02 December 2020

Building a Stylized ‘Witch Hut’ Scene in UE4 – Angelo Tsiflas

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Intro

Hey there! My name is Angelo Tsiflas and I’m an Environment Artist from Athens, Greece with a soft spot for stylized worlds. I’m currently working as a 3D Artist at Terahard Studios, where I get to create both environmental props and characters for the upcoming game, BADA Space Station. I started my career a couple of years back, working in various fields of 3D including mobile games, VR titles and archviz. I’ve always loved playing with lego bricks as a child and I couldn’t be more grateful to be working in an industry that allows me to do just that on a daily basis.

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Goals, Planning & Reference

 

Working on the Witch Hut environment has been a great learning opportunity to focus on my lighting and stylized prop making skills. In a way, this was the main reason for picking this amazing concept piece from Ann Kondrat. I realized the sheer amount of assets and the warm, soft interior lighting setting would be the perfect playground for me to stretch my creative muscles. 

 

The first order of business is to carefully examine the concept piece and start writing down a detailed asset list. This includes modular assets, hero props and any custom materials that will be required. At this point, I also set up a quick Kanban board on Notion and started breaking down the different parts of the pipeline into manageable subtasks. I then continue by gathering additional references from the real-life equivalents of some assets in my list.

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Blockout

 

The workflow I used for the vast majority of the assets is the standard high to low poly one. Most of the assets were treated as a hero prop, which allowed me to extensively practice my sculpting & texturing techniques. I start by creating a rough blockout model for everything. I then import them in Unreal, place them down and review their scale and shape language in the context of the scene. I always keep in mind that I have the luxury to deviate a bit from real-life dimensions before things start looking off.

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Sculpting

 

Sculpting everything was a super important aspect of getting that hand-crafted look for the scene. My main focus is to convey the correct surface information while keeping everything clean and polished. One of the main challenges in doing that is to keep a consistent style in every nook and cranny. A great example of that is wood. My first pass on wooden surfaces (especially on the floor and columns) was very contrast-y and noisy. Even though I wasn’t satisfied with the way wooden surfaces looked in the early stages, I moved on with the rest of the props. I use a multiple pass approach on every single asset for this scene. The first pass is typically done in the blockout stage. The second time I revisit an asset, I run it down through the proper high to low workflow. That usually entails a proper sculpt pass, clean retopo and uvs and a unique texture set. I try to group as many similar-themed assets as possible. This allows me to work faster, uninterrupted and more consistently on them, while at the same time saving some texture space since I’m packing their UVs in the same texture set.

As far as the technical part of my sculpting workflow goes, I typically adjust the big shapes with Dynamesh and do my refinement/ detailing pass after a ZRemesher so as to have somewhat clean topology even on my high poly. As you can see from some sculpts in the image below (eg. bucket), I try to make as few similar pieces as possible. 3-5 is a good number to have enough variation for the whole asset to look unique.  Before I export the sculpts back to Maya, I make sure to decimate everything a tiny bit so that my files don’t get needlessly heavy. A decimation percentage of about 15-40% typically works well without sacrificing any visual quality.

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Below you can see a great example of an asset that underwent massive changes through all passes till I was satisfied with the end result.

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Retopology / UV Mapping / Map Baking

All assets in the scene have been retopologized and unwrapped by hand. If possible,  I try to reuse as many parts of the blockout mesh and manually retopo everything else using the typical Quad Draw tool in Maya. UVs are done using the native Maya UV tools. Once I’m done with UVs, I run a script that turns any UV seam edge to a hard one. This alleviates any potential artifacts on my normal map and results in better shading. Before I export everything to Marmoset Toolbag for baking, I make sure to properly name everything, since I’m extensively using Toolbag’s “Quick Loader”. If you’re not using this, I highly suggest you start doing so. You can read more about it here. Once my maps are ready, happy and baked, I continue by importing them on Substance Painter to start my texturing process

Texturing

 

I use Substance Painter for most of my texturing needs. At the start of a project, I usually try out a couple texture styles, test how they look in-engine and build a small personal smart material library out of the one that I want to go for. My smart material setup is pretty simple and extensible. I make heavy use of Fill layers with masks that utilize all generators and all those baked maps I already have. I typically start with a clean base fill, some surface information with a generic soft noise and then build up my highlights and occluded areas. Here are a couple of examples of some of my different smart materials that I’ve created for this project.

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Lighting

 

As I mentioned earlier, lighting was one of the areas I wanted to focus on for this environment. Almost everything in the scene is static (apart from the baby kraken). Thus, I opted to give fully static lighting a go. I tried many different lighting setups, but in the end I went with a very simple approach. In short, I use a directional light to get my direct and somewhat indirect shadowing in place and a skylight to boost any dark indirect-lit areas. I should also point out that I always lock my exposure to 1 before I start balancing my light intensities. This is a great sanity check that everything looks like they should at their typical values.

Some additional settings that I play around with to sell the mood are the “Light Source Angle”, “Temperature” and “Indirect Lighting Intensity”. Light source angle value allowed those nice soft baked shadows. Temperature helped with giving everything a warm and cozy feeling. Furthermore, Indirect Lighting Intensity really helps boost those darker areas that are not directly hit by the light. Lastly, I used 2 dynamic rect lights (set to another lighting channel, so as not to affect any of the actual lighting) in order to get some subtle volumetric god rays. Since my fog density was super small, I had to go with pretty crazy numbers on these ones.

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Post Process

 

As far as Post Process part goes, I try to keep everything nice and modular. My first volume includes all the basic settings that will stay consistent throughout the scene, such as Exposure, Grain, Vignette and Chromatic Aberration. I then go on to create another post process volume with a higher priority so it gets applied after the first one. This volume will host any color grading changes I’d like my scene to have. I usually try a couple of different looks before I decide on one. Below you can see most of the settings that the final volumes have.

Post Process

 

As far as Post Process part goes, I try to keep everything nice and modular. My first volume includes all the basic settings that will stay consistent throughout the scene, such as Exposure, Grain, Vignette and Chromatic Aberration. I then go on to create another post process volume with a higher priority so it gets applied after the first one. This volume will host any color grading changes I’d like my scene to have. I usually try a couple of different looks before I decide on one. Below you can see most of the settings that the final volumes have.

Afterword

 

Working on this environment has been one of my biggest artistic challenges so far. I started working on this scene in May and published it just shy of October. At some point, I stopped caring about when the project will be finished and instead just focused on my actual work.  If you ask me, the main takeaway from the whole process is to find what you enjoy doing and run with it. In my case, I had a fair amount of previous experiences with stylized art and I noticed that what was missing in my portfolio was just a bigger scoped project. 

 

I would like to give a shout out to the amazing Experience Points and Dinusty Empire discord servers for all their feedback and support. Lastly, I would also like to thank my partner in life and art, Aya for all the patience, support and passion she has shown about my work all those years.

 

I sincerely hope that you took something valuable from reading this. My inbox is always open to everyone who might have a question about anything ranging from art to feta. Thank you for your time!

 

 

You can find me on Artstation, Twitter and Linkedin or any of the aforementioned Discord communities.

Angelo Tsiflas, Environment Artist