Yueyang Zhao has shared his workflow behind the House in the Forest project, spoke about the asset choice and his approach to creating vegetation, and detailed how he set up different lighting scenarios in Unreal Engine 5.1.
Hello! My name is Yueyang Zhao. I am from Shanghai, China. Currently, I am a graduate student in the EAE program at the University of Utah. I am now working on a student project called Echo of the Last Light alongside some incredible developers from my cohort.
My first stylized game project is called The Great Gnome Hat Off!, which is an alt-control party game with a top-down camera angle. It was a lot of fun working on that project but I kept thinking of creating a more immersive 3D game environment with a stylized art style where players can walk around and explore freely. So I started learning Unreal Engine after that project and I think the new Unreal Engine 5 really gave me the opportunity to make this come true.
I started my project House in the Forest in November 2022 as the final of my school class Game Art III by Jeremy Hodges. I learned a lot about the principles of lighting for games during the class. Jeremy also helped me solve technical issues and gave me a lot of valuable feedback when I was working on this project.
As a student artist, I have found ArtStation to be an invaluable source of inspiration and motivation. By exploring the works of many talented artists on the website, I have been able to learn and grow as an artist myself. Kuker House by Ognyan Zahariev and Coming Home by Stuart Huang Ji are the two works I found on Artstation that are most inspirational. It is really impressive how well they did in portraying a Ghibli-style feeling. These two pieces are my primary reference for my project.
My goal for this project was to create an immersive stylized 3D environment with a Ghibli-Style. So I found the Stylized Village Fatpack through the Unreal Engine Marketplace. This pack fit my goal very well so I started blocking out my scene and tailoring my lighting idea to fit the new environment I created using these assets.
The issue with using pre-made assets is that they won’t always fit your needs. So I believe it is also very important for lighting artists to understand the material system of Unreal and make changes to the assets. For example, I changed the color of the roof and bricks to a warm color to make sure my house will serve as the center of interest and stand out in the greens of the forest.
For trees, it's important to avoid making all the leaves blend with each other and appear as a flat color. So, I added color variation to the leaves to create more visual interest and diversity in the scene. And I added some detailed lights in the leaves in order to create a sense of depth with light and shadow. To further enhance this effect, I also used some fog to add more layers to the woods.
When it comes to painting foliage, I follow the principle of mimicking the natural growth patterns of flowers. Typically, flowers grow in clusters, so scattering them randomly throughout a scene isn't always the best choice. Additionally, when creating grass, I started painting grasses of a bigger scale using a lower-density brush and then used a higher-density brush to add grass of a smaller scale. This creates a more natural and layered look for the foliage in the scene.
I set up my grass material with RVT in Unreal. I have a presentation about my grass workflow recorded during my Environment Art class by Ryan Bown. Please check out this video:
Lighting – Day Scenario
I am using the Lumen workflow in Unreal Engine 5, the real-time bounce light makes it a very powerful tool. In the day scenario, most parts of the scene are lit by the main directional light. I chose to use the manual exposure method to have more control over the depth of the scene and make decisions as an artist. I use temperature to control the color of the light. I set the temperature to 5500 to create a warm and bright feeling. And I also add the exponential height fog with a slight green color to help establish the mood.
I also created a fake god-ray effect in the daytime scene using the Unreal material system. And assigned the material to a cylinder mesh.
To create the desired depth of shadows in my scene, I added vegetation outside the camera's view and used these plant models to block the light. My first priority was to ensure that the path in the scene would serve as a visual guide for the viewer. To achieve this, I blocked the light from the plants beside the path to ensure that the viewer's attention wouldn't be distracted by unnecessary information.
Lighting – Night Scenario
Lighting night scenes can be challenging, but also a lot of fun. To start, I emphasized the fog in the scene as a way to establish the overall blue tone. I used directional light to create a god ray with a light shaft. Then, I added lamps as practical lights to the scene, as such light sources are crucial in nighttime scenes.
Instead of using sunlight and shadows to guide the viewer's attention, as in the daytime scene, I used lanterns with warm light to achieve this. In addition to the lantern's own emissive material, I created corresponding point lights to establish the correct lighting information. Warm lights added richness to the overall cool-toned scene.
In addition to the lanterns, I used the Niagara system to create firefly VFX with warm emissive colors that flutter freely in the scene, with additional clusters around the lanterns to simulate the insects' phototaxis behavior. The VFX is just a very basic Niagara emitter, but these moving pixels really help to bring the scene to life. Lastly, I added rim lights to objects in the scene to illuminate their silhouette and make them stand out.
For beginners in lighting, I think the most effective exercise to start with is relighting. You can find some existing levels like the Megascans Abandoned Apartment. Go into the project, try to understand how the artist lit the scene, and think about what you will do differently to create different moods. It can be very good exercise. That is also the exercise I did in Jeremy’s class when we got started.
I believe it's important to have a basic understanding of some lighting theories, such as exposure, light ratio, and color theory. Sometimes it is easy to get lost playing too much with those fancy post-processing effects or shaders, especially in stylized scenes. However, if you have a clear understanding of the theoretical foundation behind every artistic decision you make, I believe this will ultimately be the key to making your artwork stand out.
Sometimes it might be frustrating to see the high quality of works featured on ArtStation's homepage and feel like there is a gap between my own work and theirs. But we can also take it as a positive thing. I believe these industry-level artworks can serve as a clear goal of the level of skill and dedication that I should aspire to. We can keep developing our skills and work towards producing such high-quality artworks ourselves.
Yueyang Zhao, 3D Character Artist
Interview conducted by Ana Kessler
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