Muhammad Omar discussed his approach to vegetation, scene assembly, lighting, and particles in the project The Tree of Life and shared a few helpful free tutorials and lessons he has learned along the way.
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Hey there! I'm Muhammad Omar and I live In the flaming hot desert that's called Iraq. I'm a 3D environment/prop student, to say the least, and currently a 4th-year architecture student.
I've had a passion for games since I was around 5, and the moment I had my own controller I fell in love with video games. Though it's been my dream to make games since then, I didn't know how to do it for a long time because of the lack of exposure to the outside world and the game industry in general. I only got introduced to the first 3D software I learned (3ds Max) in college about 2 years ago and I failed that class, believe it or not… I started learning it seriously about a year and a few months ago to do ArchViz and began my journey from there.
When it comes to game art, I first started watching Tim Bergholz's tutorials on Youtube (which I recommend to everyone) and engaging in his discord community and other ones too. I also watched other tutorials online from different sources like Pluralsight, ArtStation Learning, and Gnomon Workshop tutorials to learn the fundamentals of 3D art for games. At the same time, I was learning design, architecture, and art theories in college which helped me too.
I got into environment art because that's what attached me to games the most. I mean experiencing these worlds as a kid was really awesome to me especially because of the harsh environment I had to live in when growing up. I was also studying architecture so it was easier for me to get into environment art than other fields.
The Tree of Life: Idea
A few days back the guys from the awesome 021-space Discord community announced their second challenge celebrating the release of Ghost of Tsushima. The challenge was inspired by the game and lasted one week, and I decided to participate in it since I really-really love anything related to Japan.
One of the props suggested by the admins as an example was a cherry blossom tree. I instantly decided to go with that since I always wanted to learn SpeedTree and its workflow, and at the same time wanted to assemble a quick scene in Unreal as practice before my college finals began.
My main goal for the scene was to create this fantasy Japanese shrine in the middle of the forest where people come to visit and worship the tree. I instantly knew that the tree should be the main object in my scene and I had to focus on it. Afterward, I decided to go for vibrant colors and make a night shot so that I could better define the shrine as the focal point and also add fireflies of course... I mean, who doesn't like fireflies?
I started collecting some reference from Pinterest, Google, and Artstation. To collect everything in one place, I use PureRef, an awesome tool that basically allows you to create a pinboard where you can just pin your pics and navigate between them easily. So, there I created my reference board with all the pictures I needed (mood, trees, props, vegetation, Japanese temple, etc.). It's worth noting that I started collecting screenshots from games too, like Ghost of Tsushima and Witcher 3, just to set a minimum benchmark that I should hit and get inspired by them too.
Since it was a one-week challenge and I wanted to learn new software, SpeedTree was a no-brainer choice for me. SpeedTree has got to be one of the most beginner-friendly software solutions I've ever used. In just 2 days, I found myself putting the final touches on my tree after watching a few videos on Youtube, especially Adrien Lambert's tutorials that heavily inspired me when it comes to the tree.
The cool thing about SpeedTree is the speed obviously and the non-destructive workflow since it works with a really simple node system that can quickly allow you to create a good-looking tree in a short amount of time. And the software is really easy and simple when it comes to quickly adding textures or the tree-like bark, branches, twigs, and leaves. I would recommend this software to any environment/level artist out there.
Next, I started blocking the landscape in UE4 by simply using the landscape tool provided inside the engine since I didn't want to overcomplicate things and do my blockout withing the short amount of time I had.
Then, I added a landscape blend material that I made a while ago following an amazing tutorial by Lukas Koelz:
This material allowed me to paint different layers of sub materials and blend between them according to their heightmap.
Populating the Scene
At this point, I was satisfied with my landscape and needed to add some props and vegetation, - and what's a better solution to rely on in this kind of situation than Quixel Megascans?
I started to search for the props I needed in Bridge while looking at my reference so I could make sure I knew what wanted. Sadly, Quixel doesn't provide full trees in their library, so I grabbed some from the marketplace. Some of the packages I used: Open World Demo Collection and Nature Package. As for the Megascans, I used Japanese-related assets and plants similar to the ones in my reference photos.
I tried to use as few assets as possible, mainly to save time and to learn how to work with a small number of assets and still be creative and efficient. For example, the sidewalls on both sides of the path are made from the same asset, Japanese Stone Wall.
Assembly and Composition
When it came to the assembly, I wanted my scene to feel like this sacred, holy, and magical place, so I had to add some stairs and a path that leads the eye to a certain focal point. I also wanted it to feel old and ancient so I added some randomness to the assets by scaling, rotating, and moving them in different directions to make them feel organic and adapt to the forest environment around them.
When I moved to the lighting stage, I knew what I was going for: a moody foggy night with vibrant colors. Since this was my first time dealing with lighting in Unreal, I instantly thought of Tim Simpson's Youtube videos on lighting and his words that good lighting can make a bad scene look nice and vice versa. So I knew lighting was really essential for this scene.
I first placed my direct lighting and skylight. Direct light is the main source in this scene but it creates some really dark and sharp shadows. This is where the skylight shines (literally), - it fills all the shadow areas with reflected light from the direct light source and the sky. After setting those up correctly, I added fog to get some volumetric lights in my shots. Fog and volumetric lights are what make any scene come together and give it more depth. When set right, they change almost everything.
After that, I added some point lights along the path and around the tree to lead the eye to the focal point of the scene (the tree). The lights along the path have a lower intensity and a bigger radius than the ones near the tree so they feel more natural and do not create any additional focus areas that can cause some undesired randomised lighting.
At this point, the scene started to come together and shaping up nicely, and I only needed to make it feel more alive by adding some particle effects, - in my case, the fireflies and the candles.
For these, I used a free package from the marketplace Particles and Wind Control System and started tweaking them to my liking. I knew I wanted to focus my fireflies near the tree so I added multiple particles near the tree to make them look more randomized and increased their size to make them shine and pop up more.
With all of that, I was mostly done and just needed to add a post-process volume and play around with vegetation until I felt right about it. In the end, I just sent the screenshot to Photoshop to do some color grading and extra post-processing.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
Since this my very first UE4 scene ever, there're a lot of things I learned but the main points are:
- Take advantage of time even if it's very limited. You can definitely get good results if you set your goals right and focus on them.
- Reference, reference, and reference. I can't express how important good reference sources are for an artist. Even if there are just a few pictures, having something to look at and get inspired by can help a lot and save a ton of time. And even if you are not working on a project, surfing the web and looking at other people's work or real-life shots can boost your imagination capabilities a lot.
- Lighting is one of the most important parts of any scene if not the most important. Setting up the lighting right can turn the whole scene 180 degrees if I may say.
- A great number of assets doesn't mean a better scene. Working with fewer assets can drive you to be more creative and efficient, in my opinion.
- Don't complicate things and overthink them. I learned to go with things and focus on my goal and worry about the minor details at the end of the process.
- Pay attention to the polycount when modeling or using premade assets. Keeping your scene light is really good practice and can make the work more comfortable.
- Don't go crazy when working with SpeedTree. Although the software offers you a lot of flexibility when it comes to modeling, it can pump your polycount really high very quickly. So, always use as little geo when modeling as possible and rely on 2D based shapes. I would also recommend this tutorial on how to model and optimize trees for games:
- Pay attention to UVs and lightmap when creating assets in SpeedTree or any 3D software, they might create some undesired results later in UE4 when baking.
Lastly, if I were to improve something in my next work, it'd be definitely lighting and composition because there're no such things as too good lighting or composition. Also, I'd try to rely less on post-processing and get better results before it.