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Setting Up Lighting for a Sci-Fi Space Environment in Unreal Engine 5

Senior Environment and Lighting Artist Hussien Shalaan explained how Unreal Engine 5's Lumen was used to set up lighting for a stunning sci-fi environment made for the Better Light Than Never challenge.


Hey everyone, I am Hussien Shalaan, Senior Environment and Lighting Artist. I have been working in this field for about eight years. I studied at the Faculty of Specific Education, Ain Shams University, Art Department. But having a degree was not my goal since college did not fulfill my artistic desires at the time.

My story as a game artist began a long time ago. In 2014, I was about 14 years old, and the first job I had was in a small computer repair shop, just installing Windows and fixing minor technical issues, nothing serious. Let’s just say that I was gaining experience and raising money – I was a teenager, after all.

I never considered spending any money extravagantly. Instead, I planned to play it smart – I invested my salary in building my first personal computer, it took a bit of time, but eventually, I got there. At some point, I stumbled upon Unity 3.0, maybe an even older version. I was astonished by all the features it offered. It intrigued me to dig deeper and somehow led me to Unreal Engine., the big boss. Ultimately I gained an inclusive background and discovered how the engine's mechanics work.

The first version of Unreal Engine I started with was 4.15. Unreal was the perfect software for me because it's effortless to use and guarantees flawless results. Unlike Unity, it did not require a great understanding of programming or coding. 

The Dark Side Forces Project

Frankly, I take this project a bit personally. I love it so much because I worked in difficult times and circumstances, making it extraordinary. Epic Games recently started a challenge called Better Light Than Never, and I wanted to create something both challenging and convenient. It was a great fit.

I recently watched the Star Wars series and liked its art direction, so I started searching for concepts related to the topic of space. Then I found a concept art by Aleksey Pollack. I only needed the primary reference and a sub-reference for the details and lighting. I liked the shape, proportions, and lighting, and it was a challenge to make it look like this and at a time like this.

Reference is one of the critical foundations you need while making any art because we, as human beings, cannot save everything straight into our minds.

Achieving Composition and Balanced Scale

Maintaining the proportions is one of the most crucial points you should be aware of while doing any new artwork. This point will significantly affect everything else, technically and generally.

To block out the scene, I used the Primitives of Unreal Engine (Cube, Cylinder, Plane, etc.) to have a rough idea of what I am doing and test the scale of the scene as if it is off-scale. Many other kinds of stuff will be affected, such as lighting, texture stretching, and other issues.


I have been using Megascans since the first launch, it has made my work easier and helped me immensely. It was more accessible than ever for me after the release of the new version of Megascans, along with Unreal Engine 5. It helped me find the exact assets I was looking for; by searching by the tool’s name, it has a wide variety of selections and options, a true time-saver.

Not only that, but now I can use Nanite, which allows me to achieve cinema-quality in real-time without worrying about anything else. It's become even easier to integrate all of that into UE.

The first thing to do is to take the reference and break it into pieces to know what things I need to download and try to work as hard as possible. I try my best not to waste time and energy putting together 100 rocks while I can smartly achieve the same goal. So the tiny resources can be taken advantage of in a clever manner. Repetition of action does not play a vital role in this. It is like painting your artwork, in this case, your scene, with a brush – you would have to be considerate. 

Now, Unreal Engine has made the process much faster with its Package Level feature. You can handle many stacks at once without messing it up. And of course, the Material of Unreal Engine now has many modifications so that I can work separately on the rock’s saturation and start playing around with the settings until the desired look is reached.

Working with Lumen

From my point of view, lighting is one of the essential elements of the scene, if not the most essential. Because if I am working on a stunning level design and the lighting is terrible, everything will look awful. The whole thing is like baking a cake –the final touches give it the spectacular look it needs. I have seen many projects that would’ve looked ridiculous if it weren’t for the lighting. That’s why lighting should be a top priority and given sufficient care. 

Let's take a deep dive into my workflow. It starts with me working on the scene and ends with me rendering it. From that point on, the scene keeps evolving as I add more touches. Ultimately, it gives it the look that represents the artist's lighting style. 

I don’t follow the traditional way when working on the scene’s lighting. Instead, I follow an order that can be broken down into points:

  1. Key Light
  2. Rim Light
  3. Assist or Fill light
  4. Atmospherics
  5. Post-Processing
  6. Final Touches

Let's start with Key Light. Here, I did not use the Direction Light to illuminate it because the blue color will project on the clouds that I used, so instead of this, I used a blue ball with an Emissive Material and many Spot Lights to achieve the desired look.

Then, we have Rim Light, it draws the scene, defines it, highlights your main areas, and gives your scenes a realistic and artistic look.

Post-processing and Color Correction:

After that, we set up Sky Atmosphere. It has great control over the color and feel of the scene. Of course, every scenario has its appropriate details, but of course, you are free to try different forms of parameters to achieve the shape you want.

And now, we come to the essential point which is the Volumetric Clouds. How do you make it so intertwined and blended into the scene?

To create the clouds, I used UltraDynamicSky. But I disabled many actors inside the primary Blueprint to have complete manual control over every parameter. 

To position the clouds I changed the transform mode in the Sky Atmosphere from World Origin to Plant Top Component Transform. That way, you will be able to control the height of the clouds. I can take it down and blend it into the rocks, and then I start taking a few parameters in the clouds until I reach the shape I want.

After that, I used Clouds Sheets and SkyBox to blend everything out.

Creating the lightning bolts was challenging to do at first. I wanted to make it to Niagara, which would be very beautiful, but I did not have much time, so I went for a plan B.

I ended up creating the lightning by adding a plane and making the Sequencer switch materials one by another in different shapes and creating a loop out of it. It gets created as a variation, so it doesn't become a repetition. 

Let us move to the movement of the scene, which is the essential factor in the last details because this is what sets the dynamics for your scene.

My workflow in Sequencer is split into three parts: 

  1. Dynamics: floating rocks and lightning bolts.
  2. The spaceship.
  3. Camera: I used two types of camera movement.

The first type is driven by CameraAR, which records the camera movement by my hand and takes the camera tracking into Unreal, but it does not work very well in our situation.

The second is keyframing camera movement in Sequencer.

The whole scene, from beginning to end, took me about 12 hours of work.


Unreal Engine 5 is one of the most outstanding programs in the world. Since 2015, I was sure that one day UE would become an industry-standard in all fields, and it would be the future like the brave boy who always competes with himself and improves quickly. It remains one of the best render engines because it offers many opportunities to do it with it, and you have extraordinary abilities. I also have a chance for your creativity, which is not to light up your workflow. 

Because it gives a lot of opportunities to create a ton of things out of it, and it even gives you super abilities as an incentive for your creativity, pushing your limits all the way. And UE isn't a linear workflow program and vice versa, every project has its mysteries and a unique experience. I was using Unreal Engine 5 before the official releases.

Some of the features I adore are Nanite, Lumen, and many others. It abolishes my limits and lets me go wild with the details; it gives me room for creativity, pushing me to create extraordinary sceneries, not to mention Path Trace and many other things. UE is genuinely epic, can't wait to see a future that mainly orbits around creativity.

In conclusion, I'd like to thank you all, and I hope this article is of value to you. Hopefully, I provided you with some inspiration.

Till we will meet again in another article!

Hussien Shalaan, Senior Environment/Lighting Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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