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See How to Recreate an UE5 Forest Environment With Spooky Vibes

Elias Tsirides walked us through the Strange Cabin Deep in the Forest project and shared how the creepy forest environment was set up, detailing the approach to the creation of trees, foliage, and the cabin.


Hello there, my name is Elias, and I am a Senior Level Artist for games. It has been many years since I was last here on 80 Level, talking about my very first portfolio piece on ArtStation, before I was even working in the industry. Since then, I joined Splash Damage to work on Gears Tactics and later became part of the world art team at Guerrilla, where I worked on Horizon Forbidden West and its DLC, The Burning Shores.

Currently, I'm working at Krafton/PUBG Studios on a new project. In my free time, I play games and watch movies, and TV shows, especially mystery and horror-themed ones. I also enjoy watching horror games' let's plays on YouTube. My weekends tend to be occupied with working on personal projects, where I can escape into my own little imaginary worlds.

And this is what brings us to the Strange Cabin Deep in the Forest, which I am going to talk about in this article.

Strange Cabin Deep in the Forest 

As a horror and mystery fan and a fan of nature, a creepy cabin in the forest was always bound to be one of these personal projects that would end up taking up a lot of my weekends, as these things usually do. I regularly browse Pinterest and ArtStation for images and concept art that get me "in the mood". One of these was "House Spider" by Artist Mark Bulahao, which also led me to "House" by artist Denis Zhbankov. I knew I wanted to go a bit more abstract, and somehow "House Spider" brought to my mind Alexander Dudar's "Evocation", which I really like. Suddenly, this idea of an almost ritualistic twig formation, portal thing, Blair witchy thing, lodged itself into my brain and would not leave until I finished it.

Besides these initial concept pieces, I also gathered various images I liked during various Pinterest binge marathons or Pinterest rabbit hole sessions, mostly for the mood and the vibes rather than one-on-one references. For specific details (like how the logs intersect in these cabins or what happens with window frames, hinges, shingles, and such), I tend to look up references on the fly as I go and as I am working on specific parts of the project because these things can easily pile up.

Setting Up the Environment

When it comes to setting up the actual 3D environment, I start by using some very simple ground meshes to establish some large terrain parts. This helps me change the elevation or angle of certain parts of the initial surface quickly and without needing to go into sculpting mode, adjusting the ground to my liking from various viewpoints. On this rough terrain proxy, I also brought in the initial blockout of the cabin that I put together with simple shapes in Maya and exported it to Unreal Engine as one piece. This way, I can estimate if the proportions of the cabin feel okay as I am running inside, out, and around it in play in editor mode.

I also browse my Unreal Marketplace vault or the Megascans library at this point for useful assets that I want to use, like the car, for example, or the wheelbarrow. I also sometimes browse Sketchfab for assets, and if I end up using them in the final work, I will always, of course, credit the artists. However, in this case, I used the outhouse and rocking chair from there only to see if I wanted to have those elements at all. In the end, I decided to make those from scratch based on the parts that I made for the cabin.

Once I was happy with the first rough positioning of things and how they felt, I added in some trees from my previous projects, which I would later replace with new ones, and brought in a landscape actor, which I sculpted to match the layout I already had done with ground meshes. At this stage, I do like to play around with the lighting so that it can create more or less the mood I am going for and get me in the mood as well for the rest of the project. 

Creating Complex Biome Textures

Initially, I was planning to use the trees from my previous projects to save time, but I felt like for this one, I needed taller ones to hit that more mysterious old growth and deep forest mood. At the same time, I was wondering how possible it would be to pack an entire biome into one texture. So this was my chance to try that out. It is easier to manage, and it's always good for performance and texture memory.

As I progress with my projects, I like to challenge myself by making environments that are both pretty and playable. So, what I did to create this one texture is the following (I am sure there is a less hacky way out there, but that's what I could come up with). I found textures that I liked on Megascans and downloaded them separately. I used Bridge and its ability to create packed textures to pack the Roughness, AO, and Alpha. So, I had three textures for each plant/branch I chose.

Then, I would drag those in Photoshop together and create a group for them – one group for each component and its three textures. I would mask the group to its important bit and then move it around to make space for the next set of textures. Once done, I could save the Albedo as a merged image. To get the Normal, I would hide all the Albedos in the groups and then save the merged Normal, and I would do the same for the Packed Map that contains the Alpha. This is shown more or less in the image. It doesn't look pretty and definitely feels hacky, but it worked for me. I believe in whatever works and gets the job done.

Since I am not a vegetation artist, I haven't delved into SpeedTree at all, so I usually build the assets manually by making smaller components and assembling them in Maya in different variations, which I then export to Unreal.

I find that setting up the LODs in Unreal Engine is pretty handy, and I do adjust the LODing values and distances manually so that the transitions between different trees match and happen at the same distances, and so that any popping is as minimal as possible. I usually do that in an empty, simple scene so it's easy to assess what's happening.

For the larger components, I will sometimes create a manual LOD 1 to reduce the trunk a lot more aggressively than the canopy, which is still important at LOD 1 distances. Also, I set up a flat, camera-facing plane for the final and more distant LOD. 

Creating a Cabin

For the cabin, I made a trim sheet with the exact same method as I did for the foliage. I found the separate textures I liked from Megascans and then arranged and combined them in Photoshop in one texture like before.

Based on the blockout, I could tell that I would need a couple of different types of wood, and I also added a rusty metal part for hinges, door knobs, and such. I mostly spent time on the cabin in Maya rather than in Unreal. Structures like this can have some modular parts, but at the end of the day, I decided not to build this out of a modular kit, as it wouldn't have much benefit. 

I rebuilt what I came up with during the blockout stage with planks and logs that I mapped on the trim sheet. Once I was happy with that, I started breaking down some parts of the structure. To give a bit more age and weight, I carefully applied a lattice modifier on the hole structure to make it a bit more shaggy and break some straight lines.

To save some time on complementary assets like the palette, the wide wooden plank, and the beer box, I reused assets from previous projects that I remapped to this new trim sheet and manipulated the material instance assigned to it accordingly.

When it comes to the final composition and making things glued together, it's the result of many iterations and tweaks, as shown in the project progress video at the end of my post on ArtStation.

Something I do with all of my projects is establish some bookmarks in Unreal from very early on so I can check how things look from many different angles. The image below, for example, shows viewpoints that were established very early on and defined how things were placed and edited so the scene looks good from all these different angles. Whenever I would tweak something from one angle, I would go check the other angles as well and adjust when needed. It was, of course, usually needed, as placing something like a tree from one angle might block the view or look weird from another.

Approaching Trees and Foliage & Lighting Adjustments

Once I had the initial blockout of the cabin and the terrain/ground, I spent a lot of time with the trees and foliage. I used the foliage brush for most of the trees at a distance, but many especially around the cabin were hand-placed so I could quickly nudge them around and enhance the sense of depth or iron out visual noise if I saw any.

The smaller foliage was added with the brush tool as well, except for custom hand-dressed areas like the cabin porch, the top of the car, and the roof edges. This is also shown in the progress video where a lot of it is trees and bushes, as well as undergrowth moving around, being removed or added, etc. I spent some time throughout the production tweaking the tree assets themselves too, like for example making some shorter or giving them thinner trunks to create more variation, tweaking the dead branches, etc.

What that progress video also shows is how the lighting gets tweaked throughout as well. Even though I was set on a specific mood, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go for a more realistic and grounded overcast mood or a more cinematic and color-graded one. In the end, I opted for a more color-graded approach but still subtle, where the fog has slight blue tones and the shadows have a dose of purple in them. I tried a few different versions by getting some inspiration from nicely graded images online of misty forests and such.

Unreal’s post-process volumes have a wide array of settings that can be tweaked to your heart’s content. What I found extremely useful was the skylight leaking. Lumen and mesh distance fields are amazing for those soft-shadowed areas under the trees but before skylight leaking came about, they would tend to be extremely dark sometimes, and injecting some of that helps balance things out nicely. Also, the LUTs can be very useful. For this project, I only used LUTs for just that final pinch of brightness and contrast.


All in all, I really enjoyed working on this project and jumping into its eerie and moody setting for the past few months. Initially, it was meant to be a quick fun project, where I would reuse
the foliage from my winter scene and mostly focus on the cabin, which itself actually didn't take a lot of time, and it was supposed to be a little spooky scene that I wanted to have ready by Halloween.

Well, all that definitely flew out of the window, but it doesn't matter because it helped me see practically how much mileage one can get from a limited amount of resources. Besides, allowing ourselves time to pass in between sessions of working on our projects helps us train our composition muscles more effectively.

Elias Tsirides, Senior Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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