Combining Ruins and Nature in 3D

Combining Ruins and Nature in 3D

3d artist Timothy Dries talked about the way you can play with lighting and architecture in UE4 to create picturesque ruins.

3d artist Timothy Dries talked about the way you can play with lighting and architecture in UE4 to create picturesque ruins. Textured with Substance Painter.

Forest Ruins


The start of this scene was supposed to be a pedestal to display a character on, but as you can see I took the focus more to the environment itself, but it can still serve as a pedestal to show of any character. Also this was my first time building a full scene using Maya as I knew that my internship at frontier would be fully in maya.



I started off looking at old churches and I kept coming over the same couple off images of abandoned Russian churches. I was interested by seeing such beautiful architecture in the middle of the woods. After looking around at these churches I searched for Tver Oblast, and apparently this area has a lot of churches that are abandoned and broken down. After defining the different pieces of the structure itself I began building a base block out in Maya.

Substance Painter

Снимок экрана 2016-05-04 в 13.16.54

After I had the block out done I started on detailing the meshes in Zbrush, I added a lot of bricks and sculpted broken down pieces. But this was later replaced by Substance Painter just by adding a brick texture using Tri-planar mapping, this fought heavily with the normal map I spent so much time on creating, except for the broken down ends. So I decided to undo all the detail that I had sculpted and replace it with the Substance Painter texture.

So yeah, I could have saved myself a lot of time by first testing this in Substance before moving on to detailing in Zbrush. So think before you act.



The lighting in this scene is actually really simple, it uses only one directional light and another point light to fill the pedestal itself with some light. There is also a little bit of fog in this scene but this is only visible in the This puts an extra emphasis on the character that is put inside if there is one, together with the lighting we have all of these lines that point towards the middle of the ruin.


The thing to keep in mind with these large amounts of foliage is that the build times are long, especially when you need a bigger light map on the foliage itself to have a better definition of the shadows actually shadowing other parts of the foliage as well, as seen in the screenshot at the beginning, the screenshot above is without any lighting build and you can see that there is a major difference between the shadows on the grass itself.



The grass used in this scene was created from a stock photo from I used a picture that had already cropped grass blades, I separated one of them and copy pasted it to make some actual grass. This is a simple technique and can result into some easy results but is not the best way to do this if I had to do it again. Once you have done this import the textures and set up the shader, there is a special option for foliage in the shader.

Using the foliage tab in the top left of the screen in Unreal gives you the option to drag and drop assets to then use as foliage to paint on top of the landscape. You then have the option to tweak all of the options that can do all things like increase the density of the meshes you paint, the radius of the brush and so fort.

Use the foliage brush for other stuff


Doing this with the grass at first I decided to make a couple of bricks that I can then use again with the foliage tool to easily populate the scene with bricks. This creates the feeling that the ruins are actually still in decay. The really handy trick using the foliage tool is that is also paints on any other mesh you have in the scene.

The trees in this scene are not made by myself, these are standard assets that come with Speedtree, I had to use these because I was in a little time constraint.

The thing I have learned with making foliage is that I need to find a way to make more dense foliage so I can pull down the amount of meshes I actually need to fill the ground with grass, this scene is currently using about 4k planes for all the grass currently in scene. So when approaching foliage in one of the next scenes I am going to make, I might try some other ways to approach this, maybe using Fibermesh or sculpt them in Zbrush.

Post Processing


A nice finishing touch to every scene is using a “post-process volume” this can really make or break your scene in the end. So be subtle about it. I’m going to share a couple of tips that I used in this scene.

First off, you don’t need to expand the volume all the way so that it encapsulates all of your scene, there is just a little button for that, pressing the “Unbound” button changes the volume so that it doesn’t keep the borders in check. This makes the “Enabled” button really handy to easily switch between post-processing “on” and “off”.



To start with these cool post processing trick you need to download the base LUT strip as seen above, then take a screenshot of the scene you currently have. Then move on to Photoshop, drag your screenshot and your LUT in there, then add as much adjustment layers as you want to get a good result. When you are done with this export the little strip with all the adjustment layers on top as a separate strip again without the screenshot or anything.

Let’s head back to Unreal engine and import your newly created LUT. Open it up, set the mip gen settings to NoMipMaps and then set the texture group to “Color Lookup Table”. Then you can drag it into the post processing volume under the Scene color -> color grading tab.

Tadaa, you got your adjustment layers from photoshop in Unreal with this handy trick.

There are a lot of cool things to adjust in the Post Process volume. The things I adjusted together with the LUT technique are Ambient Occlusion, Misc -> AA method, Turned the auto exposure to 1 to disable the eye adaptation and a little bit of bloom and some scene color. There are a lot of options here, so give them all a try.


A couple of things I can recommend to other artists is to look at real life, be inspired by things around you. Go for real life reference instead of concept art or other games, this helps you in adding believability to the level you are making. Also if you are new to this, try not to make a full environment at first, start by focussing on a single aspect. Instead of tackling a giant environment on your own. And last but not least, if you are doing a full environment, do some planning first ( I must admit I could do some more work on this too ) this does help you greatly in tackling the environment and share the stuff you make to the online community to get some awesome feedback.

Timothy Dries, Graduate Environment Artist





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