Learning the Scope of Environment

Aspiring environment designer Jared Matthew Lewin talked about the creation of his amazing scene with UE4, Substance Designer and Zbrush.

Jared Matthew Lewin from Ringling College of Art and Design gave a detailed breakdown of his amazing Dinner Hall Environment. It’s a lovely example of grand environments design, inspired by both Harry Potter and Dark Souls. He talked about the way he models assets, builds the lighting and uses materials from Substance Designer in Unreal Engine 4.



I come from Davie Florida. I’ve lived here my entire life. So it was extremely convenient when I found Ringling College of Art and Design. It’s practically in my backyard. I’ve been attending Ringling for three years now and have been working with 3D software for two years as of this summer. The Game Art BFA program at Ringling College brings our feature film aesthetic to games and is focused on providing students with the professional artistic skills necessary to create compelling and believable interactive experiences. I would just like to take the chance to say that I have learned an incredible amount from my school and am extremely grateful for the chances I’ve had. Besides school I work with Hoyt Architecture where I help make environments for architecture visualization. While there I have worked on everything from parts of entire cities to very small apartment interiors.

Environment Creation

I’ve wanted to make environments my entire life. There’s really nothing better than exploring a place where the limitations of real life don’t apply. Just the thought of wanting to go on some particular adventure and having an outlet for that is incredible. I’ve just always wanted to help make these opportunities of exploration for others as well. I usually start environments with a gameplay idea or a story beat. Like for example with The Hall environment, I imagined that it might be public area, and that in a game a new player might use loot from this environment to quickly boost his income. At the same time I imagined an area as nice as this having hard guards. So the interaction of this player on the quest for easy riches, and the challenge of these hard guards is what got me thinking about that particular environment. Another important thing that I start with when making new environments is planning how they would fit into the larger world. Where would they be located and why would they be there?

Dinner Hall Environment

So the hall environment was actually a sort of therapy project for me. I was in the hospital for an extended period of time and I kept trying to imagine the most peaceful area I could. This hall environment was the image that stuck with me and I became very interested in it. When I left the hospital I decided to keep rolling with it. A week out and I was already working on the mod kit. The biggest challenge with this environment is that it was big. It is the largest environment I have ever created alone. When dealing with something of this size I learned that my two biggest difficulties would be using modularity without causing art fatigue and having the environment run well. Of course both of these difficulties are directly related to the scale of the environment.

Production of the Scene


For production I use a very personalized work pipeline that is a combination of research, school lessons, and my real world work experience. I am always looking at the top news sites for new insights to incorporate into my pipeline. As a matter of fact I happen to have this sight bookmarked along with Gamasutra. Basically what I do is consider how my mod kit will work. For all purposes of modularity I usually look towards Bethesda as a good reference because of their skill with this subject. This is all part of the concept stage for me. While I’m working on the mod kit theory I also start doing sketches for the environment as well as collecting reference. Once I feel that I have a good amount of material to work from, I create a highly rendered drawing. This drawing serves as both a key shot for composition, mood, and an exploration of what my mod kit will look like when its assembled and lit. The lighting is based off of simplified black and white designs that I know read well. This lighting is a really key element because it’s the deciding factor in the mood of the scene. Really finding good reference of natural lighting that has the mood you like is also part of the process although I usually experiment with this reference and really try to push it. The material and mesh design is very heavily based on research. I spent a lot of time during the concept stage researching medieval building techniques as well as materials used and where you might find them naturally. After finding this information a string of logic forms that really drives any questions about materials and meshes. For example while creating the walls and supports I researched how they dealt with creating stories at that time. I learned about specific types of supports and their purposes, as well as what they were made out of. That sort of thinking was really applied to every mesh and material I created. Really the only freeform part of this process was the decoration. Because decoration on structures is so varied I had a lot of room to create my own sort of culture using a design guide I created before hand. This design guide was largely based off Romanesque and Byzantine designs that I referenced during the concept stage.

The Medieval Hallway Scene

I started off like every other environment. Broken down it goes concept which covers composition and mod kit, then starting the meshes based off of reference I’ve collected and created. After that I light the level and try to lock in the mood as well as create my base materials. Everything that is filling in what I have already planned and then iterating on it. The majority of the work for the library I would say was done in the mod kit and lighting. I cannot stress enough how important the lighting is to this scene. Without it the scene simply would not stand. As far as the concept of the production goes I was very heavily influenced by games such as Oblivion. These huge games more often than not have amazing central areas that really lock in the experience. For Oblivion it would be the Imperial City. That environment has such a vivid experience due both its size and complexity. I was hoping to really achieve something like that with this hall.




For the lighting what I like to do is pick a time of day and light it naturally, which in the case of Unreal Engine 4 means adjusting the directional light. I won’t do this until I have assembled my mod kit though. The reason I wait to do lighting until after this is because I want to know what my major shadows will be. Essentially the major shadows in the scene will be caused by how the light enters the building through the windows. In an interior scene like this the shadows of the meshes are key to composition. They will determine visibility and player path. After the natural lighting is established I will establish secondary lighting sources or artificial lights. This includes any lights caused by fires or things of that nature. Secondary lights are a great way of building contrast in the scenes composition. It’s important to really consider how these secondary lights will interact with meshes and their shadows. A secondary light if used in the wrong way can really remove the nice shadows that are established with the natural lighting. On the other hand it can also enhance it. One thing that was unique about this project is that medieval construction techniques are relatively simple. Most of the work in building an environment like this will be in the design of the lighting and decoration. I personally really enjoy decorations and feel like medieval architecture gives a great opportunity to really show it off.

Building Materials



I build my materials with a combination of the in engine material editor and Substance Designer which is an external program. More recently I have been relying more heavily on Substance Designer. When I am making materials I always start by making base materials. These base materials are extremely important to any scene. Once there is a bank of base materials made I start to make more specialized materials using maps that I have baked off of high poly sculptures. Let me explain more of what I mean by base materials though. When I determined that I would need wood for this scene I spent a good amount of time making a very good wood material in engine that could be parameterized and re-used in different ways. It was crucial that this material look good so that every material based off of it would look good as well. It’s all very dependent on each other. So for my materials I use the engines material editor as well as Substance Designer for building materials. I use Substance Painter and Photoshop for texturing purposes. Lastly I use Substance Designer and Zbrush for creating maps high detail maps. Zbrush is used when creating high sculptural and custom details mostly although I used to use it more for making tiling textures. I believe that Substance Designer does this very efficiently though and have defaulted to using that software for that purpose. As far as building materials goes I highly recommend spending time making materials as close to reference as you can get it. There’s a lot of benefit that can occur from sitting down opening an image of a texture or material you want and just recreating as perfectly as you can get it. Practice outside of larger projects is essential, almost like working out. Above all else pay attention to your reference; it will save you, I guarantee it.

Playing with Color and Lighting

I mentioned before that I start by establishing a time of day and really focusing on realistic lighting scenarios. At the same time I have no problem with bending that reality to fit my needs. That’s simply part of being an artist. Doing the impossible is also a large part of the fun of making environments. On the engine side of things lighting really comes down to whatever light sources you have set up. This can range from directional lights to point lights. Playing with lighting really comes down to adjusting these values and experimenting. Another very important part of this process though is the post process. The post process gives you a series of controls that allow you to change a scene’s visuals in a more direct way. For example in the post process for this scene I amped up the ambient occlusion because I felt like it gave it more of a dreamy sense. Really the controls in the post process are what are going to help you push the mood you’re trying to establish as far as it can go. Of course color is highly influenced by light. So I use the lights in my scene to try to create contrasting colors that will direct the viewer’s eye. In the end directing the viewer’s eye is the main goal. The way that they view the scene will define their experience. To move the players eye contrasts are the best way to go. Contrasts will be achieved through both light and color. For example the center of my scene is the brightest because that’s where I want the players eye to land. It is also the warmest color. These two elements combined are what I use to solidify the experience I am crafting. As simple as it seems it’s concepts like these that are what make the best scenes. The masters of composition such as Frazetta really understand these principles to their fullest.



I would say that the most difficult part of creating an environment is knowing your scope and capabilities. Being honest with yourself and others about what can be created realistically in the given time will determine whether the production cycle goes smoothly or not. It’s important to push yourself but at the same time you don’t want to start an environment and finish it poorly, or worse not finish at all. Any other difficulties when building the environment will stem from this. If you have a well thought out plan you won’t have that much trouble. Of course in the games there will always be some trouble but at least it will be less. The best advice I ever got from my teachers was that honesty is key. If you’re going to be the best you can be you can’t have any illusions about what you’re work is like or what you’re skill level is. You just need to be honest with yourself and others.

I hope that this helps!

Jared Matthew Lewin, Environment Artist





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