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Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Ehsan Ebrahimzadeh discussed the production of the amazing 3d environment, that combines futuristic backgrounds with lush vegetation and gorgeous ruined houses.
Artstation Beyond Human Challenge
After the Project “Our Heritage“, I had a vision about my next plan. For every new project, I try to improve my pipeline and techniques. Each new project is an opportunity to grow my skills further. Before finalizing my plan for the next project, I became aware of a challenge in the Artstation. The topic caught my eyes, Beyond Human, that sounded similar to my initial vision which was a post-apocalyptic/ futuristic world.
Landscape photography is my old hoppy. However, who can walk in the astonishing landscapes of Pacific Northwest and not take photos? Every corner, you can find a masterpiece of the mother nature. Hiking around these areas provided me a big library of beautiful scenes. I combined elements of various photos to define my own scene. The key is your vision. While taking a photo from nature I constantly ask myself, how can I turn this scene into a video game level.
I always start with block mesh and test different ideas. Inspired by Pacific Northwest, I wanted to have a creek, wooden houses, and the specific foliage you can find in this area. Based on my initial idea, I wanted to have overgrown houses, a bus fell into the river and lush forest. I thought about the futuristic part of my scene. Tried some ideas which were closer props but eventually, I decided to go with distance skyscraper. Of course there were other things I wish I had time to add but in the end, I liked the whole picture.
Landscape and Water
UE4’s terrain tool is used to sculpt the terrain. For the water shader of the river, I started with UE4’s basic water and changed the shader for the mood and weather that I wanted. I added rain ripples, changed the water foam for shores, worked on reflectivity and colors, and changed some of the textures in the base shader. For the rain ripples, a flip book is used and animated texture sheet is blended with water normal. I looked at many reference photos for each of the water elements and then tried to mimic them in the shader. Additionally, planar reflections in UE4 is used which is expensive to render but looks awesome.
There are two overgrown/ abandoned houses in my scene. I started by blocking them out. They are modeled individually. Modular pieces are not used for abandoned houses except for the windows and the doors. 3DS Max and regular polygon modeling are used for the destructed parts. Looking at the reference photos of abandoned buildings and cities was the key to achieving a realistic result.
For the textures, I used tile textures as a base and then the vertex blend shader in the UE4 for details and variations. Moss and dirt layers are made in the blend shader. Decals are used for leaks and moss textures. It’s very easy to use too much of dirt and make you model to noisy and hard to read. I see this problem with many models especially using new software like Substance and Quixel Suite. You have to make sure your models are easily readable.
I usually start with studying the biome and foliage species. After finding basic information about the plants, weather, and biome, you can start working on the foliage. For my scene, I had this chance to go out and take photos. I studied the Pacific Northwest tree species, grass, bushes, and other plants to achieve a realistic result. For me, going out for the research and photo shoot is one of the most enjoyable parts any project.
After selecting the foliage species, Megascans is used for the foliage textures. However, I changed and combined different textures to achieve something unique. I had some difficulties finding the desired texture for the foliage, as textures were not labeled by their scientific name. However, Quixel team were so positive to apply my suggestion to add the scientific name for the foliage textures.
3dsMax and SpeedTree UE4 are used to model the leaves and trees, respectively. Speedtree is very fast and you have control over each element of your model.
For this scene, I had few props and more organic objects. The school bus was one of the important props though. My work routine is gathering several reference photos, modeling a block mesh for a test in UE4, High poly modeling, Low poly modeling, Unwrapping, Baking maps, and finally Texturing. Many references for both model and textures were selected individually. Combination of various references is used for each prop.
It’s important to think about the history of each prop in your scene. For instance, the bus has been in a lush overgrown area although the front part of the bus has been in the water for a long time. While modeling and texturing, I paid attention to the bus accident, moss, stains, and discoloration of the yellow paint.
I tried to go as simple as possible on distance buildings. The most important thing for me was their silhouette and also how they looked in the composition. I could add lots of details but I didn’t want them to draw too much attention. By adding some lights and gloomy fog at the bottom of the skyscrapers, I tried to vary the mood between the abandoned and futuristic city that people lives now.
Lighting, Effects and Post-Production
I used completely real-time UE4 lighting for this scene. I used one Directional and one skylight for the whole scene and set both on movable. Additionally, I used, Volumetric Fog, Fog, DFAO, LPV and LUT colors to achieve an overcast, rainy mood. For the sky, I used a custom skydome. Again, it’s very important to look at references and once you know what you want and have a very good understanding of software, you can achieve it by playing with different properties. I really enjoyed working on this scene’s look development.
From the start, I wanted a rainy day. For rain particles, I tried different methods like using planes with animated UVs, individual raindrops and a combination of both but eventually, I decided to go with individual raindrops since performance was not my priority.
I really enjoyed working on this project and competing with some of the most talented artists in Beyond Human Challenge. The whole scene took about two months to complete but I had some other client projects in between. I can’t call it a challenge but getting the mood and atmosphere was my priority in this project. After all the whole picture is the most important part of any project. You might have some great textures or great props, but if the whole scene does not look good, none of this matter. It was interesting that while I was working on details I was thinking “This must be the best piece of wood ever made in any game!” But then in UE4, I knew the important thing is the whole picture.
At the end, I want to thank Kirill Tokarev and 80.lv team for this interview.