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Kahlil Reedy discussed the production process behind his latest UE4 project, giving tons of details on composition, meshes, foliage, lighting and post-production.
Hello There! My name is Kahlil Reedy I attended Maine College of Art and got my BFA in New Media. After school, I had to decide how I was going to make a living so I moved to New York City and started out working as a graphic designer. After a few years, I realized design wasn’t my passion, so I taught myself how to model and texture in Maya. I got my foot in the door at a small indie studio named Kuma Games. For two years, I worked hard and further honed my skills and portfolio. I eventually landed a job as an Environment Artist out in Seattle and decided to move west to pursue my love of video games. My first position in Seattle was at a company called 5th Cell, where I worked on the game Hybrid. I learned a lot about XBLA games, the industry itself, and workflow best practices. From there I went on to work as a Senior Environment Artist at Monolith on the latest Shadow of War game. At Monolith, I had the privilege of working with some of the best artists in the industry, as well as contributing to some amazingly epic environments. I’m currently Lead Environment Artist at Hidden Path Entertainment working on Brass Tactics. I knew when Oculus came onto the scene I wanted to work in Virtual Reality. I have now worked in the industry for over 10 years. It’s been very exciting!
The inspiration for the farmhouse scene was very personal for me. It’s a recreation of my childhood home back in Exeter, NH. The farmhouse has since been demolished. I knew I wanted to make this piece so that my family’s home could go on living in the digital world indefinitely. I recreated the scene almost entirely from memory. I did take some artistic license to get everything that was around the property into the final shot. I also took inspiration from the painter Andrew Wyeth, known best for his depiction of New England life. His sense of color and lighting helped me set the final aesthetic of the scene. I didn’t want this to feel like a photo realistic copy, too CG, or too rigid. Looking to more traditional art forms as well as working from memories is a great way to make work that feels real.
The project started with gathering references and writing down all the specific elements I knew had to be in the scene. I work from largest to smallest. First I blocked out the layout of the farmhouse. Then I did a rough pass of prop and tree placement. Then I did a detail modeling pass to everything, modeling details like the shingles and siding. Next I started to get the lighting dialed in, time of day shadows angle and intensity. After that I did a simple material/texture pass. The small props were last to go in, the final bits of set dressing and adding that story telling element. Finally, came the post processing done in Photoshop and Lightroom. I chose to use Unreal Engine because I knew it would help me with the lighting. I did not want to mess around with Maya and Mental Ray. Being able to adjust lighting in real time made it quick for iteration. UE4 is also very artist friendly and it just works the way you expect it to. This is also where I leveraged my friend Rogelio Delgado‘s knowledge of UE4, I knew if I got stuck he could help me out. I had never had 100% control over a scene before and wanted to challenge myself to do it all.
The first thing I did was block out the scene and settle the locations of everything in place. To do this I used very simple geometry, nothing more than blocks, triangles, and cylinders. I modeled the house, small props, plants and leaves using Maya. I approached the model how you would build a house in real life. I first figured out the foundation shape and then built the walls to fit around the footprint. My modeling technique is straight forward. I mainly used Multi-Cut, Insert Edge Loop, and Extrude. I have these tools all set up as hot keys, I try to avoid using menus because that would break my workflow. I also use Ninja Dojo for unwrapping and organizing UVs. The suit is a real-time saver and the props themselves are quite simple, nothing is flushed out to stand on its own. Some of the items are not even fully unwrapped. This was never meant to be a playable space so if it wasn’t close to the camera it didn’t need much attention. To achieve a realistic old farmhouse, I made sure nothing on the house was straight. I would go into the assets I made and add some edge loops and free form break the perfect lines that are created in 3D. One of the things I enjoyed most about making this piece was creating all the little props that make the home feel lived in. At times, I was daunted by how many detail props I was going to have to make; but for every few I would make and cross off the list, more would pop into my head. Small assets that give life and character to the scene
Basic farmhouse model and layout
Small environmental detail assets
All the assets that make up the farmhouse
Farmhouse with modeled in detail of shingles, and siding
I made textures for the environment and house with Substance Designer. I used Quixel to texture small one off props that needed edge ware, I mainly used this for texturing the front stone steps. I used a Zbrush sculpt to generate the necessary maps to use in Quixel. I did not mix substance materials and Quixel materials together. I used them separately for the ease of different tasks. I used Substance Painter to make my grunge masks for the house and barn siding. I set up a Substance Painter scene with a red, green and blue fill layers, applied a black mask to all three and then added generators to the red and green layers to get the level of grunge I wanted. MG Dripping Rust and MG ground Dirt. I then used this texture as a simple RGB mask to blend between painted wood, chipped wood, and raw wood in UE4. I used Substance Designer to make the shingles, dirt, mulch, and grass lawn materials. I had some great input from Josh Lynch on getting the right look and read on the roughness of these textures. Making perfect materials wasn’t my goal, I was more concerned if they had the right feel and gave the right impression in the final camera angle.
Substance Painter layer set up Mask for siding made in Substance Painter
UE4 Material using RGB mask from Substance Painter
In this area, I wanted to try out Speedtree since I had never used it before. I got some great help and insight into making foliage in Speedtree from my friend Jobye Karmaker. I started by building the trunks and branches using Speedtree. I could get some cool effects in Speedtree, using the Forces. Using Forces, I could apply gravity and twist to the willow branches to give them distinctive form. After I was happy with the form of the tree it was time to add the leaves and flowers. To do this I created groups of leaves and or flowers inside of Maya. I used traditional foliage techniques of cards and leaf textures with a black and white mask in the alpha channel. I then imported these meshes and materials into Speedtree and used the properties>leaves menu to apply them to the branches. You can apply multiple meshes to the same tree and use Speedtree’s tools to arrange and disrupt them along the branches to your liking. Once I was done with a tree it was easy to make variations of it by just clicking the new random seed button. I even experimented with using the mesh forces ability to conform the ivy to the porch. Speedtree is a very powerful tool for making foliage.
Dandelion flower made in Maya
Willow and maple tree branches made in Maya using cards and alpha test materials
Breakdown of individual maple leaf cards
Willow tree before leaf meshes were applied
Willow tree with leaf meshes were applied
First I tried to get as much of the lighting right as I could in UE4. I took a quick screen grab and brought it into Photoshop to do some color grading. Once I was happy with the results I rendered out the scene with UE4 High Resolution Screen Shot. I set the screenshot size Multiplier to 4.0 and checked Include Buffer Visualization Targets and in game settings to Epic, to get render passes with the highest screen resolution. This ended up being an image size of 7396x 4160 pixels at 72 dpi. I also did several High Resolution Screen Shot captures with different amounts of ambient occlusion. I then brought everything into Photoshop and started compositing. This is where I made the scene really pop. By having the different render passes I could dial in the HDR, bloom, AO, shadows, highlights, depth of field, and contrast. I used simple Photoshop adjustment layers such as curves, levels, and hue and saturation. I could use the render passes as masks for the sky, foliage, and windows. I used the Z depth render by placing it into the alpha channel and using the photoshop Filter>Lens Blur. I did this two times, once to blur out the distance and once to blur out the foreground. By using these two masks I could make the farmhouse the focal point of the shot. Once I had done all the masking and tweaking of layers, I saved off a flatted version and imported it into Lightroom. In Lightroom I adjusted the exposure, temp, tint, shadows, and highlights of the image. Making something feel finished is time consuming and challenging. I started to take more breaks so I could come back and have fresh eyes on the scene. I also got lots of input here from my talented wife Laura Reedy who is a motion graphics designer, as well as from other professional friends, it’s important to show your work to other people because even the best artists can get lost in a piece and miss things.
Layer adjustments in photoshop
Depth, foliage, depth of field, lighting model, and transparency mask (right column top to bottom)
Several ambient occlusion passes rendered at different intensities and radius values (left column top to bottom)
I really love the contrast in the black and white image.
Kahlil Reedy, Lead Environment Artist at Hidden Path
Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev
Check out Kahlil’s free collection of 15 geometric tileable patterns for use in Substance Designer. These geometric patterns will definitely save you time.
What is more, the artist will be releasing a paid 150 texture pack soon, so stay tuned!