The Road to El Dorado

Environment Breakdown

Isa Raaijmakers


Isa Raaijmakers

Environment Artist


Hello everyone, I am Isa Raaijmakers from the Netherlands. Currently, I am in the process of finding a job in the industry. Recently I graduated from Breda University of Applied Sciences. In my free time, I like to go for walks, cook, work on my bullet journal and play the piano.

Project & Goals

Entering my final year in school I have the opportunity to work on a project of my own choosing. Although a supervisor is assigned, you have to work in an independent way. In the final weeks of my graduation, I had some time left after finishing my last project “Mountain Side Village” and I thought to myself, “Let’s start this really big project with 5 weeks left until I graduate”. And here we are, after a bit longer than 5 weeks.


The reference When looking at the art of the movie “The Road to El Dorado” I see a mysterious, magical and beautiful world, with bright colours, inspiring architecture and lush vegetation. But most importantly I saw an environment I would love to explore, and I did through recreating it in 3D. When searching for references I found This site has screen captures from multiple animated movies. On the website, I went through all the images and picked every image that had some information I thought might help me. Like texture information, details, props, etc.


Planning the project


When I started to plan the project I first categorized the components in the scene as you can see by the colour markings in the image above. This is a technique I have learned from Jasmin Habezai-Fekri, she is a really talented artist and shares a lot of useful information. I cannot stress enough how much I have learned from her.

Using this colour coding method gives you a good overview of what you need to make. It also gave me some idea how my trim sheet should look like and what kind of patterns I would need. I did change some things during the process but it’s really useful to start a project this way. When finishing modular objects I like to place them immediately in the scene and see how much space those objects already occupy, you will be surprised how much you can do with a couple of modular assets and a trim-sheet.


Modularity and trim sheets

Here I will explain a bit about how I created my trim-sheets. I started with blocking out the trims in Maya and imported this to Zbrush. There I started sculpting details and edge wear. The next step was to export the high poly meshes to Substance designer and baking the ambient occlusion map, normal map and curvature map. In the image below you can see the finished result. You can also see that I created an additional bluestone version, which only takes a bit of extra time and gets you double the value of your trim.


Adding colour variation can be difficult so here are the nodes and techniques I use to get a diverse trim. I start off with a baked ambient occlusion and play with the values so I get a black and white
map of only the edges of my trim. From here I add a flood fill node and generate a random grey coloured map. Using the distance node leaves me with all the shapes of the trim-sheet and this way I can easily add a gradient map to start with a good base.


After creating the base I add a bigger diversity of colours and start working on the texturing style. I add more colours to the base, some spots with purple and yellow. I then warp this map to get a hand-painted touch to it. Then I create a random colour map from the flood fill. After creating these maps I blend these 3 maps together. The random colour map should be on a very low opacity of course. The next steps would be to add more details and start playing around with different nodes. Personally, I like to use the light node and baked maps like curvature for the edge wear.



Looking at the reference, it was clear a lot of foliage was needed to make the scene similar. Preferably I also wanted an easy way of placing the foliage throughout the scene. My plan for the foliage was to make a base mesh that would serve as a foundation and layer foliage on top of that. I recently had seen some artworks that use billboard texturing to make foliage and thought this would be a perfect base to start with. In the image, you can see how the base mesh is just an abstract shape. Then using the billboard texture technique I get a better base with more shape. Finally, I finish the foliage by layering it with some foliage meshes.


Foliage | Meshes

Since a lot of foliage was needed for the scene I wanted to make the foliage fast and easy. I started sculpting leaves in Zbrush and created the different types of plants with different leaf variations. For the Ivy-like plants, that use a lot of separate leaves, I try to make 3-4 leaf variations and place them after I have finished sculpting. Looking back I think the sculpts could have been more consistent. The style of the leaves with the harsh lines and soft lines could be a point of improvement for next time. It takes a while until you see what you could have done better but that’s okay. Keep looking back on your past projects and try to learn from them.


Texturing | Props

For the clay pots in my scene, I sculpted the assets in Zbrush and baked the high poly information in Substance Painter. To give the pots more of an authentic, handmade look I added height information with some “wobbles” and this also makes the shadow a bit more interesting on the props. After texturing I adjusted the meshes a bit in Maya to make them less symmetrical. This is something I like to do after texturing since the texturing process will be easier with straight UVs. As you can see in the image, I added multiple texture variations to have a diverse set of pots without having to make a lot of assets.


Keeping things not 100% symmetrical can often help to give your asset some personality and makes it more interesting to look at. It’s also good to think about why and what you want to make less straight. For example I like to make the ears of the pots a bit wonky to give them a cute look, but also because I imagine the pots in my scene are handmade and therefore have unique shapes.

Adding a gradient in the texture often helps stylized assets a lot. For this project, I also tried to add more colour variation to most of my assets. I do this by using a texture map with either warm or cold colours (or both) and masking them and lowering the opacity value of the layer to get small differences in hue. This should always be subtle, not too obvious but it will make the object look more realistic.



The water consists of multiple components:

  • The water shader
  • The water plants
  • Duckweed
  • Fishes
  • Waterfall

Water | Shader

The water shader tutorial by Dean Ashford was really informative and useful and I can recommend watching it when attempting a water shader material. Using depth fade is really helpful in creating depth and is easily customizable. I don’t feel like I can say a lot about my material since it’s mostly a bunch of tutorials put together. I used two texture maps with a panner node and multiplied these for the glimmers in the water.

Water | Plants

For the plants I reused the lotus leaves I had created for a different project and adjusted the texture to what I needed in this scene. To add to the foliage I created two different lily pads, big ones and smaller ones. The smaller ones I grouped for faster placement. The best way to place these is by using the foliage tool in Unreal Engine. The foliage tool acts like a paintbrush, which allows me to start painting foliage on a plane. The foliage tool can configured to place random scaled mesh within a set range.


Water | Duckweed

The duckweed added a lot to the water and scene overall, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of Bjorn Prins, who is always open to sharing his knowledge. The duckweed texture is created in Substance designer as well as the heightmap. With the vertex paint tool in Unreal Engine, I am able to paint and blend the duckweed in the water. The heightmap controls the shape the duckweed follows. There is also a hue shift on the edge of the duckweed that you are able to adjust. As always I made sure there were enough colour variations in the base colour.


Water | Fishes

The fishes were a lot more difficult than I hoped they would be. The meshes are simple fish-shaped meshes and the colour was done in the engine so I could easily adjust it. The fish meshes consist out of either one fish or a group of two or three fishes and those follow a spline and have a material using world position offset to make it look like they are swimming.


Water | Waterfall

Someone I can also highly recommend to follow is Nina Klos, a gem in the technical, stylized art community. Her blogs and art breakdowns helped me a lot with creating my own little waterfall. I created my own material for the waterfall and used a panner node to make the texture move. Nothing too complicated but enough to make a great waterfall. I also added a world position offset to make the water move a bit in the scene. Since the water was coming from one of the head sculptures I didn’t want the top side to move so I used a bounding box-based node to slowly adjust the flow of the waterfall while going down.


And this concludes the breakdown regarding the water in my scene. I especially liked making the waterfall. It was easy and added a lot to my scene.


The lighting in the scene is mostly done by trial and error. Skylight is very important to adjust the darkness of the shadow, if you want very dark shadows it will be lower and vice versa. Atmospheric fog is used, and warm directional light. At the end of the project, I added some spotlights to make the gold reflect more at places or to light some parts up. Using spotlights instead of point lights will keep your scene a bit more optimized.


Making the scene feel alive

One important thing in finalizing your scene is to make it feel alive. The movie is of course filled with colourful characters.

However, being an environment artist, I am not experienced in making characters and it would take way too much time. Movement is very important, so make a list that could enhance the atmosphere or bring movement to your scene. For example, my list contained stuff like:
Falling leaves, (small) waterfall, fish in the water, wind through the leaves, god rays.

Think about what kind of weather is present in your scene and adjust your scene to that environment. For example, in the desert there might be sand blowing, a tumbleweed rolling in the background, the possibilities are endless. Audio can also have a big effect on the liveliness or mood.

For example, hearing raindrops fall or hearing the wind blow or leaves rustling. In a scene depicting a big city, you might add car sounds even though there aren’t any cars in the scene. This can make your environment feel bigger than what you are showing. The illusion of a bigger world than it actually is.


Additional advice

The best advice I feel like I can give people is what helped me the most. Number one, stop comparing yourself and start getting inspired! I know it’s hard but when you are comparing yourself, you often start making similar stuff to someone else and it will never look the same, and therefore you might not feel satisfied. So start doing your own thing.

Get inspired and learn from other artists. I thought this would never be possible for anxious, self-conscious me, but when I stopped comparing myself to others is when I made the biggest steps! It’s a process, so it’s not like you can flip a switch but it will help you in the end. My second piece of advice is to finish projects.

Although it’s true you will always learn when creating stuff. You will miss an essential part of the learning process, namely the polishing part, this is important to push your art piece to the next level. For example, if I had stopped working on this project in the last week, I wouldn’t have learned how to make waterfalls and water ripples. I learned about composition when deciding my shots and I learned about set dressing when making final small changes to my scene.



Thank you for reading my article, I hope it both inspired and informed you. Please feel free to contact me with additional questions related or unrelated to the article!

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