Protege: Creating Environments in UE4 for Cinematics

Protege: Creating Environments in UE4 for Cinematics

Max Frorer, Steve Hong & Peyton Varney talked about their thesis Protégé created to demonstrate the students’ skills but turned out to be bigger than that.

Max Frorer, Steve Hong, and Peyton Varney talked about their thesis Protégé that was mainly created to demonstrate each of the students’ skills. The final cinematic trailer, however, not only showed what the artists are capable of but also displayed a huge fantasy world and captivating story that you want to continue.  


Max Frorer, Steve Hong, and Peyton Varney created their thesis, Protégé, at Ringling College of Art and Design. Their goal was simply to make an impactful experience through a cinematic demo that showcased each of their talents and interests as artists. They also wanted to take this rare opportunity to create a believable world and story from the ground up and still have control over the entire process. The final project was the culmination of over a year’s concerted planning, work, and collaboration.

The Project Goals

Our first objective was to decide upon an ambitious but doable story. Individually, we wanted to push our skills and talents, but we knew our time and resources had limitations. We knew our thesis was a rare opportunity to create an ambitious project and maintain control over every aspect of the production.  However, we knew we would be unable to showcase a fully-finished game experience. Defining scope, therefore, became our greatest challenge. We decided to keep the storyline simple and suggestive, leaving viewers wanting more. We wanted our readers to understand that our main character was a mechanical boy in search of his inventor, on a journey through an abandoned city.

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Once we concretely defined our story and universe, we divided up the work based on our areas of interest: Steven wanted to build a city so he could push his production speed for modeling, texturing, modularity and environment design. Max wanted to create a character and a sweeping vista, spending as much time on the intricate design process as possible. Peyton wanted to create a believable interior and exterior consistent with the storyline. Toward that end, he created the greenhouse and surrounding environment. We kept our areas separate to minimize conflict, however, we checked in with each other from time to time to make sure we all stayed on the same page.

None of us had a solid understanding of story structure before our project. A lot of the decisions we made on the narrative were based on instinct. We felt we had a very specific idea regarding which games and trailers resonated with us and why. All of us were heavily inspired by Journey, INSIDE and a few others that made us realize they all shared one thing in common: they told a story without dialogue. We wanted to tell our story through design. We underestimated, however, the challenge it would present for the three of us. For months, we failed to successfully communicate our individual ideas, but we refused to use voice-overs to make the story seem more cohesive.  We all believed that a voice-over cheapened the experience.

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First Steps

We started by looking at reference we felt would help build the Protégé universe. We then doodled on paper to see if we could come up with exciting ideas. Some major influences for our project were Dishonored 2, Bioshock Infinite, Horizon Zero Dawn, Duelist and the ‘Adam’ short that was made for Unity a few years ago. We knew our concept would evolve as we continued to work on it, and wanted to leave room for future ideas that could improve our end product. We iteratively began to work in both 2D and 3D by sketching and then blocking out.

At this point, we also sought to understand the player space, and how the mechanical boy would progress through each level.  We blocked out areas where we intended to add gameplay mechanics and puzzles. Once we had the blockout of the environments, we evaluated how efficient we could be, and how we could reuse our props and shaders. We created most assets with Autodesk Maya. We created the greenhouse vegetation with Zbrush and Substance Designer. Materials for all of the scenes were primarily made in Substance Designer, Painter, and Quixel Megascans. We implemented the use of tileable materials and trim sheets to optimize time and utility.

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Gameplay, Lighting & Cameras

We created our environments modularly and reused the materials when we could, which became useful in discussions about optimization and gameplay. All of the environments in the trailer are traversable and have unique gameplay elements to them.

Lighting is one of the most important parts of an environment. We wanted our world to feel alive and lived in, uplifting and hopeful. We looked a lot at Koooolalala’s lighting demos on YouTube and we wanted our universe to communicate a similar feeling.

Our universe’s sun was intended to transgress as the game moved along. Starting with the opening vista, (Max’s area), the sun reflected earlier parts of the day. As the character moved along, the sun transitioned to different angles, indicating the passage of time. We used Kelvin temperatures to accurately show the time of day. Lighting had a great impact on certain materials as well, such as the character’s wings.

Designing the wings was one of the more challenging tasks Max faced in the production of Protégé. He had to think about how they would look open as well as closed, and in that process figure out how they would transform back and forth between those two modes. He didn’t want the wings to magically poof open; they needed to feel functional, delicate and articulate – something that an actual inventor would have spent a great deal of time creating. The materials for the wings were extremely simple; it was a strong roughness and metallic map. What made them seem more than they were was the lighting and Unreal’s Cinematic camera.

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Camera work and editing of the trailer was one of the trickiest parts for us. Fortunately, Unreal’s Cinematic cameras are just incredible. They make the difference between showcasing a bunch of assembled models and an immersive cinematic moment. We spent a lot of time learning cinematography and we tried to push our trailer to feel like more than just a game trailer, but an experience. We played mostly with the depth of field and color with the cameras. The most important aspect was finding solid compositions. If you have that the rest falls into place.

To define our trailer, we paid keen attention to camera angles and general pacing. We storyboarded the trailer, sketching scenes on post-it notes that we stuck to the wall. This helped us keep an eye on the flow between each shot as well as see the whole picture. On the post-it notes, we defined which shots went where, and how much time we wanted to focus on each part. We used the cinemascope aspect ratio with our cameras to allow for the character to be visible in a wide shot of the environments. We wanted each shot or scene to give the viewer new information. By moving the camera angle and the objects within the camera’s focus, we were able to create a dynamic experience in which the viewer experienced the journey simultaneously with the character

Lessons Learned

Our friend, Carol Torres, gave us advice about collaborating and communicating effectively. “When you tell three people to imagine a red flower, and then ask them each to draw what they envision, you’ll be surprised to discover how very different each version can be,” she said. Universally, we found that to be true. We had several situations in which we verbally agreed on the same concept or idea but visualized it very differently. For example, there were many cases in which exciting features had to be cut because they were out of the scope of the project. We also had many disputes as to whether we should expand the narrative, or keep it tight and condensed. Our project was ambitious. The possibility of failure lurked around every corner. Stress became a real issue.

Fortunately for us, we had already been great friends before this project began. We respected each other as people and artists and worked hard to communicate effectively so that, when there was confusion or misunderstanding, we gave each other benefit of the doubt. It was extremely challenging to work on such an ambitious project in such a relatively short period of time, but we are gratified with what we learned during the process.  We are proud of our work.


If you have any further questions or would like to just keep up with what we are making now in the industry, feel free to reach out or follow us on ArtStation:

Max FrorerSteve Hong & Peyton Varney, 3D Artists

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Protege: Creating Environments in UE4 for Cinematics