Telling Scary Stories in Unreal Engine 4

Telling Scary Stories in Unreal Engine 4

Valerio Terreri discussed the creation of Pietrascura – an enormous UE4 village built with the help of 3ds Max, Zbrush, Maya, Substance tools and Quixel Suite.

A talented 3D artist Valerio Terreri from Southern Italy talked about his most recent project called Pietrascura. It is a huge demo reel featuring a maze of streets that will make you feel lost. Powered by Unreal Engine 4, the sinister street was created with the help of 3ds MaxZbrush, Maya, Substance tools and Quixel texturing solutions


My name is Valerio and I am from a little village in a very small region in Southern Italy. Throughout my childhood I moved around several times and found that, contrary to popular belief, video games are a great tool to bond over with new friends. I have been always fascinated by Video Games and their unique worlds. However before starting my career in the game industry, I completed my bachelors in Archeology and after I went pursue my passion in video games and attended the I.E.D of Rome to become a Video Game Designer. From this point on I worked as a 3d artist and as a video game designer on several small projects in Italy, mainly educational video games, but also on adventure, racing and tactical-action games. Recently I moved to Vancouver in order to push forward my skills as a 3d artist and work on something bigger.


When I started my demo reel I wanted to use the environment to tell a story and I decided that the best way to create this narrative would be by building something I was familiar with. As I mentioned before, I am originally from a small village and I have always been fascinated by the maze of streets that you can find there; because of this I wanted to utilize the intricate structure of streets to create the feeling of being lost. In the end, I came up with the idea of constructing a quaint and unassuming Italian village that hides a sinister secret.


I created my own concept for the scene, and during this phase Lovecraft and Italian horror movies were strongly referenced, for this reason you can find a lot of tributes in the scene; from the manhole with the tentacular icon, to the mask on the top of the doorway that leads to the catacomb, taken from Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. For the Art style I wanted to use realistic assets with PBR textures and light the scene with cold and warm surreal lights, like the vivid lights Italian directors, such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, used in the 70’s.


It is a big demo reel. I think its scale was so large because I had worked as a game designer before, and I imagined my reel as a whole level with a story-driven structure. I think I approached the scene as if I was a director: I started from a couple of images I had in mind and then I built the rest of the scene around them. I knew from the beginning, for example, that I wanted an establishing shot of the village with the tower bell on the background to catch the attention of the viewer. Another aspect that helped influence the composition of the village was the camera movements I wanted to use; at the beginning when the mood is suspenseful I cut the camera shots up to build the tension and when the mood crescendos I chose to film the scene as one long continuous shot in order to give more emphasis to the narrative structure.


I started collecting reference for all the elements I had previously sketched while working on my own concept. This phase is really important because it sets the guidelines for the whole art direction. When I had a strong idea of what I wanted to create, I did a fast mockup to test the size of the scene, first I built the italian village to scale and then I built the catacombs separately. After resizing the scene a couple of times, I finally started to connect the upper village with the underground catacomb. While constructing the scene I wanted to create a cohesive level design where everything is accessible; for example I connected the sacrificial underground chamber with the well you can see at the beginning of the scene.


I modeled almost everything in 3ds Max and Zbrush and I used Maya mainly for the animations. In my previous work experiences I had to learn both 3ds Max and Maya and now I like switching between these softwares accordingly with what I need to do.

Working on this project helped me find my personal pipeline: modeling in 3ds Max, sculpting in Zbrush, producing basic materials in Substance Designer and final details in Substance Painter. Sometimes I use Quixel Suite as well, especially NDO, because I find it really useful when I have to work on normal maps, especially when I have to create unique patterns.

For the desecrated altar I modeled the statue and deer skull in 3Ds max and then used Marvelous Designer to create cloth over the figure. I then sculpted the high poly mesh in Zbrush. For the textures I used Substance Designer and Substance Painter.


When I had to focus on the texturing I asked myself “What is the fastest way to texture this entire thing in the most efficient way?”. At the end I decided to use vertex painting and some decals directly inside Unreal 4; with solid shaders Unreal 4 allows you to work fast and have a good amount of details. I then worked with Substance Designer to create different tileable materials, such as cobblestone and brick. I love that program, because it allows you to have different textures by just changing some parameters in your graph. Working in combination with Substance Designer, I find that Substance Painter helped me create unique details faster. For other organic materials, like the skulls in the wall during the underground section, I used Zbrush to sculpt, Designer to generate dirt and highlights and finally adding unique details in Painter.

Cobblestone Graph


In general the post-production phase was relatively easy, because I had previously set the tone of the scene, during the concept phase. As I stated earlier, because I chose to use surreal lighting I knew I wanted to create a “dreamy dark mood” like you would see in a dark fable.

In terms of lighting, the underground sacrificial room was toughest part to light because I had to use more lights to show all the details. In the end I used the post process volume in Unreal 4 to expose more parts of the scene that were too dark and then I added volumetric fog.

One of my final challenges was the spinning portal; to create this part I used two big cones with a spinning Displacement map, followed by an Emissive map, I then used several layers with different animated sprite sheets.

It has been a long journey and I realized that a reel is like a marathon: you need a strong preparation and you have to be constant, more than explosive. Start with a solid concept find a lot of reference and try not to get lost.

Valerio Terreri, 3D artist

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev 

Follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more