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Working on a Stylized Desert Scene in Unity

Maxence Petitjean briefly talked about a small stylized environment he made in 5 days for an art test.


Hi, my name is Maxence Petitjean, I come from Paris. I got a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Graphics (L3DI) in Laval, France. When I discovered the world of virtual reality, I continued my Master's course specializing in new technologies, still in Laval.

I'm sort of new, in fact, my first internship in the video games industry took place in 2019, at Kylotonn Paris (WRC 6 to 10, TT 1, 2 V-rally 4 and soon Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown). I continued to work there for a year, until October 2020.

I've always been attracted by video games and fascinated by their creation.

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Stylized Desert House: Start of the Project

Stylized Desert House was made for an art test. First of all, I had to find a reference; several were proposed to me by the studio that sent me this test. However, I preferred to mix several elements. I used one of Charlène Le Scanff's concepts as a base. From the concept, I had no information related to the environment around the house.

I decided to imagine it and then make a list of what could be done in 5 days.

The main objective was to find a way to make an environment with very few elements and optimized (with as few tris and maps as possible).

Creating the Terrain

I worked with Unity 2019 this time, just like in my previous project, so I had access to the new terrain settings and some nice options like sculpting the height map of the land with wind erosion or hydraulic erosion.

The decision to create a sloping terrain was made after extensive research on composition. Sandy deserts may appear naturally dull and/or poor in detail. I, therefore, preferred to place the house at the bottom of a sand slope and create a small environment all around it.  

There are only two rock prefabs, as they are easily modulable elements. They were placed without using a specific Unity tool for lack of time.

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Modeling Structural Elements

The house is a reinterpretation of Charlène Le Scanff's concept. I preferred to first make a blockout with clear proportions and add the details afterward.

I took into consideration what I couldn't see (the back and the left side of the house, for example), in order not to do unnecessary work and optimize the scene to the maximum.

My workflow was the following:

  • Modeling the blockout in 3ds Max with more or less approximate shapes.
  • Integrating the blockout + nomenclature in Unity.
  • Adding the details in 3ds Max – only those that are visible so as not to waste time.
  • Creating 3 sets of UVs: for the house, the roof of the house and the well, and the well (without the roof) + menhir.
  • Sculpting in ZBrush.
  • Baking in substance Painter, at 2048x2048. 
  • Texturing in Substance Painter and export maps.
  • Final integration in Unity.
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I think that vegetation was the simplest part of the project.

The sheets/branches were drawn using the Lasso tool in Photoshop, then I created an atlas with both elements. In 3ds Max, I assembled two types of bushes and some herbs.


For my previous project, I created a Smart Material in Substance Painter for each use case (Wood, Metal, Concrete), and it helped me during the texturing. However, the SMs were not perfect, so from time to time, I used the graphic tablet to paint over some effects and details. For example, the Smart Material "Rock" works well with desert rocks, however, when it comes to details like the walls of a house, I need to set up the SM a little further and work on the texture manually.

Here're the final maps for the house and some props:

To make the floor/ground, I chose to use Substance Designer. There are three sets of textures: Sand, Sand + Pebbles, Sand + Pavement. I have integrated Switch nodes in the graph to keep the same sand base and make it look consistent in Unity. To get a more stylized effect and add contrast, I connected Curvature Smooth with the Diffuse using Blend. I did the same for the Occlusion Ambient and the Diffuse.


Lighting is one of my favorite parts! But in this project, it was very simple: I only used one directional light and positioned it at the zenith.

I worked a lot on the Environment Lighting settings by testing many colors that seemed relevant to me in terms of the desired mood.

Soon after I did that, I started thinking about the skybox. In fact, in my last two projects, I used my own skybox shader, so I thought I could use it to get the stylized render requested. Here’s an overview of what I could do with it:

  • Control Global Shape
  • Add details using noise (three to be more precise)
  • Manage motion and cloud speed


The main challenge was to plan the creation of the elements perfectly, and not to spread out in all directions. When I realized what colossal work needed to be done for the house and especially in ZBrush, I had to make choices to work as efficiently as possible. How can I save time? How can I do the least amount of work possible and get a good render? With Trello, I estimated tasks and it proved to be a huge time-saver. For example, I thought the house would take me 2 days. I also had the idea of creating palm trees. but I didn’t have enough time, so I decided to create another type of foliage – bushes and grass. Looking back at it, I should have also created the wind shader to animate the plants.

Maxence Petitjean, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    i'm assuming/hoping this got you the job! :)


    Anonymous user

    ·3 years ago·

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