Deep Down

Environment Breakdown

Antoine Zavagno


Antoine Zavagno

Character Artist


Hello everyone, my name is Antoine Zavagno and I am a 3D artist from France.

Project goals

This project was created as part of a course at New3dge, the main goal was to create a 3D image based on an alien planet. 

I started out scrolling on Artstation for inspiration, until I came across this awesome concept from Andrew Porter. Being a big fan of stylized art, I took his concept and went with it. 



The software I used are: 

– 3DS Max for modeling, retopo and UVs

– ZBrush for sculpting details and all the organic assets

– Substance Painter for texturing

– Unreal Engine 4 for rendering

– Photoshop to create a LUT for Unreal

Getting references:

I strongly advise looking for references before starting any project. But I didn’t have one, apart from the concept, which makes me think that this project was probably the result of a “happy accident”.

I use a gteat software for references, which you probably all know, called PureRef.


For this scene I did two blockings, one very quick to lay down a base and another more advanced.

I start by blocking my scene in Unreal using only the basic primitives present in the engine. I set up quick lighting to give myself an idea of how many lights I will be using.



Once this first quick blocking is done, I switch to the second one. For this I go to ZBrush and start sculpting my main assets, I spend no more than 10 min per asset.

Then I do a decimate on all my assets followed by a UV master to do a quick texturing in Substance Painter. 


To help me do my texturing in Substance, I separate the different materials that I would need on the concept.


I then replace my first blocking with the assets I just made and I adjust my lighting according to my materials. This is when I know if my image is going to work or not, and most importantly, it gives me a better idea of how long this scene is going to take me altogether.



Now that I have a base for the assets, I can start cleaning them up in 3DS Max. 

For my central asset which contains a lot of patterns, I used a technique that consists of using the retopo tool on a mesh that has the shape of my asset to “draw” these patterns.  


I found this technique on the YouTube channel of Arrimus 3D from whom I learned a lot.

For the other hard surface assets, I did some classic box modeling.

As for the foliage I used this tutorial: Creating Stylized Leaves in Maya

Which consists in scattering planes around a sphere, I then steal the normal of a half-sphere on the foliage, using the plugin Noors Normal Thief, to have more uniform lighting. I end up hand placing these pieces of foliage in Unreal. 



This is what it looks like after adding a quick texture with alpha.


On ZBrush I sculpted all my organic assets, trees, cactus and rocks. I also did the details of the assets imported from 3ds Max by adding damage to the edges, cracks and rock textures by using the Orb brush pack which is free.


Then I decimate everything and start the retopo and the UVs in 3ds Max.

Retopo And UVs:

For the retopo, on some assets I use their first level of subdivision, in cases where these ones are not good, I do a retopo by hand, otherwise, I start from what I had box modeled before. 


For the UVs, I use the TexTools plugin for 3ds Max, it gives me more control over the UV process.

3ds Max is far from being the best software when it comes to retopo or UVs, I personally recommend using Rizom, Blender or Maya. 


I do the baking in Marmoset Toolbag. 

Before importing the assets I rename the high and the low with “_high” and “_low” at the end. This allows me to do a quick load in Marmoset and have them in the right folders, ready to be baked.  


The texturing was probably the most complicated part of this project since I had no reference, but it was also the most fun. I was able to allow myself to test a lot of things.

The curvature and ambient occlusion (AO) maps are the ones I use the most during my texturing. 


All my texturing follows this hierarchy for each material :

  • A base
  • A curvature layer with a lower roughness, a lighter value and a higher metallic for metallic parts  
  • An inverted curvature layer combined with grunge to add color variation 
  • An AO layer with higher roughness, darker value and lower metallic, using the multiply blending mode 
  • A layer of cavities the same as for the AO 
  • A layer with very low opacity with a grunge mask to add color, roughness and metallic variation
  • A final hand-painted layer

While doing my texturing, I pay attention that my materials are PBR. To check this, I use the filter PBR Validate . If your materials aren’t PBR, they might look bad in Unreal.


Back in Unreal, I once again replace my blocking with my finished assets and start to set up my shaders. I go through this step with each finished asset to see if it fits in the scene. 


I use what is called a Master Shader which allows me to readjust textures directly in Unreal, without having to go back in Substance.


Every part looks like this:


To connect the assets to the ground, I created planes in 3ds max on which I applied a Megascan sand texture with a displacement map. I also apply Pixel Depth Offset (PDO), this allows a smoother transition with the ground. You will find more info on the PDO here:

Blending Megascans Assets 


I used a fire fx from the Rime game for my lantern flame, which is based on a mix between masks and UV distortion. You can find more info about it here:

Stylised VFX In Rime 



This is where your scene comes to life. Lighting is probably the most important step of creating a successful image.

For this scene, I used a total of 10 lights.


For my main light I wanted a very sharp transition. I unchecked Use Inverse Squared Falloff and reduced the value of Light Falloff Exponent.


I also created a quick Blueprint to animate the light allowing me to manage the radius attenuation and its intensity.


I then add an atmospheric fog dense enough to bring depth to my scene and create this ambient dust effect that sticks well to this desert environment. 

Once my lighting is in place as well as the fog, I have a homogeneous image, perfect for readjusting it with the help of a LUT.


In the post process, I manage the vignetting, grain, bloom and chromatic aberration. I then manage my focal length and my focus on my camera.

It is very important to have an image without pure black or pure white, because it is much easier to readjust it later with a LUT in Photoshop. Once my LUT is created I activate it in my post process.


The End:

And that’s about all I did to create this scene. I didn’t cover much on the retopo, UVs and baking, because these are not the most interesting steps. 

What you need to remember is to use references, lots of references. I really complicated my life only using the concept. 

Make a blocking, whether it is to create an environment, a character or a prop. Blocking will give you an overview of your scene and allow you to better see what you will need to create your project.  

Lighting is key! Do not neglect the lighting, it’s this step that will bring your scene to life. 


I would like to thank GamesArtist for giving me the opportunity to create this Article.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me on my ArtStation, I will try to answer as fast as I can.