The Well: Organic Environment Production in UE4

Álvaro Fuster prepared a breakdown of his UE4 environment The Well: modeling in 3ds Max and ZBrush, work with organic assets, composition, and lighting.


My name is Álvaro, I'm 25 years old, from Valencia, Spain. During my last year of university, I discovered Blender and fell in love with 3D art so I turned my life around and spent the next 3 years trying to learn everything related to it while freelancing for local studios and companies. In the end, I realized that if I wanted to join the industry for real I needed to specialize and learn from the best so I invested in Florida Replay's Triple-A Art for Video Games master's degree. I feel like I'm walking in the right direction to achieve my dream. 

Times are tough and many of us are trying to break into the games industry and it can feel discouraging at times, but we need to keep pushing forward. In the end, no matter what the outcome, we'll look back and feel proud of how much we grew as artists.

The Well: Inspiration

To put it bluntly, I came across this concept art piece by Alex Legg and thought it was pretty neat so I decided to create my environment around it.

My goal was to create a small, cozy forest scene with the well as the main point of interest. To begin with, I created a very basic Pureref document and gathered a few examples of how I would like the lightning, atmosphere, vegetation, and some of the well elements to look like.

I kept making changes as I kept working on the environment. In the end, I came across Kieran Goodson's "Those Who Mourn", and Jordon Britz's "Bell" environments. I read both of their breakdowns and felt really inspired to achieve a similar composition and atmosphere while keeping it my own.

Approaching the Well

I began by modeling a very rough blockout in 3ds Max and assigning a different colour to every element for clarity purposes.

During this stage, it's very important to keep consistent proportions. In my case, I made sure every element's Z-axis size was an integer value, - this will save you a lot of headaches in the future.

Then it gets interesting: I needed to think about how I could optimize the textures by creating trim sheets. The green and blue top elements can be simplified into one segment that tiles every 120 degrees. This leaves additional space in the UVs for the red bricks part below. I applied a Bend modifier to make the segments straight and created a low poly ready for baking and a high poly base ready for ZBrush.

The reason I copied the whole set one time to the right and two times to the left was to make sure everything tiled correctly in ZBrush. For this to work, we need to make use of the WrapMode modifier and set it to 3 so everything we sculpt applies to the three copies.

This is followed by the usual baking process in Marmoset Toolbag. To make things clearer, this is what the normal map looked like after baking:

After this step, I deleted the Bend modifiers, set every segment back to its original position, and applied the bakes to make sure everything was tiling properly.

The steps, rope, and caps also used tiling textures and followed a similar process. The rest of the elements have unique textures and were modeled in ZBrush from a base imported from 3ds Max. Brushes like TrimSmoothBorders and the Orb brush pack by Michael Vicente helped me greatly in achieving this result.

In the case of the bucket, however, I modeled 3 different planks in ZBrush and rotated them in different directions to create variety.

Once everything was baked and pretty, I assembled every low poly mesh in 3ds Max and exported it to Substance Painter for texturing. Before that, I also used Fishman's Texel Density tool for 3ds Max to check if the texture size of every element was correct. The whole well has a total of 8 texture sets. I approached the texturing by creating a base stone texture I could use for most of the elements and then adding dirt and colour and roughness variation on different parts, along with painted leaks. It's important not to go overboard with detail on the tiling sections, you can always add decals in UE4 to make it more interesting.

As a final note, it's also a good idea to add a subtle gradient from top to bottom to create a sense of depth.

Foliage and Organic Assets

When it came to creating vegetation, I wanted to use a different workflow. At first, I downloaded a bunch of Megascans assets and placed them in my UE4 scene to get a general idea of what I needed. Then, I created a fern by modeling three different canopies in ZBrush and then baking them into a plane. When I was happy with the result I imported the maps into Substance Designer in order to create my albedo, roughness, and opacity maps. For the grass, ivy, and additional plants, I created atlases based on photogrammetry data. Then I worked on a simple master material I could use for all the plants in UE4.

I combined the base colour with the opacity textures and the translucency with the roughness using the alpha channel of both. This way, I could achieve a good looking result with only three texture maps for each asset.

The tree and bush were both made using SpeedTree simply because of how quickly it delivered a high-quality result. It took less than a week to get the hang of it, then I grabbed a sycamore reference, added a few nodes, tweaked a few parameters, and voilà!

As for the rocks, I modeled two different high poly sculpts and later decimated them to create a base for my low poly mesh. After cleaning it up and creating the UVs, I once again baked it down in Marmoset Toolbag and loaded it in Substance Painter for texturing. To achieve a believable look, I grabbed a tiling rock texture from and used it as a base with low opacity. After that came the usual process of adding, dirt, colour, and roughness variation and cavity occlusion.

Something I like to do is to use the curvature map as a mask to highlight the edges by playing with the Levels modifier. For this to work properly, I usually bake the map in Substance Painter as the one from Marmoset Toolbag doesn't provide good enough results in my opinion.

Finally, to create the steps leading to the well I reused the little stone tile between the lion's head and the columns, scaled it to make it wider, broke it down into two segments, and sculpted additional damage in ZBrush. Here you can see the organic assets I created in UE4:

In the latest stages, I decided to use a few assets from Megascans due to time constraints. I downloaded the Thatching Grass pack to mix with my grass asset as I realized it was giving the impression of a mown lawn. I also got the Limestone Rocks and Thai Beach Branch to help me create points of interest and tweaked an Asphalt Crack decal to create unique details for the well. To help integrate these assets I created a simple dither setup and connected it to the pixel depth offset node of my master material inside UE4.

Composition and Lightning

This was the stage where I spent most of my time. I sculpted a basic terrain using dirt alphas and created a layer blend material for the landscape by combining material functions.

All of these materials except the water layer - a simple material with noise and low roughness which was used to create puddles, - were imported from Megascans. In this case, I thought the landscape was a mere canvas to place my assets on and chose to focus my efforts on other parts of the process.

During the starting phase, it's important to have fun experimenting with different asset combinations and lighting setups to see what works best. One day I was browsing Linkedin and came across a post by Nick Stath about Composition & Atmosphere broken down in his illustration ‘Hiding Place’. I felt inspired by it and made a list of what I needed to create a visually striking composition.

First, I needed elements that helped bring the viewer's eye to the main point of interest, the well in this case. I created a stone path leading to it from the lower-left corner of the scene and arranged the background trees in a way that they wrapped around the well creating negative space at the top.

It's also important to create contrast, - to be specific, shape, color, and value contrast. I rotated the trees slightly and placed a broken column to the right of the well. Our brain tends to create symmetry edges and compare both sides of an image, and by adding silhouette variation we can create a more interesting picture. Some of the sharp rock edges and round treetops also help achieve this result.

When it came to colour contrast, I was inspired by Nastya Ermakova's impressive Wild West Challenge environment. My goal was to create a sunset scene so I decided I needed a warm main light and bluish shadows. I created a very straightforward lightning setup consisting of a directional light oriented towards the well and a skylight to help soften the shadows. I also added a point light to highlight the top of the well.

As for value contrast, I made sure the foreground and corners were darker in order to frame the picture while creating mid-tones and highlights around the main points of interest.

When I was happy with the result, I activated ray-tracing and worked on some very basic post-processing. Mainly a little bit of grain, vignette, and chromatic aberration mixed with a subtle warm contrast LUT.

As you can see it took a lot of trial and error to get to the final scene.

Final Thoughts

This project took roughly over a month from start to finish. It was a lot of fun and a big challenge considering it was my first attempt at creating an organic environment. I'd like to thank all the people who gave me feedback and joined me on this journey. Even after I finished it, I kept noticing errors like the columns being too far apart to realistically support the top of the well. This is okay and it's no reason to get frustrated, it shows you still have room for improvement and will keep you motivated on achieving the best possible result in your next project.

Álvaro Fuster, Prop/Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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