures and provided a great blend between the 3D and 2D.

I quickly discovered that by lining the terrain drops with cliff assets, the ground textures filled up the empty space nicely. I also opted early on to only paint foliage assets in the foreground, relying on the landscape textures for the rest of it.

It wasn’t feasible to cover the background the same way I had approached the foreground and midground. That’s what led to the introduction of the exponential height fog, something I would constantly adjust throughout the project to find the right balance for. 

The cliff to the left of the frame would end up being my second idea, for leading the eye downward toward the superstructure. In later screenshots, it's worth noticing how much it was raised up, along with a second larger mountain appearing behind it, to prevent the eye wandering out of the scene’s frame. 

I would later employ a second smaller mountain to the right of the frame, to achieve a similar outcome from the opposite direction. This is how I subtly intended to frame the superstructure through the use of the environment. 

Everything was intended to lead toward the superstructure; by sloping downward toward it, or leading directly to it. I designed the environment with this in mind throughout. This is also what dictated the position and scale of the landscape assets, starting large and gradually decreasing in size as it led toward the intended superstructure’s location. 

Modeling Assets

My modeling process was achieved through Autodesk Maya, and everything was intended to be utilitarian. The aesthetic I was trying to achieve would be derived from old warship bridges, with a focus on illustrating blocky industrial silhouettes. 

The first main asset I approached was the hydro-plant control towers.

I began with the silhouettes resembling something of a control bridge, similar to the references shown earlier. Once happy with the overall shape, I moved away from large details to medium details; vents, smaller pipes, storage, balconies, and heavy doors.

Here antennas have been used to accomplish the ‘control tower’ aesthetic, giving the idea of active communication instruments, whilst also breaking up the otherwise predominantly square silhouette. I would rely on the textures and normal maps to achieve the smaller details. The faked complexity of the model would be dependant on this and the emissive maps which I would later use.  

The other main assets which made the pipeworks were approached in a somewhat similar way, relying on large industrial silhouette shapes initially. Rather than install many medium details, I instead relied upon the catwalks to sell the scale of the assets. Once again, the normal and emissive maps would create the illusion of the in-depth details. 

In the instance of modeling the pipeworks, the catwalks were instrumental in portraying a sense of scale, along with providing a visual connection back to the control towers. These simple assets also created a degree of navigational sense, for how engineers might attend the large industry works.  

The catwalks and platforms also provided mechanical immersion for stabilizing these structures on an otherwise wild landscape. Considering the bigger picture of the hydro-plants mechanics, went a long way toward helping establish an appropriate scale. 

A successful pattern emerged from the modeling process:

  1. Silhouette & block modeling
  2. Medium detail modeling 

 

Following this 2 step process, whilst staying clear of unnecessary micro-details, helped accelerate the modeling process toward getting the blockouts in the scene. I could now focus on texturing. 

Texturing

I decided that the colors I would utilize for my textures should be bright and strong contrasts. Anything that would help separate the man-made objects from nature. Bright colors, whites, oranges, light blues, and reflective metals. 

Taking advantage of several awesome sci-fi materials available on textures.com that matched my color selections, I got to work in finding harmony in my project. I would move on to add a good deal of grunge to each material in Photoshop, to make it look like it had been exposed to the elements of the scene. 

I usually rely on either Photoshop or Substance Painter for the bulk of my texture work, but these existing materials provided the outcome I was looking for. I just needed to adjust them to fit the purpose. I adjusted UV islands to correctly fit a sensible location and scale on the texture trim sheets.

This is also what helped tie the hydro-plant together, sharing a similar color scheme and recognizable smaller working parts. An effort was being made to suggest that these structures had been made from the same construction materials.

I positioned the pipeworks to lead directly to the location of the superstructure, and now the time had come to get to the real hero object of the scene. I initially contemplated approaching the superstructure like I had the foreground assets. 

Then, searching on the internet for sci-fi silhouettes, an idea struck me - not to model the superstructure painstakingly from the ground up. Instead, I would take an existing silhouette and turn it into an implied 3D object.

A collection of shapes from ‘angelitoon’ on DeviantArt provided the perfect shape for what I had envisioned.

From this shape, I was able to create the illusion of a 3D object in the distance through a normal map and add the illusion of depth and complexity by means of an emissive output. The idea of lots of little glowing lights in the distance helped sell the idea of this gargantuan structure filled with activity. 

The scale had to be the largest and most dominating feature about it, so after placing it on a simple plane; I proceeded to flood the framed zone with the superstructure.

Finally, employing bright emission maps, an effort was made to guide the player’s eye through the environment - leading up to that all-important superstructure. I also re-used several of the pipe assets to populate the scene’s background further, opening the environment up for further exploration (and better screenshots with more angles)! 

Use of Photoscans

Although I’ve already gone through the utilization of Megascans in this scene, I feel that it's worth denoting my opinion of photoscans. I think that as long as 3D scans don’t act as a replacement for the art in a project, but rather complement its purpose - there’s no reason to not use them; especially ones that are trying to capture large environments!

Going forward with future projects, I will always consider the use of photoscans - but it must be right for that project. I have no doubt I will need to model and texture assets that simply don’t exist, and therefore cannot be scanned. In this instance, they were exactly what I needed to combat an otherwise huge task, in a lot less time!

Lighting

Achieving dramatic lighting in an outdoors environment, whilst ensuring there was enough light to see everything was a big challenge. I started with just one directional light and decided that I would position it into a late time of day. This dusk setting allowed for long dramatic shadows but made it difficult to show a lot of the foreground properly.

I settled early on with the idea of a dusk time-frame, as I wanted to accomplish as much of a striking scene as possible. I certainly didn’t have the perfect lighting set-up from the start, but having that initial start point did help me think of how to improve the scene’s light as I went along. 

Indirect lighting was faked by bringing in a second directional light at a very low intensity from the opposite direction. I also positioned several point lights around the control towers, with a glow that matched the relevant emissive outputs. 

I also wanted to cast subtle godrays across the environment, which would cascade through the plants and pipes when the camera panned across them. The settings for the main directional light are seen here:

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The second directional lights settings were exactly the same, just a 0.5 lux on intensity. Meanwhile, the point lights provided a slight glow to areas that were otherwise too dark are seen here:

Finally, to achieve a sky where the color pallet is seen to be mixing; I used the atmospheric fog in conjunction with the sky sphere. Where the low set directional light was linked to the sky sphere, causing a red sky, the atmospheric fog sunlight color was set to a very light blue. 

This gave the impression of a day giving way to dusk, here are the atmospheric fog settings with examples of it off and on.

Camera Actor

Finally, a camera actor was placed in the scene with a wide angle. There was so much going on in one shot, and a wide angle was definitely the best way to show this off. I added an HDR LUT at the value of 0.3 to dramatize the scenes colors just a touch and got to taking screenshots and video footage. 

I played with the lens settings to achieve some focus shots, but for the most part; a wide angle did the job. Moving forward to future scenes, I think I would feel more of a sense of accomplishment in creating my own materials from scratch, but in terms of composition and speed, I am happy with how an otherwise relatively simple workflow achieved a visually complex outcome. 

James Scanlon, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Camera Actor

Finally, a camera actor was placed in the scene with a wide angle. There was so much going on in one shot, and a wide angle was definitely the best way to show this off. I added an HDR LUT at the value of 0.3 to dramatize the scenes colors just a touch and got to taking screenshots and video footage. 

I played with the lens settings to achieve some focus shots, but for the most part; a wide angle did the job. Moving forward to future scenes, I think I would feel more of a sense of accomplishment in creating my own materials from scratch, but in terms of composition and speed, I am happy with how an otherwise relatively simple workflow achieved a visually complex outcome. 

James Scanlon, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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