A Lighting Artist Milan Dey has told us about designing the Abandoned Alley project, showed the workflow, explained how Megascans' assets were used in the production, and revealed the secret behind the project's name.
Hi, My name is Milan Dey. I'm a Lighting at Look Development Artist at MPC Advertising Bangalore. I have 6.5 years of experience in the VFX Industry. I have a Diploma in 3D Animation and VFX. Though I love to make environments, my first love is lighting and always will be.
As my work currently is mostly on advertisements, I get to work on various kinds of projects in a very short period of time. Some remarkable projects are – Playstation: It's Time to Play, BMW legends, Gears 5 – E3 2019 trailer, Perrier Heat, Dell Alienware Commercials, etc.
The Abandoned Alley Project
So mainly I'm a VFX artist and most of my time in my career I spent with Maya, 3ds Max, and Houdini. I started learning Unreal Engine 7 months ago, to learn something new and kill the boredom of being locked in a room due to the global pandemic.
I found out that Unreal is really my thing. I did 2 personal projects before the Alley and both of them were mainly jungle-related. I wanted to make something inside the city. At first, I thought I would make a noir alley. I was looking for references and saw a picture of a dirty alley and I made up my mind to make a dirty alley like this.
I spent almost 5 days with references and looking at other artists' work, and gathered a ton of references for the different kinds of stuff I wanted to put in the alley. Like the stack of unused tires, different size dumpsters, metal wastes, Overhead extension wires, etc. To make a realistic scene the most important thing is to follow real-world references and follow the natural pattern. In my previous projects I used to face a problem, my layouts used to look like someone tried to make the layout forcefully natural. So this time I decided to spend more time watching the references, which really helped me.
After I'm done with the references, First I had to check what assets were available on Megascans. I needed some good dumpsters and a procedural building pack. Got 2 really great packs from the marketplace, although most of them were too clean and shiny for my taste. Then, the main holding block was the ground. I created one basic ground geometry in Maya, brought it to UE4, and did a rough blocking and camera setup with primitive geometries.
Once my blocking was done I started work on the most important object of the whole scene, the ground. In my last 3 projects, I learned that most of the realism is held by the landscape or the ground. I mainly used Megascans Blend Material, especially because of the realistic puddle feature. I knew from the start that the Megascans blend material will help me get the dark green, rotten mossy feel in the puddle.
Working With Details
After the ground, I mainly laid out the bigger details of the map, like the empty dumpsters, big boxes, trolleys, manholes, circuit boxes. When I started laying the procedural buildings, I found out that they look fine except that the textures needed to be changed. This Procedural Building Pack has one good feature I really like, which is the modular materials and full control of every parameter. Still, they were not enough for the closest part of the camera. Went back to Maya to make basic geometries of 2 houses and brought them to Unreal to paint with blend materials. The windows on the first 2 buildings are just decals on planes. Yeah, Megascans is one powerful tool.
Then I needed some custom assets like the fire escape, some exterior wiring on the walls, clamps, sun shades. I'm a potato at modeling so my friend Subhasish Goswami, currently a modeler at MPC film, helped me out in modeling those things. He is a real good modeler with ultra-fast hands. I textured them in Mixer and imported them into my scene and after placing the fire escapes and wires the scene started to come along. Then all I needed was to work on the micro details.
Okay, here is where I normally went wrong in the past, most of the time. Either I overdo it, or it looks like someone laid some objects and tried to make them look natural. So I went back to references again, I even went to my backyard to look at the dustbin patterns. There is a small open dustbin on the way to my apartment, everyday I cross it while running errands, now I started to look at it carefully every day. I needed exactly that in my scene.
I started with painting foliages, first the bigger ones like the newspapers, then the medium ones like the bottles, metal wastes, then the smaller ones like the paper debris, burger boxes, pebbles. Most of the paper debris is just one detailed decal from the Megascans Post-Apocalyptic Street which really helped to fill the ground with waste paper debris. But one more challenge was left, the dumpsters, they never looked right from the beginning. I had the feeling that the dumpsters were looking too procedural. Again, back to basics, I went back to references and did the dumpsters from scratch again.
Which brought me to the next part, the sky.
The sky was too empty and flat. I never had plans to introduce wires. But I needed interesting shadows. Unreal Engine's Cable Actor is a really great tool to get natural-looking wires. And that week Love, Death + Robots Season 2 was released and the episode "Pop Squad" had some amazing frames featuring nice overhead extension cables. I instantly took the idea and layout references for the cables and placed them in the scene and boom! It looked amazing, especially with the moving wires. But who knew another terrible issue was waiting for me.
Initially, I thought I would bake the lighting and did some test baking, but having a fairly old computer it was taking too much time to bake every time and check results, and as a Lighting Artist myself, I'm never really finished with my lighting. So I dumped the idea of baking the scene and kept all the lights Dynamic. Initially, the lighting setup was quite simple on the alley, until I found out that Dynamic Lights don't bounce and I don't have an RTX card. It was still running on my old 1060. So the only option left was to do the lighting manually. Back to basics, an old-school fake bounce technique, it saved me so much time, this time no exception.
After a round of successful cheating, I ran the sequence through my camera again and it looked great. But still, something was missing. I was looking for that missing piece of the puzzle and I found out that I forgot about the crows. No city is complete without crows. I already had the free animal pack from the marketplace, dragged a couple of the animations in, and did some simple path animations. And at that point, I knew I was done with the scene.
I didn't do any color correction inside unreal. The goal was not to create a cinematic but a natural-looking raw mobile capture footage. Some objects became too saturated in the scene, I did a little bit of grading in Premiere to obtain the natural colors.
Visuals are done, I needed audio. Needed the city ambiance, radio sounds, footsteps, footsteps on puddles, industrial vrooms, trains. So, I gathered some audio footage from some free audio websites and mixed them to make the ambiance. Animated both L and R channels to give a more immersive feeling.
I also needed a grand name for the project. One of my favorite writers is Charles Dickens. I had his address in my mind, 48 Doughty Street, London. But it couldn't be that obvious. so I needed to hide my alley somewhere near his house, just like Platform 3/4th from Harry Potter. Thus, I discovered the secret pathway to the Alley, 48, 1/4th Doughty Street, Downtown.
I might have been obsessed with the scene and got carried away, But Unreal Engine 5 came out that week. I knew I needed to complete it ASAP and check out the beautiful Lumen. It was already a month and a half. Thus, I had to finish it.
I am really thankful to my supervisors for giving me important suggestions. Kunal's last-minute feedback on the color palette totally gave the scene a new refreshed look. Raju pointed me out to focus on the micro details.
The most important lesson I've learned from this project is not to get obsessed over a personal project, killing yourself by overworking. Jokes aside, 2 most important things I learned:
- It's not new features like Ray Tracing or Lumen that make a scene photoreal, it's all about the effort to make it look real.
- Spend more time on references before starting the work.
To all the Artists from all the departments, consume more art before putting the pencil on the canvas. The more you grow your library in your brain, the better you will be with the vocabulary.