Project & Goals
Seeing so many stunning Ghibli-Esque environments, I’ve been itching to try my hand on one as well. And for the final year of my studies, I decided that I wanted to use the remaining time to focus more on diving deeper into the more technical side of Unreal Engine and learn about shaders and landscape creation as well as practice my understanding of the art fundamentals.
With this project being part of a school assignment, I had quite a tight schedule which also meant that I had to pay close attention to time management and efficiency. For the assignment itself, we were given different themes that we could choose from.
Once the theme was chosen, every student was to come up with an artwork capturing the theme, presenting it in a media of their choice. In my case, I decided to go for the theme ‘Gothic’ since gothic architecture has always been something I wanted to look into in more detail.
I decided to render the scene in Unreal Engine 4 and use Blender for modeling and UV-mapping. The sculpting was done in Zbrush and baking as well as texturing in Substance Painter. For some of the foliage creation and the clouds, I used Photoshop.
Pillars & References
Since gothic architecture was initially designed to be very imposing and to create a form of eminence, I found the idea of gothic ruins very interesting. Generally, ruins are seen as a reminder of past human lives and how fleeting and fragile life can be. So, I found this contrast very captivating and wanted to capture it in a more light-hearted and warmer setting. I also instantly connected gothic ruins to early autumn, considering it’s the season that’s also symbolic of change.
A big chunk of time that I spent on this project was for research and gathering references. I think it’s important to draw inspiration from all kinds of things and not limit yourself to only game art-related content. Your final result reflects the depths of your research a lot, so putting a bit more time and effort into the pre-production phase is definitely worth it. For this project, my ref sheet consisted of a lot of diagrams of gothic architecture, miniature dioramas as well as ruins found in different kinds of media. Regarding the art style, I took a lot of inspiration from Overwatch, Genshin Impact and Darksiders.
While the scene went through many iterations from start to finish, the plan was to have the entrance arch as a focal point and use the foliage and landscape to frame the scene.
First, I started blocking out the main shapes in Blender. When doing so, I try to focus on the shape language before moving on to refining the blockout more. I figured that as soon as you have a good foundation, it’s easier to build up on it. So this step usually involves a lot of testing and switching between Blender and Unreal Engine until I reach a point where I’m happy with where I’m headed with the overall scene. From then on I gradually switch out the placeholders with the updated meshes as I work on it.
When figuring out the composition of my main shot, I like to look at already existing artworks from artists that inspire me and ask myself what exactly it is that I find visually appealing and try to apply those things to my own work. One thing I noticed was that a lot of my favorite artworks were divided into three parts; fore-, middle- and background. Especially in landscape paintings, you see this technique a lot since it adds depth and dimension to your scene.
While there are many different ways how to approach composition, I find the rule of thirds to be very helpful. Your center of attention is put on either the left or right side of your shot, leaving the opposite side relatively empty to create some form of resting area for the eye to prevent the scene from getting too noisy.
What comes in handy is Unreal Engine’s composition overlays that you can find on the right side of the window once you go into the Cinematic Viewport. Like that, you can quickly compose the scene using the overlay as a guideline without having to take screenshots and put some overlay on it in Photoshop.
Color-wise, I decided to focus on two main colors; orange and blue. With those colors being complementary hues and therefore color wheel friends, I pretty much stayed in those color families so as to not make the scene too overwhelming. When used together, complementary colors can kind of boost each other’s intensity which creates a bold, high contrast to make it pop even more.
What helps make the scene more harmonious and for the dominating colors to unify is to repeat them within the opposite color. For instance, the flowers on the ground pick up the color of the sky and either have a blue or white hue. The same is done with the leaves that pick up the color of the ground.
Because of the tight schedule, I wanted to make sure that I had enough time for iterations and to polish everything. So, I narrowed it down to a few components I could build the structure of the ruins with that is reminiscent of the one of a mausoleum. Because of that, I decided to give each asset its own individual/unique material treatment.
The building itself only consists of the main entrance wall that serves as a main focal point, two broken-down walls that could be duplicated and rotated to build the structure of the building and a decorative element for the candles to be put in. Once I had a solid blockout of the structure of the ruins in Blender, I moved it over to Zbrush and started sculpting.
For that, I kept the sculpt relatively clean to have an easily readable silhouette and incorporated elements like ornate decoration, the pointed arch and stones that are characteristic of gothic architecture.
Because I was dealing with mostly stone walls, I decided to sculpt a small number of stones of different sizes and then duplicate and place them the way I needed.
Like that, I was able to quickly build the wall of the entrance arch as well as two side walls. After that, I added some more details like cracks or damage to the stones to break up repetition and to also make more sense of the ruins themselves. What helped me a lot was a tip I got from Lucas Annunziata; Try to think about the pre-ruined shape and what type of construction or stones it was made out of initially. Like that it’s easier to figure out how the pieces would behave when destroyed.
I also made some candles and two variants of stone steps that I used to lead up to the ruins later on. I struggled a bit with the latter at first. The first pass of the stones didn’t have any tilt or prominent damage which made it feel very stiff and repetitive. So I made a new sculpt adding more wear and tear which immediately made it more realistic and believable.
Once the high poly was done, I started working on the low poly. For that, I merged everything belonging to the respective mesh, like the stones for each of the sidewalls and the ones for the entrance arch wall, and dynameshed and ZRemeshed it to a point where I had a solid topology. In Blender, I then cleaned up the topology some more and UVd it before moving over to Substance Painter for baking and texturing.
Texture-wise, I kept it quite simple: A base layer, subtle bottom-to-top gradient and vice versa, color variation, a detail pass, ambient occlusion and curvature. When texturing in Painter, I think it’s important not to rely on generators only but use them as a base to build up on and add or remove details to give it a more handcrafted and unique look.
To achieve a slightly more painterly style without having to actually hand-paint everything from scratch, I went into Photoshop and created a simple alpha texture with some rough brushstrokes of different sizes and opacity. After having imported it to Substance Painter, I projected the texture onto the mesh to have a good painterly base before I went in and gave it some additional brushstrokes by either erasing parts or adding to the already existing ones from the texture.
I repeated that step a couple of times, changing the color, opacity and scale of the texture to have more variety.
With the majority of the scene consisting of foliage and landscape, I tried to keep it simple to not take away the attention from the focal point.
The mesh for the bushes was kindly provided by my class- and roommate Anne Goossens who I worked on another school assignment.
All I did was make some more instances to add subtle color variation to the scene. For the rest of the foliage, I tried a couple of different approaches. My first approach was to sculpt some of the foliage like weeds, daisies and other flowers to have a simple high-poly that I could then bake down onto a plane.
But after some testing, I realized that too much detail was displayed on a surface that was too small and they didn’t feel very integrated into the scene.
So, I took a step back and tried the same approach that was used for the bushes which were to have a very simple alpha texture that indicates the general shape of the foliage and mapped the mesh onto it.
The mesh itself has modified normals, making them face upwards so they’re lit the same as the terrain.
The color could then quickly be assigned and adjusted in-engine. Additionally to hand-crafted foliage, I used Madeleine Bellwoar’s ghibli-inspired brushes that sped up the foliage creation a lot.
Basically, I made two different grass cards that I could populate the scene with. The cards themselves don’t cast any shadows to achieve a more lush and Ghibli-Esque look. Additionally, I set up virtual texturing so the grass would pick up the color of the terrain underneath it which allowed me to give the grass more depth and believability, painting it in different shades of orange by making use of the Landscape Layers.
Because of that setup, I could also blend different parts of the landscape like the pathway leading up to the ruins and the grass to give it a more seamless transition.
To make quick adjustments in engine without having to go back and forth between engine and texturing software, I decided to dive a bit more into shaders to see what I can achieve in the time given. I made one master material that included RVT Blending, Objects Space Gradient, Moss and Vertex Painting. After that, I simply created multiple Instances for each mesh and was able to simply adjust the parameters to my liking.
The first thing I did was set up RVT to blend the meshes with the terrain which helped a lot to make the stone steps look more integrated in the ground. And because the stone steps only consist of two meshes that were duplicated and rotated, it also made it a lot easier to break up the obvious repetition.
To have more contrast with the sky, I then added a warm bottom-to-top gradient into the stone of the ruins. The setup for this is pretty straightforward:
You take your Absolute World Position as well as your Object Position and plug it into a Transform Position node. Here, you just have to change the Source to Absolute World Space and the Destination to Local Space.
From there on you simply subtract them from each other and divide that by the Local Bounds Size. Once you mask it out you just plug it into your alpha channel where you lerp it together with the texture/color. The moss on the ruins is very subtle and is done with a simple World Aligned Blend:
Lighting & Rendering
The lighting setup is quite basic and didn’t change much throughout the project. It consists of one-directional light that has a slightly yellowish tint to it to emulate a warm, sunny day.
Furthermore, I added some spot and point lights to brighten up some areas that were a tad too dark or areas that I wanted to be more dominant since the eye naturally goes to the brightest spot of your scene.
Exponential Height Fog. Here, I experimented a lot with the Distance parameters since I wanted the fog to be denser in the background so the mountainous vista wouldn’t look too out of place. I also changed the default Inscattering Color to a very bright, saturated red which added a subtle, yet noticeable warm gradient to the object the further it’s away.
I did some slight color tweaking in the Post-Processing Settings but nothing major since I already was quite happy with how the scene looked.
I think it’s incredibly important to seek feedback from people or online communities. When you work on something over a longer period of time, you might oversee a lot of things that might be obvious to others. So, picking other artists’ brains really is the fastest way to get better and train your eye to spot these things as well in the future. For personal projects, I like to seek feedback once I have a solid blockout and then later on while I’m polishing everything so I can still make changes.
In retrospect, I’ve learned a lot with this piece and one of the big takeaways was that you really shouldn’t be too harsh to yourself in the early stages of a project since every project goes through a poop phase. While difficult to overcome, it’s important to just push through it and have trust in the process. I also learned that checking your values is directly applicable to 3D and helps a lot to put more emphasis on the focal point.
There are quite some things that I would change or improve on were I to do it again or continue to work on it. But with the time given, I’m quite happy with what I was able to achieve and will keep those things in mind for my next project.
Less is more, take everything step by step! I think it’s a general misconception that you have to make a big, stunning portfolio piece at the very start of your 3D journey. While there are people who absolutely slay it and create breath-taking environment pieces of a bigger scope, I personally found it very helpful to start with smaller pieces and focus on specific aspects I want to improve on and learn before moving to the next project.
Like that, you give yourself time to really understand what you’re trying to build upon and apply the knowledge you gained from it to your next project. Naturally, you expand your knowledge library and therefore, gradually expand the size of your projects over time.
Thank you Games Artist for inviting me! And huge thanks to my artist friends who helped me on this project, especially Luiza Tanaka, Lucas Annunziata and Tobias Koepp as well as my class – and flatmates Maria Eom and Anne Goossens for all the support and for being my second pair of eyes. I hope this breakdown was somewhat helpful and gave some insight into my process. In case you have any questions or just want to chat, feel free to reach out to me on: