The Aftermath: UE4 Scene Production Techniques

The Aftermath: UE4 Scene Production Techniques

Hussain Dabhiya discussed his educational background and his UE4 scene The Aftermath, talked about his approach to modular kits and material production with Substance Suite and shared some useful tips for working in UE4. 

Introduction

My name is Hussain Dabhiya, I am 22 years old. I come from a city called Pune, situated in India. I am a recent graduate, looking for work in the video game industry. 

My professional work experience is fairly limited since I've been consistently enrolled in different schools for the past 5 years. That being said, I've worked on multiple game jams and course projects with my peers while also working on some small freelance projects during my free time. 

My introduction to the world of 3D was when one of my friends in high-school introduced me to the steam workshop for a game called DotA2, that's when I realized there were a market and a career to be made in video games, but it became a reality when my father encouraged me to join a video game art school called DSK International Campus in my home country. I still remember the first time I walked into the hallways of the game art labs, just one look at the walls decorated with posters, and observing the students roaming around with messy hair and clothes, that's when I knew, I finally found my people.

Background

The past 5 years of my education in video game art have been a mixed bag. A combination of self-learning, education from teachers, and help from fellow students are really what made it all come together. I first started my journey into the 3D game art world in a school called "DSK International Campus" in India, after spending 2 years at that school I decided it wasn't enough. My desire to learn more, lead me to Think Tank Training Center in Vancouver. In order to get in, I was put on a one-year waiting list. To bide my time, I scoured the Internet in order to learn as much as I could about game art and 3D modeling. When I finally got into Think Tank, I realized what makes it so incredible.

All the students you meet at that school are self-motivated to be the best in their craft, lighting, compositing, VFX, animation, whatever that may be. They have an insatiable appetite to learn more! Being in the same class with people that share the same mindset, really motivates you to be better, learn, and share knowledge with one another. Another feature that makes the school stand out is its "mentorship program." In the last four months of your term at Think Tank, students get to choose a mentor from the industry that will help you navigate through your personal project and final portfolio piece. I think this is the best the school has to offer since it gives you valuable insight into the industry workflows, as well as personal, one-on-one time with the experienced individual. For my project, I sought the guidance of a senior-level artist at the Coalition, whose name is Boyd McKenzie.

Planning

When I began planning out my final project, I knew I wanted to make an indoor environment and I also knew roughly, the scale at which It would extend. based on these two ideas, I started looking for references. It soon became clear to me that I was leaning towards fantasy/old-world themes rather than new age or Sci-Fi. I kept exploring these ideas until I came across this piece of concept art by Jie Tang. Not only did the scene provide a good mix of hard-surface as well as organic objects, but also, the artist provided a schematic and an intriguing story behind the artwork, this really drew me in. When collecting reference for this project I was looking for images that have striking visuals or design that resembles the concept art. I tried to use my reference board as a guideline and stay as close to the theme as possible.

Blockout

For the majority of the 3D assets in my scene, I used Autodesk Maya. Upon analyzing the scene from its schematics, I made sure to take notes of the modular pieces I would require beforehand. Breaking down the scene into its modular components early on was very useful because it helped me plan future decisions better. The components were mainly 3 categories: Large Structural, Modular Kits, Unique Detail/Hero assets.

I started with a blockout in Maya, the objective of the blockout was to reproduce a representation of the concept art, with simple geometry, we do this to get a sense of space and layout and also to make sure that the proportions of all assets related to one another are correct. Since the scene is radially symmetrical, I set up some basic angle snapping and modular structures, this lets me iterate very quickly. The next step is to take the blockout into Unreal and navigate through it using the "Third-Person Blueprint." This allows you to perceive your environment as if it was in a game and might give you a better sense of judgment when changing your blockout. It is crucial to get your blockout right because it will simplify and streamline the next steps in your asset production. This is, in my opinion, the most time-consuming and important part of the entire pipeline, so spending enough time here will pay dividends later on.

Working on Modular Kits

Once the blockout was completed, I moved on to planning my modular kits. I try to approach the modular pieces first, so I can fill out my scene and then spend the remaining time on the hero assets and unique props at the very end. 

The biggest challenge for the modular kits was approaching the mechanical equipment in my scene. I didn't want to use the traditional method, where I create a high poly, create a low, and try to fit it all into one large texture sheet. I had to figure out a more non-destructive workflow that would allow me to make changes to my mechanical props without having to re-model, bake, and texture them all over again. I had to do this without sacrificing visual quality and texel density. I did some research and was inspired by the Star Citizen asset workflow. The idea that I'm using here is to create the core shape of the machinery as a uniquely unwrapped asset and create a modular kit of smaller parts to add detail that I can arrange and customize. This is very powerful because it allows me to model a simple base shape, and to detail it further, all I need to do is hand-place the smaller modular kits. This allows me to make different variations of the machines with only a few hand-crafted assets. It also allows me to preserve texel density with small texture sizes as well as save me the trouble of baking since I'm using weighted normals for all these pieces. The other modular props, I created were simpler ones that use more traditional High poly to Low poly workflows.

Materials

For the materials and textures in the scene, all of them were created in Substance Painter or Designer. For all tiling textures, I used Designer. The biggest feature I made use of within the Substance suite was the ability to save "custom" smart materials. I made a base wood, dust, concrete, and a few other variations and saved them as custom presets. This helped me texture all my assets very quickly, at the same time, I was able to maintain a certain consistency in the colors used and preserve the "aging" of all my materials. Another trick I often use is to add splashes of colors to my "baseColour" even though I'm trying to make a realistic material, I try to stylize it by adding a few additional colors. This gives a more unique visual breakup and makes the material pop. My biggest inspiration for texturing comes from the "Dishonored" franchise. All the materials and textures in this game have a very striking visual property that I absolutely admire. This video explains the artist's mindset when it comes to asset creation pipelines. A lot of my work is inspired by this!

Production Techniques

Decals

Decals are very useful tools that allow you to break up any kind of repetition, In my scene, I've used them to break up my tiling textures and to add specific details like dripping wall stains, puddles of water, etc. They are relatively expensive to render, however, so be mindful while using them because it may have an impact on the performance. 

Trim Sheets

Trims Sheets are very useful in environment production because they allow you to texture multiple assets with a single texture sheet. I highly recommend the use of trim sheets if you are making an environment because it will give you a lot of flexibility and give you opportunities to think of creative solutions while using it in your scene. While making my trim sheet for this project, I knew I wanted to use it in multiple parts of my scene. Thus, while modeling the high poly for my trim sheet, I kept it fairly generic and simple, I made the necessary changes to the trim sheet in the texturing phase to achieve the variations I wanted.

Glass Material

A cool trick I used for my hero glass piece was a mix of 2 different glass shaders. One was a very simple metallic chrome ball, and the other was a regular glass material. The reason I chose to set it up this way was to achieve the thick glass-pane look, without having to simulate real-life refraction which can be very expensive. With this setup, you can get some convincing results. The only setup required is to assign two materials inside of your 3D software, one material for the "thickness" and one for the glass faces.

After I was happy with the modular structures and kits for my scene, I moved on to making assets that would help me beautify the scene and add contextual detail. For example, I created a set of lab equipment, a set of library books, two mesh decal planes for debris, and some decals to break up tiling and add more specific detail. I made these assets to add more visual interest in the scene and fill up all the empty spaces. 

I made use of the "foliage tool" in Unreal in order to create scattered bits of paper, rocks, and grass.

Unreal Tips

A few helpful techniques that proved to be very useful while working in the Unreal Engine are as follows:

  • Naming Conventions

Having proper nomenclature in your blockout stage allows you to update your blockout meshes with final assets, and as long as the names remain the same, Unreal will update the entire scene with your final asset directly upon import.

  • Master Materials

Setting up master materials, ahead of time for your scene, can be incredibly helpful. It allows you to create multiple instances of a similar "material type" and gives you control over its properties, all of which can be edited in real-time.

  • Material Functions

Using material functions allows you to create a rule-set and leverage that in the Unreal material editor. This can be helpful if you find yourself constantly making the same parameter controls for every master shader.

  • Using Channel Packed Maps

Using these textures saves you a lot of memory and the headache of dealing with multiple texture maps for each material you create. In Substance Painter, you have an option that allows you to export channel packed maps by default, but this is how I’ve set it up in Designer.

Using these features of the Unreal Engine will help you speed up and automate tasks that would otherwise interfere with the time you spend making beautiful art!

Final Thoughts

In the past, I've only had experience making small props and "hero" assets for games, but making a complete scene/environment really teaches you how to make use of every trick in the book, in order to make your piece come alive. The biggest challenge for me was the scale of the scene, this has been the biggest project I have attempted to complete in terms of quality and scope and simply put, I underestimated the time it would take to finish this scene.

Before starting this project, I had never used Unreal, so there was a learning curve I had to get over in order to start working on the scene. I forced myself into this situation however, to challenge myself and finally learn how to use a game engine. In completing this project, I learned quite a lot about how games and environments are actually made, but the more valuable lesson here is to be true to the goals you set for yourself. There were certain moments where I had to go back and revisit my blockout, redo a bunch of assets and throw away a lot of finished work, but I had decided that I was going to finish this scene, so every setback only delayed the final result. Another thing I've learned is to avoid obsessing over making everything perfect. This led me down some rabbit holes and cost me a lot of time. With all the amazing talent in the world, it’s only natural to feel like you have to make your work stand out but honestly when we start perfecting tiny details, we lose sight of the bigger picture, this leads to burnout and frustration, so sometimes it’s better to just make something and leave it at 50% and revisit it when you have a fresh perspective and a clear outlook!

Hussain Dabhiya, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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

    The Aftermath: UE4 Scene Production Breakdown