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3d artist Stef Velzeboer discussed the way he sculpted and painted the amazing ‘Paradise Island’ environment. Full breakdown of the modeling, material creation, lighting and composition.
My name is Stef Velzeboer and I am an Environment Artist for games. I grew up in a small town in the Netherlands, where I’ve been playing tons of games since I was about 3 years old. I’ve always been fascinated by the diversity of worlds and characters in games, and just love the story developers manage to tell through them. I started looking into the actual development of games around the age of 13, at which point I decided to pick up 3DS Max to try and learn some of the basics of 3D. Luckily I had a good friend helping me out, so that was a very fun experience! About 2 years ago me and my family moved to Canada, just after finishing high school. I decided to take a year off and work for a little bit, get settled, and ultimately decided to go to Think Tank Training Centre. The first proper project I worked on there was the semester one final project. The main goal of the project was to create a good looking still render.
In the middle of 2nd semester at Think Tank you get to decide what you want to specialize in. I felt like Game Environments was the most exciting to me, as it’s always been a dream to actually work in the gaming industry. Also, I really enjoy the big variety of things you get to work on in environments.
When looking for a concept for my environment, I knew I essentially wanted to show off as many skills as possible in a cohesive environment. With the concept I had chosen to follow (Made by Cornacchia) I would get the chance to try a little bit of everything from sculpting rocks, making foliage, metal rooftops, wooden beams and big buildings, while being entirely self-contained in the middle of an ocean. The only thing missing were some smaller props, which is why I added the little lounge area. I wanted to try and give it a tropical feel, making it a place people would love to go to and relax. I also didn’t want to go all out on the realism, as it is a bit of a crazy concept in terms of architecture, so I tried to find a nice balance between realism/believability and a surreal fantasy feel.
It was a pretty big environment, but tackling everything one by one wasn’t too bad at all. The main thing it takes is time and effort, without getting overwhelmed by what’s ahead of you. I started out by blocking everything out in Maya. Transferring from a 2D concept to a 3D space was a big challenge, I noticed that some of the 2D concept wouldn’t make a lot of sense in 3D space, so figuring everything out in the early stages was important to me. Later on things would obviously change quite a bit, but getting a basic understanding of what I wanted to put where early on made things easier in the long run. To get the sizing right I used actual floor sizes and also placed human models as a reference for the scale of the environment.
The little lounge area wasn’t originally part of the plan, although I did know I wanted to put something there. Initially the idea was to put a nice little garden/courtyard in this area, so I laid out the scene to make sure there was enough space to put something up there. I didn’t worry about the interior at all, since I felt like that little area would make up for most of it. Making the entire interior would’ve taken too much time. Once everything was blocked out I pretty much started from the bottom up, beginning with lots of rock sculpting as I felt like it was something quite essential as an environment artist. After sculpting the rocks I then went to work on the beach, the patio/gate, and then all the buildings.
The architecture took a little bit of planning as well. It’s quite a crazy combination of architectural styles, but by establishing my color scheme at the beginning all of the buildings blended together well. Most of the buildings were inspired by Italian architecture, while there’s some touches of Russian, Moroccan and even Indian architecture.
All of the building models were modeled in Maya. Before I started working on anything in my scene I color mapped everything in my block out to get an idea of how many different materials/modular pieces I would need. For instance, I colored all of the trims red so I knew they would all get the same material. One X-tiling texture sheet was used for pretty much all of the trims. As for the windows/modular pieces, I essentially just made one specific window type for each building which I could start reusing everywhere. I also knew I was going to have a lot of plaster walls, so I wanted to try and make a really good looking shader for it. This way I didn’t need to worry too much about texturing in the later stages, as all the walls would just be covered with tileable textures anyways. I used ZBrush for some of those tileable textures, for instance the bricks were sculpted and baked down to a plane, while the actual texturing was done in Substance Designer. By applying these techniques I was able to work my way through all the buildings at a really high pace.
For my landscape I used ZBrush to sculpt all of the rocks and the beach, I also used some vertex-paintable shaders on there. When I was looking for reference I found a coastline in the south-east of Spain that looked interesting and achievable to me, so I tried to sculpt rocks similar to those. For the main cliff I decided to start sculpting it as one giant piece, but for texturing purposes and reusability I would separate it into 4 smaller pieces at the end.
I approached the shader for the rocks similarly to the plaster, where I could just vertex paint sand, moss and grime wherever I wanted. Also, to help with the realism I created a shader with a wet gradient climbing up the rock when it touches the water, all of this together really helped bring the piece to life.
The one game I referenced for art style was Uncharted 4, I love the balance Naughty Dog found, going for a realistic feel but keeping it slightly stylized. For my actual textures, I mostly used Substance Designer. I kept my Substance graphs fairly simple, as I didn’t have that much time to work on them and wanted to keep the quality consistent throughout my project. The thing I love about Designer is that it’s completely non destructive, you can always just jump back into your graphs and change one of the very first nodes, completely altering the look of your texture with almost no effort. For instance, for all the wood in my scene I could pretty much just reuse the same graphs over and over again, while only having to change some parameters giving me the result I was looking for. Same goes for the stone, rocks, and everything else, it was quite an efficient way of texturing such a big scene. For some of the objects in my scene I still made specific graphs, for instance the floor in of the lounge area is 100% Substance.
The lounge area was a lot of fun to work on. The cloth was generated in Marvelous Designer, as well as all the pillows in the lounge area. Most of my reference for this area came from images of Moroccan hookah lounges, so I tried to stick to that style as much as possible. After I collected enough reference I made a really quick block out again to see if things would fit properly. When I finished the block out I decided to start working on assets and throw them into the engine so I could get a better feel of how things would look together. Once I had the couches and pillows in there I got the chance to play around with colors a little bit, starting out with a HueShift in the shader in unreal so I could change the colors in realtime in engine, I then went back into Substance, changed the actual texture colors to the ones I liked, and brought it back into the engine. For me this was a quick and easy way to make sure all the colors would work together in harmony.
The lighting setup for this scene was quite simple. For the overall environment I had one strong slightly orange tinted Directional (sun) Light, and a subtle blue skylight to fill up the rest. To add contrast to the scene I also spread around some non-shadow casting point lights with both blue and orange colors to fill up the darker areas. As for the little lounge area, I added in a few extra spot lights with a high intensity, this helped me get a nice rim light on the most important props while also over-exposing some areas in there. Due to the massive scale of some of the objects I cranked up the lightmap resolution on them. I also increased some Lightmass settings, affecting things like the Indirect Lighting Quality and the amount of Indirect Lighting Bounces. The Atmospheric effects were heavily based on the effects Epic Games used for the Sequencer example, as they had some really good quality god rays and dust in that scene.
Unreal 4 has been nothing but amazing for me. It’s incredibly powerful and I learned a lot while using it. Being able to work in real-time is helped speed up my workflow so much, reiterating textures or models and playing around with shaders is pretty much instant. One of the things I love most in Unreal are it’s shaders, the possibilities are infinite and yet it’s quite accessible. I also love the lighting and reflections, it’s almost getting comparable to movies in some cases. Looking at games and content examples made in Unreal Engine 4 really comes to show how far it can be pushed. The engine has a lot to offer, and it’s free to use for anyone. I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project in the engine and I can’t wait to start working hard on my next one!