Stylized Cave: Sculpting Rocks and Setting Up a Master Material in UE4

Stylized Cave: Sculpting Rocks and Setting Up a Master Material in UE4

Nikolas Volchenko shared the details of his small stylized scene: sculpting workflow and alpha creation in ZBrush, simple animated foliage and master material setup in UE4, lighting, and more.

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Hello! My name is Nikolas Volchenko and I am a 3D Artist currently living in Russia, Saint-Petersburg. I went to study engineering at a technical university after graduating from school. However, after two years of training as an engineer, I realized that I didn't like that at all. I dropped out of university and started spending all my time on 3D.

I am 20 years old. I have a little over two years of experience in 3D, everything I know I have learned through lessons on YouTube. I haven’t participated in large projects yet. However, from the very beginning of my journey, I had a small team of ambitious friends with whom we tried to do some projects.

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Stylized Cave: Start of the Project

The goal of this project was to make a small stylized location in a short time, so after a set of references, I immediately began to build a composition.

I started working on the composition with the landscape shape.

The general picture of how all this would look in the end was already in my head, so without wasting time, I started to create assets and materials.

Creating Stylized Rocks

For creating stylized rocks in ZBrush I like to use ClayPolish with Sharpness. First, I make a rough shape with Dynamesh, then I throw in a couple of divides and click ClayPolish. Then I polish the result a little with the HPolish brush.

I like to use the SketchToyPlastic material to better see the edges, they will stand out especially after texturing.

To save time, I used ZRemesher for an auto retopology in ZBrush. However, UVs were made in Maya. 

After baking in Marmoset Toolbag, I started texturing the assets in Substance Painter.

The wooden planks and the fence were made using the same technique.

Next, I exported the models to Unreal Engine and set up the materials. I wanted to have control over the color of the entire scene, so I adjusted the colors of all assets already in the engine. 

That's what I did:

And here is the scene draft already with rocks (later I got the idea to add flat rocks for the wall, so they are not present in this screenshot):

The arch followed the same workflow, except for the retopology which was done manually in Maya.


I painted grass and small plants in Adobe Photoshop.

In order to optimize the material graph, I divided the information into RGB channels.

Individually, the foliage might not look very good:

However, when mixed, the result looks nice:

From Jack McKelvey, I learned how to animate the grass to create the wind effect. He has a great tutorial on this topic, be sure to visit his ArtStation page.

Thanks to the graph below, I could completely change the color of grass, flowers, and ferns. I used two colors per plant to get a gradient from dark bottom to light top.

To create trees, I used SpeedTree. The base color and opacity mask were painted in Adobe Photoshop:

I am bad at drawing, so I used Substance Designer to make the bark. I ended up with a fairly simple graph:

Thanks to the capabilities of SpeedTree, having configured the tree once, I got many varieties out of it:

Setting Up Materials

For the landscape, I created a master material with four materials: sand, ground, grass, and mud.

Sometimes, when working in Substance Designer, we need to get the alpha of a plant or a small stone. If we know exactly what we need, we can simply do it in ZBrush instead of bothering with a huge graph. For this:

  • Sculpt the desired object
  • Expose the angle we need
  • Go to the Alpha > FromMesh > Choose a resolution > Ok
  • Export the resulting alpha
This method works with any meshes:

This is exactly what I did with small stones and plants. Here're the alphas I got with ZBrush:

I made the master material in Unreal Engine using Material Function to make the graph more convenient to work with. For each material, I created a material function:

Then, I combined these functions in one master material:

As a result, I got a master material that gave me control over all parameters of any surface, so I could adjust the overall color of the scene in real-time.

For the magic runes on stones, I created a Parameter Collection that allowed me to control the color and glow of all runes at once.


I have two light sources and fog in the scene.

The first is a Directional Light with a warmer color, which sets the general mood of the scene, casts beautiful shadows, and creates visible god rays. The second is the SkyLight with a colder tint, it brightens the shadows.

For beautiful sunbeams, add Volumetric Scattering to the Directional Light and tick the Volumetric Fog on the fog.

I didn't want to waste time baking the lights as it would take too long, so the whole scene has dynamic lighting.

In PostProcessVolume, I made some small color correction tweaks but most importantly, I added AO. 


Summing up, the scene was completed in about four days. Thanks to everyone who supported me, and special thanks to 80 Level for inviting me to take part in the interview. I had a really great time writing this article and I'll be glad if it can help someone.

Nikolas Volchenko, 3D Artist 

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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