Arthur Abeen prepared a breakdown of his Howl’s Moving Castle fanart scene discussing in detail blockout, asset modeling, texturing, lighting, and more.
My name is Arthur Abeen and I'm an Environment Artist from the Netherlands. I currently work in Bangkok, Thailand, at a small studio called Ringzero, where we do smaller simulator projects.
I started when I was 16, making small games in GameMaker, nothing too serious but it was fun. From GameMaker, I got into 3D modeling in 3ds Max, starting off with simple props and slowly getting into environment art in UDK and Unreal 4. I went to school at Breda University where I studied Visual Art and graduated in 2016.
Howl’s Moving Castle: Inspiration
I started Howl's Moving Castle around February. Netflix just released the studio Ghibli movies on Netflix and I started watching them again. I felt that I wanted to start another project, something relatively small and self-contained. I decided on recreating Howl's interior and specifically how the room looked at the beginning of the movie, very dirty and unkempt. Studio Ghibli is a master in creating very lived-in environments. Every shot of the room tells a story, like the scattered books and papers, the potions ingredients and pots on the floor, the giant pile of ash in the fireplace, and the sink full of dishes. Everything has a purpose of telling who lives here and what is his personality. For me, that is the biggest inspiration and something I always look for when creating environments.
First things first, reference. When starting any scene, I spend the first hour or so finding as much reference as I can. For Howl's room, I watched the movie first. After that, I went through the movie again and screenshotted every scene related to Howl's room. To organize all those images I use PureRef.
My PureRef starts off like this. And throughout the project, I keep adding different references I find for furniture, dishes, papers, books, and other things related to the scene. At the end of the process, my PureRef file is a mess of different images all related to the project.
I started Howl's room with a fast and simple blockout. I use boxes and simple geometry in Maya, relying on the screenshots from the movie. This is a crucial step in making sure that all your proportions are correct and match the reference.
Top view in Maya:
After that is finished, I import it into Unreal. I keep tweaking the Maya models and reimporting them in Unreal until I'm satisfied with how it looks. Keeping the models simple makes it much easier to tweak until you have the right proportions.
Perspective view in Unreal:
Once the initial blockout is finished and I am happy with the proportions, I can start modeling my assets. For the modeling in this project, I worked in 3 steps:
- First, my initial blockout, simple boxes. Generally, I only do this for the larger assets.
- Second, I take the boxes into Maya and create my secondary blockout. The secondary blockout is more detailed. I do this for most of the assets, like cabinets, books, dishes, pots, etc. This gives me the opportunity to see how all my assets fit together and I get to revise my proportions in relation to the other smaller assets. This step is probably the most time-consuming.
- Third, I take the secondary blockout and create my final game-ready models.
Example of the couch model:
Example of the Cabinet model:
Most of my assets are fairly straight forward. I use Maya, ZBrush, and Marvelous Designer for my assets.
Study the reference. I always try to think about how the asset is made in real life. So let's take this cabinet as an example I see a lot of beginners try to make the cabinet as if it was made out of one single, solid block of wood where the wood grain is all going in the same direction. That is not how it works in real life – in real life the cabinet would be made out of multiple planks.
Reference from the movie and photos from similar-looking wooden cabinets:
My modeling process I pretty straight forward. For most of my assets, I model high and low simultaneously and use ZBrush whenever I feel I need more detail in my high. Besides that, I use Marvelous Designer for all my cloth related assets.
The project ended up with around 150 different assets. The majority I modeled from scratch but I also used some Megascans to fill up some empty spaces.
Texturing is probably my favorite thing about creating environments. It is where I can put a lot of creativity in. I like to think about the story and the asset's place within the environment. For me, it is not about how good the individual asset looks but also how it looks with all the other assets in the scene.
I used Megascans and Quixel Mixer for this. My base layer is a very basic tileable, painted wall texture from Megascans. I try to avoid any unique or large details on my base layer because the tiling is going to be very noticeable otherwise. My secondary layer is the same but dirty. I use vertex painting to blend them together. My last layer is different decals to add unique details to the walls.
I like to keep my textures simple. I start with a very clean bake from my high-poly in Marmoset. I don't like to add too many micro details, like wood grain and scratches, in my high. I feel that it is easier for me to control those details in Substance Painter. Micro details tend to become noisy and distracting when applied too heavily. First the wood and after that the paint. I spend a lot of time on the mask to blend the two together.
I start the mask with the wood texture under the paint and after that the edges. The paint damage usually starts with the wood grain and the edges. After that, I add some small scratches and grunge. I really like the imperfections textures from Megascans for that. For the final touches, I add some dirt and grime using different smart masks in Substance and again utilizing the imperfections textures from Megascans.
Finally, I import my assets in Unreal 4. I make sure that all my values and colors work, that it's not too dark or too saturated. Throughout the process of building my scene and doing the lighting, I tweak my textures to make sure everything works. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter how your textures look in Substance Painter, it is all about how they look in the final scene in Unreal.
I was pretty confident with the scene assembly. I tried to be as faithful as possible to the source material created by Studio Ghibli. The walls, door, and windows were kept modular to easily assemble the room. For the set-dressing, I tried to imagine what Studio Ghibli's intention was for the space I needed to fill. Then, I slowly filled the room with all the different props I created. I used a physics-based mesh placement tool to speed up some areas like the sink with dishes and some bowls with food.
For this project, I wanted to learn more about physically-based lighting and using real-life sun and sky values and expose values. I did a lot of research on lighting for this project. Here is some more information on physically-based lighting that I can recommend.
- 51Daedalus's Unreal 4 Lighting Academy has some great information on overall lighting in Unreal 4:
I start my lighting with the sky and sun light. I wanted the sun and sky to be the main light sources in the scene and I wanted a lot of light bouncing around the scene from the sun. My sky is just a simple HDRI from HDRI Haven and for my sun I used 35000 LUX and color temperature of 8000. Once I am satisfied with my sun and sky, I start slowly adding other light sources. The second source I focus on is the Fireplace. Once I'm happy with that I add candles and gas lamps. My workflow is to slowly add new light sources to the scene and after that, I use some spot lights to add some extra light and specular information in my assets.
For my post-processing, I added more contrast in my scene, slightly desaturated it, and made it a little colder.
I started this project as a simple scene, but something I could perfect and learn from. It ended up much bigger than I expected. I think the most time-consuming part was the initial modeling. I was very focused on modeling everything I saw in my source material. I ended up with more than 150 different props. But I had a lot of fun with it and in the end, I really sped up my modeling and texturing workflows. I created a lot of smart materials in Substance Painter that really helped me a lot.