Taking UE4 to Mars
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Taking UE4 to Mars
7 February, 2017
3d artist Maxime Barbieux showed how you can build simple sci-fi scenes with awesome skyboxes in Unreal Engine 4.


Hi, I’m Maxime Barbieux and I’m from Belgium. I’m a last year student in Digital Arts and Entertainment. I learned a lot during these graduation years and worked on a lot of different projects. I did some programming (C++, C#, java), analog drawing, digital painting and sculpting but what I liked the most was the whole process of creating assets and environments for games. That’s why I’d like to work as an environment artist in the future.


I’ve been interested in science fiction and space exploration since my childhood and wanted to reproduce a scene set in the future as humans start to colonize outer worlds. I had this project in my head for a long time and I chose to do it on a sand planet so I could really focus on the lighting, and give it a cool looking background. I was heavily inspired by Star Citizen interiors, Mass Effect, real life desert images and the awesome Sinai desert map from Battlefield 1.

Seeing the latest Star Wars Rogue One motivated me even more. The sense of scale was monumental and gave me the idea to create a nice skybox that would give the same feeling.

Rogue One: A Star Wars StoryDeath StarPhoto credit: Lucasfilm/ILM©2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Blockout and composition

I quickly created and sculpted a landscape in Unreal and used assets from the starter content to form a blockout. Substance Share helped me to get a sand texture for the earlier stages of the scene. The image below was the first try out.

This is a great way to sketch a scene and test different compositions by throwing assets in the scene. It helped me to get a global idea of what I wanted to make.

I then worked on getting the composition ready and began to tweak lighting. I also tweaked the rock material from the standard content folder to get a nice color palette for the final result. The moment I had the final composition going on, I kicked off with sculpting a rock asset in ZBrush. When the high poly is sculpted, the decimation master is a great tool in ZBrush to get a quick low poly out of it.

I import them in 3ds Max to scale, xForm, and export them in fbx format. I then bake and texture it with substance painter. Texturing in substance isn’t wizardry, you find materials that suits the type of rock you want to make and add some dirt in the creases.

I personally added sand in the creases and used vertex painting later on to add another layer of sand so the rock blends better with the ground.

I then worked with substance designer to create 3 different sand textures:

Here’s an overview of the graph in Substance Designer

I import them in my scene and made one material out of it in so I can vertex paint on the landscape.

I added a panning texture to simulate a wind effect on the sand.

For the rest of the assets, the desert grass is a simple plane with a texture and opacity map applied on it. I also added some sand wind particles in addition to the panning texture of the sand material.

Main Asset

For the settlement, I first did some analog sketches to know in which style I would go after gathering additional references. This asset was made with a modular approach. It’s easier for me when you split a bigger asset in parts. I modeled and unwrapped each part in 3DS Max. some parts didn’t need any high poly models because no baking was required.

The fastest way to texture it was with the use of Substance Painter. I unwrapped it in a way so I could quickly paint on the mesh to create panels on it. Some useful alpha maps were also added on the mesh.

The tricky part is that I don’t have any curvature info of this panels now to add some wear on the paint when I’ll texture it. So what I do is I export the normal that I have right now and import it back to substance in the Normal map node and bake a curvature.

So, instead of having no edge wear like the left image, I’ll have some more interesting edge detail like the right image when I add a dirt mask.

When done with the main modular pieces, I modeled some extra assets to add on the settlement.


Now, for the skybox, I had the desire to give a huge sense of scale like I said earlier and Gareth Edwards’ vision when seeing Rogue One really inspired me. For the planet, nothing magical here, I just used spheres with enough segments so the borders are curved enough when you scale them up.

I personally used this material on Substance Share to have a Planet texture.

There are plenty of cool stuff you can find on this site as long as you have a license for substance. If not, you can find textures from existing planets of our solar system on the NASA database and modify them with Photoshop or any other photo manipulation software.

Here’s an overview of the material used for the planets in Unreal.

Here’s the breakdown of each part. These are the two panning textures.

Fresnel is used to simulate the effect of atmosphere.

This part is made to modify the direction of the fresnel. It’s really useful if you expose the parameter in a material instance so you can quickly change the direction if you change the light setup in your scene.

This part isn’t mandatory but gives a more realistic feel especially for daylight scenes where the background planet fades into the atmosphere fog. If you use this part, make sure to make the material translucent.

I decided to add the sun as a mesh and hide the sun from the skybox. You can also just put a sun on a plane and mess with the emissive strength of the material. It was just quick for me to use the same sphere as I did for the planets.


Most of the job is done with a dynamic directional light to have a natural feel to it. I oriented the light so it matches the position of the sun. A lower sun gives more vibrant colors and interesting contrast.

I toned the intensity of the directional light to 8 and changed the light color to a slightly red/orange.

To make the settlement more interesting to look at, I added some stationary point lights and sphere reflection capture.

The next part is going to happen in post processing. The Post Process Volume of Unreal is the best way to tweak your scene to have the best result.

I usually play with the Ambient Occlusion first. I modify the Intensity, Radius and power of it. I also add a vignette and a really subtle fringe/chromatic aberration.

To wrap up the post processing, I used the an LUT texture. Unreal doc does a better job explaining what it actually is, here’s the documentation

In short, the LUT texture is used as a color lookup table to do some color correction. If you check the documentation, it’s really easy to use.

Here’s a quick look at before/after post process:


Of course, I had a ton of fun making this environment. I wanted to test the potential of dynamic light and see how far I could go with it. Unreal 4 is one of the most powerful and user friendly engine nowadays. It’s a great tool to mess around and experiment with.

I loved mixing sci-fi objects with a natural landscape and blend them together to make a cohesive and consistent scene as end result. Now for the next project, I’d like to spend more time into asset creation and pre-production part.

I hope you enjoyed and that you learned as much as I did. Lastly, I want to thank 80 Level for this opportunity.

Maxime Barbieux, 3D Artist / Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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