Over the course of my degree, it was obvious that environment art was the thing that just got me going, so for my Final Major Project in my last year of University, I decided to take everything I learned and create Project Gateway. This production spanned about 6 months, 3 months for research and idea testing, and the final 3 for actual production.
As a huge horror fan, it made sense to create a space inspired by some of my favourite games and movies, Outlast and Texas Chainsaw Massacre to name a few. The actual idea of a morgue came from a show I watched last summer though, The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina The Teenage Witch. The morgue in their basement had a beautiful 1950s aesthetic and was often showcased in sickeningly green light with pops of orange. The contrast of cool and warm lighting absolutely sold me on the atmosphere, and I set out to create a space shaped after all these inspirations!
My aim for this environment was to tell the story of a Doctor hanging on to his last bits of sanity.
After failing to treat his patients, he decides to mutilate and tinker with their corpses to prove his whacky theories. I really wanted the narrative to be consistently reinforced throughout the space, through the assets, textures and even lighting, so coming up with a rich backstory for the character who inhabits the space was a good starting point. He is a collector, a psychopath and well…just unhinged.
A concept by Sigachev on ArtStation really caught my eye, it had the same warm and cool contrast that I loved from the morgue from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and the entire space echoed a creepy vibe. I decided to merge the two concepts, by creating a 1950’s interpretation of Sigachevs concept. This was a bit of a challenge, as I needed to entirely change some aspects of the concept, but a good starting point for me was just breaking down the visual hierarchy of the scene by looking at the forms and then seeing where I could go. A lot of these questions were filled out during my blockout and initial stages, which I discuss later.
References and research
Like with every project, I started off with a mood board of concepts to pull from, and various pictures for different assets I was making. I really love working from real-world reference too though, as getting to observe the materials in real life helps so much during the texturing phase. I was lucky enough to be able to visit an Old Operating Theatre near London Bridge, which provided a plethora of primary references and good tidbits to add in. Getting inspired by just feeling the cluttered nature of the space was amazing too.
Not only is it nice to have that extra level of reference, but sometimes I used the photos I took and applied them directly onto models later on, like with the medicine boxes etc. With a few generators stacked on top, it was easy to get them to blend with the other textures.
Personally, I don’t mind bouncing around between software if it means I can get a specific function done really well in different places.
I started off making my tileable textures in Substance Designer, and also some in Quixel Mixer as I love the procedural elements it has to offer. All models were modelled in Maya, some high poly sculpts were occasionally made in ZBrush. For cloth elements, I used Marvelous Designer and then cleaned up topology and transferred UVs over in Maya.
To bake and render asset sheets, I used Marmoset Toolbag as I find the painting skew and offset options in there to be magical! All assets were then textured in Substance Painter and the scene was assembled and rendered out in Unreal Engine 4.27.
Blockout and refining
As I was going to be putting a 1950’s twist on the concept, the blockout stage was really important to see how assets from that time era would come together. Initially, I really wanted large med lights on top of the autopsy tables, but it was obvious that it was just too much clutter from evaluating my blockouts. I spent most of my time looking at grey box models actually because the biggest thing I’ve learned over the course of my degree is: that if it doesn’t work in the grey box, it really won’t work down the line.
Although it can feel unsatisfying looking at untextured grey blobs, it was important to just have faith in the larger picture and trust the process.
Moving forward I decided to stick mostly to the composition of the concept, but replace some of the furniture to be more dated to sell the 1950’s look, for example, the silhouette of the taps on the autopsy tables. Its small design elements like this which I think subtly date the place.
Modelling and sculpting assets
This scene had a lot of unique assets to bring together, so I had made a list of the largest/ most important ones and worked my way down to set dressing bits that wouldn’t be seen as much. I really wanted to let the clutter and mess of assets form the story of a heavily used workspace, so I really went all out with my list of assets. Most of the assets were inspired by the ones seen in the morgue from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, others were taken from the concept.
For my hero assets, I typically started with a basic mesh modelled in Maya and used ZBrush sculpt in high poly damage, which is then baked. I use the exact techniques broken down by Dylan Abrtnathy in his free typewriter tutorial, using UV seams to isolate edges in ZBrush and then using the deformation tools to focus the damage there. I highly recommend that tutorial for anyone looking for a free start-to-finish example on making a high-quality asset.
With my UVs, there wasn’t anything special I was doing, just trying to pack them neatly together and allowing an appropriate amount of texel density for the important assets. Most of my hero props used 4k textures, and most of the smaller assets such as tools and bottles all ended up sharing a texture set.
The exciting part! Texturing for me is the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the pipeline, I love giving assets a bit of story by considering how they may have been handled. A lot of the techniques I discuss next are directly from Jason Ord’s tutorial on texturing a realistic hand drill on ArtStation. I follow it almost religiously and have found his techniques to completely level up my texturing skills.
The main things I did to speed up this part of the workflow was to create a sheet of stencils and alphas. Sometimes I used real-world photographs I took, or sometimes I just found images on Textures.com and levelled them out to get black and white details. This is particularly great for stamping on things like rust, as hand-painting that can be quite time-consuming. I had a lot of metals in my scene, so creating a rust effect with depth and layers was important. I used anchor points in Substance Painter to dynamically add things in like the “rust bleed” and dripping parts. It sets up a non-destructive material in case I need to make tweaks in the future (which is pretty much always the case).
Another part of the texturing process is going back and forth between Substance Painter and UE4 because textures always look so different. A really great tip from William Faucher seriously reduced the time I wasted tweaking materials, by simply plugging in the ACES colour LUT into Substance Painters viewport. You can find that tutorial here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yu8wR4df0IE&t=3s&ab_channel=WilliamFaucher
As I neared the end of the project, adding in decals and set dressing bits was sped up a lot by accessing the Megascans library. I actually ended up creating a blend material for the floor by mixing different concrete megascan materials together. The material that it kicks out is super flexible, which allows for things like puddles, which I then just vertex painted in. I think time saves like this definitely gave me more time to polish up on other important aspects such as lighting.
Lighting and colour grading
Lighting is the part of the environment process that I struggle with most, and it is especially important in horror scenes. Looking at the concepts, the lighting is the main element that infuses the scene with its uncomfortable feeling, so it was important to get it right. I decided to once again analyze the light sources in the scene, and try to just replicate this as best as I could in my scene.
Horror lighting is all about contrast, so it became a matter of trying to achieve this without having extremely dark shadows. I would often look at my scene in just black and white to see if the values in my scene had enough contrast and if it helped draw attention to the focal points of my scene. Once I thought I achieved these main points, I dotted around some spotlights to get some poppy highlights on assets.
Once I had my lights set up, the last step was colour grading. I try to keep this very subtle, as adding things like strong tints/bloom is something that can be overdone really quickly. I mostly fiddle with the slope, toe and shoulder values which just control your mid, darkest and lightest values. If necessary, I play around with the global parameters to add a bit of tint to the gain and offset.
My main final product for my University project was actually a short cinematic, I absolutely love how they show the environment off in a new light. It’s an opportunity to tell the story of your space using a completely new lens and so I wanted to take full advantage of it.
The original concept has 2 characters placed in the scene, and I really thought they add a lot to the environment, so I decided that placing a crazy doctor in mine would really just tie the place together. I found the model of the crazy doctor on the unreal marketplace, by ZectorLab. It came with animations, but for some bits, I imported some Mixamo animations to get him to move the way I wanted. He also happens to look like a character from Outlast who cuts off the players fingers, so happy coincidence!
Personally, the main thing that made my environment feel like a realistic space inhabited by a character was adding in the animations. Seeing his creepy hunched walk and erratic movements just sells the story for me. This is where the Unreal Engines sequencer came in handy, I used the weighted blending of animations and keyframes to move the character around the scene.
I used the camera switch from first to third person to tell the story of a poor snooper who didn’t make it out. It was also my first time playing around with camera shakes, this can be quite jarring when overdone, but again William Faucher has an amazing tutorial on how to tastefully add this in.
Link to the cinematic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLQyPtq38zQ&ab_channel=xyz
In the past, I would just render out of sequencer, but the difference in quality I saw after using the Movie Render Queue was amazing. Once again, William Faucher discusses several settings you can create a rendering preset with to get clean results, particularly things like the anti-aliasing. I also used his tips on making Unreal look more cinematic, tutorials are linked below.
This project took all the learning I had done during my time at University and even pushed me to learn more. Trying to translate a concept into 3D is quite a challenge, it often requires adjusting and playing around to make forms work, but I learned so much about how to keep testing different solutions to make a space come together. As well as improving on general technical skills, this project pushed me as a person too, trying to keep going even when I really didn’t have faith in the project anymore is hard, as every artist probably understands.
All in all, I’m really glad that this project is the one that speaks about my progress over the last 3 years.
I also want to say a huge, huge thank you to my tutor, Luca Risino, who supported me every step of the way for my entire final year. He not only helped me grow as an artist but also just as a person. Also want to say thank you to Dan Sonley, who gave me invaluable advice during our talk at the Grads in Games final day, as well as Jason Ord for inspiring this entire project and providing amazing resources that helped me level up! 🙂
Thank you for reading.