We’ve talked to Sergei Panin about his environment created during his CGMA course UE4 Modular Environments by Clinton Crumpler.
Choosing the Topic
I wanted to create something in this style a long time ago. I really like Wolfenstein and I’m a huge fan of Red Alert style. When I had ended my previous location for the ArtStation challenge, I knew I had a few free weeks before my CGMA course. So, at first, I took a vacation and then spent another week sketching.
First, I wanted to create a Castle base assault (like in the intro of Wolfenstein: The New Order) in Wolfenstein setting, but for USSR faction. In my opinion, it’s really interesting to hear this part of the story from Machinegames guys. What happened? Where is Stalin? I think recreating Red Alert in the world of the new Wolfenstein is a great idea. Here are my sketches and the concept that I created for myself.
I am not very good at 2d, but I’m trying to make some rough sketches like this before I start working. It helps me understand what I want my scene to be like and create good pool of references.
I started from a location that requires 4-5 months of work, I think ? And every new iteration gave me a better understanding of not just what I wanted but what I could really do. After a week of work on the location I changed it of course and reduced the size. After all, having your work finished is much more important than making a huge scene you can’t complete.
First location blockout was bigger, but I had drop most of the ideas from the start (even before the release of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus)
I’m a big fan of this design. I like these forms. I don’t know why, but I’m not a huge fan of typical sci-fi look. I’m more into something like StarCraft, Warhammer 40k, Red Alert, Wolfenstein – oh, they’re just awesome! Also, I’m that kind of person with a passion for industrial machines. I have been studying manufacturing for 6 years and I honestly like industrial design lathes, engines and all that stuff. And I think, that’s why it’s pretty easy for me to work with this. I know why it requires so many bolts or why this frame has these stiffeners.
I tried different pipelines in this project. One of the biggest parts – trim sheets. I took many of screenshots in Wolfenstein, looked through a lot of references and chose the forms that looked cool and not too noisy. This formed my trim sheets, which I used for planes, meshes.
Also, I have a practice of making only a part of the asset. For example, my steam device has very big pipes and a lot of small elements. So, I created only 1 unique meter of the pipe and then just rotated it. More than that, I took it apart and reused the parts later in the scene.
I think the GDC session from Fallout guys helped me here. They said that they created a big kitbash for a modular environment and used it to build different generators and machines. I did same, but in another way.
And the last thing – I tried to use Epic Games pipeline from Paragon. I did not take any texture assets – instead I assigned material functions and played with tiling. For some assets, simple material can look very cool. Their pipeline is much more logical, but using material functions and blending them with BW mask gave me a pretty nice result. I think I will practice this pipeline much more – you can greatly increase resolution of your textures.
Another example of how a “not trim sheet” was used many times because of its great form. Simple metal lines, painted elements, cool panels – all of that was separated and used in the scene as individual elements.
First week after blockout
Preparing the trims
Trims are tileable textures that are tileable in only one way. Or you can say that it’s a tileable atlas. Trims require a little bit more planning than other way of work, but they let you work very quickly. I created my trims in 2 ways – standard high poly – low poly. And some were created in Substance Designer. Also, I like using atlas maker node in Substance Designer just for packing textures sometimes. It gives me flexibility in planning if I don’t know proper dimensions and what final texture density I will have.
Trim sheets help you in different aspects. First, you save time by not repeating the same work. You just play with UV’s. Second, you save texture memory. Third, you have consistency in design. And last – if you don’t know what you want to see in the scene, just open your trim sheet. You can try different designs and understand what will look better.
First trim sheet
Working with shaders
Shaders in Unreal were one the main reasons why I wanted to visit this CGMA course. Really, my way of work totally changed after getting a better understanding of what you can do with materials in Unreal. I still use one master material with many controls for a lot of meshes, but I do more specific things more and more often. For example, World Align node – it’s really something great. I saw how it was used in Infiltration demo and realized how ingenious it was. It brought about a fantastic result with my tileable texture. I know that this node is expensive, but I used some tileables so often, that breaking it with World Align dirt gave a fantastic result. Speaking about precomputed AO. If you understand how this stuff works, you can create perfect art by just using nodes in material editor. I’m sure that I want to learn more about that magic. I’m still not very good at that trick with camera distance or Vertex normals. If you want to understand how powerful this can be, just take a look at the last stream from Epic games about shaders. Totally incredible.
I took this idea from Infiltrator demo and current pipeline in Paragon. You do not texture your assets, but you create material functions and work in Unreal Engine like in Substance Painter – you assign material functions and use masks. For example, here you can see one of materials of metals with a few controls. That lets me reduce texture sizes but get good texture quality. One day I hope to create a system like in Paragon and use it in my workflow. More about that pipeline – https://youtu.be/Q15ieH8ZWio
Truth be told, I don’t know how this did not end in a mess! From the start I understood that I wanted to take color theme from Batman Arkham Knight – fantastic works from Ronan Mahon were my references. But then I decided that it was pretty reasonable to have one warm location and another one cold and from that point every play with light was a challenge. All my lights are static, but in this project, I used volumetric fog, which game some cool effects. I think this ended good only because of references and friends feedback. Maybe a little bit of experience from last location from ArtStation challenge also helped – I still think that lighting scenario was really complicated.
I think my location had 2 separate scenarios – tunnel and final hall. For the tunnel I used one blueprint assemble with columns, pipes and side panels.
Base blueprint assemble
I haven’t added some elements like roads because their sizes were not very good for that. For example, this tunnel length is 8 m, but my base road tile is 6 meters, so added it later in the scene. I don’t think this is very logical, but that was not a very important moment for work.
Then I added a lot of meshes from this list. First, I started from big ones, like boxes and generators and then added small ones, like bullets, wires and small ammo boxes.
Tileable textures and trims saved me when I worked on the big hall. In my opinion, in terms of modularity, my second part of the location is much better. For whole second floor, I used 1 door, 2-3 tiles, 2 trims and small details. And decals, of course.
My trim for panels is not perfect, but still was very useful
World align dirt significantly changed feeling of the tile floor.
Magic function of wetness from Infiltrator demo with small changes. If you haven’t seen this – download it now! One of the best scene I have seen.
I’m a self-taught artist and after that course I realized that I was going the right way. When you have learned for more than 2 years that’s a really important thing to know. QA sessions with Clinton were really important to me, because it was a fantastic opportunity to ask questions about serious projects from a man with a solid production background.
Second, that planning plays a very big role and on what moments I should focus more. With modular workflow you always have to choose – what will be your base. For example, you are building city – what will be in your building kit? Houses, walls or bricks and planks? It’s always a complicated question and you need to have a good understanding of workflow to choose the right one.
And, of course, I learned the most common and efficient tricks in the work – trims and shaders. Also, during this course I tried different pipelines and that also gave me a good understanding of modular workflow. As a result, a nice scene, which I happy to add to my portfolio. And now I am ready to start a new one.
Sergei Panin, Environment artist – Mail Group
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.