Summer – Nature Study – Danny Whitehouse
Hi my name is Danny Whitehouse and I am an Environment artist in the UK. I am currently working as a Lead Environment Artist at Firesprite.
I started out a long time ago as a Maya generalist and animator, and did freelance work on things like TV adverts, simulations for emergency services and making media content for Children’s Education.
I always liked computer games, the idea of constructing living breathing worlds that people can fully look around and interact with in real-time always appealed to me.
About the Project
I like making foliage and vegetation but felt my portfolio was lacking in examples of it. So in my spare time, I started making a few plants and trees and thought I would use different software and workflows to see a way I preferred to work.
I’ve used Speedtree before to make trees, but I also wanted to try using it to make plants, flowers and bushes too. I also used ZBrush to create detailed leaves and Substance Painter for texturing.
So it started out as a series of nature studies, just making some plants and trees, but then I thought I should create a scene to put these in. After a bit of searching, I came across an image of a painting that I used as a composition and it also gave me some ideas for other plants to make. I also liked that it has a vista, it’s not just a few pine trees, a few rocks and some ferns. Nothing wrong with those but I have seen a lot of these on people’s portfolios and I wanted to do something entirely different.
Speedtree, Maya (been using it for over 15 years now), Substance Painter, ZBrush, Photoshop, Unreal 4, XNormal, Pureref.
I used Pureref for reference gathering, it’s a great program, you can even drag images from google search directly into it.
For the overall composition and mood, I found this image on the internet. I don’t know who the artist is but by the time I found it I had already modelled the Oak tree and Foxgloves.
It took a while to get the exact composition I wanted. I made a landscape in Unreal and made the materials for it, but ended up using a static mesh for the road. This was easier to modify and had enough vertex so I could vertex paint the road track materials.
I made the grass in two ways, the long grass I made in ZBrush using Fibermesh, and the short grass I modelled in Maya. For the modelled grass I would make small section then extrude it sometimes along a curve, or use the deform tools and soft select to bend it.
Sculpting in ZBrush
Here are some of the leaves and flowers I sculpted in ZBrush.
I usually start with a low poly blockout in Maya, just something quickly modelled, then take that into ZBrush. First I increase the divisions a bit, then I start pulling and pushing the geometry around to get the main large shapes, using the Move and Standard brushes. I also use Dynamesh after big changes to the geometry just to make sure everything doesn’t become a mess.
If things start to get a bit thin, such as on the stem, I use the Inflate brush. I also use Snake Hook or Move to pull out some of the edges. Once I’m happy with the overall silhouette I then use Orbs brush or the Slash brush to create the main creases and veins. One of the last things I do is add the small leaf vein details.
To do this I load an alpha of leaf veins, just a pattern really, and apply this to a masked area of the leaf. I then export the high poly and take it into Maya where I arrange them on a plane which I will then bake later in Substance Painter.
For tree bark I used ZBrush, there are a couple of tutorials that explain how to make seamless bark textures:
Tutorial by Steven Oberman
Seamless bark, plugin and tutorial
Once the leaves and flowers are made I then import the lowpoly versions into Speedtree. Making the Foxglove was fun and refreshingly different to making a tree. Working out which generation mode, how to align and how to have them transition from leaf, to flower to bud was an interesting challenge.
It does however have its limitations or quirks. The materials that are linked to certain meshes are still a bit confusing. At times, you can be editing one leaf only to find you’ve inadvertently edited another one. It can also be a pain loading all the textures if their location has changed.
The Hawthorn bush proved to be difficult. Trying to get leaf fronds to spawn correctly on a custom mesh proved quite difficult, it kept results in bald patches or fronds that would align inwards. In the end I used Maya to scatter fronds over the surface.
For the Oak tree I used Speedtree’s mapmaker to make the branch cards. This means bringing in your own leaf textures and scattering the leaf along the twigs and branches which are created in Speedtree. It takes a bit of getting used to, and feels a little clunky. When it comes to exporting the leaf card textures it has no options for packing them, instead it bakes them into quadrants, which leaves a lot of wasted space.
After trying this a few times, my preferred method was to make the leaf cards in Maya and export to Substance Painter for baking. I would then import the textures into Speedtree and use them to make the tree.
The billboard trees in the vista were made in Unreal by using High Res Screenshot. I simply take one of the trees in my scene, duplicate it and place it high up in the world. Then duplicate that a few more times to make a cluster. Then use High-Resolution Screenshot with Buffer Visualization Targets enabled, this will create a whole bunch of images but the ones I find most useful are base colour and scene depth.
I then go into photoshop and make the Diffuse texture in there. The textures are then applied to planes in Unreal and placed in the vista. It’s probably not the best method but is quick and easy.
Most of my materials are set up in the usual way and are nothing that fancy. I used master materials for ease of use, and a vertex blend material on road mesh to make the muddy tracks. I even made landscape materials that blend by height, although they are only visible in the vista.
However, the foliage material was quite important for this scene so I spent time getting that right. One thing I found with the grass and wheat fields was that it’s difficult to get to it to look soft and nice. I now know the reason which I’ll try to explain.
It is to do with Tangent Space normal and a two-sided material, one side will be correct but the reverse side will have its normals flipped. So if you had your normal pointing straight up (which I don’t recommend) then on the reverse they will point straight down. (If you are making stylised grass then you can switch off Tangent Spaced normals in the material, but this is no good if you want your normal and roughness maps to work).
The flipping of the faces also seems to affect SS so that one side will appear dark even though it is facing the sun. The solution is to add some nodes to the material that help with Normal View Dependency.
Follow this thread for an explanation:
For texturing, I used Substance Painter with a pretty standard workflow. I bake my High Poly to my Low Poly, in the case of foliage the Low Poly is often a flat plane. Sometimes I will assign materials in Maya to use as ID maps in Substance. Once I have baked my maps I then start with a base colour and just build it up from there.
I usually add a layer with strong occlusion, and then another which highlights the edges. I try to get most of the way there by using layers, and leave hand painting till last, if I use it at all, mainly because it’s not as easy to edit in the future.
I like to create a separate Subsurface or Translucency Map. If you are working quickly you could use the Base Colour, but this doesn’t really give a correct result. In photoshop I darken the areas where light wouldn’t shine through, such as the stem, leaf veins and where the flowers meet the stem. And brighten the areas that are quite thin, like the ends of the flowers and leaf edges.
In the material, I normally multiple this by a 3 vector, and in the colour swatch you can control the brightness with the Value, you can even increase the Value above one to make it very bright.
The lighting in this scene was fairly simple as it was an outdoor scene on a bright sunny day. All the lights are dynamic. The first thing I usually do is turn off auto exposure in project settings. Then I Book Mark my camera so I can quickly get back to the same view.
The lighting consists of direct light, a skylight, a skydome with an HDR and Exponential Fog. For the Skylight I apply the HDR to it as a cubemap and I switched off shadows as they were causing artifacts. I also used a couple of spotlights for rim or backlights to light the oak tree, house and fence posts.
The post process volume, nothing fancy going on here:
I also tried out a UE4 Plug-in called Hemisphere skies. It gives some nice results, but feels a little limited in its controls:
Overall, I really enjoyed this project as I learned a lot from it! I would also like to thank Games Artist for this opportunity to share my project with you all.
The making of these scenes has been extremely educational. I discovered a lot about the workflows for making vegetation and foliage. I would definitely do some things differently in the future, such as using Imposters as billboard trees in the vista and adding more plant types which would add to the realism.
I hope you enjoyed reading! You can see more of my artwork here: https://www.artstation.com/danwhitehouse