29 September 2021

NOVA III Space Station – Environment Breakdown – Maxime Larivière



Hi everyone. Today I’ll talk a bit about NOVA III Space Station, the main purpose of this project was to learn and play with some workflow, a kind of sandbox for where rules aren’t really defined. I saw this project as a kind of digital paint where you start to draw some shapes in grey values then you start to see things from them and finally you refine until it becomes something. I had nothing defined in mind at the beginning, this project was more about experiments. At the same time, I was playing a lot with Decal Machine, Hardops and some other Blender addons, and I really wanted to see how to use them outside of Blender.

What software did you use?

In term of software, Blender is my main modeling tool for some years now, all the addons ecosystem help to create a software that fit your needs so much that I’ll probably be lost on a fresh Blender setup, if you need a tool,
look at blenderartists.org someone has probably already made something for that. For decals and signs, I use Krita another great free and open-source software… and Finally Substance Painter for procedural masks, smart materials and roughness textures also for baking and painting props like the drone.


Even if I like almost everything from medieval castles to tiny stylized houses, I’ve always been attracted by sci-fi: straight lines, curves, pipes, slick materials, mix between design and industrial elements, I spend a lot of time analyzing some scenes and object from various artworks or games, like Doom, star citizen, unreal tournament maps and many others. For this project, I gather references from those artworks, even If I try to design elements from scratch, I can’t think about every tiny detail, having PureRef on a side monitor is always a must-have.



I would love to show you my Trello, but in fact, there was not any plan for this project, it was just like taking time to read a book, or play some games. Most of my side projects were props, bots, or things I can achieve in a small amount of time, but this one was more long term, at one point I wasn’t sure if I wanted to push it or just delete the project folder, it’s not always easy to keep motivation over time, and I think it’s important to remember that you go forward piece by piece. I should probably thank my friends too for honest feedbacks and for giving me the motivation to get it to the end. Starting a project without even a blurry deadline or the vision of what you want to create is not something I can recommend. This is probably the best way to never get it finished.


For the Nova Space Station, it starts with modular walls, then some tests into Unreal and make some rooms to play with modularity and space and see if everything behave as expected. I quickly made placeholders for tests then add new modules until I was able to have enough liberty to build the layout.


Once I started to have something I put on some lights and see how it react, I like to put some lights in my blocking process, it helps to have a better idea of volumes, space, and see where you might land in your scene, most of the
directions I took were based on feeling at this point. At the same time, Things start to get out of the dark, talking and showing my progress to my friends was helpful to see what people think this place can be. I start to think about some stories and functions of these rooms, it helps to define the props I’ll need. another element that led the list of objects is the relationship between the walls, the ceiling and the floor, I needed some objects to create a kind of ripples that connect the whole assembly.


In terms of the modeling process, I started with simple shapes to see how they take place within the scene, then I refine the geometry and split materials according to my needs, at this point I start adding decals and plugs like wire tubes and go back to the model when needed. I used Hardops and boxCutter (Blender Addons) as a part of the modeling process for chamfers and other great features those addons have to offer, then I cleaned Ngons and add a Weighted normal modifier to straighten normals on meshes. Each Asset contains most of the time 3 materials for surfaces and Decals material: one main material which covers most of the surface, then another that can be metallic part of the colored element to give some accent, and finally, the last one which contains decal material.
Here is a simplified example of the different steps:


Uving / Baking

UVing was almost straightforward, DecalMachine took care to unwrap trims on poly strips, then put all the rest of UV’s into an empty space within the trim texture within a single click, I had to use a second UV set to map tileable roughness and normal with the right ratio. In the beginning, I planned to bake everything to generate blend mask textures for layered materials but finally, I went with basic baking for the drone, the crate, and some other props. For the rest, I used Geometry decals that shared the same textures and trim textures that make the process way faster.


For trims, I Create Geometry on a plane then I baked materials IDs, AO and Normal. Material ID were used as masks to set different colors/roughness within unreal material. Tilable roughness texture is added within UE material with an exposed Texcoord multiplier parameter in order to be tweaked afterward according to object scale.



For materials, nothing complex, most of the time, I made a simple master material which contains many parameters to tweak roughness, colors, textures slots. It’s easy to make fine adjustments later in the process. there were some materials that use masks and emissive stuff like flickering and panning but, everything was still simple. I wanted the details to be seen up close and for the silhouette to take over, and then the decals and/or vertex paint to break the repetition. Textures within these materials are most of the time, composed of a tileable roughness and normal map, colors are driven by a constant three vector which allows me to change color easily if I need to.


MegaScans assets were helpful to fill outskirt with rocks, I didn’t want it to be too much present in the scene as I wanted to focus on the interior, but it helps to give some clues about the environment, I also use some surfaces imperfections and leaks textures from their library. Even if most of my materials were slick, adding some imperfections to the roughness makes the surface more attractive.



In addition to Meshes Decals, I used vertex paint on materials where each RGB channel drives rake, roughness texture blend or grey lines, for edges wear and adding extra details across modules. I used the same technique on the ground for puddles and dirt. once more, nothing complex here, just lerp textures with Vertex colors. I used Spline Meshes blueprints for pipes, small wires and decals like footsteps or ground lines, it’s really convenient to dress some parts or surfaces, there are plenty of tutorials about how to make it, like this one.


Polish/Final pass

With slick materials and tileable textures, I used a lot of decals too, but not within meshes this time: dirt, leaks, signs footsteps… helps to break repetitions across modules and add a new layer of details. For ground stripes and footsteps, I used spline mesh with a decal material. Add some world particles helps du give more depth to the scene, even more, when you plan to make the camera traveling.



As mentioned earlier, I started with directional light at an early stage just to have an idea of windows locations, ceiling holes, then I start to put some light fixtures on darker areas. I like to set my directional a bit warm because that kind of environment seems cold (metal, rubber and slick materials don’t help). To give more atmosphere, I played with some volumetric fog with warm color too, everything started to be ‘orange’, so I added some blue colors for the walls, some light fixtures and emissive elements. The difficulty here was to get a lot of light from outside but avoid dark spots and keep things readable. I spent a lot of time on this step by tweaking lights, colors and intensity and re-bake everything with Lighmass.



I discovered a YouTube channel from William Faucher full of useful information about lighting and rendering and cameras. I tried MovieRenderQueue and it’s a great tool that allows you to have control of your render, I also used some Sharpen post process and color adjustment within the Engine.


This project was fun to do, and it’s nice to practice and test new things, however, it’s not always easy to stay motivated over time, especially for a side project when you can only allow a small amount of time by day. In any case, I am happy with the result and even if I could probably have pushed further, I was able to learn new things, which remains my main goal.


Thanks to Games Artist for the opportunity to write this article.