Alec Tucker did a breakdown of his Volcanologist's Lab scene, inspired by Death Stranding, shared his workflow with modifying Megascans assets using Mixer, discussed the material workflow, and briefly talked about VFX production.
Hi! I’m Alec, I am an Environment Artist working on the Fortnite Cinematics team at Epic Games. I have been in the industry for a bit over a year now. I have a background in filmmaking, specifically Visual Effects and Cinematography. I am back with another article, almost a year after my first one for 80 Level.
For the last 6 months or so, I had felt little to no motivation to create personal projects. This was most likely because of stress and work responsibilities. During that time, I reconnected with my love of photography. I focused on framing and composing photos by going on trips to nearby locations and studying photo books by various photographers. Having some time away from my digital art helped me narrow down what was most important to focus on. Shot composition and lighting are the two most important aspects of my environments. Knowing what I value most helped me narrow down what kind of project I was willing to take on and see through to the end.
Volcanologist's Lab: Concept
For this project, I started by assembling a moodboard with various sections. I split it up into Lighting Reference, material/modeling reference, and general inspiration. My main form of inspiration was the architecture of Death Stranding. I bought "The Art of Death Stranding" recently and have been reading during lunch breaks. I have saved several pages to use later in projects.
I rarely use more than two main colors because I have trouble preventing confusion and visual noise in my image with more than two colors. Plus, many successful concept art pieces use one color to convey a mood or feeling. In theory that should work for environments too!
My goal for this project was to create a very cinematic and immersive environment. For me, what makes something cinematic is the composition and aspect ratio. Another aesthetic choice that can have that effect is film grain (my favorite is 16mm film grain). That combined with haze or bloom to soften parts of your frame that are high contrast can create a very atmospheric and filmic look. I chose a 2.35:1 aspect ratio to emulate the look of a movie. To make this project more immersive, I knew I would need to add moving elements and make a full cinematic for it. Having a static frame feels completely different than having elements that feel alive. Another bonus of doing this is that it can show people that you understand optimizing a scene while maximizing visual quality.
One major factor of creating the concept most people seem to overlook is including a compelling soundtrack. I planned to create a cinematic from the beginning, which meant that it needed a soundtrack. Adding music to your cinematics adds atmosphere and narrative depth, but it can also influence the mood of the lighting. I do this for every environment I make because it gets me in the mindset of what feels right. I made a playlist on Spotify several weeks before actually starting the project to get me in the mindset of what the world feels like. I recommend doing this for your projects. Here’s the tracklist if anyone is interested:
Blockout (and Lack Thereof)
I have a confession - I rarely ever block out my portfolio scenes before adding final models and textures. Starting a scene with a functional landscape material and base lighting gets me inspired enough to continue further. Because of that, I rarely ever have to make blockout meshes and place primitives in my scene to use as stand-ins until the final models are in.
Before dressing in meshes, I always start with sculpting my landscape from the view of my main CineCamera to create the largest shapes. The larger shapes will determine the composition of my main frame. I do this from the view of the CineCamera because my environments are rarely made to be a playable gameplay space. I create them as vignettes that have detail for the camera angles I choose. This helps me keep scope reasonable, only needing to make/put in what is actually viewed in the camera angles I have set up. You can see how much of the composition is from the terrain itself, even untextured:
Once my landscape shapes are in, I then start to place medium and large assets like rocks. I did a full pass of this over the entire scene, keeping an eye on what silhouettes the rocks create. This is also a good time to have some temp lighting in the scene to help with that process, I like putting in a Directional Light. For this process, I used several Quixel Megascans assets that I retextured in Mixer. For retexturing the assets, I would download the desired LOD version (I chose LOD 0) as well as 4k textures. I would then import that into Mixer. My retexturing process in Mixer is set up to work with any mesh imported, needing minimal tweaking. I start with a World position projected material to act as the base level of the model like so:
With this pass, I tried to build off of the landscape shapes and exaggerate the height and contrast of these mountains and ridges.
The small shapes and micro detail were a combination of pebbles, dried lava plates, and terrain material blend. I used a modified version of Quixel’s terrain shader found in the Goddess Temple sample project on the Unreal Marketplace. Additionally, I added displacement and tessellation parameters to help with small scale detail.
I knew at the beginning of this project that I didn’t want to model a lot of assets. I chose to model fewer but higher quality assets. The only three models I made for this environment were the Lab building, survey stakes, and tube splines.
Originally, I planned to model the lab in a more traditional workflow, high to low poly. I decided to model a mid poly only because it didn’t need tiny details from the distance the camera was from the lab.
I really liked the architecture and technology of Death Stranding, so I designed the building with constraints in mind that would apply in Death Stranding as well. Those constraints were:
- Dark and desaturated colors, often earth tones
- Smooth metals with minimal normal detail and higher specularity/lower roughness
- Materials with utility in mind over visual appearance
I took this a step further and used that height map as a displacement map in engine to inflate the panels further.
For the rest of the structure, I chose a rubber material underneath the reflective tiles. The door and base metal framing is a rusted metal with edge wear. It was a simple texturing process other than the reflective material.
For the tube splines, I reused the reflective material and exaggerated the ribs on the tube to make it feel more three dimensional. I used these in a Spline Blueprint to be able to be twisted and placed how I want in the scene. The blueprint looks like this:
I have very little knowledge of VFX in UE4 so I went into this project only wanting to do minimal VFX work from scratch. I was able to find VFX from the Infinity Blade Effects pack and Explosions Megapack. Both of these use VFX from Cascade, but none from Niagara unfortunately. This made it easier for me since I only have experience with Cascade. The effects in this scene make or break it in my opinion. Having no VFX removes all liveliness and immersion I wanted to convey.
I ended up putting in many many different layers such as:
- Glow cards to show the silhouette of the background mountains
- Glowing smoke emitting from the lava
- Ash falling from the sky
- Smoke coming out of holes and crevasses
- Decals to add detail to the lava spouts
- Ground fog planes to give the scene a mystical and hot feeling
- And finally, lava explosions in the background
To create the falling ash, I used a snow asset from the Infinity Blade VFX pack on the UE Marketplace as a base. I modified it to have darker and more randomly shaped flakes and increased the count by a ton. I also made a version of it with larger particles so that they still show up far away.
And finally, the only VFX I ended up making from scratch was the the erupting lava. I followed a blood burst tutorial but slowed the effect down to 25% of what the blood burst was.
To add detail to some of the main lava meshes, I also made a variant of the lava material that is for decals. I input crack masks from Megascans to make it appear like there are cracks or small streams of lava coming out of some of the rocks.
I also made various other VFX in materials that helped add life and realism to the scene.
First up is the panning lava material. I knew I wanted it to flow and not stay still, so I had to figure out a good solution to that. I came up with a panner tied to a custom rotator, so I could place an asset and rotate it so the lava flows in the way it would in real life based on gravity.
Lighting this environment was a continuous process that took many iterations. I almost never wait to light a scene once assets are in. I usually start lighting at the same time I start setdressing.
I started the scene by figuring out the most flattering angle for my Directional Light. After having done lighting for several environments now, I realized during this project that I prefer backlighting my subjects. The Directional Light helps create a rim light on the focal point of the scene, the Lab.
Lighting was something I wanted to focus on and take my time on, so I spent some time iterating on what shapes I wanted to be most readable and what I wanted to be just a silhouette.
Here is what the lighting looks like turned on by layer:
I wanted to convey serene loneliness in this project. Something with heavy refuge and prospect. This meant that I needed to show the scale of dangers around the lab, but make the lab feel dwarfed by everything around it. I chose to frame the main camera off of the golden ratio, as well as heavy leading lines to the lab.
I chose to frame the shots at ground level, which is also why I added camera shake to the shots. It made me feel more like I was in the scene, rather than viewing the scene.
I went for a filmic and stylized color grade for the scene, as well as a 2.35:1 aspect ratio to emulate motion picture film even more. My settings in the engine were quite standard. I almost always add a vignette to my shots, usually in the CineCamera settings rather than the PostProcessVolume because the amount of vignette I need per camera angle varies. I also added a large amount of bloom for this project to help soften highlights and shadows, creating a less contrasty image which also adds to the cinematic feel of the environment.
I chose to add grain after rendering images instead of within the PostProcessMaterial because I wanted a much softer and coarser grain than what is available in engine. For this, I used 16mm film grain overlays from Ezra Cohen. You can find those here.
I recommend the product as the overlays are captured from actual 16mm film and are in very high resolutions. Adding the imperfections like grain and bloom to my environments is what makes it feel less like a video game. I will definitely be purchasing more of his assets in the future.
To show you how much of a difference bloom makes, here is a before and after:
A lot of people like to sharpen in-engine, and although that is a feasible and more automated option, I find the style of sharpening to look wrong with my own environments. I choose to sharpen in Lightroom more often because I have much more control over the final product.