Understanding Modular Environment Design

Understanding Modular Environment Design

Vitaly Zhdanov did a breakdown of his recent Soviet Warehouse environment, which he created as part of his CGMA course with Clinton Crumpler.


Hi everyone! My name is Vitaly Zhdanov and I am working as 3D Environment Artist at Anvio VR in Moscow. I graduated from Graphic Design Faculty of International Academy of Business and Management. After the graduation I have been working as a graphic/web-designer for 7 years. But 3 years ago driven by the long-held dream I decided to move over to the game industry and enrolled at the Game Art faculty in Scream School in Moscow. After a year of education, I found my first job in game industry.
In order to move forward and keep learning, I entered the CGMA class: UE4 Modular Environments from Clinton Crumpler, where I learned lots of interesting techniques and approaches which I will speak of below.


At the first week of the class I had to define the theme of my future scene, which hasn’t had to be massive but at the same time not an easy one for 2 months class. I started with searching the ideas and references in Google and Pinterest and I was lucky to find those nice photos of abandoned soviet bunkerwarehouse.
In these references I got exactly what I was looking for: relatively small scene, modular elements, interesting lighting and gloomy atmosphere of abandonment.
I began to decompose the references and this approach helped me to decide which objects I need and how many of them I need as well as it helped me to plan the modularity. 
I made my Trello Board to collect different references of objects for the scene, textures, decals and materials, which I wanted to create. With help of Trello I was able to follow the progress and control the amount of work to be done.


Checking my references I made the basic blockout of large and medium objects to quickly fill the space of the whole scene. I used Maya for modeling and compiling the draft blockout where I can easily check the connectivity of modular assets between each other.
After that I imported these objects into Unreal Engine 4 and made a blockout in engine. At this stage I realized that I can make my scene even more interesting with adding the second floor which required some additional modular elements. During this blockout stage I also positioned the cameras for future beauty shots.
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At that time I didn’t concentrate my efforts on lighting too much but I still placed several local light sources to better understand the overall look.

Modeling & Texturing

After I was satisfied with the blockout I began model low polys and high polys of other objects and unwrap UVs. I tried to use trim sheets where it was possible to avoid a great number of unqiue textures.
For most textures I used Substance Painter and as far as I had quite strict deadlines I used tile textures made from photos and Substance Share content. I was trying not to be very obsessive with high texturing quality of each and every object because the prime goal for me was the quality of overall look of the whole scene. That is why it was a relatively fast stage of the project for me and that is what I get:
I imported objects and textures into the scene and replaced the block meshes with them.
At a certain point I understood that the scene lacks some kind of main object which would draw enough attention. I got back to references in Pinterest and searched out an interesting wall drawing. It was a big luck to find the photo with high enough resolution to make a decal from it.
With this drawing my scene started to look more living and sharp.

Lighting and Post-process

When the major part of the objects were ready I began setting up the light and spent about two days for lighting process. First I added a subtle fog to give some depth and atmosphere. After experimenting with a few variants I realized that the light looks quite simple with any of them. So, once again I returned to my references to inspect them closely with regard to the lights and shadows and this time I detected this purple (violet) hint in the shadow color. That was a good starting point for adjusting the skylight and exponential height fog parameters.
I have always tried to check the overall look from different cameras and different camera angles. As written before my main view was determined at the beginning and so I could have made some experiments with light sources to enforce the visual impression. I was just moving the point light behind the door and noticed an interesting shadow of the chain-link on the column. Even though I understood that such effect would be unrealistic, I have still decided to leave it at that because it brings more artistic interest to the composition.
After all the lights had been established I moved to post process set up. At the end I opened the screenshot of the scene in Photoshop where I finally tonemapped it for the desired look and imported the LUT texture into post process.

Details and polishing

I continued to detail the scene. At the end of the class my scene looked like this: 
It looked quite nice but it still lacked some additional details and there were still plenty things to work on. That is why I decided to spend two weeks more to carry the work to the final quality completion. During the first week I fixed certain bugs and problems with lightmaps, made a few new objects such as cloth, mines, gas masks, bullets, holders for wires and etc. Below is my final result:
The second week was to prepare the work for publication on Artstation. I made several beauty shots and set up camera flythrough for future video.
With help of guide by Clinton Crumpler I also made some 360 screenshots.  


The whole project took me about two and a half months. I have usually worked on it after the working hours on weekdays and full time on the weekends.
Apart from lots of new interesting approaches and techniques of modular assets creation that I learned, this class gave me the opportunity to make a full-fledged scene for my portfolio in a limited period of time with deadlines each week. I’d like to thank Clinton Crumpler for his feedbacks, advice and Q&A sessions. 
For this moment I have also completed two other classes from CGMA, which are Vegetation and Plants for Games by Jeremy Huxley and Texturing and Shading for Games by Kurt Kupser. I really enjoyed these classes also and soon you could see the result of my work on my Artstation profile. 
For registration inquiries with CGMA, please email 3d.registration@cgmasteracademy.com.

Vitaly Zhdanov, 3D Environment Artist @ Anvio VR.

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.

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Comments 5

  • Crumpler Clinton

    Wonderful Interview Vitaly! I loved having you in the class :D


    Crumpler Clinton

    ·2 years ago·
  • Madhav Bharadwaj

    A small doubt did you assemble the modular pieces in unreal engine or in modelling software??


    Madhav Bharadwaj

    ·2 years ago·
  • rlawsfamily

    Nice article. It would be good to have another one from a level designer/game developer, giving a professional perspective of using these assets in an actual game, perhaps even in an open world game where modular assets are reused most frequently.



    ·2 years ago·
  • Vitaly Zhdanov

    Hey Alan!
    I just checked lightmap resolutions in lightmap density view mode. For some problem objects I did the lightmap UV manually in Maya.


    Vitaly Zhdanov

    ·2 years ago·
  • Alan Andrade

    Great environment! I have one question though, how did you avoided those "lighting seams" that appears in Unreal after you build your lighting? Congratulations once more :)


    Alan Andrade

    ·2 years ago·

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Understanding Modular Environment Design