Deep in the Forest

Environment Breakdown

John Teodoro


John Teodoro

Environment Artist


Hi all!
My name is John Teodoro and I’m currently working as an Environment Artist at PlayStation London. I previously worked at Rebellion and Santa Monica Studio.


I’ve always felt intimidated by foliage creation, so I decided to use this project to tackle that fear. It started as a small diorama scene but eventually turned into a full-on environment.

With the piece expanding, I wanted to give it a focal point, and seeing the wonderful temple ruins in Ta Som, Cambodia, it was the perfect centerpiece for all kinds of foliage growth!


  • Maya
  • ZBrush
  • Substance 3D Painter
  • Substance 3D Designer
  • Marmoset Toolbag 4
  • Photoshop
  • PureRef

Inspirations and References

Seeing this concept art from an unknown artist (apologies) from Pinterest tickled my curiosity of foliage creation.

With so many great games that have great vegetation like Uncharted, Last of Us & Horizon specifically and portfolio pieces, I decided to begin gathering my references using PureRef.

I have a habit of creating a small section for art benchmark references.

Uncharted was a heavy inspiration due to its handmade touch and a beautiful mix of realism and stylization.


Google Maps was such a great tool to gather refs from real-life locations!

You can drop in, zoom in to examine intricate details of your subject and have almost 360 views.
It was a wonderful experience, and I would sometimes get lost just exploring virtually!


Blockout, Modellng & Sculpting

My blockout usually starts with very primitive shapes, but for this project, I added more details. It helped me get a read of the shapes and silhouettes early on and how I would set dress the scene instead of imagining it in my mind.

I also threw in a basic lighting setup which gave definitions to this detailed blockout. I’ve also used my blockout pieces as base meshes for my props for ZBrush which saved me time.

With the temple blockout complete, I’ve used this as my mesh guide to blockout my roots in ZBrush using ZSpheres.

I’ve also used the roots to compose a rough look for the trees to see how the forms hold and how reusable they can be. I then gave all my blockout meshes a rough color on what I thought they’d look like in the end.

Structural Elements

I almost always start with a base mesh in Maya because this way, I already know the size I want it to be relative to my mannequin, and it’s easier to model it there.

My workflow in ZBrush is relatively straightforward. I dynamesh my blockout meshes and begin chipping away at it using TrimSmoothBorder and DamStandard.

Notice that I didn’t add micro details in this phase because this will add unnecessary visual noise when I apply my tileable stone material in Unreal Engine.

I also pay close attention to its silhouette when breaking up an asset – how the light would react to it, does it look good, does it look realistic but still has an artistic touch, does it gives justice to its story.

These are some of the thoughts that run through my mind when I sculpt.



Its design was inspired by two different cultures – Japanese influence on its teeth, eyes and cloud-like eyebrows. Cambodian on its main body and weaponry, flower head ornaments and headpiece.

While the temple was heavily inspired by Ta Som in Cambodia, I wanted to design my own statue and just let my creativity flow at this point.

After the high-poly, I quickly decimated it and imported it into the engine to see how it fit before I proceeded to convert it to its game-ready model.

However, I couldn’t gel it well enough in the scene, so I decided to scrap the body and utilize the head instead.

The inspiration for the headpiece vignette shot came from Jeremy Huxley’s “Early Uncharted 4 work” ArtStation post.


By doing this approach, gives you an early visualization of how your prop will sit in the scene and potentially save you time.

If I didn’t do this, I would have burned my time retopologizing, UVing, and texturing it and in the end, not liking it.

Sculpting Roots

ZSpheres were the main tool for this task. It was quite a long repetitive process, but it gave me ultimate control of the flow of my roots.

I also believe that experiencing this by hand rather than letting a program run a simulation first gives me a strong foundational understanding of this element.

I blocked out the big shapes first and created folders for roots that go well with each other. This helps me combine them when I’m ready to detail them.



  • Take your time and be patient with it. The key is good references for organic matters. For production, time is important so you may want to break this down to a modular approach.
  • Having big, medium, and small shaped roots helps create that organic feel to it. Gives a different level of growth.
  • Have them overlap each other, intertwine with one another, split out then end or combine two or three roots to give them that connectivity. Nature is not perfect but that’s the beauty of it.

Once I was happy with the flow of the roots, I turned them into “Adaptive Skin”.

The results will still feel angular but once you run them by with ZRemesh with a Target Polygons Count between 3-5, Adaptive size 50-75, and Curve Strength 25-35, it massages the angular curves.

To take this further, you can smoothen it more using Polish by Features under Deformation. If there are still some areas that are quite angular, you can manually polish these by using the move topological brush.

With it looking smooth, I added my details using my main brushes. Standard Brush for surface imperfections. Setting a small size and a high Z intensity, you can have some veiny surfaces or bumps.

DamStandard Brush for adding crevices, pits & holes or accentuating the flow of your small veiny roots from the standard brush.
ClayBuildup brush for an all-around brush and to add mass.



My materials are sometimes made in substance designer alone or a hybrid approach of ZBrush to SD. It’s about how you want to be efficient with your time.

If I’m not sure how to do material from scratch in SD, then I would create my height map in ZBrush and transfer that to SD for texturing.

My forest ground material was a perfect example of SD power. It allowed me to produce variants quickly by adjusting the settings on my nodes.

My stone material was a hybrid approach. I sculpted the big & medium shapes in ZBrush then added the micro-details and texturing in SD.


For the art style of my foliage, I want my normal map to be punchy with defined crevices and minimal surface detail. I also paid close attention to the silhouette of my atlases and the game-engine models to make sure they read interestingly.

The texturing is simple, 70% realistic and 30% stylized and relies mostly on manual painting and the generators for a good base support.

See the images below for a step-by-step guide on how I tackled my foliage.


This is my first personal project on UE5, and I wanted to utilize the power of Lumen. Lighting plays an important role in making sure your environment is believable.

You can create the most wonderful environment but if your lighting is lacking, it will suffer tremendously. My hero shot is an early morning sunlight that shines on the environment horizontally to create these beautiful back shadows.

Slight wet value on surfaces for a nice lighting reflection from the sun to establish the behavior of a dense moist forest.

The main light is concentrated on the middle section of the temple to allow the viewer to look at this focal point first.

A tip to make sure your main light is focused on your focal point is to either squint your eyes or take a screenshot of your hero shot, paste it on Photoshop, and zoom out.

If you can read your image from afar or with limited vision, then you are good to go.


To wrap this up, I want to say that I’m very happy with how this project turned out! It gave me confidence to tackle vegetation and gained crucial knowledge on this aspect.

I know this is one of many ways to create foliage, and I will keep learning and polishing this skill. I’m also very impressed with Nanite and Lumen and had so much fun testing these amazing tools.

Can’t wait to produce more projects and share them with you all! Lastly, I would like to give my thanks to Games Artist for this opportunity to present my work.