In case you missed it
Read our previous interview with Otto
Lately, I’ve been also working on Battlefield V, and recently finished my latest personal piece Valley of the Fallen Grace.
Valley of the Fallen Grace is my latest personal environment rendered in real-time in Unreal. It was inspired by the awesome concept art by Romain Jouandeau. I fell in love with the concept the moment I saw it because it perfectly matched the visuals in my head of a fantasy town in a setting I'm currently working on.
The environment ties in with the bigger scope of the world I am developing, and I hinted at some of its backstory in the ArtStation post description, but I am planning on releasing a write-up on it. The original concept piece by Romain was superb, and it hit the nail on the head perfectly regarding what I envisioned for this piece, so it was a no-brainer. I contacted him and he gave me green light to get to work. I always make sure to ask original artists for permission if I am working from a concept piece, and I strongly believe it is needed and should be expected from all artists. Respecting people's work and credit should always be at the top of the list.
Once I had the concept piece I started gathering references. I was not going for a realistic approach like we do a lot at the studio, so I wasn't worried about nailing realistic architecture or anything of that matter perfectly. My goal was to make it believable and fantastic, like a place you have never seen, yet your brain would not tell you 'hey, this is fake!'. At first, I usually like to get inspired, and there is no better place to do that than ArtStation which contains works of thousands of incredible artists. I like to browse (sometimes for hours) and pick things that click with me. Maybe a texture, mood, composition... anything that I feel works with the idea in my brain! Big inspirational names include Andreas Rocha, Pengzhen Zhang, Victor Cloux, and many others!
After that, I move on to look for real-world references. It's good to get a good grasp of reality when building anything since it will help you make your piece feel believable and grounded. Even in the most extreme fantasy settings having a good foundation will go a long way, so I usually like to take some time to get familiar with things like architecture, culture, and history.
My advice is always to go for reference whether it's something that inspires you and gets you going, movies that give you a mood you want to translate in your art, or a game that transports you to another world. Anything will do. "Withdrawing" into yourself will limit you, and you might miss out on good ideas!
I kept the modeling part quite straightforward and tried to work as modularly as possible. This means I modeled a rather small amount of assets that were planned to be reused from the beginning. Here you can see some of the buildings in Blender:
Color-coded, you can see how the same object was reused all over the scene in the best way possible not to show repetition. On top of that, decals and smaller objects like beams were placed to break tiling and enhance the facades. When working with modularity, I find it crucial to plan in advance what pieces will be needed to complete the whole scene without obvious repetition. I tend to apply the process shown down below to both concepts and reference pictures so that I could plan properly what assets I need to make. This is really useful for time-saving in asset production and scoping.
I have been using Blender since I started doing 3D around 6-7 years ago. Originally, I went into it because it was free, and I've been in love with it ever since! At first, I resisted jumping to other 3D software mostly because of the stability and speed that Blender offered me, but the Industry can be quite strict with the packages it uses. When I got my first job around 2014, everyone used Max and Maya (like they have been for the last 20 years). I am extremely happy to see Blender starting to get some recognition and love in the video game industry, and I think it's very well deserved. The fact that it's open-source, free for everyone for any purpose, and gets constant support from an increasingly large loving community makes it a no-brainer in my mind. Most big AAA studios still work with Autodesk suites, and I've come to learn and embrace the strengths of these programs in all these years in the industry, but more and more AAA studios are including Blender into the pipeline and I believe it's a matter of time until it becomes an absolute industry standard. In the meantime, I will keep on donating and choosing it as my favored software at home!
Landscape & Level Design
The landscape was generated using heightfield data extracted from a free global LiDAR library (Iceland) and later finished in World Creator. The original result was quite low in resolution, so erosion passes and some filtering done to the Heightmap were needed to get a decent quality good enough for the backdrop purposes.
Some masks were generated in World Creator as well and used as masks to make a simple detail pass on texturing for the faraway mountains. I heavily exaggerated the occlusion and edge values in the textures in order to make them pop in the distance and not to lose details in the fog. The mountain was about 190m high. Here you can see a side view of the scene:
Regarding level design, there wasn't much thought put into it - if at all, - since the scene was made mostly as a visual cinematic piece and not for gameplay purposes. This means most of the elements of the world were assembled to enhance the composition and visual aesthetics, and that is why the scene was constructed more like a movie set where you only build what you will see. This was done for scoping purposes too, since building up the whole town would have taken a much longer time. In yellow, you can see what is outside of the camera view:
I worked on the lighting setup on and off during the whole production. I eventually upgraded to RTX graphics and started using ray-tracing to calculate light bounces, so I did not do any light baking when finishing off the piece.
Beyond a few Rec Lights to intensify lighting bouncing off some walls and the fires throughout the scene, everything is illuminated by a single directional light and a skylight. I used a Height Volumetric Fog that helped me control both height fade distance for the backdrop castle and the intensity of the point lights. On top of that, in the post-process, I used tone mapping by lowering the scene temperature, ray-traced AO to enhance shadows, saturation, bloom, and even a slight custom sharpen filter. Here is a breakdown of the whole process:
On a closing note, I want to say that no matter what software or medium you work with, my overall recommendation is to focus on doing something you are passionate about. In personal works, do not focus on small details like nailing a material to perfection or modeling every asset with surgical precision. Widen your perspective and try to focus on the scene as a whole: the values of your tones, your composition, colors, lights... Many of the elements in my scene were thought out as a part of the whole piece so that they could blend together and work with the rest of the parts. I see a lot of new artists getting lost in the technicalities instead of focusing on the bigger picture. That, in many cases, can be detrimental to the overall look of the piece which should be always the number one priority.