Working on Modular Sci-Fi Environments in Blender and UE4

Working on Modular Sci-Fi Environments in Blender and UE4

François Larrieu discussed how he worked on two modular sci-fi projects: modeling and detailing, use of trim sheets, lighting, post-process, and more.

Introduction

Hello everyone, my name is François Larrieu and I am currently a Student Environment Artist at New3dge School living in Paris, France.

During my studies at high school in Paris, I did not know at all that I was going to work in this field. I think like many people, since my childhood, I certainly liked playing video games and it surely pushed me to go towards this area. After my high school years, I entered a school called HETIC at Montreuil (Paris) to do a bachelor's in 3D Real-Time, and from that moment I knew what I wanted to do in my life. I discovered a real passion for 3D and tried to learn more and more in order to improve myself.

Little by little, I discovered that environments and props were fascinating to me, so I decided to specialize in this area. During my studies, I did a lot of group and solo projects, which allowed me to gain experience in group and personal work. Currently, I have discovered a passion for creating weapons and thinking about specializing as a Weapons Artist, why not. I'm also working on a big environment in UE4 for school, but I can't show it yet. It will probably come out by the end of the year on my ArtStation.

Studying at New3dge

I entered New3dge one year ago, and it's an absolutely awesome school. I chose the Game Art specialization because I want to work in the video games industry (there is also a VFX Film specialization). All the lessons are taught by mentors who are passionate about their professions and about sharing their knowledge with students. I have taken many courses. e.g. in drawing, environment creation, the classic video game pipeline, creation of props, character modeling... Many different courses are given so that the students can find out what they prefer to focus on before choosing a specialty.

Our mentors are always at our disposal for us, whether it is to give us advice or to help us artistically or technically. We are fortunate to study in a very well equipped school and classes of around thirty students. The teachers move freely in the class and come to help us as soon as we need it. They are also very active on Discord and help us if we have any questions. One thing I particularly appreciate is the fact that they are doing the exercises we're given along with us.

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Spaceship Corridor: Inspiration

For my sci-fi corridor with the hologram (the other sci-fi scene was a personal project), the instruction was to create a fully modular sci-fi environment without bakes (except for the trim sheet). I'm not at all good at concept and design, most often I use Pinterest and Google Images to find references that allow me to get a base for my props. I organize the references in PureRef which I recommend to everyone, it's a great tool for that. Here are some ideas that helped me with the design of the scene:

I modify them later to give the project a more personal aspect. I was also inspired a lot by the work of Sergey Tyapkin – looking at this work, I wanted to recreate my own environment from start to finish – and the universe of Star Citizen.

Initial Steps

Before I start modeling, I need to decide how many modular blocks I want to use, as well as the shape of my scene. For this corridor, I went with a classic cross shape, I find that this shape works very well for a small modular environment. I didn't spend too much time on the story, the main goal was to understand modular modeling and to create the prettiest scene possible.

In total, modeled 7 main modular blocks, which were the basis for my scene.

Here is another example of modular blocks I used for my personal scene STAR-X R0618 with some references:

Modeling

Once the previous steps are finished, I can begin to model the scene. I start by modeling the main blocks that make up the environment. I recommend regularly exporting and importing your blocks in UE4 in order to see the overall shape of your scene and whether the chosen shapes match well. You might not notice these things in 3D software. Another very important thing is to use a mannequin to better perceive the scale of your scene. Personally, I use the Unreal mannequin which is 180cm tall and which suits me perfectly. Your scene needs to have the right scale.

For this scene, all of the elements were modeled in Blender only. This is totally different from my last posts, those projects were modeled in Maya and the high polys were done in ZBrush using Polish Edges and Live Boolean.

I learned a lot of things about modular modeling, which I will talk about in more detail a little further in the article.

Working in Blender

During my first years at HETIC, we were taught to use Blender. I've been using it regularly for 5 years now, and it's always a pleasure, especially with version 2.8 which was released not long ago. My favorite things about Blender are the speed at which you can model, the smoothness of the software, and the UV system which is absolutely brilliant.

Blender helps me a lot in production because it allows me to greatly optimize my workflow thanks to many plugins that can be found on the internet for free. It allows me to be fast and efficient without sacrificing the quality of my work. One of my favorite plugins is UV Packmaster, which is a UV packing tool with a lot of different parameters, it does a super clean job. These plugins are a considerable time-saver in my production.

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Modular Blocks and Detailing

My two sci-fi scenes are entirely made with modular parts. The two most important things when working on a modular environment are:

- The dimensions of the modular blocks and their pivot point.

- In both of my scenes, the modular blocks are modeled precisely. In the STAR-X R0618 scene, all the modular parts have precise dimensions and their pivot point is located in the lower-left or right corner of the mesh, so I can snap them together without any problem in UE4.

I really like to do a double-check. First, I snap them in Blender to see if everything works well. You can use the snap to grid tool to move your blocks according to the grid, here I have it set up to every 10cm.

When I see that everything is working fine in Blender, I export them to UE4 to check the results again. I made a little video to show you how it works in UE4:

After modeling all of my props, I move on to my favorite part, adding detail. For this, I followed the workflow used in Star Citizen, which is ultra modular and very inexpensive in terms of machine resources. It consists of adding plane meshes over the existing geometry and applying a particular texture to it using a trim sheet. This technique is very easy to do and adds a lot of detail to the mesh.
I like to see the result directly in Blender. For that, once my trim sheet texture is finished and the maps exported, I create a mini shader in Blender in order to have an idea of what I will be able to render in UE4.

To do this, I grouped all the planes with mesh details into a single object (that you can call “SM_NormalDetails_Floor01, for example). After that, you just need to place the UVs of the planes on your normal map in Blender. 

When this is over, I switch to the UVs of my main blocks. Since in the sci-fi scene for school, we couldn't use bakes, the textures are directly applied in tiling in UE4 and therefore the UVs are not stored. There are only materials applied to surfaces based on the texture I want them to have. For the personal sci-fi scene (STAR-X), I wanted to bake each module and do the textures in Substance Painter. So I created the block UVs and used the Packmaster UV plugin to save time. And it is done! The blocks are now ready to be textured (you can also create the high poly of these blocks in ZBrush in order to add extra detail, but I didn't do that).     

Texturing

The texturing of the sci-fi scenes was not my favorite part, as the textures were fairly simple without a lot of detail, with neutral colors and neutral roughness (however, I still added some detail to them). This is why I focus a lot on the modeling of the props in order to create as much detail as possible. In the school sci-fi scene, only 3 materials are used, all created in Substance Painter.

For the STAR-X R0618 scene, the textures were created in Substance Painter. The textures there are also quite simple. In order to bring harmony, I added some roughness and color variations with a grunge map in a fill layer. The creation of the textures was quite quick and easy.

I don't use Substance Designer at all because I never took the time to learn how to use it. This software appeals to me a lot though and I'll need to look into it.

The texture of the trim sheet is also made in Substance Painter. For this, I created different sci-fi alphas on a 4x4 plane, added different textures and an opacity map in order to hide the plane in UE4 and only see the textures. After that, I export all the maps and can use them in Blender or UE4. I would like to thank Jonas Ronnegard for these superb sci-fi alphas.

Lighting and Post-Process

Light is a subject that fascinates me as well. In UE4, I have used several workflows to see what could be the best option. I have done a lot of tests and in my next projects, the light will be entirely dynamic with the use of the Mesh Distance Field. My big project that arrives at the end of December will only use DFAO. The baking is quite restrictive and takes time, and with the right settings, DFAO can give excellent results. A big advantage is that it can be changed in real-time.

My sci-fi corridor is fully baked, the light mostly comes from artificial lights, neon or lamps. I wanted to recreate an atmosphere with rather high tones of lights and very contrasting shadows, however, your image should never have totally white or totally black tones, always go for gray.

In the editor of the meshes that have emissive materials, I recommend checking the “Use emissive for static lighting” option. At the end of the bake, this allows the emissive materials to give off additional light.

The scene is fully illuminated thanks to this technique, which I find very effective. There is only one blue point light for the hologram in the middle of the scene.

Once my lighting is set, I take care of the final image, and the major part will be done mainly with the Post Process Volume.

One thing I really like to use is a LUT Map. For the sci-fi scene, I created one using Photoshop; it allowed me to have better control over the whole image. You have to be careful though and not use a value too high, otherwise, the image will be unreadable. Below is a video explaining the process which is very simple:

Unreal Engine tends to make the images a bit blurry, so I use a material to sharpen the whole scene (it should be used in moderation); it is placed in the “Rendering Features” part of the Post Process.

Overall, I try to have a fairly contrasting scene, with distinguished colors and strong shadows. You should avoid having colors that are too bland or that are very close to each other. A touch of color in the scene will help catch the viewer's eye.
For the reflections, roughness, or even metallic, the base created in Painter is not enough, and it often looks different in UE4, so I use a Master Material to enhance these values.
I also place many Reflection Captures in the scene to greatly improve the ambient reflections, but they should not be placed randomly. For a better result, I advise you to follow the example shown in this image published by Epic Games:
Obviously, the placement of the Reflections Captures should fit your scene. Personally, I place them near the metal parts in order to have a better reflection effect.
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Challenges

My biggest challenge was to understand and use the modular workflow because it is something that I had never done before. Another big challenge was to make a scene harmonious, with colors that match each other.

I am grateful to the people who gave me some advice on this project. We always need to ask others to look at our projects from the outside, because we are no longer objective after we've been working on them for several weeks.

I always want to do better and I'm never satisfied with my finished results. I think that in our profession, most people have the same thoughts. When I post something on ArtStation, my first reaction is to look at the imperfections and tell myself “I have to do better next time”. It's a very frustrating job but that's what keeps me going.

Afterword

I am enormously self-taught and I learned a lot of things on the internet. Of course, the courses taught me things, but I would say they rather gave me the passion and the desire to do what I do and it is the most important thing. This kind of job requires us to work a lot at home to progress, and that is my goal, to always be better than the day before. I always want to learn new techniques, new workflows. It's a profession that is advancing very quickly technologically, and I can't wait to see where this field will be in ten or fifteen years, I believe it will be something exceptional.

My dream would be to work at a big AAA video game studio as Environment Artist, in the USA or Canada, for example. There are many studios that I love, like Naughty Dog, Santa Monica Studio, or Ubisoft to name a few. I try to believe in this dream and would do anything to achieve it.

Special thanks to the 80 Level team for this amazing opportunity and thank you for reading. See you!

François Larrieu, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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