María Martínez talked about creating medieval-style abandoned ruins, shared the workflow, and discussed asset-creation in ZBrush and 3ds Max.
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Hi! My name is Maria Martinez, I am a graphic designer and nowadays aspiring environment artist from Sevilla, Spain. I am currently studying my second year of the Bachelor of Digital Arts and Entertainment with a mention in Game Graphics Production at Howest, in Belgium. Among my projects, I have been recently working on a modular Sci-Fi level on Unreal Engine 4 as a final university semester project, also developing a game project with a team of artists and game developers for school which will be soon released, and now I just posted my second Unreal Engine environment project “Vault” that I made during the last few weeks.
Personally, I have been extremely passionate about video games since I can remember, just the fact of being able to create my own worlds and seeing them come to life was my main motivation to pursue a career in environment art creation. To achieve this, I am eager to continue and grow my skills as much as I can!
This project started as a month of duration assignment of the university course Level Decoration aiming to get comfortable with dynamic lighting and scene composition in UE4. I was told to choose a concept art and I would need to make an environment scene and a resulting polished screenshot based on that as close as possible to the original reference in terms of lighting, composition, and color, showing a visually AAA game approach.
In my case, I decided to recreate the concept art Vault by Darek Zabrocki, since I found his concept highly inspiring and in the art direction/style I wanted to experiment with. Among the goals for this project, I wanted to work as hard as I could to get a realistically polished result as well as creating a good composition and handling the light setup to get an abandoned, eerie mood, highlighting the most important parts of the scene.
The use of constant references was necessary both for composition and texturing purposes and to get an overview of how vegetation works on abandoned places as well. I was incredibly lucky that this artist even made a few separated references for some of the main assets of his concept so I could look at them by the time I started modeling.
So, this said and having in a PureRef file all the references for this concept on my second screen, I got ready to prepare a basic initial blockout on UE4 by only using basic shapes in order to set up a composition.
This step is incredibly important to me as it helps me to visualize my overall scene and how, in terms of size and scale, I will set up the main assets and correctly frame them in my camera view.
Since most of the main assets on this concept art were unique, I decided to recreate these ones from scratch, and the rest of the assets would come from Megascans and UE4 free marketplace packages. These unique assets were the columns, statues, arches, the window grill in the background, and the main rocky altar floor in the middle of the concept. For all these assets, I followed the common workflow of making the highpoly mesh in ZBrush, then retopology of this mesh in 3ds Max, and baking the high poly mesh on top of this retopo low poly mesh on Substance Painter.
For the pillar structure asset, I divided it into 3 sub-assets, so I could easily rearrange them modularly in UE4.
For the sculpting part of the assets in ZBrush, I followed the classic DynaMesh workflow, since it really gives me as much freedom as I need whenever sculpting. Some of the brushes I used most were the default Trim Dynamic, Dam Standard for small details, and Clay Buildup with low intensity. Apart from this, I used extra imported brushes for the rock cracks, which are free on the internet: Rocks-Cracks-Brushes-v2 by Luis Armstrong and Orb Brushes by Michael Vicente. I really recommend them a lot; they are quite handy for modeling rocks and cracks.
I used a customized skydome as well for the sky background of the scene, which also was included in the UE4 asset package.
Aiming to make the foliage of my scene, I learned and followed a different workflow. I created my own vegetation by getting a good atlas of leaves from a free source website. Then I made a base mesh of the plant itself on 3ds Max, I unwrapped it, and I rendered a picture of my UVWs that I imported to Photoshop in order to organize each UVW island with its respective atlas leaf.
I would then generate inside Photoshop my own Normal Map texture on the tab Filter Options > 3D > Generate Normal Maps, and my Opacity Map by just attaching a white layer on top of the leaves folder to make them white.
The albedo texture I got from Photoshop was then imported to Substance Painter together with the mesh I did in 3ds Max to get a more realistic result, also creating a Roughness texture in the process.
All these textures were then exported to UE4 and put together as a material shader that I applied to my mesh. A bit trickier was getting the foliage to smoothly move like there was wind in my scene. In order to get this, I created inside the shader itself a Noise node + a SimpleGrassWind node with a few intensity parameters that I would connect to the World Position Offset of the main graph as the picture shows:
Due to the limited amount of time I had to complete this project and the fact that the assets would be seen from a distant camera view, there was no need for too much detailing this time. Therefore, I decided to just create a customized base smart material in Substance Painter that I exported to every file and applied to all my assets. I also added an extra layer or two of more specific dirt to each prop.
I knew, that at some point, I would need another hue color, or to change the roughness or AO intensity, so I created a main material node from this main Substance Painter material on UE4 with customizable parameters.
Among some of the texturing techniques that I used in Substance Painter, I worked with the Position and World Space Normal textures that my high poly bake provided me in this software to create some green moss coming from the bottom of the assets slowly fading away to the top. The same technique would be also used to create a whitish sunlight decay going from top to bottom of the asset.
I also created a Substance Designer rocky material following the guidelines of the Rock Creation Techniques tutorial by Daniel Thiger. I used this material on the overall floor of my level and in the structures of the main arch in the background.
Breakdown of the material:
Composition and Storytelling
The composition was an important goal on this project, and this concept art indeed had a tricky one since there were visibly at least 5-6 different background levels on the concept. Level 1, the closest to the camera, and all the way up to levels 5-6 which are the furthest ones.
A few strategies that really worked for me to get a good composition are as follows: The most basic one was making the closest assets to the camera clearly way darker than the furthest ones. This intentionally sets a background edge difference between levels, for example, level 1 and level 2, and level 3 with level 4, just by making the level behind slightly brighter than the level before. It also makes the viewer focus the attention on the brightest areas of the middle of the scene. Regarding level 1, just the fact of being almost pitch-dark is also especially useful in order to frame the overall composition.
Another great strategy that helps to create some background depth and gives a mysterious mood to the scene is adding more fog the further the assets are. To get this, I used a tool from UE4 called Exponential Height Fog with Volumetric Fog on the parameters turned on.
Really tricky on this project was also getting a good sense of the correct overall scale. This was one of my main challenges, solving the scale difference between the closest camera view and the rocky round altar on the center of the scene, so it would not look unrealistically non-proportional to scale. Basically, by adding quite small assets, for example, the horse rider characters on the rocky altar area, I was able to create the illusion that this part of the scene is way further from the camera than it is. Moreover, by doing exactly the opposite, adding big assets around the closest area to the camera I also helped to create this illusion of being a huge scene seen from extremely far.
Lighting for this project was entirely done with real-time dynamic lighting, using only movable lights. Before entering on technical details, I wanted to show in the picture above that the direction of the light God Rays goes exactly to the focal point of my scene (red lines), and on the other hand, the green lines above are indicating not the light, but the direction of one asset that acts as a compositional key on the background, pointing also towards the main focal point, making an invisible triangle on the scene which center is the focal point. This adds to an interesting and balanced composition between a mix of correctly positioned assets and lights.
Focusing more on the technical part, my scene is made of one-directional light that acts as the main key light with a low brightness intensity and with the Temperature setting activated, adding a cold hue to the light. I am also using a Skylight with Real-Time Capture on and with a low brightness intensity. I wanted to keep the brightness intensity settings at a low level since my goal from the beginning was to get a dark sinister mood on the scene.
In order to get a smooth-looking environment, I decided to use lights with the same cold grey color/temperature overall except around the focal point which has a slightly warmer tint. This makes a subtle contrast on the scene and draws the eye to these warm areas.
To highlight specific areas, such as the backlight of the statue on the left of my scene, I used auxiliary point lights with a high brightness intensity pointing straight towards the asset.
I also activated the Volumetric Fog setting of the Exponential Height Fog to achieve God Rays scattered on my scene and pointing towards my focal point, same as in the original concept.
As a final touch, I also used some custom plane decals with a basic white sparkles sprite that I created in Adobe Photoshop, which I would use to manually cover some specific God Rays. Due to the fact, the goal for the project was a final screenshot and not really a level walkthrough, this was a trick that I allowed myself to use and experiment about it to get a feeling of small light particles floating around the rays.
Post-Production and Final Touches
I set up a Post-process Volume with a Vignette effect on the Lens tab, which gives darker lighting around the edges of the camera shot, and I also activated the Bloom effect with low intensity. On the Color Grading tab, I changed the Tint settings, so I could get my lighting more towards a grey/green color removing a bit more of redness on the overall light.
I also wanted some life and movement in my final render, and adding moving particle effects really does the trick, so I decided to include a butterfly particle effect on specific areas; this particle effect is also included on the UE4 free package Infinity Blade: Grass Lands.
At the end of this project, I got a good knowledge about how the main process of translating a given concept art to a real-time UE4 scene works, from asset creation to correct lighting and good working composition in order to render a believable screenshot. For me, it is just a matter of trial and error, so I would just advise any other person interested in this subject like me to practice as much as you can with concept arts from your favorite artists. I still have a long way to go, so I also hope to keep getting better at my skills the more projects I finish.
If you read until this point, I really want to thank you for it, and I hope any of the tricks and processes I used on this level breakdown of my UE4 scene Vault helps with your projects in any way. If you have any more questions do not hesitate to contact me through my social media.
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