I usually start my projects with keywords and ideas, attempting to unify them into one environment. For “Starlight Manor,” I aimed to create a baroque-esque setting closely tied to stars and astrology themes. My objective was to design a simple-shaped environment using limited resources (tiles, trims, modular assets, and some unique props) and enhance it with final lighting.
- 3ds Max
- Substance Painter and Substance Designer
- Marvelous Designer
- Rizom UV
- Unreal Engine 5
References & Inspiration
I developed this project based on my own ideas, without using specific concept art. During the early stages, I settled on the interior style and theme (star mage library/manor + astrology + the concept of Sun/Moon/Stars + the idea of Day/Night).
My inspiration mainly came from Final Fantasy games (especially XIV), Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (with Karl Simon’s concept art as the primary color/light reference), and Dragon Age Inquisition. I drew inspiration from each of these sources in terms of lighting, shapes, and approaches to environments.
This time, I used Trello for task management and PureRef for gathering references. In Trello, I typically create separate columns for Props, Architecture, Materials, a Done column, and a Fixes Column. It’s easy to use and helps me keep track of what still needs to be done.
For references, I utilized PureRef. I organized references into blocks for each prop I needed to create, stylistic approaches for textures, lighting techniques, examples of night interior lighting, and some video game examples of similar interiors.
My blockout approach is straightforward. I created simple shapes for all architectural assets in 3ds Max, determined which ones would be modular, and assembled the scene from there. I also made several iterations on the object scale, as it can be quite noticeable when playing as a character.
For me, having multiple cameras from the start is important to understand which shots will be primary. I also decided early on the lighting scenario I wanted, so I placed basic night lighting with candles. Sometimes I jump ahead and work on some props and sketch ideas during the blockout stage.
In this project, I did this with sconces and floor patterns, which helped further develop ideas for the environment.
While creating assets for the scene, I used various approaches for each one. My primary modeling software is 3Ds Max and Zbrush. The most challenging assets for me were the statues, the decor above the doors, and the chandelier.
I also have many assets heavily decorated with ornaments, so to save time, I created a small amount of decor and then reused it across my assets and wall decor.
For the chandelier, I used a reference from Pinterest, mainly focusing on the overall silhouette rather than smaller details, as I planned to mix in the decor I already had. The lamp was intended to have a high texture size and polygon count, so my plan was to reuse one sector and hide seams between sectors with decorations.
The modeling was straightforward, with simple polygon modeling ready for subdivision later. I then exported the model to Zbrush. In Zbrush, I added some scratches and extra decor with alphas. Most of the final work was done in Substance Painter.
I aimed for a slightly dirty gold look, but not excessively “abandoned.” It still needed to shine in the light of candles.
An interesting part was creating the crystals. I tried several approaches with glass, but they were too performance-heavy. So, I created a low-poly sphere (essentially 6 polygons) and baked a crystal-shaped sphere on it.
I made them fully metallic and shiny, with different rotations on each thread. Several variations of threads were later duplicated.
For low-poly, I mostly used the middle poly I had created before Zbrush, with some manual cleanup for the wireframe. For decors, I used decimation in Zbrush.
I had long wanted to create an environment with statues, so I gave it a try. For the statues, I took a basic Zbrush woman mannequin and posed it using the Transpose Master. FlippedNormals has a great tutorial on this, which you can check out here.
After being satisfied with the pose, I worked on the clothing. I found a dress reference that I liked and created something similar in Marvelous Designer. I wasn’t very precise with the dress blueprint and kind of eyeballed it.
I knew that the statues would be visible only from the front, and a slightly sloppy dress was something I liked in the end. After creating the blueprints, I worked on sewing, experimenting with fabric types and using elastics on some seams.
Don’t forget to add thickness to your cloth before exporting it to Zbrush!
After finalizing the dress, I brought the statue and dress into Zbrush once again. The final step included adding a crown, jewelry, and hair. For the hair, I used a brush by Mark Blueman, although there are many ways to create your own.
I chose the strand approach, as shown in this tutorial. I found a hairstyle I liked and tried to create something similar.
After that, I merged all the hair into one shape and removed unnecessary details.
Jewelry was made using the Extract function in Zbrush, except for the hair band, which was assembled in 3ds Max from a leaf shape.
Final touches included adding a bit of rough surface texture to the statue, although the sculpting here was minimalistic. I used decimation once again for low-poly.
Before decimating complex objects or those with many decorations, I usually use dynamesh once more (at a lower resolution) to merge everything together. This helps close any holes and make the decimation process cleaner and more predictable.
Materials & Substance Designer
All of the materials for the project were created in Substance Designer. I like to start working on materials early in the project.
For this project, I envisioned my materials as less noisy and having a cleaner look, primarily based on color and large shapes.
Most architectural assets were textured with trims and tiles, so I began with those. I created two variations of trim with the same trim division for easy swapping between them. I drew inspiration from different references and combined ideas I liked while working on my textures.
For decor, I mainly used shape nodes, splatter circular, bevel, and combined everything through blends. Although the newest version of Substance Designer offers options like Path and Spline, I used older methods for my trims since I created them before this version was available.
After completing the height maps, I added subtle edge damage to the normal maps to give them a slightly weathered appearance.
- Curved decor
- Trim example
- Damaged edges as the final touch
My environment is also full of mosaics. I did trims with several diffuse variations, and I also did one big unique mosaic for the round part of the library. For the trim mosaic, I’ve used the SVG Node and drawn all pieces by hand, but it’s also possible to make straight lines of rectangular mosaic lines with a tile sampler.
I’ve used trim with clouds that I combined in Photoshop as the background.
Later, I used the same cloud trim for coloring my mosaic. It’s important to have a mosaic effect when doing a color pass; for that, I’ve used Flood Fill to Color to have each mosaic piece filled with one color.
Flood Fill is super important for a mosaic material; it helps with color variation, height variation, and ringness variation.
Thanks to that, your mosaic will sparkle in different angles when moving through the environment.
I had a great time working on my ceiling textures. The idea was that the corridor has a daytime sky texture, and the round part has a nighttime sky texture. For that, I’ve made trims with clouds based on some shots of clouds. I’ve made alphas for each cloud and assembled them with the Tile Sampler.
For a bit of a painterly effect, I put it through Slope Blur Grayscale. Basically, the day and night textures are the same, with differences in colors, and the nighttime one has a slight glitter effect.
For the paintings, I’ve used the old material that I’ve made based on an amazing tutorial by Pauline Boiteux about oil painting.
After that, I just needed to switch color inputs for different images.
I had a very limited number of assets, and many of them were repetitive. To place them, I decided to group them together. I have a rule about putting assets together in numbers like 3, 5, 7, etc.
It’s great if a group of assets consists of all objects being different scales or/and different heights (small/lowest, medium, the highest/biggest).
My environment basically has two zones, the corridor, and the library where this corridor goes. The library is full of books (of course), scattered papers, ladders, and candles.
I wanted the center of the library to be empty, but to make the sides of the library entrance decorated with books.
These piles of books are visible from the corridor; they form interesting shapes and look inviting to go inside and study the surroundings of the library.
The corridor, on the other hand, is the place that we need to go through to finish our journey in the most interesting part of the environment. So the corridor is full of paintings, some of them aren’t on the walls but were just dropped there by someone very messy.
It’s basically modular parts that can be repeated any time you need them too. But thanks to different placements of the same assets, it doesn’t look too boring.
The environment was planned as a bit messy place, a bit dirty and decayed, but not too much. Most of my dirt pass was made with decals, vertex paint, and using the 2nd UV Channel to blend several textures.
There were several variations of decals: leaks, dirt lines, cracks and multipurpose painterly dirt. I’ve used them mostly in places of connection between different surfaces, in the corners of walls, pits on floors, where objects are connected to walls.
I’ve used simple vertex paint on the floor and mosaic to make slight variations of the surface.
For the floor, I’ve used a cracked tiles texture instead of intact, for mosaic – a decayed version with lost pieces. For vertex paint setup, I always use noise texture for easier blending between textures.
For the ceiling, I’ve made an extra trim texture that consists of peeling paint. I did a mask texture with RGB Channels, where R – is the shape of the peeling surface, G – inflated volume around the peeling, and B – Dirt inside the peeling.
With that, I’ve used an extra Normal texture to have that nice peeling effect around. Everything about the paint chipping setup went on the 2nd UV Channel. Here is how the setup looks.
I wanted my lighting to support ideas of the environment, being sun-moon/day-night themes.
The hallway had a daytime ceiling and was mostly lit by warm candles; the round library is the nighttime section and lit by moon blue-ish colors.
Such division helped to create depth and direct viewer attention.
Besides having a basic Exponential Height Fog and Sky atmosphere, I’ve used a sphere with an emissive nighttime sky. In general, I went with a “painting with lights” approach and used a lot of spotlights, point lights, and rectangle lights to imitate rim lights.
For my main shot as a final touch, I turned off lights near the camera to make a darker frame, an easy and cheap way to make any image better.
A dark frame helps to focus attention and separate the foreground from the middle ground and background.
A lot of work was also done in the Post-Process Volume; I’ve raised exposure and made changes through LUT.
This project is my attempt at telling a small story through an interior environment. I wanted it to contain some of my favorite themes and ideas and also be entertaining for viewers. Mostly, I was going for atmosphere and a particular vibe. I hope that something can be learned here to help you improve your projects.
Thank you, Games Artist, for the opportunity to share my knowledge and thoughts about the project, and thank you for reading!