Vial Rouat shared a step-by-step overview of his atmospheric modular environment showing how he set up different intricate ornaments and pieces.
Many thanks to 80 Level for granting me this interview. I am really happy because as a junior artist it is great to receive some recognition for the quality which I try to put into my work.
In what follows you will discover what my workflow was in this scene of the “Passage des Princes”, but I will not go into every technical detail. The online resources are amazing, easily accessible and there are artists who have already done really good tutorials and courses when it comes to explaining techniques. I will mention them whenever needed.
All over the world, we are often all behind our computers but when I read articles here and there, what interests me in addition to workflows, is the ability to discover who the person behind this or that project is.
That being said, my name is Vial Rouat, I was born in Brittany, but grew up on the French west coast in the Basque Country. I am now 39 years old and I live in the beautiful city of Annecy in the French Alps.
I got my first computer when I was 11, a 386 as I recall. Passionate about video games from an early age, I grew up with titles like Prince of Persia, LucasArts games like Day of The Tentacle or Sam and Max. My interest in 3D in video games started really early with pre-rendered 3D games like Myst or my favorite game at the time, Lost Eden from Cryo Interactive studio (whoever knows this title, write to me!). Then with real-time 3D, I played a lot on Duke Nukem, Half-Life, or the Unreal game series. Already at that early age, I liked to dream about much more realistic games, and I am glad to see the fantastic evolution the game industry has gone through since then.
One day in a press magazine I had the chance to get my hands on the Imagine 3D software from the company Impulse Inc. which was provided on CD. I had so much fun creating objects with spheres and cylinders. It was very complicated and not very intuitive, but the interest in 3D was there and I knew I wanted to become a game artist. I quickly became interested in 3ds Max (R2 at the time) and became self-taught. A few years later, after business studies which barely interested me, I went to Bordeaux where I was trained for 2 years in an art and computer graphics school, EDAAG. Unfortunately for my parents who paid a lot for my dreams to succeed, the school closed after a few legal setbacks and I didn’t graduate from the 3rd year. Anyway, I continued teaching myself, and I enrolled in many projects including the Minas Tirith collaborative project on CG Society.
I also continued to build my portfolio. In 2004 I went to Paris and I was hired as a 3D artist intern at Kando Games. I was modeling fighter planes and various props for a game that didn’t find a publisher on the French franchise "Les chevaliers du Ciel". The video game industry was not at its best for small start-ups at the time, and the salary offered at the end of my internship was insufficient to allow me to live in Paris. I left the small team that I liked and struggled to find a new job. Without financial assistance from my parents, I had to become a bus driver in Paris, I told myself it would only be for a while, and I kept working on my portfolio. Unfortunately, family events got to me. I had to put my passion on the back burner and take care of one of my parents for a few years. Consequently, I played less and because of my new family responsibilities, my interest in digital waned and vanished, at least that’s what I had convinced myself.
But I guess passion is passion. In 2015 I attended the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, and it reawakened my desire to create. The idea made its way and in 2018 I took things in hand again. It's incredible how things have evolved in a decade, and the fact that I had previously worked in this area helped me to grasp new software quickly. I updated my knowledge and started to work on a portfolio that I now hope can convince people of my skills!
I often thought that all this information was quite personal and that it was not professional to share but these are the facts of life and how could I explain my missing years away from the industry without being honest about the reasons...
It's a job where you learn all the time and that's true whether you went to a school or are self-taught. The community of artists around the world is very stimulating, helping each other out is important and there are many exchanges available to help improve skills.
Today I am still a bus driver and I really hope that I will find a job as a junior 3D prop artist, maybe even get started with some freelance activity very soon!
About The Environment
I really value the details and realism in my work. In my daily life and when I travel, I love photography of landscapes, architecture, and abandoned places (I am particularly interested in urbex). In 3D I love props a lot, I love the story an object can tell. Working with materials is also a real pleasure for me, but I also find it fascinating how space can have the ability to immerse its spectator.
In this project I wanted to tackle various subjects such as trim sheets, modular environment, vegetation and especially taking my first steps in Unreal Engine which I didn't know before. Everything that makes up the environment was created from scratch; it was my goal not to use any outside resources like Megascans or the Unreal Marketplace assets. It meant more work and time but the pleasure of getting out of one's comfort zone on many aspects and improving my skills was exciting.
I nevertheless knew I was limited by time. To have a full-time job and make a portfolio grow on the side doesn't always make it easy to focus on a unique project and complete it in your spare time. This is a piece of advice that I would give to any new artist, we all want to do incredible things but don't throw yourself into a too ambitious project you know you are unlikely to complete due to lack of time or motivation. Rather choose to work on something smaller but of quality that you know you are able to get done. So, I looked for ideas on a rather closed environment that would allow me to tackle the above-mentioned topics in a reasonable amount of time.
I lived in Paris for a few years. It is a beautiful city full of surprising architecture sets and I always loved its galleries. In my research, I came across this lamp from the Passage des Princes. Liking that prop as well as the history of this place, my choice was made!
The place is from 1860, but it was destroyed in 1985, for a real estate operation (what an idea!) then rebuilt identically in 1995. Considered as the temple of games, this covered passage shelters many stores dedicated to toys, model making, and video games. It's the perfect place to be!
Creating the whole vitrines would have been a real challenge but as said before I wanted to limit myself. The COVID 19 outbreak came in March, so I kind of used it to bring a little storytelling to the scene. I imagined that the shopkeepers barricaded their windows to avoid looting during the lockdown. In my scenario, which was more catastrophic than reality, thankfully, the gallery never reopened, and nature began to settle in and take over...
On the walls and boards, you will find some references to the first wave of the pandemic.
Written in French is the text "stay at home", and posters from the French Ministry of Health on the barriers suggest gestures to adopt. There is also a reference to childhood and the name of this passage with the presence of the Little Prince of Saint-Exupéry below the clock.
This project would thus allow me to work on the modeling of modular elements, props, sculpture in ZBrush, vegetation, and then composition and lighting in Unreal Engine. On the software side, I had the opportunity to learn Maya which I now appreciate so much because of its logic but I switched to using 3ds Max for this environment as it remains a standard in the video game industry.
More than the texturing techniques relative to software I think it is important to develop one’s eye. Observing how a material behaves in reality truly helps when it comes to realism in texturing. Without this, having good references is always crucial not to be misled by one's own interpretation of a material, and this is also true for an environment. So I started by looking for some references. Many were added later.
Modular Kit Assets and Props
I had no actual information on the size of the place, so I took the average human size as a reference on a photo, which allowed me to approximately determine the height of the walls and the width of the aisle to have good references for the next steps.
The modular elements remain simple and I kept easy sizes for each object which would allow me to set them quickly in the engine. The showcase windows are declined in 3 other elements to bring variety by adapting the glass texture according to whether some glass was broken or not.
I had already modelled the lamp before starting the scene (I couldn't resist making this prop before the rest) but I knew from the beginning that I would not create the gallery as a whole. In particular, there is another very interesting corridor, but I limited myself to this aisle alone. I defined a first version of the glass structure texture in order to get a first glimpse of the gallery and to set the scales of the scene directly in Unreal Engine.
The result seemed quite convincing to me, so I felt like laying the base of the other textures directly on the full aisle. I will speak about their creation next, but this allowed me to ensure the basis of the environment and have a good vision of the places that I would have to work on more than others.
As I said before, the first asset I made in the environment was the lamp . I started by gathering reference pictures and quickly modeled the volume in 3ds Max. Only the arm and the wall stand are sculpted in Zbrush, other parts are set as high poly directly in 3ds Max. My favorite tools in ZBrush are the move, dam brush. I also like H-polish, clay, and dynamic trim. In short, I don't do originality, I think these are the most frequently used tools by artists out there!
ZBrush is a great tool and every time I use it I find it almost relaxing. Once I had the desired shape, I went into detail to get chiseling that would allow me to have more interesting baking maps. The metal parts that support the globe could have been projected on flat surfaces to save polygons, but I wanted to have detailed close-ups.
After I had the retopology and UV unfolding done I could then move on to baking and texturing. The export texture is a 512x512 PBR map. It wasn’t necessary to go higher because of the size of the object in the scene. Even in close-up, this definition is fully sufficient for this asset.
As for the props, here are those which are in the final scene, including vegetation. Most of them will have taken me much less time than the lamp, because of their lower visibility I would not have pushed the work of textures and details too far. However, I tried to keep a certain coherence with the place. The work fence takes up the typical color of Parisian street elements (green and grey) and the small green sign is an asset that the toy sellers of this gallery put on the hallway.
Substance Painter makes working with textures very interesting, When I started 3D at the beginning of 2000 it wasn't the same amount of fun as it is now. There was only Photoshop and the PBR rendering was still in its theory stage. I was relieved when I started again in 2018 to see that these creation steps would be way much easier and fun with such powerful software. I didn’t use them on this project, but I was recently able to make use of anchors as well. I can't wait to push the work on textures even further on a new project!
On this one, I tried to keep the texel density close to 5,12. Maps are then exported as packed textures to Unreal Engine.
In this environment, the metal ornaments holding the glass structure over the aisle were made as vectorized parts in photoshop and then exported to ZBrush. To keep the scales of each part in Photoshop I imported a front view of the metal frame (circular part) that I had previously modeled and used it as a reference layer to draw the vector shapes above. I found this way of doing it to be fast and accurate.
Then with ZBrush, after a slight subdivision of a plane, I used the alpha previously created as a displacement map on the surface. Defining two polygroups from a mask I was able to extract the background (delete hidden) and keep the metal framework only. This process was quite fast and I sculpted, quickly refined these parts to get the desired shapes before exporting them to 3ds Max.
I’m actually just creating a trim sheet whilst keeping the scale of each element and using the remaining space to fill with the glass material by arranging the assets on a square plane that will be my Low Poly projection mesh.
The different parts are then exported as FBX files and baked in Substance Designer to extract normal, curvature, AO, and opacity maps and then imported in Substance Painter for further texturing. The resulting 1K map is projected as a double-sided material on planes on the canopy asset and used on 2 different IDs. One is a masked shader for the metallic parts, and the other in translucent blend mode for the glass. This is done to keep the dynamic shadows of the metal parts and allow the light to pass through to the transparent surfaces. I also simulated debris on the other side of the tiles by working on the albedo color and opacity of the glass material. The distance from the ground isn’t making any difference with modeled ornaments and this obviously saved thousands of tris once duplicated in the scene.
Apart from the clock which was created separately with a specific texture and carved ornaments in Zbrush, the walls share a unique 1K trim sheet texture.
I watched Tim Simpson's Polygon Academy Youtube series on Trim Sheets setting (starting with "Planning & Creating Trim Sheets for Games - Trim Texture Tutorial Part 1"), and I can highly recommend it if you wish to find out more about this process.
I spent most of the time modelling the mouldings in 3ds Max for the egg-and-dart and exported the whole thing in high poly to bake in Substance Painter. The result is quite convincing, in hindsight I think I will now try an approach directly in Substance Designer, which would give more flexibility to work back on an element if needed. An experiment for the future!
About the clock, there are carvings around the dial. Then I quickly set the scale of the door and the clock in 3ds Max and exported these elements to ZBrush to carve what needed to be carved.
When retopology was done I created a new texture set because this part is made of molded plaster and differs from those used on the walls. But I used the mouldings I made for the walls again on that texture set and unfolded uvs around the dial clock to straight shapes in order to match with the molding trims. In real life, the ornaments surrounding the dial are different from the wooden moldings of the gallery, but it was a good way to save time on details that will not really be that visible.
About the floor tiles I made two textures under Substance Designer directly, one for the wall sides and the other one for the 45° tiles in the middle. I created the patterns in Photoshop and used them as source maps in Designer. I am not an advanced user of Designer but with some logical steps and organization I found this software amazing as it allows you to quickly create tileable and believable PBR materials.
Materials are then projected onto a ground mesh where each polygon takes the UV space of the texture. The texture of the tiles on sides is declined in two different maps with the use of vertex paint in Unreal Engine to bring a little variety. One is more or less clean and the other has moss on the tile seals which gives more consistency when associated with puddles, soil decals or vegetation.
Let’s Bring Some Green!
Before I create the vegetation, I looked for some reference information and pictures to learn more about the kind of plants that naturally grow in abandoned places. I liked to follow Karen Stanley's process but Peyton Varney's is also great. For the ivy’s I read the breakdown of Vytautas Katarzis on his Seaside Town project, at least for the parts under 3ds max because I then made the texture in SD. I like the tutorials and project breakdowns that I can find for the knowledge they bring, and it is always great to learn new ways to do things, but I find it especially interesting to adapt this knowledge to my needs afterward rather than simply copying and pasting a process.
Then I sculpted a few leaves under Zbrush (1) using reference pictures. In 3ds Max (2) I made some branches with thin cylinders subdivided enough to use with a noise modifier (method explained by Vytautas). On a plane divided into 5 parts that I used as a reference, I put the branches and leaves in place to give variety and naturalness to the whole thing whilst ensuring that each part of my trim sheet wasn’t overlapping onto another. To distribute the leaves on the branches I used the Paint Object tool from 3ds Max. The remaining space at the bottom left allowed me to create small groups of sheets that would bring variety to the final mesh. I assigned a different color ID to the leaves and branches and exported the whole mesh to Designer to get the baked maps needed to create the texture (3). (The graph here is the counterexample of what to do I think ;) I didn't assign any areas to my graphs and one can quickly mess with the graph and lose time without it. Not to be repeated in my next projects!). Then I get a trim sheet texture (4) that I can now use in 3ds Max again to create the mesh that will be exported to Unreal (5).
The same process is used for ferns, dandelions, and grass. I also declined two leaves in the same way to have two small textures to use on the ground with the Unreal foliage tool. Having these assets done allowed me to have a sufficient variety of vegetation in the scene.
Composition and Lighting
I didn't know Unreal Engine at all, but this project definitely allowed me to experiment with many aspects of the engine. Changing settings and seeing their effects in real-time was great! I spent a lot of time tweaking and I must admit part of me actually loved it. The online documentation is also very exhaustive, and I found it really helpful.
Generally speaking, in Unreal or elsewhere the basic materials and lighting can sometimes be misleading, so I like to use neutral surfaces like white and black lookdev spheres that I place in the scene to see how the shadows and lights behave. At this stage, I also felt it was important to get some outside feedback on my work. I exchanged with some members of the Dinusty Empire platform on Discord and I still want to thank them for the different comments they made to help me improve this environment. It is important to know if you are going in the right direction and not to just trust your own eyes too much.
For god rays, I used the Exponential Height Fog combined with several single spots placed on some broken parts of the glass roof. These have a Volumetric Scattering Density parameter that I set higher than the main source to simulate light rays going through glass holes that are not restrained by the glass opacity.
The hardest thing was to have half indoor and outdoor lighting with the sun as the main source, I juggled a lot between the intensity of the directional light and the influence of the skylight until I got something that suited me. I wanted a warm tone, so I was interested in the tilt of the late afternoon sun. I added a fill light behind the camera to introduce a little blue in the shadows, added indirect light values on the sun and spots here and there to enhance dark areas around the clock in particular. And I used planar reflections for the floor and wall reflection.
I like to stay light on post-process effects, I used a bloom on the highlights, a slight chromatic aberration of 0.75. That kind of lens effect I dislike in photography somehow brings an interesting aspect in 3D, but I think one should not really notice it. There is also a slight grain as well as a dirt mask on the camera.
As far as composition, I imagine that even if I remain an amateur, loving photography helps a bit. I look for interesting angles while respecting the rule of thirds. The big advantage in 3D is to be able to add or move a subject when needed. I didn't want to overload the scene with vegetation and too many props though, the goal was to be able to also see the modular environment behind it!
Lastly, I enjoyed using decals to break up the repetition of modular assets and bring various effects to the floor as well. I made several decals under Painter including puddles, wall damage, etc... I used the textures.com website a lot and most of the time the free downloadable sources in their lower resolutions are more than enough for decals used. I also made a small edge decal under ZBrush to break the angular side effect of the columns. I could then reuse and add more edges to this last texture in my future projects.
Looking at this environment 7 months later I think that there is a lot I could improve, but I ended up being quite satisfied with this one and it taught me a lot of things. It also gave me great satisfaction being able to create all the assets in it and I found it very rewarding. I don't think I will approach things the same way next time though.
Next would be to learn more about Designer maybe, but I definitely want to try a new environment, maybe in Unity to learn more about this engine which I recently discovered. I then hope I can push things even further. But for now, I still want to work on a new prop, something more like a hard surface asset maybe.
Thank you for reading this article, I hope it gives you a little insight into the way I work and that you’ve learned a little bit more about me. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to contact me via Twitter or Artstation!
And thanks again to 80lvl it was a pleasure to write this article! I also want to thank the artists from the Dinusty Empire again as well as Joseph Hobbs who always provided me with really good advice on this project.