Branimira Yordanova talked about her scene Rainy Day made with UE4, 3ds Max, and Substance Painter: pre-production, texturing, lighting & character production.
I’m Bran, from a small town on the coast of the Black Sea in Bulgaria. After getting my degree in 3D Animation and visualization from Glasgow Caledonian University I found myself as part of the studio team at Axis Animation, where I’m currently working full time while going through lighting training to become an LRC artist. I am definitely still a newbie! I started university with absolutely no knowledge of 3D but thanks to my teachers and complete lack of sleep I was able to make a few projects I am proud of.
I didn’t know it at the time but coming to Glasgow and doing this course was exactly what I needed to do! It resulted in me spending 4 years in a dark lab, in front of a computer, with people just like me – it was perfect!
My goal is to become a lighting artist, so I wanted to make a piece with a focus on interesting lighting. Good lighting is what brings the whole scene together and is my favorite part of the pipeline, but waiting for renders is pure torture, so – Unreal Engine to the rescue! I’m quite new at using it so focusing on the basics was key (and the only thing I could do!) For me working simple is always better, I go for the easiest solution first and only complicate things if it doesn’t work.
I’ve been fascinated by Japan for years and anything related to the country immediately grabs my eye. I found the concept on Artstation and couldn’t stop staring at it! I had to make it.
A few things I wanted to learn and focus on while making this were: modeling from concept, achieving good night lighting, learning SpeedTree for vegetation, wet materials in UE4.
You know how people say ‘’two pairs of eyes are better than one?” Well, try 10! I was working on this project for 8 months and had a lot of help from some amazing artists along the way, from my artist friends to my university professor and, of course, my mentors and colleagues at Axis Animation. At this point, I wouldn’t consider this to be my project alone, as without their guidance these results would not have been possible.
In my first attempt, the overall mood of the scene was there but I strayed too far from the concept. The composition did not match and the models’ proportions were completely different.
Version 2 got me closer to the concept model-wise, but my lighting and materials were lacking.
Dark areas where detail is lost.
Pre-production matters! See, if I had blocked out the scene from the start maybe I wouldn’t have had to make it 3 times.
As per usual – start with reference images. A few quick Google searches and I found the original images used for the creation of the concept. I guess everyone uses Pinterest!
I made the main assets in 3ds Max. Then imported them to Unreal Engine and built my scene directly in there. I got great advice on how to match the concept as close as possible for my second version. What I did was to trace the original concept and put it as a guide in Unreal Engine in front of my camera.
That way I could position the scene and it also helped me match the proportion of the assets. I was going back and forth between 3ds Max and Unreal until everything matched.
To get the colors to match I would take a screenshot from Unreal and blur it. Then I’d do the same to the concept and see how the colors differed, adjust the hue, brightness, and contrast as needed.
I use 3ds Max to model everything. Sometimes if I am unsure of the exact proportions of an object, I will download a free model online and use it as a rough guide – which was what I did for the vending machine.
Most of my models are really simple, everything starts from a box! Edge modeling FTW. I’ll only ever use ZBrush and sculpting tools if I have a character in the scene.
Ivy and general vegetation were made using SpeedTree – plenty of tutorials online show how to use it.
I wasn’t worried about the performance in real-time but also tried to not go overboard with the polycount. Every mesh had as much or little detail as it was needed.
Lighting & Effects
Fake it, fake it, fake it!
I tried to breakdown the image and see what made it so great in the first place. You’ve got this dark blue environment with the warm orange-yellow light coming from the shop, keeping the focus on that area alone. You can see some of my mistakes in a quite early version of lighting here – the light coming from the shop is spilling out everywhere, brightening the entire shop, instead of keeping it concentrated on the entrance alone.
The scene is entirely lit for this specific shot. I wasn’t worried about the lighting looking perfect from other angles as I would not have any other cameras in the scene.
Some other mistakes I had were to have too many lights only lighting the characters and nothing else. You get a lot of inconsistencies that way. Light channels are great but they can quickly turn into a pain to deal with!
Because I needed a strong warm light confined only to specific spots, I used smaller but stronger lights clustered together – inside the shop and the vending machine, for example.
In the final version of the project, I started by working on the lights inside the shop only. Once that looked right I moved on to the main light source – 1 directional light. I also added my post-process volume at this stage.
Then I added smaller spotlights and rectangular lights where they were needed.
A problem I faced right away was that everything looked way too dark, but if I added more lights I lost the night feel.
Something I learned from the Unreal Lighting Academy was to turn the saturation on my texture maps way down and brightness up. If I had my textures with the same saturation as they were in Substance Painter, the models would look way too dark inside the engine.
If you go to the base color (the diffuse), you want all your textures to be fairly desaturated. The highlights, shadows, contrast all come later from the lighting and post-processing. Of course, this solution will not necessarily work for every scene but it worked for me.
The post-process volume plays a huge role in the final look! I used it to brighten up my darkest areas, add depth of field, bloom and all the nice things that really put the finishing touched on the image.
It wasn’t all just about the lighting. The rain and fog play a huge part in getting the right atmosphere. The effects I used were from free scene files from the Unreal Market place. As my focus was on lighting, I wouldn’t spend hours on an effect when it’s not what I want to do.
Unreal provides amazing free scene files. Take them, dissect them, use them! Open them up and play around, check out the materials, break everything and put it back together – the best way to learn.
Here’s a list of nice free tutorials for beginner lighters:
I definitely struggle with human characters. For the girl, I used MakeHuman to get a good base mesh, which I took to ZBrush and fixed up as much as I could with the help a friend, Kristina Tsenova. She’s an amazing character artist and unlike me, has an eye for human characters!
The robot was a little more up my alley. I modeled little mecha Totoro in 3ds Max going back and forth until it had the right proportions. Same pipeline as all my other assets – 3ds Max, Substance, Unreal Engine.
Another mistake I later corrected was having the robot be built for animation.
In my attempt to make it functional I deviated from the original concept, and that would have been fine if the character needed to be animated but this was not the goal. In the final version, you can see how the robot is built ‘’wrong’’ but is actually ‘’right’’ in the end as it follows the concept more closely.
I did all of my texturing in Substance Painter as it does most of the grunt work for me. Again, going back to simple first – for most of my materials, I had a basic master material set up with just a few controls.
I had to get inventive with my wet materials as I had no idea how to add droplets on my assets in one material.
I’ll give the mailbox as an example:
I made a copy of the model, made it slightly larger – just enough so it would sit on top of the original model. Then I gave it a refractive and very reflective material with droplets on it. I added a mask for the areas I didn’t want to be wet like the undersides. And that’s it! Instant wet material!
The biggest challenge was getting the look I wanted with the limited knowledge of Unreal that I currently have or knowing how to make something pre-rendered and trying to figure out its real-time equivalent.
If nothing else, in the 5 years I’ve been doing 3D work I’ve learned that if you keep clicking long enough, eventually things will start working! My version of “keep working on it until you get it right”!
I’d like to thank 80 Level for the opportunity to write this article. Maybe it can give some hope to a newbie artist out there. I still have no idea what I am doing, but that’s not stopping me from making cool stuff!