A Stylized UE 5 Environment: Material Creation & Particles Techniques

Technical Environment Artist Finn Bogaert has presented Trainstation, a stylized Unreal Engine 5-based environment featuring a seasons cycle, discussed the material creation approach and workflow in Substance 3D Designer, and shared various resources for beginner environment artists.

Introduction

Hey everyone! I'm Finn Bogaert, a 19-year-old second-year student at Digital Arts & Entertainment (DAE) of Howest University of Applied Sciences, studying the Game Graphic Production major with a Technical Art minor.

My interest in 3D and art started only recently. I joined DAE about 16 months ago with no experience in this field but quickly became obsessed with 3D art. For the last 2 years, I have been refining my skills and focusing on improving. Being surrounded by such talented people at my school made me progress really quickly. I picked up 3D skills in no time and started elevating my school assignments to portfolio pieces.

I'm still very new to the industry, but I'm eager to improve and learn new things every day. I hope this article inspires the newer artists in this industry to try out new things, explore different opportunities, and most of all, not be scared of the challenges ahead of making their own projects. I was also pretty scared of starting the Trainstation project since I wouldn't have the teacher's guidance. But I had so much fun making it, and doing personal projects aside from school assignments can be really refreshing! I will share how I made this project from start to finish, as well as my thought process for all steps. With this being my first time using many techniques and workflows, I also have little to no experience in the stylized world, so I will explain how I learned everything.

Inspiration

I wanted to do a project that would help me learn new things, so I decided to look for something focusing on improving skills like Substance 3D Designer materials, Unreal Engine Blueprints, Unreal shaders, environment design, and advanced environment techniques.

Overall, I was going to use this as a huge learning project to improve in as many ways as possible and create a nice-looking piece in the end. While looking for something interesting to make I stumbled across this artwork by Atnajoy called Train station:

I instantly fell in love, this looked like a really fun piece to replicate and had a lot of opportunities for me to learn new skills, this was it. I sent a message to the artist on ArtStation and got the green flag, it was time to get started!

Getting Started

The first 2 steps of the process of making something are usually the same, reference and blockout. I started with references so I had a better idea of what I would actually need to make in preparation for the scene.

I started gathering references based on what I could see from the concept art. First I looked at what kind of Substance 3D Designer materials I could make since I've never used the program and really wanted to learn it.

Blockout

At this point, I was feeling extremely motivated and couldn't wait to get started. For the lockout, I downloaded fSpy, an application used for camera matching. Using fSpy I had a way easier time getting my camera settings down right, than just manually playing around with them since I haven't gone deep into this tool yet.

Since fSpy has a Blender add-on, I ported the camera settings I got from fSpy to Blender and then exported that to Maya, where I started making the blockout. After that, I exported this scene from Maya to Unreal using a USD export, and then the basic blockout was ready.

If you want to learn more about this workflow, I recommend checking out this Camera Match in Maya with fSpy and Blender tutorial by On Mars 3D.

To make sure my blockout was accurate, I put together a Post Process Material including my reference picture, this way I could overlay the reference onto my scene, and this made it really easy to position my meshes correctly according to reference.

Asset Creation

Next on the list was refining the meshes in my scene, trying to get rid of the lockout shapes. This process was pretty simple since I had made the Post Process Material mentioned earlier. I exported my blockout from Unreal back to Maya, so I had the base shapes to start modeling from and then got to work.

I made everything low poly and optimized, only the curved areas were made sure to not cheap out on polys since I really didn't want any facetting to be seen in the scene. I focussed on aesthetics most.

I decided to unwrap most of the models on 1 UV space, existing on those that contained metal because the metal material in this scene has a really unique and special look. So, I unwrapped all the rest in preparation for the Substance 3D Designer materials I will be making.

Material Creation

Substance 3D Designer was the main idea why I started this project because I wanted to learn this extremely powerful program. I made a small note of all the materials I would have to make:

  • Bark
  • Pebbles
  • Base material
  • Brick Material
  • Wood Planks

There are some other materials in there too, but I will get into this once I start creating the different seasons.

Since it was my first time using Substance 3D Designer, I felt really lost at first and went to look at tutorials. I practiced creating some materials by combining different tutorials for a while until I felt decently comfortable to start making the actual materials for the scene.

Dimitri Alexis has a really insightful tutorial where he explained his workflow on making a stylized brick wall, featuring really unique and cool techniques for using color, which I hadn't learned yet, so this was the perfect opportunity to do so. I decided to use this as a base. It didn't give me the result I wanted exactly, so I expanded on it, mostly focusing on color, since I wanted to recreate the reference as closely as possible.

After exporting this material from 3D Designer to Unreal Engine 5, I enhanced the material using Parallax Occlusion to give it more detail and used vertex painting to fake shading and highlights. The reason I resorted to vertex painting in values is so I could fake shading, and different values, without having to make new materials. This is where the power of Unreal Engine 5 shines, which allowed me to make it look like the reference without too much effort.

The green spots on the bricks were just done with a simple decal made in Photoshop, this tied everything together and made the material come to life.

I noticed for the base material, I could just take out the brick definition from the material, tweak the values a bit and I would have the correct material to use for the base.

I noticed the Unreal Engine 5's Megascans materials have really powerful layer blending options, so I used this to my advantage to quickly create the possibilities to vertex-paint water puddles onto my base mesh. This gave me the reflections I wanted as seen in the reference.

Here I showcase how I used vertex painting to my advantage on my different textures. This way I sped up the process and got the results I wanted way faster than other possible methods.

Using only a few nodes I could get really powerful Substance graphs which gave me exactly the results I wanted, partly possible because of the Flood Fill node which allows for so many different things when working on materials.

Using a lot of Flood Fill techniques taught by Johnny M, I learned how to use this node effectively, he was a huge help for me while learning Substance 3D Designer.

Since the metal materials in this scene are so unique, I decided to just paint over them. The technique I used here was camera-based unwrapping my models from the angle you would see them, or the angle the concept art had. I could then just paint over my UVs in Photoshop, which gave me a projected texture-ish feel, but it worked extremely well so I didn't go much deeper into it.

Foliage Creation

The foliage shader was mainly referenced from Victoria Zavhorodnia's tutorial on how to make stylized trees.

This gave me a pretty decent result, but I wanted to push it a bit further. I figured adding subsurface scattering to the leaves would make them feel more stylized. There are parameters included for everything, which makes changing the color, size, roughness, and gradient super easy.

Lighting

I did most of the lighting using the Ultra Dynamic Sky plug-in from the Unreal Marketplace, a very useful Blueprint that allows you to add highly customizable sky to your scene.

I started analyzing the lighting in the scene, I did this over multiple lighting passes trying to get the lighting right. This took some time but the key here is to keep looking at the reference, and trying to actually understand what is happening with the lighting in the reference.

This is my basic setup:

Now onto the star of the show, the seasons. As you can see later in my time tracking I only spent about 25 hours on making all the seasonal iterations. There are multiple reasons for this, for example, the versatility of foliage shader which allowed me to iterate foliage colors really quickly and accurately according to my reference.

The Ultra Dynamic Sky blueprint also comes with a Ultra Dynamic Weather blueprint, which allowed me to easily enable rain, snow, etc. The lighting in most scenes was not too different, I didn't have to spend too much time on different lighting setups.

I added only a few unique elements per scene, these weren't too much work, so I could quickly make the new scenes. I added a particle effect per scene and 1 or two meshes.

As for summer, here I just used the butterfly particle effect that I created. In the main shot, I also added rain, but for the seasonal transitions, I removed this to keep each season unique.

I made a falling leaf particle effect to replicate the leaves falling in autumn. I also made autumn leaf piles on the floor and added rain with the Ultra Dynamic Weather Blueprint.

For winter, I added icicles and snow piles across the scene, combined with shaders I made for these. The snow effects were applied to all my materials as well as a falling snow effect with Ultra Dynamic Weather.

Spring features a falling sakura leaf particle effect with added leaves on the floor and a butterfly particle effect.

Here's another quick preview of my seasonal transitions:

Particles

As I said earlier, I put together some simple particles to make all the seasons come to life, and here's a small breakdown:

For the butterflies, I used a plane with a simple shader where I animated it using the Vertex Color:

The falling leaves are just simple gravity systems with drag and wind implemented to them, this makes for a nice and flowy result of the falling leaves.

Color Grading

After rendering out the scene I started the color grading process. I used the default ACES color grading workflow, adjusting the tone and temperature, a general color correction, and changed the saturation until I got the desired result. As seen above, the grading really makes a major difference, and it's an unskippable step in the process of making any scene look great.

I ran a similar setup for all of my seasons, with some different types of color grading to make every scene pop and come to life more. My main resource to learn color grading was William Faucher's tutorial, he gives amazing breakdowns of various techniques in Unreal Engine 5.

This is a work-in-progress gif of my scene, here you can see the small improvements for all the steps I mentioned.

Time Tracking

Since this was my first ever personal project aside from school I wanted to document everything nicely. I had my workflow noted down while I was working on the scene, and I tracked my working hours. Hopefully, this can give some insight into what goes into making a small scene like this.

The total time spent on the base project was 105 hours. The seasonal variations took about 25 hours, and the presentation took about 10 hours, this includes renders, composition, the ArtStation post, etc. This makes the total time around 140 hours.

Conclusion

Finally, I want to talk a bit about what I learned, what I thought about working on a project like this, and the struggles I went through. First of all, I was really nervous to start on a project like this since I was totally new to most of the techniques I used in this project. In the beginning, I felt unsure as to where to start and how to tackle the Trainstation project. What helped me a lot was to stick to the roadmap I set for myself.

On the other hand, I am happy about how this project turned out and the overwhelmingly positive response I got from the community. I learned so much from this project, not only as an artist but also as a person in the game artist industry. I got a lot of help from people all over the world and honestly couldn't have done it without them. For this, I want to thank all the people who gave me feedback and supported me throughout this project!

I definitely can't wait to get started on my next project. What will it be about? I have no idea myself, but I'll do my absolute best to learn and improve as much as I can. Maybe I'll see you here again. Thanks for reading!

Finn Bogaert, Technical Environment Artist

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    So cool!

    1

    Anonymous user

    ·16 days ago·

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