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Very impressive article Jake! You are very talented.
Digital Media Arts College graduate Moses Saintfleur talked about the way you can use SpeedTree plugin with Unreal Engine 4. He gives a detailed breakdown of the scene and shows, how you can create wonderful natural environments in 3D.
My name is Moses Saintfleur and I’m an environment artist. I’m in my final year at Digital Media Arts College in Boca Raton, FL and right now, I’m really focusing on building a solid portfolio.
I started learning 3D a little over 2 years ago and it’s been tough. My first 3D class was Basic Modeling and I had to model a still life painting of fruits.There were grapes in this painting and I made them so reflective that the reflection of the grapes bounced off of the grid in Maya and into my eye and that’s why I wear glasses today (laughs). I’m just kidding. I don’t remember how it looked exactly but I do remember things being so bad that I can’t even share it with you for your own safety. I don’t want the grapes bouncing light into your eyes.
I’m really glad I chose this career path though and I can’t wait to actually start working in games. I learn something new every day and most of my inspiration comes from games like The Witcher, Skyrim, and Monster Hunter. They all share a similar theme that I love.
Planning The Scene
I wanted to make something that looked like it could seamlessly fit inside of a game like The Witcher. And since I have not worked on a game or in a studio before I wanted to see if I could create something as if I actually worked at CD Projekt Red. I wanted to make a village so I started blocking out assets like houses, barrels, gates, and wells. Anything I could think of I wanted to include immediately. Ithought I had a really great start but then I came back to it the next day to realizeI had already set myself up for failure.
I went in without any direction, just the desire to make something cool. I stopped;I had to take a moment think about how environments arecreated realistically. The landscape, plants, and animals come first. Then people, houses, and other things like boats for example. Or it could be people, boats then houses since you’d probably take a boat to find an interesting piece of land.Right? We could have an entire discussion about the order of events but I decided to take this approach to assure proper organization.I scratched everything I had before and searched for some references.
I really wanted to capture the proper mood so I gathered a bunch of references that had the type of texturing, lighting, and mood I wanted to achieve.I know using 3D images aren’t recommended when gathering references, but I had to include a few. I wanted make sure I’m keeping up with the quality that is expected to be in a game or film. And I knew thatif I could capture the lighting and mood with only foliage, it would be a lot easier to include other assets into a bigger and more meaningful scene.
I wanted to achieve a sense of realism but not too much of it since I also had to follow the art direction I tasked myself with. Personally, I think achieving realistic results are awesome but I also think too much realism can be boring at times. Even films use an unrealistic amount color to set a certain mood sometimes.
I’ve had lots trouble with getting grass to look good inside of UE4 in the past. I also needed to make sure that I had a reliable foliage creation workflowto use in the future. And now, I think I’ve almost got it. I wanted to see how much variation
I could get out re-using a very small amount of assets. I knew if I could make something great with a few assets then I could definitely make something amazing with more. I did not take polycount into consideration since I was more worried about how it looked than how it would work in an actual game but I’ll work on that.
I used Maya to create the grass and fern cards and SpeedTree for the tree. The texturing process for the grass was fairly simple. I painted the alpha mask first in Photoshop then I painted the diffuse map afterwards. For the fern and the tree,I got my textures from CGTextures.com. After tweaking them in Photoshop I generated the normal and specular maps with CrazyBump. I then modeled the shape of the fern in Maya and took my tree textures into SpeedTree.
Speedtree really is an amazing tool for generating lots of different trees very quickly. You can pretty much create any tree you could think of. However, it can’t do everything. If you’re working from a concept and need a very specific tree, then you’ll probably have to use Zbrush to get what you want. In this case I did not have to worry about that. SpeedTree is very powerful and I see why it’s being used more and I’m sure you will too. It has small a node based diagram that is very easy to understand when creating your tree. Youcan even individually editthe branches, leaf cards, and draw your own branches if you want to. You can even apply wind to use in the engine so your tree has motionand importing all of this into the engine is pretty simple.
SpeedTree x Unreal Engine 4
I know there different versions of SpeedTree and I’m not sure how they differ but I have the UE4 edition. Now, If you’re ready to import your tree into the engine I recommend creating a SpeedTree folder somewhere in the root of your project (at leastthat’s how I do it). Once you do that, save your tree document inside of that folder. It will copy all of the textures you used and save the tree twice, once as an“.spm” and the other“.srt” which is the optimized version of the mesh for the engine. If you applied wind to your tree just drag in a wind actor and adjust the wind’s speed and strength to your liking. Make sure you have realtime enabled in your viewport options to see how it is being affected. Please keep in mind that this isn’t meant to be a tutorial but just a rough overview of how these software’s can be used together to achieve quick and great results.
Building The Scene
As I was creating the plants I did not intend to make a scene with them just yet. I just wanted to practice and if it came out nice I’d use them in the final environment. So I took them into the engine to see how they looked and they were looking great! It may not seem like much but it was a huge step for me. I messed around with them to see how they would be affected by certain light situations and it was also a good time for me to practice adding post-process effects. I even placed a reflection sphere into the scene to see if would do anything but at that point I was too excited to think straight so I started adding anything I could think of. I apologize if it’s out of place haha.
I messed with the lighting some more and placed objects here and there tohelp reveal any lighting errors. This plane for example, I wasn’t getting any light under it.I noticed the scene was too lit in my opinion for no light to be affecting the bottom of the plane. I didn’t like that so I took the lighting down a bit. I even added a warm orangey-red point light to hide repetition of the trees and bring focus to a certain part of the image.
The entire scene was very small as I just wanted to test how my foliage would look in engine and I plan on making an actual environment using these assets. I want to make something like a small hunting village with some stream of water running beside a pathway or something because water is cool, and it can greatly enhance an environment if it’s done correctly.
I also realize that the scene could have been pushed even further with the addition of a simple falling leaves emitter. Different color falling leaves could have given the illusion of a wider variety of trees and add more lifethem. It’s definitely something I’ll add in the final environment.
I love environment art and It’s crazy to think that there could be other planets with life on it as we speak. Ever imagined what another world look like? What it smelled like? What it sounds like? What kind of animals live there? That idea is so amazing to me and I just love thinking about it. The beauty of Mother Nature is something I enjoy a lot and I get to express that through my environment art. There’s just something about environments that, really grabs my attention.
I just think natural environments have a sense of story in itself without you even having to establish one through characters or writing. When I make something I even ask myself if I would want to go there. And if it’s no then I’ve failed.
I really hope I get to live long enough to see the day where we can completely immerse ourselves into these kinds of worlds. That would be phenomenal and that’s my ultimate goal.
That’s the reason I chose this career and I think about it every day. Nothing is impossible and I want to show the world something like this can be achieved.
With that said, The Witcher 3 really captures the kind of worlds I enjoy looking at, playing in, and learning about. It has truly inspired me as an environment artist.