The Captain's Table: Making an Underwater Diorama for Portfolio in UE4

Nina Klos talked about the textures, caustic shader, details, and lighting in her small project The Captain's Table, and discussed how she approaches dioramas for portfolio in general. 

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Hello! My name is Nina Klos, I’m a final year student studying Game Art at De Montfort University. I classify myself as a 3D Tech Environment Artist as in my work, I do both full environments and more technical challenges like exploring shaders. I’m currently finishing up my newest project, the Shader Museum, and starting a new one based on a forest river. I absolutely love anything colourful and sparkly, which is what I focus my work on – I think it really shows through when you’re working on a subject you’re passionate about.

I first got into Game Art by making modded maps when I was a teen – it wasn’t anything amazing, but I really enjoyed it. I found graphic programs to be the perfect blend of technical and artistic knowledge and coming from a very technical family (Engineers and Computer scientists), I was encouraged to pursue this interest. I went on to study Computer Science and Fine Art at school. I explored hyperrealism art there, developing my eye for colour, before coming to DMU to properly learn 3D art 3 years ago.

I initially wanted to pursue purely environment art, and it was only recently that I fell in love with the process of Technical Art. It’s not taught fully at my university, so I had to explore it by looking up tutorials and resources on my own. I learn by absorbing anything I can find, trying things out until they work, and asking others within the community for help.

Personal Projects

I always structure my projects around what I want to learn next: a new program, new techniques, new ideas. I think you can clearly see an example of this in my water shader – the Crystal Mushroom project had a basic panner texture and a whole year later I’ve made a complex water shader in my Shader Museum project. If I can tie my projects into something personal that I like, even better. For example, I visited the building my Gothic House diorama was based on – it’s even more impressive in real life.

Outside of art, I am a big fish nerd, so I enjoy adding in as many fish as possible into my work. It is my personal goal to have the fishiest portfolio on ArtStation.

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The Captain's Table: Idea

The Captain's Table was a university project, the brief being set by Ubisoft, and past the title the concept was left to our own interpretation. I wanted to create something whimsical and fun. I needed to have a narrative and visual interest in it; the concept reverses the idea of people fishing fish – instead, the fish is fishing the man who killed his dear family. It is anthropomorphized but in a roundabout way, and I wanted to express how we should be more empathetic for these creatures that are much cleverer than we think.

Modeling and Texturing

I created the models fully in 3ds Max, and I did not actually do any sculpting on this project. Though I can do both easily, I am quicker at modeling simple forms and creating all the details in programs like Painter or Designer. For the table in particular I made a big trim sheet in Substance Designer and applied it to the sections of the table as needed. This also allowed me to easily change the wood grain size or the look of the table in seconds.

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In Designer, I always start texturing by creating the base shapes, like the wood grains or surface scratches, before merging them together using colour masks. In Painter, it’s the same process, but I apply what I know from digital painting as well – the main colour, secondary details (grain, patterns), tertiary details (small dents, grooves), and finally colours in subtle gradients over the top.

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I wanted the details to guide the viewer around the scene, adding a bit of movement from the rotating fan or interesting patterns on the pots. The knife stuck into the wanted poster was a crucial element of narrative design for this piece, showing the motivation of the main character who uses this desk. Other items were placed to add busyness to the scene, make it feel very lived in.


I created the caustic shader using the 4WayMotionChaos function in the Material Editor in Unreal. This basically acts as a 4-way panner, moving the caustics in 4 different directions. You can find it if you add a materialFunctionCall and look for the 4WayChaos in the dropdown expose engine content. I used a multiply to control the strength, made sure the image was transparent and right-clicked to turn it into a texture object. After that, I added it into a deferred decal – you need to set your material to a decal one as well. Then just place it and you have caustics!

Lighting and Color Correction

For the lighting, I added volumetric fog and two strong light sources coming from the top, as well as a few colourful fill lights. I also illuminated the fish a little, giving them a light pink glow. You always want to have the brightest point where the focal point is, which was the middle of the table for me.

I looked at underwater images for inspiration, adjusting the settings according to what looked closest. A nice trick is to take a screenshot of your work and put it in Photoshop. You can do colour corrections and a sketch over while you are working on it – you can often find many things you didn't even notice in the engine.

Working on Dioramas for Portfolio

Dioramas are a great way to create quick portfolio work. This is good for several reasons: 1) you get a boost of motivation every time you finish a project, 2) you can redo any big mistakes you made in the beginning stages, and 3) you can test out new ideas.

For dioramas, you want to have a very nice edge – look at silhouettes. It’s a good idea to have lines and symmetry, and also leading lines and arches that take you around the scene with 2-3 focal points. Pick a subject you like and can work on for several weeks. One of the crucial steps I see a lot of people miss is good lightning – look at some strong light references and try to do something similar for your scenes.

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Challenges and Future Plans

During this project I was hit with several bad pieces of news in my life, so the project went very slowly initially. Navigating that and working around it was tough, and I learnt that I always need to plan less than I expect (I think that generally applies to everyone in 2020). On the other hand, that adversity fuels me – and those failures push me forward further. I took the negative energy, revised my plans, and finished on a stronger note. 

Moving forward, I want to continue to improve my skills with everything I make. After the shader museum, I’m going to be experimenting with more water shaders and foliage, which I’m really excited about! 

Nina Klos, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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