Sci-Fi Environment Building: Light and Dark

3d artist Robin Tran did a breakdown of his most recent 3d environment. He talked a bit about the contrast, composition and other things that helped him shape this scene.

3d artist Robin Tran did a breakdown of his most recent 3d environment. He talked a bit about the contrast, composition and other things that helped him shape this scene.


Hello, my name is Robin Tran, I am a 2D/3D Game Artist from Sweden. I recently finished my second year at The Game Assembly as a Game Artist and very soon will start a new exciting journey as an intern at Massive Entertainment as a Concept Artist.

I was first introduced to the world of 3D when I started my studies as a Game Artist back in 2015. From my time studying as a Game Artist I developed a passion for 3D, more specifically 3D environment. Since I already love doing 2D environment concept it only felt natural to focus on that.

Inspiration & References

For this project I wanted to create a presentable 3D environment, in this case, a sci-fi environment, focusing on my strengths in 2D and trying to translate that into 3D. This was a school portfolio project with limited 4 weeks half time. Also, this was my first time making an environment in UE4, so I knew I would not be able to learn all the correct ways of doing a 3D environment. But with that in mind, I wanted to pay attention to the things I know of Lighting and Composition. Which I believe is super important in order to present any kind of work. But before diving into that I want to talk about how this project was initially inspired and my references.

This environment was inspired by one of my 2D projects, Project Frejya, which is my own little universe I designed (also part of my portfolio). I decided to create something that could potentially be from this world in 3D.

This is one of the artwork I payed a lot of attention to when coming up with the mood and the concept for the environment.

I wanted to portray a similar blue mood like the artwork and have wires hanging from the ceiling acting like veins, to convey a feeling that this room was a beating heart of a whole building. Also the wires would serve great as a composition tool later on.

Here are another sets of references I looked at for other elements I maybe wanted to have in the environment.

Modeling Assets

My goal with my assets were to create modules to repeat in certain directions to build a fairly presentable environment.

Everything is still very new to me when it comes to 3D environment, but one thing I payed a lot of attention to was scale. The scale was very important in order to make every asset feel right. That is why I always had a human character with the right proportions and height in my scene when modeling.

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One of the challenges I had for myself for this project was to design everything in 3D on the go. Which meant I spent quite some time modeling the assets, coming up with the designs and blocking out how everything would come together. Once I got a good grasp of it, I jumped over to Unreal Engine, continuing to make final adjustments for the scene. When the main assets where done I started to build decoration assets, used to prop my scene.

For this project I chose Modo as my modeling software. For me, what makes Modo so awesome is the Selection tools it offers. It allows more freedom to how you want to use the tools. I started with Maya, but it never fit me very well. So I discovered Modo. It allowed me to design more freely which was important for this project. Modo also offers more fancy tools, such as the Rounded Edge Shader. However I am no expert in the software.


Once again, nothing fancy as I am still learning. I made smart materials in Substance Painter to have consistency in my assets. All assets are textured in Painter. Normally you would maybe preferably do it in Designer. However with the little knowledge and time I had I decided to stick with the things I was comfortable with, which was Painter. When I texture in painter I like to go in with a brush to paint details, which I did with my door asset.

Lighting & Composition

These two comes hand in hand, in order to highlight the things you want the viewer to see. You want to have a good composition and lighting to help your presentation.


Lighting in UE4 is new to me so it was a lot of learn by doing. So I won’t go into technical stuff, but instead I would like to talk about my approach to lighting.

To me, lighting serves as a tool to highlight the things you want the viewer to see. So I often think of it like a bucket of paint. I paint a path, leading the viewer’s eyes. Shadows is also key in lighting, knowing where to put your shadows for your composition. It serves as a rest spot for the eyes. You also need to know where your main source of light is coming from. Therefore I feel it is very important to have a good plan of how you want to light your scene to convey your specific mood.

For my scene, I wanted my main source of light coming from above, to indicate that this environment takes place underground. The light can be moon light, city light or maybe just another room. This also creates interesting patterns on the floor when the light casts shadow on the floor, giving the scene more direction and mood. It also lights my door making it pop more.

I then added small secondary lights on the rails on the ceiling and on the walls to help out light the scene. This was also meant to enforce the depth in the scene and help the composition so the viewer would not leave the canvas. I also added red lights in the same way on the walls to contrast the blue, given to me as feedback from a fellow friend, which I thought was a great idea.


Something that you have to be aware of when dealing with lighting, whether it is 2D or 3D is “contrast”. Lead the viewer with contrast. The eyes normally focus on the things with most contrast first, so placing it where you want the viewer to look at is a great tool to use. Also contrast is good for readability, so objects and shapes read well in the scene. Therefore having an understanding of values becomes important too. Because the human eye see shapes by values. I try to image my scene in black and white.

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Contrast can also be achieved with colours. My scene is composed by a very dominant dark blue tone, therefore it will make other colours pop more. In this case the red and the orange. Knowing that I was aiming for a blue mood, I decided early on that I wanted to have something to complement it. That is why my vault door has orange parts and my pipes are orange.

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Taking it a step further. Notice the orange light with a circular form on the door. Blue is often related as a cold color. So my scene will feel cold. So yet again, in order to bring contrast to the cold mood, I designed the door with a circle orange light to symoblize warmth. Hinting that maybe this door keeps everything in tact or everyone inside warm.


When I tried to find interesting camera angles, there are 3 things I keep in mind. Which are, foreground, midground and background. Foreground invites the viewer into the scene and tells them where they are in the environment. Midground is usually where your focus point is, where you want them to look at. Background can tell where the environment takes place. You do not need to have all three, but it is always nice to have some kind of foreground element. It can be anything, a tree branch, edge of a table or even a cat.

Something else I kept in mind that I believe is very important is how you set dress your scene. It can really change the composition and add story. There is a lot of 90 and 45 degrees angles in my scene, which made the flow very straight and repetitive, due to the way I designed my scene and modules.

So the way I placed my wires was very important to break that pattern and to make my scene feel more organic and flow better. Also, I placed them in a way to frame my focus point. My little lamps standing on the crates are also faced towards the door. I put my crates off grid, meaning it does not follow the perspective line, making the scene feel more chaotic, indicating a little bit of story that maybe this place was abandoned. The metal plates on the floor were put in the same way, to tell that people have been here, maybe worked or evacuated from this place.

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All in all, like I said in the beginning, I approached this 3D environment project from a very 2D perspective. Which I enjoyed very much because of the contrast of the idea. This was achieved in 4 weeks halftime period with a little bit of crunch and brute force. But, having my classmates from TGA at my side in the same working environment was extremely motivating and helpful. They are the best!

Robin Tran, Game Artist / Concept Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 2

  • Dane Custance

    Great work really inspiring.


    Dane Custance

    ·5 years ago·
  • Anonymous user

    Beautiful composition and wonderful in depth analysis, especially from a beginner in the craft. I hope you continue doing what you do and we see more from you in future developments.


    Anonymous user

    ·6 years ago·

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