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New Level of Photorealism in 3D: Tips and Tricks

UE4Arch Founder Rafael Reis Saliba shares his views on Unreal Engine 4, talks about the tools of digital architecture and describes his method of creating believable environments.

In less than a year, UE4Arch.com has become one of the leading resources for high-quality realistic environments with the help of Unreal Engine 4. Although the artists and designers behind this website are mostly concentrated on architectural scenes and not game levels, we just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to talk with Rafael Reis Saliba – one of the founders of UE4Arch.com. In this exclusive interview he talks about the tools, strategies, and tricks of creating fully realistic interactive interiors.


My name is Rafael Reis Saliba, I’m 30 years old. I started working with 3D art 12 years ago, but during my architecture course I realized that a promising market existed on Archviz and I began to improve myself as a 3D artist.


I went through different platforms such as Mental Ray, V-Ray and Unity. When it comes to anything 3D, getting a good result requires much study and dedication, especially on the lighting and materials. There are many types of environments and lighting conditions that need to be handled correctly.


I’m currently living and working in Belo Horizonte – a big city in Brazil. I founded UE4Arch.com with my partner Daniel Falci and we’ve been working on it since last year.

Main Pillars of Architectural Design


Probably the colors and shapes. I always try to seek references from well-lit environments to give the impression of a light and calm air in my works. I try to work with different contrasts and spot colors that don’t call too much attention in the scene, all for the sake of composition. Also, I spend a lot of time searching and saving references. Sites like Archdaily are great to be follow.

Best Tools for Creating Environments

I basically work with four softwares and some plugins. I mostly use Autodesk 3DS Max, Adobe Photoshop, V-Ray and Unreal Engine 4.


It all starts with 3D modelling in 3DS max, then I use Adobe Photoshop to create the textures and normal maps. Sometimes before beginning a scene in Unreal Engine 4, I build it in 3DS Max and render some previews with V-Ray to have a good sense of how the lighting will work. With V-Ray I also create specific textures for each object with RenderToTexture, thus optimizing the process.



About Unreal Engine 4

I began to test UE4 exactly one year ago and after a few tests I realized this tool’s immense potential for lighting, creating materials, and interaction.

At first it was quite tricky to reach a satisfactory realistic result, but after many tests and studies of the lighting and the materials process, I began to get good results. I created several lighting workflows to reach practical and realistic results, but sometimes I bumped into a few problems with global illumination (light/shadows artifacts).

This is my first Unreal Engine 4 project

For interior scenes, the lighting process in UE4 is quite acceptable and getting better. Large-scale projects, such as a fully interactive home, become very laborious. UE4 offers several tools to achieve excellent results. It’s a very flexible engine where you can create several alternatives for creating complex scenes.

Basically, it was the lighting system, materials and blueprints that mostly attracted me to UE4. Although I believe that the lighting system and materials will be optimized for Archviz in the future.

Creating Good Lighting Conditions

To be able to manipulate and simulate lighting in a natural way, we need to have a deep understanding of the system we’re working with. It is also essential to understand light behavior in the real world so we can try to simulate it realistically within the tool we’re working with. In the case of UE4, I try to optimize specific values for Lightmass in every scene. You need a lot of lighting tests to reach an ideal result with a free artifact look.

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The first thing is to create a natural lighting that comes from the sky (skylight) and then optimizing it in a way that does not generate any errors. In some scenes I use sunlight too. I build the light using high-resolution lightmaps, between 1024 and 2048. For artificial lights, I often use a dynamic lighting.

To eliminate lighting artifacts, I work with BaseLightmass.ini and always change specific values to optimize and improve the quality of lighting. Lightmass is a system based on a photon mapping algorithm. I suggest to that everyone who wants to try to build UE4 photorealistic scenes, to study the algorithm and understand how it works. For each scene we need specific values of the photon’s density, this value usually comes with various tests that include a trial and error process.

Building Materials and Assets

I paint textures mainly by hand and in Photoshop. There are some other tools that seem to be great for texturing and I will try them in the future. Substance Designer seems very nice.


There is a great book that I recommend to all: Digital Texturing and Painting by Owen Demers. This book about texturing and materials, explains the principles of composition and how reflection, roughness, polishing, and etcetera has an impact in the final scene’s appearance.


For different rugs, cloth and that sort of stuff, what primarily matters is your modeling. I often use the Marvelous Designer to create these models. With Mudbox, I can optimize and leave the natural model for UE4. For the fabric’s appearance there is no secret: I use a falloff system in the diffuse channel to create the feeling of small “fur and wires”.


I have a large assets library from the years that I’ve worked with Archviz. Most assets have been modeled in highpoly and now that I’m working with real-time, I have to optimize them using plugins like TurboReverse and ProOptimizer.

Static and Interactive Environment

I believe that the future of Archviz is real-time and interactivity. An architect and his client can instantly change colors, textures and furniture in an environment all in a realistic way. With this, you empower these people in a way they never experienced before. It’s like being in your future home without ever having laid a brick yet. This kind of display gives you a very accurate spatial concept, where you can find the best solution for each space environment.

In the project Modern Country House we have a very good example of changing floor, colors, materials and furniture.

Modern Country House Project



In other projects, such as London Apartment, it is possible to turn on the shower, fill the tub, turn on lights, open doors and see the steam from the sauna in operation.

London Apartment Project
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Also, we have worked in external cameras with rotation and zoom with different sun positions.

Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier

Additionally, VR devices like Oculus Rift can bring even greater immersion, arousing feelings such as being able to sit on the sofa or lie on a bed. The audio within these environments are also important: sound of footsteps, running shower, crackling fireplace, and etcetera will enhance the user experience. We have released a free Rift Gondola Ride demo in Venice that can show how realistic graphics can work with VR.

Venezia for Rift
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Recommendations for Building Realistic Environments

I recommend studying enough lighting and color theory. In the indoor scenes, the global illumination is responsible for 80% of the photorealism.


In outdoor scenes, we need a thorough understanding of colors and imperfections caused by external phenomenon in materials. We observe to have a better understanding of what is happening around us to try and represent them in the 3D world. The colors and imperfections are constantly in our daily lives, but we never stop to watch the details. Only when we are facing a tool where we have to recreate the reality is when we remember them. Another interesting tip is to study the concepts of painting and drawing.


About photorealistic environments in games, I think we’re starting to make a transition to extreme photorealism. I think some games in the future will have extremely realistic environments, but I look at games as an art. For me, throughout history, artists have always created techniques to simulate the perfect reality. However, in the end an artistic feeling always prevailed, which took reality and tried to turn it into something better and more fun. In the end, we appreciate art in a photorealistic environment.


Another important thing to remember is that everyday, computer hardware becomes more powerful and enabling more and more realistic graphics.

Monetizing UE4 Scenes

We created UE4Arch to push the boundaries of Archviz to improve people’s experience with the world of architecture. Our goal is the growth and development of the realtime Archviz community to make it become a new standard.

Our customers are 3D artists and architects who are aligned with our idea, and are also working to revolutionize this market. As I said earlier, the Archviz process in game engines is not optimized yet and we work hard for weeks on each project to facilitate this process for our customers.

The Future of Unreal Engine 4 for Architecture

Tools like the Blueprint system make things so much easier. I’ve seen a lot of game developers migrating to Unreal Engine 4 and it seems that will be one of the most used, if not, the main engine.

In terms of architecture, I think there is still a long process to for it to become a tool used by artists in the industry. First, we need the Lightmass to be improved. To represent architecture environments, we need a very efficient and clean lighting and because there are still problems caused by global illumination. The Archviz artists are very careful with the lighting.


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We are also subject to a variety of environments and each one has specific lighting. Epic created a good quality scale system for Lightmass (Preview, Production, etc) with predefined values. However, to get an illumination close to renders like V-Ray, we need to understand and optimize the lighting within the BaseLightMass.ini. A change in advanced documentation and values within UE4 Editor would be ideal.

Another important point would be a different interface. One that is more focused on the Archviz professionals with improved layouts and more simplified tools such as material editor. We have seen excellent work by Epic up to this point, releasing constant updates and resources. I think that UE4 offers huge potential for Archviz with the ease of creating interactions and a great support for VR devices.

UE4Arch’s intention is to create more interactive projects with new concepts to try to pull the most out of photorealism in the engine. Exactly one year ago, I managed to create the first photorealistic interactive project in UE4. Since then everything changed and we launched new scenes, each with new features of the engine (VR, particles, blueprints, etcetera).

We are currently working on some projects right now:


  • An interactive house implementing a lighting system that is viable for an internal and external condition.
Internal an External House WIP
  • A traditional Brazil interior kitchen and a famous church in Belo Horizonte, designed by famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Traditional Brazil Interior Kitchen

We’ve experienced the technology market for years and we are always looking for new tools and processes to improve our work. Unreal Engine 4 has made it possible to work with photorealistic real-time scenarios and interact in an uncomplicated method. We are also very excited about what’s coming up. At GDC 2015, new engines such as Autodesk Stingray, the new Unity 5 and Crytek CryEngine were announced. Also, new virtual reality devices as the SteamVR, Microsoft Hololens, Sony’s Project Morpheus, and AMD’s LiquidVR promises to stimulate growth.

Rafael Reis Saliba, UE4Arch.com

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Comments 1

  • Cal' Jeff

    RE: Barn Style Kitchen with Cat.

    1. I like that old rustic style. It feels homely. It doesnt feel like some asylum.
    2. To reduce outside glare incluse an area light indoors. This way you can lower the lighting outside so the exposure isnt so high. Instead of turning the sun up to "Burn in Hell" setting you can lower it to "Cooking with Gas" setting which means indoors will be dimmer which is where the area light comes into play.

    Thats a nice kitch. it would be my first chouse out of all the others. Home Kitchen. a Human Ktchen. I like it alot. That Cat is awesome.


    Cal' Jeff

    ·2 years ago·

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