Project Bell: Working on Organic Assets and Foliage

Project Bell: Working on Organic Assets and Foliage

Jordon Britz shared some production details behind his UE4 environment Bell and vegetation for it in particular.

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Since our last interview, I've mostly been working on personal projects when I get home from work as of late, hopping in software I'm less familiar with and filling in those gaps. Lately, I've been getting more comfortable with Substance Designer and using it to make or procedurally texture foliage. Project-wise, I've been building my Bell environment after work and on weekends to put the skills I've been learning to the test.

Bell Project: Goals & Reference

With this environment, I decided I wanted to tackle something that would require me to use all of the stuff I've been learning lately. With that in mind, I went searching on ArtStation for a concept that I could translate into 3D while making it necessary to use a lot of ZBrush and Substance Designer to create it. I ended up choosing Hell Bell by Álvaro Calvo Escudero. I chose his concept because I fell in love with the composition and thought the scope wouldn't be too large to be able to finish in a timely manner. 

For the rest of my references, I created a Trello board so that I had a focused place to throw images, ideas, and references in and have them organized somewhere. While I didn't make or use everything in the Trello, it was still really important to have a place where I could compile thoughts and ideas.


The main structure was mostly made of a simple modkit of pieces that I created with the intent of putting them together. It was primarily built using Maya with sculpting damage and the usual wear and tear made in ZBrush. The texturing is a mix of Substance Painter and vert painting in UE4 to get the moss and a little bit of extra damage on it. The towers in the back were pretty much made like props, nothing fancy on that end.

Background Mountains

I created the mountains in the background in an old school way (no fancy World Machine, sorry guys!) by sculpting them in ZBrush with a few terrain brushes and then baking it down onto a low poly decimated version. For texturing, I went into Substance Painter and did most of it using smart masks and tweaking them until it looked natural from a distance. After that, I imported it to UE4, simply duplicated it a few times and rotated it around until I got the look I was going for! As for the snowy version of the mountains, all I did was change the base color and tweak the masks a slight bit to get what I wanted.

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When I started working on vegetation, I grabbed a lot of reference for the specific biome I was targeting so that I could always refer back to it when I began placing my foliage. I started with the grass to get a quick pass in UE4 when I began blocking things out to get the composition squared away.

For my foliage, I usually start with a quick blockout in Maya to get the base shape and then move to ZBrush to refine it and get something that resembles the plant I'm trying to create.

Once I get something I'm happy with I move to Marmoset to bake it down onto a plane. I choose Marmoset to bake my foliage specifically because of its ability to bake opacity, so it saves time by avoiding having to make one yourself. 

Once I'm done baking in Marmoset, I take the maps it produced and hop in Substance Designer. I use this software primarily to dial in everything. So we end up making our base color, make any of the additions to the normal map and/or the opacity map, (holes, subtle noise, etc.), dial in our roughness and anything else we'd need to get the final asset looking nice. Below, you can see some of the foliage in Substance Designer:

As you can see, at this stage it looked rough in Unreal, but that's to be expected considering how early I was in the development of the environment.

As I kept going, I decided it needed some more colors since it was looking super green, so I incorporated some poppies and daisies in there to break the scene up.

I created the cards for most of the foliage/vegetation the old way in Maya by putting them on a plane and tweaking until I got what I liked. However, I used SpeedTree to create all of the trees in the environment simply because of how quick the software is at pumping out high-quality game res trees. I've had limited exposure to SpeedTree in the past, but I found myself getting up and running in it pretty quickly.

I created the tree in the foreground using Mesh Forces in SpeedTree, which essentially just makes the tree or foliage in SpeedTree gravitate to a custom imported mesh.Using that method, it took no time at all to get a tree model that looked natural, like it had been growing alongside the structure for its entire life. For texting the hero tree, I put a tiling bark material on it in Painter, then imported it to UE4 and vert painted moss until it was looking natural. You can see a viewport shot of it in SpeedTree below:

Organic Assets

I'd say one of the more challenging parts about this project was getting used to sculpting organic stuff like rocks, or a decaying log. I haven't had much experience creating organic assets in the past, but I got used to it fairly quickly by hopping in ZBrush and just going at an asset until I got something I liked.

My workflow was similar to what I did with foliage. I'd create a blockout in Maya, throw it in ZBrush, sculpt out the high poly, and then bake it down in Substance Painter. Texturing-wise, I textured most of the rocks and organic assets in Painter. The normal map generated from the high poly from ZBrush would get us half of the way there already, so I really only had to make a good looking base color in Painter using smart masks, tiling other basic rock materials, and playing with opacity. After that, I'd import them to UE4 and get a bit of moss or whatever else on there by vert painting.

Below you can see some of the organic assets in UE4:


The lighting in this environment involved a lot of trial and error, but it didn't end up being anything too complicated. It's essentially directional light rotated to get the soft warm light on the edge of the grass, which made it feel super soft and warm. It also helped to light the front of the structure the way I wanted. Then I added in a skylight to make the environment a bit brighter and make everything feel a bit softer. Finally, I added a point light in front of the bell to get some good reflections coming from it. The lighting in this environment is entirely dynamic, which saves a lot of time by not forcing you to deal with lightmaps or baking, which can take a while for bigger environments.

For post-processing, I didn't do much except for tweaking a couple of values (gain, contrast, etc.) slightly to fully capture the feel and vibe I was going for. Below, you can see the final image with everything put together:


In conclusion, this environment took roughly a month from start to finish, considering the fact that I I worked on it during the weekends and after work. This environment was a LOT of fun to work on. I found myself wanting to add more and more as the production of it continued. This project helped me get far more comfortable with certain software and foliage creation in general. In the future, I definitely see myself working on more outdoor environments.

Jordon Britz, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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