Tortuga Lighthouse

Environment Breakdown

Miha Maruško

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Miha Maruško

Environment Artist

Introduction

Hey there! I’m Miha, an environment artist from Maribor, Slovenia, currently working in the gaming industry.
I got here by uploading environment art projects to ArtStation, and I ended up accepting my current role at Disruptive Games, where we’re working on our internal project.

Goals

This year, I’m celebrating my 2nd anniversary of joining the industry, so I decided to make a new Unreal Engine 5 project called “Tortuga Lighthouse” to showcase my current skill set and my artistic growth throughout my time as an environment artist.

The main inspirations for this project are games like God of War (2018), Final Fantasy 15, @gregfromenteau_art and Studio Ghibli movies.

Something is charming, wise, and mysterious about sea turtles, and I wanted to convey that in my next environment art piece along with the coziness of Ghibli movies; hence the lighthouse and the hut.

This art piece was quite challenging but insanely fun to create. Overall, it took me roughly 5 months to create, and I made sure I respected not only my free time but also my estimated finish line of the project.

Software

  • Maya: Modeling & UV mapping.
  • Blender: Animation, Rigging, Weight Painting, Retopologizing & Decimating.
  • Zbrush: Sculpting, Retopologizing & Decimating.
  • Marmoset Toolbag: Baking & Presentation.
  • Substance Painter: Texturing.
  • Substance Designer: Material creation & Texturing.
  • Substance Sampler: Material creation.
  • Unreal Engine 5: Game Engine.

For this project, I used all of the software I use at work and beyond. I wanted to challenge myself and learn more about Blender and its many functions.

I especially wanted to expand my skill set in animation, rigging, and weight painting, as well as how to use vertex painting more effectively. So that’s where I did all of these processes on the actual turtle.

I’m primarily a Maya user when it comes to modeling, but I think some props and shapes are faster created and iterated on in Blender. Recently, I’ve also been a big fan of Zbrush, so I love spending time sculpting and iterating; it’s quite relaxing.

Reference & Inspiration

It all started with my love of sculpting, so I started delving deeper into making creature art. I don’t remember what exactly drove me to sculpt a sea turtle, but I think the idea manifested on its own after playing God of War Ragnarok and encountering Chaurli at the end of the game.

I love the scene where Chaurli emerges from the ground in the first game, and I regard Freya’s house as one of the coolest environmental concepts ever in video games.

I always liked ideas and myths about moving homes/environments; I remember some fairy tales as a child where the whole world is placed on a goldfish or turtles or spiritual animals, which I found fascinating.

Vehicles like Blimps/Zeppelins and boats were always cool and outspoken to me, so I wanted to create my version of a wacky vehicle.
They aren’t just vehicles; they’re a way of life, so I wanted to capture that feeling.

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It also helps that I spent a lot of time on a sailboat as a child since my father is a skipper, and holidays were essentially always spent on a boat.

Greg Fromentau’s art really pushed the idea further with his artworks; I adore his themes of having structure on animals throughout his portfolio.

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Blockout

The blockout I started was pretty refined from the start already since the first step was me sculpting and experimenting in Zbrush with creature art.

While I was sculpting the turtle, I also made sure to start iterating and creating rocks and the man-made structures on the island

I also helped myself with paintovers just for reference as to how the color scheme should look.

Turtle & Zbrush

There was a pivotal point early in developing this project that was dependent on me actually making the project or not. The Turtle is the glue holding the whole artwork together; if I wasn’t capable of actually sculpting a decent high-poly model, I would’ve given up.

I made sure to make a fantastical and over-exaggerated version instead of a carbon copy sculpture of a generic sea turtle.

Granted I did take a lot of inspiration from other fantastical creatures, which I mostly found on Pinterest, but most of my reference points were taken from video games like God of War and Final Fantasy 15.

I played around with how sharp the scales should be and how dense the level of detail should be.

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The whole project initially started with me practicing creature sculpting in Zbrush.

I made sure to look at as many similar Zbrush sculpts as I possibly could, and I invested a lot of time into just watching timelapse videos.

Sometimes I think I learn the most by just watching silent the-making-of content or timelapses of artworks slowly coming to life. There was also a major breaking point in the development and sculpting of the turtle; since I wanted to ensure that the turtle wasn’t a monster and wouldn’t harm anyone, I wanted to give it a kinder look.

I had no reference of what I would consider a “friendly look,” but a lot of it stands in the eye of the creature for me.

I also made my work lighter by generating and kitbashing an improvised turtle scale heightmap, which I stamped mostly on the lower neck area of the turtle since it involved smaller scales.

The bigger ones were all hand sculpted, and I took care in individually smoothing them and in making sure they add to the composition and flow to the creature.

At some point, the eye of the turtle was more akin to an eye that would fit a fantasy dragon, so I decided for a long time to just have a plain black color.

Later on, a good colleague of mine, Guillaume Hecht, suggested adding blue depth to it, so I developed a shader to imitate light pouring into the translucent eye.

I was initially really pleasantly surprised when people started to call it cute; I felt very proud when that happened!

Generally, I think there’s also a wider discourse in the world that Sea Turtles are generally harmless and are already considered cute, so that helped a lot.

Modelling

For the modeling, I knew that I could take a bit of liberty since I knew I was going to use Nanite. At some point, it was questionable whether I should use it or not since I knew the turtle was going to be a skeletal mesh and those do not support nanite.

In the end, I found a nice workaround on how to make the turtle move without it making a skeletal mesh with all of the assets combined into a single asset. I will explain the trick further in the article.

As for other assets, both manmade and organic, I adapted myself to a lot of workarounds with the help of Nanite. Granted, most meshes are not higher poly, but I made the most of it and still used Nanite on them.

There’s been a lot of discord lately on how to effectively use it, and we’ve practiced that at our studio as well. Nanite does not equate to unlimited polygons, so there’s still caution on how well it can be used, but it does wonders for the performance of higher poly meshes.

It is also disabled for meshes that include vertex painting, so I had to be a bit selective on which props I had to compromise.

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Things like wooden planks, rocks, and mussels are all assets that are important for showcasing fidelity, so those consist of a higher polygon count than other assets.

I made sure to develop nice clean sculpts for wood with only deeper splinter cuts, which were reinforced with a tileable normal map and a detailed material.

Turtle

Both the Low-poly and the High-poly versions of the turtle were created in ZBrush where I also UV-unwrapped the Low-poly model.
I baked the asset in the Marmoset Toolbag and painted it in Substance Painter.

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Foliage

All of the Foliage was created through ZBrush as well, including both the Clover plants and all of the grass assets, as well as the tall grass that’s used and scattered through the sand dunes.

I also developed a separate master material for foliage with which I could control the coloring and the wind intensity.

Props

The majority of assets were modeled and created in Maya, with the exception of using Blender for specific assets. Things like ropes, flags, fences, and models that are torus-shaped are much faster to create in Blender for me with all of the plugins I have, so I prioritize where and how fast I can create specific assets faster with the same quality.

That being said, some assets need to have that personalized touch, so there’s a bit of compromising involved as well. I also made sure to use tileable textures as much as I could to maintain the best texel density I can for small props.

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House

The house was an interesting challenge since it arrived pretty late in the project. I liked the idea of a lighthouse on the turtle, but when I tried to immerse myself in the environment and imagine a living environment, it felt like something was missing.

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All of the references to lighthouses always had a house attached to it, so I thought it could be a perfect storytelling element and a theme that someone is living on the island.

The whole idea of it feels very Ghibli-esque, so I knew I had the right mindset with it. For inspiration for the house, I mainly took fishing barracks and houses from Maine, more specifically from Bar Harbor.

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I wanted the house to look a bit abandoned but still livable, adding some character to it with age. I also wanted to showcase that the sea is known for being extremely windy and storms are not uncommon, so the house has sort of formed curvatures to its silhouettes.

No pillar or beam is straight, everything is curved a bit. Ropes reinforce major beams and hold the house together by being tied to the metal fence.

Let’s just say the owner isn’t the brightest but it sells the story. Nautical flags also add a lot to the nautical vibe, kudos to SpongeBob’s Krusty Krab.

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The main red paint texture is nothing but a tileable texture with a tileable normal map that I created in Substance Designer.

It gave me a lot of freedom to play with darker and lighter layers of red paint until I found something that was a nice match between the surroundings.

The same goes for the wood actually. The white paint is nothing but a different layer that’s tileable and can be changed on the fly.

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Lighthouse

The lighthouse was a theme in the environment that I iterated on the most, so it was constantly changing.

It went from a metal shoal lighthouse to a more traditional design.

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The cylinder structure is nothing but a cylinder with UV design so that I could have seamless tileable texturing applied to it, perfect for the brick texture and the plaster which is portrayed on the lighthouse with vertex paintings.

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The layered system I designed worked well for the plaster fading from the bricks while still being present in the deeper cuts in between the bricks.

And yes, the white spots on top of the lighthouse are my attempts at imitating bird poop.

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Shaders

At the start of the project, I made sure to invest a lot of time into developing a single master shader that would be responsible for all material instances for all assets.

I simply called it a “Master material” and I developed it and adjusted it accordingly to what I needed and what I thought would benefit the project.

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I apologize for the spaghetti node organization. In the end, I created around 11 iterations of the master shader with the goal of developing as much versatility as reusability and giving myself as many options as I could for all Material instances. These are some of the features that I used:

  • Absolute gradient value which also controlled the roughness of the said gradient.
  • Optional tiling for all layers.
  • Vertex painting.
  • Alpha blending between albedos which also included normal masking or blending.
  • Up to 3 tileable normals.
  • Top buildup with either masked or blended normal maps.
  • Tileable top albedo, roughness and normals.
  • AO for all layers.

Since the scene uses a lot of materials and different textures, I made sure that shading was based on virtual textures which helped me a lot.

And since my master material had a lot of features and ways where I could add different color variations and other tileables that added a lot to the variety and break up of shapes I didn’t need to rely on virtual textures too much.

Decals were also mostly cut, I think there are only two decal actors in the entire scene.

I create a lot of fun and unique materials for the project with metal paneling for the lighthouse structure being one of my favorites.

Animation & Movement

I decided I was going to do this project only if I could make the turtle move and develop it as a dynamic element, hence being unique and presenting the general theme of a “moving environment” in practice.

I still wanted this to be mainly an environment art project, so the quality and the presentation of the scene had to be balanced between the turtle and the lighthouse and at the end of the day also between the animation.

To help me with that process, I got help from my colleague and friend Johan te Grotenhuis who is an animator over at our studio. He helped me a lot with critique and advice on how to make the animation smoother and better looking.

Overall, I think I achieved a nice balance for someone who works in game development and for someone who views my artwork.

The animations just had to be good enough not to notice but good enough to the point where you can feel the weight of the creature and how it drags itself on the ground.

I personally prefer the idle animation, but I was in love with the idea that the lighthouse would actually move and create this fantasy of a moving environment, but there’s a trick to this whole operation!

The turtle never actually moves, it’s the environment and everything around it that moves.

The original plan was actually to have the turtle move along with all of the assets on it, but it turned out to be too challenging and it needed actual engineering behind it, so I met with another colleague of mine Caroline Gomez and she helped me realize a lot of these focal points and the logic behind such an operation.

After her advice and a chat on what is possible and what is not, I decided to make the surroundings and the floor move instead of the actual turtle.

I appropriately named the floor a “treadmill”.

The general Camera movement also does the trick since it moves together with the environment and reinforces the idea that the turtle is moving forward.

I also invested a lot of time into research on how video games do it and they actually use this trick all the time. Not to mention that this practice is also very common in 2D animation so I got a bit of inspiration from there as well.

A good example from a video game in this case would be Metro Exodus, more specifically, the train hub sections which appear in-between chapters giving you space and time to interact with the whole crew and strike up conversation and dialogue with the characters.

It’s not the train that is moving, but rather the game is generating an environment that is moving and making it appear as if the train is moving. When the train passes that section it unloads the grid and generates the new in front of the train. Link to the video.

There was a point in time when I was certain that I could achieve something similar with the whole turtle (including all of the props on it) being a skeletal mesh.

Meaning all of the props would be combined into one big giant character.
Turns out that was not achievable since the polycount was through the roof and Nanite is not supported for skeletal meshes, so I had to compromise and erase that idea.

I stored all of my animations in a separate map where I critiqued and upgraded them.
Below is a cut animation of swimming.

Lighting

I’m a huge fan of lighting in video games, before becoming an environment artist I studied and invested a lot of time into learning what good lighting in mediums looks like and thanks to the Lumen in UE5 it’s now easier than ever to change lighting on the fly.

I’m sure I could develop a similar project in UE4 but in no way would it match the quality in lighting, mesh density, and general poly-count.

My main mission with Tortuga Lighthouse was to have a universal lighting scenario that could showcase the normals and silhouettes of the whole Tortuga structure. This means basic sunlight with the support of spotlights and some fake global illumination points/spotlights.

That being said, I did make sure that the whole island looks good from every angle of the directional light.

Just as a quick teaser, I am going to help direct and execute a music video sometime shortly with the whole Tortuga structure and universal lighting scenarios will come in handy since we will be shooting with greenscreen equipment so I’m excited to make Lumen shine even more!

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Readability & Composition

It was very important that viewers of my artwork instantly recognize what they were looking at. Whenever I go into fantastical territory (no matter if it’s a sculpt, a painting, a map in CS, whatever really) I make sure to have readability intertwined with the composition.

Essentially I want the viewer to almost instantly realize what they’re looking at, now granted, we don’t see lighthouses on turtles every day so I had to make a lot of iterations regarding the compositional elements.

The most challenging part was actually the lighthouse itself. At first, it was meant to be a shoal metal-like lighthouse which meant I had to find the right balance between the outermost left and right edges of the turtle to make the lighthouse stick out and help the viewer instantly recognize the shape.

I initially liked the metal lighthouse in the scene, but afterward, I decided to change it to a more traditional design, meaning bricks, and white colors with shades of red.

I was in love with the top part of the metal lighthouse so not all progress was erased since I modified it and used it in the final lighthouse.

I also had a lot of arguments myself on which colors I should use for the lighthouse since it was blue at first. But I had to pause a bit and think what would benefit the readability so I decided to go with a simpler more traditional color scheme.

I did like the faded plaster idea that I saw in one of the images I found on Pinterest since it adds to the texture of the plaster and the surface.

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Speaking of colors it was important that even without colors the shapes would read well so I experimented a lot with how the main compositional shot would look like in Black and white.

Layers

After I uploaded my previous project “New Babylon” I got a lot of positive feedback for creating layers in my composition since they add a lot to the depth of the environment.

Having a foreground and a clear background is a good start but having clear layers in between can add a lot to the silhouettes and it creates a lot of options to play around with level art and prop placement.

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Background Art

The main focus of this project is the environment, the turtle, and everything else on it, so that was my focal point. I took the liberty to make the surroundings with Megascan assets and focus more on the composition and the general space.

A huge inspiration came from the sand shores of the East Coast of the US but I still wanted sprawling cliff sides surrounding the turtle so I combined the sandy beach dunes with the incredible cliffs of the coast of Ireland.

Megascans and Stylization

Whenever I use both Megascan assets combined with my assets I make sure that I try to find a nice balance between these two.
It’s crucial that there’s no visual difference between the two.

Either in color, polygon distribution, silhouette, and in the normal map density. I developed my Master shader in a way where I can quickly change these parameters on the fly which sped up the progress significantly.

I personally think that developing a master material is one of the first things to do in a project, which leads me to the next topic: RECYCLING.

Recycling

I urge anyone to make sure to reuse as many assets as you can. And by that, I don’t mean the finished 3D asset. But rather the textures, patterns, sometimes even the same color or metallic/roughness values.

Not only does it speed up the process but also maintains consistency. Both in detail distribution and the Frequency of primary, secondary, and tertiary elements.

We can find a Good example in this plaster tileable texture that I created in Sketchbook. It’s used on wooded assets, metal assets, and Brick color distribution.

It’s everywhere. And another good thing about it is that the base texture is pretty neutral on purpose.

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I made it so because I knew I was going to be changing the RGB value of it.

Meaning I’m going to break those layers of grays into bigger and smaller shapes when I slide up the RGB value combined with the base brightness.

Another hot tip I can give is based on shades of different Hues.

Make sure that the shades and colors you include in detail are leaning toward other hues, those can add a lot to the complexity of the colors and make your props.

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VFX

I’m a firm believer that environment art gets a lot richer once VFX is included and they provide that nice much-needed oomph and make the scene actually come alive.

I took the liberty to buy some from the marketplace, but I also challenged myself and developed most of them on my own with the help of tutorials and learning from my previous experiences.

Clouds & Shadows

Besides the turtle actually moving, I think moving cloud shadows are a nice addition and sell the idea that it’s windy outside and make the lighting not only dynamic but also very interesting to look at since they form new silhouettes and provide new shapes that can either make or break the main focal point.

I made sure to create a light-function material that provided a lot of creative options both for me and made different layers of clouds that move faster, some move slower and some don’t move at all.

It also helps that all layers are tileable so I can make them as big and small as I want while they’re panning around I learned a lot from a recent Horizon Forbidden West GDC talk on how they do lighting in the open world, how they implement cloud shadows in their gameplay and how it attracts players to location.

There’s a lot one can do with guiding the player through light and darkness, it’s essentially shadow play on where to attract focus and how it’s a wonderful tool for reinforcing compositions.

Cloud Movement

There’s subtle cloud movement happening in the background, just enough to give the impression that the clouds are moving and are not just static 2d Plane meshes.

I followed a fantastic tutorial for this from the excellent artist Tyler Smith.

Blowing Wind

Since sandy dune beaches on the coast east are known for being windy I wanted to implement that into my environment.

That’s mostly seen through the sand flying with the wind which is a 2D Panning texture that is projected through a custom Flow map and disappears once the camera goes close to it.

Swaying Foliage

A good final touch is swaying foliage as that’s usually the element that players most interact with in an actual game.

The tall grass wind movement that’s present on the ground and in select areas on the turtle is made through shaders and I followed some tutorials and my own knowledge from my experience to simulate swaying in the wind.

For normal-sized grass, I mostly used a simplewind node.

Birds

Seagulls are an element that I bought from the Unreal marketplace and I feel like they make a difference in the vibe and sell the idea that this takes place on a beach.

I made sure some of them were circling the lighthouse, some were hanging out and flying in the distance and some were just randomized and stuck to a certain height and flew in all sorts of directions.

Advice & Reflection

and present an idea when developing environment art pieces and I want to reflect that mentality in my ArtStation projects.

I’m talking about things like what to present first when you open the project, what should the thumbnail be, how to capture attention when you’re scrolling through the post, and what message I want to convey with the project.

When it comes to Tortuga Lighthouse I wanted to create something that captivates both me and the viewer and instantly sells the fantasy of a dreamy, cozy life on the back of a giant Turtle.

Something you can only experience through a Ghibli movie or a fairy tale that we’ve all read as children, so as I’m making the environment I like to think or imagine a story and a past that’s connected to the space in time.

I think the main idea connects a lot with Howl’s moving castle since that story also includes a large movable livable space.

Conclusion

I would like to thank GamesArtist for the opportunity to write this article and thank you for reading through the article.

It was a pleasure both creating this environment and piece and showcasing how I made it and what went on in my head while I was making it.

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