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Rahim Rahimi did a very interesting breakdown of the amazing scene, which was created for the Ubisoft Toronto’s annual NXT showcase competition.
Hi, my name’s Rahim Rahimi. I’m a 21 year old game design graduate from Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. My main focus is environment art. Coming from a 2d background in digital painting, I initially wanted to get into concept art, occasionally figure drawing and subway sketching on my free time. I studied Animation at Seneca College, and decided to transition to 3D Game design in my third year due to my passion for both video games and art, especially in a time where the line between film and video games start to blur.
This level was for Ubisoft Toronto’s annual NXT showcase competition. The story involves a group of researchers who found an abandoned Soviet submarine in Jordanian grounds. Baffled, the Russian researchers, with help from the Jordanian government, made camp near a monastery base camp in Petra to try and solve the mystery. Although the story was given to us, how we set the scene and atmosphere relied on our own creativity and artistic sense of visual storytelling.
I am very fortunate to say I’ve been selected for first place and started work as a 3D modeller at Ubisoft Toronto for a fixed term contract.
More info can be found here about the event.
Before I approached this level, I knew I wanted it to have a very ‘concept-art’ and painterly feel to it. I wanted to have a strong directional light source shine through a grand doorway, to make the scene feel epic yet beautiful. I wanted to juxtapose the ancient, crumbling Nabatean architecture with modern research equipment. There had to be a strong orange-red global illumination lighting the scene, contrasted by the cooler colours present where the workstation would be. So I knew the lighting had to be highly inspired by Assassin’s Creed Unity’s brilliant interior lighting and atmosphere, and Robert Kondo + Dice Tutsumi’s amazing paintings. The scene had to feel grounded, like it had been used by researchers for a short while, with perhaps some messy cables/papers strewn across the area.
In Unreal Engine 4, I wanted to break the scene into two major focal points, area A (workstation/entrance) and area B (sleeping area). Area B would be in a slightly darker and lower level, with oil lanterns to light the scene making it feel like an enclosed (almost claustrophobic) space. There I imagined the rations and supplies would be. I also placed a large pillar in the centre of the monastery to visually split the scene in two.
All the hard surface assets (high+ & low poly) were modeled in 3ds Max, while the organic models were made in Zbrush. A combination of the Trim Dynamic, Trim Adaptive, and Flatten brushes were used to chip off edges for the sandstone architecture, and ‘Clip Curve’ was used to slice chunks of rocks for interesting organic shapes – all of which were textured in Substance Painter.
Being in my last semester of Game Design with school assignments on top of this, I didn’t squeeze in the time to get the hang of Substance Designer (which I recommend every aspiring game artist to get the hang of!), and the deadline was due for Ubisoft before we learned Designer in school. Therefore my tileable wall and floor materials were made in Photoshop, and I used Substance Bitmap 2 Material to get the normal + roughness + AO maps for those textures. Everything else was textured fully in Substance Painter. Being the noob I was, I manually retopped the organic stuff instead of using Zremesh, haha. That’s why everything is a lower tri count than needed.
Here’s a simple breakdown of the tileable sandstone material that was used for the walls.
Using pixel depth offset (dithering), I was able to seamlessly embed objects in the sand. As you can see, each pile of sand was the same mesh repeated over, same with the rocks. I initially wanted to use a simple tileable sand material with displacement/tessellated geometry, but I wouldn’t be able to have full control on where the sand would pile up, so I was happy with my decision.
Decals help bring finishing touches to the scene, along with footprints, cracks, drag marks on the sand, and carved text on the walls. Definitely helps add to storytelling. I got a bit carried away, haha.
For the cables, I created a construction blueprint, based on a YouTube tutorial. This way I had a deformable spline mesh to make cables all over the tables, floors, walls, etc.
The mountains in the background were made of curved planes that were layered, overlapping one another to fake the ‘parallax’ sense of depth. This way it felt more ‘3D’ than having it part of the skysphere.
A huge chunk of storytelling went into the papers, documents, manuscripts, blueprints, and the whiteboard. It might feel like a ton of non-modeling work, but any attention to detail helps sell the world you’re creating, and creates interest in the mysteries of the story. As a fun easter egg, the photo on the bottom right is my uncle, a wanted suspect.
Because this was my first original scene using Unreal Engine, I wasn’t the best at knowing all the technical tools and tricks such as achieving natural global illumination. So I tried to cheat the lighting as much as I could, using lots of point lights around the doorway and enabled Light Shafts for ‘volumetric lighting’, and played with the LUT colour grading, referenced by paintings/screencaps in my reference mood boards.
The whole thing took 3 and a half months from start to finish. Christmas to March 3rd.
Thank you for reading this article, I hope it brings inspiration your way. If you want to stay up to date with my work, check out