The amazing artist Ellen Shelley showed how she created her autumn fantasy environment with Unreal Engine 4.
My name is Ellen Shelley, I’m a UK based 3D Environment Artist for the games industry. I started off as a VR Developer for an architectural practice in Brighton. My role was implementing VR technology and developing levels of the practice’s work inside Unreal Engine 4. VR at the time was incredibly new, especially for the construction industry outside of London. I self-taught myself a lot of the technology, as well as game development pipelines due to showcasing the practice’s work inside Unreal. Being absorbed in my training and having a big love of fantasy and video games, outside of work I created large emotive levels to practice. It was this that landed me my first official position in the games industry as a 3D Environment Artist for Little Wolf Studio.
Being very much into colour, I wanted a level to vibrantly contrast against my other cooler-toned projects. Having in mind a warmer, brighter level, I chose to base one around seasonal change and autumnal lighting. I think October coming around certainly helped in getting the project out of my head and into Unreal! So what I wanted to achieve was definitely a level that radiated warmth and life; using a lot of vegetation and foliage to showcase this. Being a fantasy fan, producing a fully realistic nature scene wasn’t the end goal. I wanted something unusual that symbolised the passing of time like the seasons. It’s this that led to the inclusion of a dragon skull and bones.
In many cases I already have a basic idea for a level in mind which comes from working on a previous one. I strengthen this idea by looking at a range of real-world references. From these references (such as the swamp) I set up a main view camera and block out the level in Unreal. In terms of the lighting, I always knew I wanted to produce a level based around heavy autumnal colours and tones. So after the block out I started playing around with basic tonal post-processing and point lights to get a feel for things. Working out the direction of the sun was an important starting step. It determines the basic placement and intensity of the point lights, serving as a strong base for when it comes to finalising the scene. From the offset I also needed to work out what time of day the project would be set in. I decided to go with late evening as this time naturally produces lots of pinks and oranges.
Choosing real-world swamp images as my main point of reference, the level was naturally going to be very flat. This presented a challenge as I didn’t want the level to be aesthetically so. To tackle this I set about creating a variety of interesting textures and 3D assets to break things up. The main 3D assets, such as the dragon skull and bones, were modeled in Maya and then taken into Substance Painter for texturing. Stand alone textures, such as the lily pad pond, were made using Substance Designer and then exported into Unreal via the Algorithmic plugin. When it comes to foliage, I reuse a lot of trees and grass from previous projects – altering the textures and colours inside Photoshop and Unreal to achieve a unique result. In regards to the water I actually made a complex water material to start. Unfortunately the result was lost against the flat terrain and wasn’t creating the desired effect. I actually ended up using a basic plane with simple metallic material applied – placing a planar reflection with high intensity over the top. This achieved noticeable reflections that were blended in by overlaying simple leaf meshes and decals made inside Maya and Photoshop.
Lighting is one of my favourite steps in a project’s development. It’s a powerful process that can bring all the components of a level together and make a vision what it intended to be. As previously mentioned I often start my levels with a colour scheme in mind, slowly building it up with point lights and a main indirect lighting colour. One of the big elements that drove the overall lighting of the level was a HDRI sky texture. This, plugged into the Post Processing Ambient Cubemap, gave a more accurate diffuse colour and surface reflection. It was also made into a material shader in Unreal for the sky dome itself. To give the HDRI additional orange tones it was edited in Photoshop, then brought back into Unreal to create a more vivid result. One of the end stages was to blend the prominent sky dome into the flat level so as to blend the horizon seamlessly. To achieve this I simply added Atmospheric Fog and adjusted the colour to match the base of the HDRI – being careful with intensity so as to not dampen the prominent HDRI sunlight.
The final stages of my project creation often involve looking and evaluating parts of a level that are “missing something”. Usually it’s easiest to see this when approaching the end stages. For example, even though I was happy with the HDRI lighting effect of the main sky it was looking too natural for a fantasy scene. I tackled this by adding in some additional clouds and stars. These were made inside Photoshop – utilising the RGB channels of a 2K blank square. Creating the main clouds using custom brushes in R, stars in G and smaller detail clouds in B. This texture was then hooked up inside Unreal’s material editor, creating emissive and transparent node networks to create the final material. A secondary dome was then brought in over the main HDRI sky, and the detail sky material was then applied. I added a secondary dome as I wanted to rotate the clouds to frame the scene without altering the direction of the HDRI sunlight.
Post Processing is either a forgotten or overly used element in a project’s development. It’s scarily easy to ruin a scene by cranking up a Post Processing section such as Lens Flair or Bloom. The key to nice Post Processing is to only incorporate bits that actually add something to the scene and find a balance with the sections you do use. For example, I knew I really wanted some nice bright sunlight coming through, but I didn’t want it to completely dominate the scene. So in order to dampen it down whilst keeping a noticeable effect, I used a Dirt Mask and custom Bokeh Shape – finding a nice middle ground with the intensity.
If I combined all the sporadic days and hours together the project took roughly two weeks (the most amount of time being spent on modelling and texturing the dragon skull). I actually over-did the moss texturing the first time round, as it’s not always productive to work on a project at 4am! But once the main hero asset was done, finalising the level didn’t take too long. I already had a lot of the assets from previous projects and the scenery was halfway complete by the time the skull was finalised.
Making a game level can be a challenging but also very rewarding process. I often push myself hard to achieve a vision so prominent in my mind. However, there are times (like many artists) where doubt creeps in, especially when you’re working on personal projects alone. So when I received all the positive feedback for my work, it made all the challenges worth it! Also reminding me, even if a level doesn’t end up how I intended, it can always be turned into something beautiful.