Neel Parekh shared an extensive breakdown of his Surveillance Room project, talked about creating a disturbing vibe using realistic assets and textures.
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Hi everyone, my name is Neel Parekh and I’m a Junior Environment artist at Sumo Digital in Pune, India. I joined in May 2019 and it's been almost 2 years now!
I have a bachelor’s degree in Mass Media from Mumbai University and a diploma in 3D Art from Arena Animation, which taught me the basics of 3D. I later taught myself the game art pipeline via YouTube, Polycount, Discord servers and was lucky enough to grab a trainee artist position at Sumo. After about 3 months it turned into full-time.
Since then, I have been working on an unannounced title that is set to release on PS5, Xbox One, PC, and Switch. It’s been an amazing experience so far!
Surveillance Room Project
I spend a lot of time browsing through concepts and making collections on Artstation for future use, but the concept art by Antoine Boutin really caught my eye. The mood and lighting were just amazing and it reminded me of basement scenes of Parasite movies and games like Outlast 2. I even took some references from The Division 2 for propping.
The main goal behind this scene was to nail the lighting and create an atmospheric scene. From the start, it was clear enough that I want it to be more “Cinematic” and less “Game-ready” as I integrated Ray Tracing into it.
As I progressed, my direction changed a bit from the concept and I wanted to go for a grungier vibe. I wanted the room to be messier than the concept art and tell a story through the set dressing. I wanted to create a really strong mood and have really good close-ups. Lighting was really interesting in the concept! Initially, I started with getting the color palette of the concept and my references. Finally, I tried to have a similar palette for my render too.
Props and Details
I modeled and textured the majority of the hero assets like monitors, wardrobes, tables, the fan. These assets are quite generic and nothing crazy or fancy. For modeling, my go-to software is Maya, ZBrush for sculpting, and Substance Painter for texturing. I decided to use the FWN method wherever possible because it saves the time of creating the high poly and baking. Talking about a specific asset, the grilled cabinet over here, it's just a simple mesh with dents, and a tileable map with alpha applied to it. I found a great video on YouTube that explains the workflow.
Walls are just simple modular assets with Texel density set to 10.24px/m.
Oftentimes while creating an environment, modeling and texturing every single prop, or creating materials gets too tiresome and consumes a lot of energy that could have been used elsewhere. Managing a full-time job and personal work gets tricky too. I wanted to spend my energy on lighting, mood, set dressing, getting the holistic approach. It is where asset packs are saviors. I wanted to populate my scene with filler props like beer bottles, cans, decals, chips packets. I found an amazing pack that gave me the props I needed. I think it’s perfectly fine to use these when you’re working alone. I used these 2 marketplace packs:
For the corners and edges, I wanted to stay true to the concept and have the leakages and cracks. Cracks are just the decals found on Quixel Megascans. The wet areas on the floor are actually the bloodstains decal! I just changed the colors and roughness value to make it look like water! If there were leakages, naturally there would be wetness and also the plaster would turn flaky. This effect was achieved by blending a Triplanar mask and Vertex painting.
As for the tileable textures, I found the base materials I needed in Quixel Megascans. For the wall section, I basically needed 3 materials. The first one being a Clean Plaster wall, the second one is a Moldy wall, and the third being Flaked Paint ceiling.
After bringing them into Unreal Engine I created my own shader where I can change the color and blend them. I created basic material inside material functions to keep the master material graph neat and clean.
MF1 and MF2 are blended by a world-aligned mask, I can control the tiling, contrast, and opacity of it. MF3 blends with these 2 via the Vertex Painting (R) channel. In some areas, I needed to show wetness. This was done by the Vertex Painting (G) channel. The base color from the initial output is multiplied by color and plugged into the input of the final material attribute. Roughness, in the same way, is lerped with the initial input. Both of them have a green channel of vertex paint as alpha.
This helped me to achieve the look I was going for. In the same way, the floor was blended with 2 materials, and the rest was done via decals.
The original Quixel Megascans material was white in color, I changed the tint to green to help with the GI and reproduce results like the concept.
Coming to posters I really wanted to add in the detail of being torn from the sides, over time it has peeled from certain places. Here I decided to model the mesh itself and then paint out the torn part via opacity in Substance Painter.
Storytelling in Composition
I believe the way props are placed in a scene does a lot in terms of storytelling. It gives the environment a back story. It answers the 5 W’s Who, What, When, Where, and Why?
If the place is extremely shabby, untidy, has trash everywhere it makes you ask questions like what has happened there? Has this place been deserted for some time? Was it not maintained? If there is broken furniture was there a fight going on? Was there an explosion that took place? It gives the environment some much-needed personality.
I looked at a lot of division 2 artworks on Artstation. They have amazing set dressing and propping.
In my scene, I wanted to show that the person operating in this room doesn’t care about maintaining the place. The walls and floors have accumulated dust and gunk overtime. The corners of the room are where most of the trash has accumulated. The contact dirt near the furniture shows that it has been there for a long time. The wall plaster has peeled off from certain places indicating the wetness overtime. The walls have cracked away from the top. All the leakages and cracks were done via multiple decals.
These are the really small details that sell the environment as a whole.
Lighting and Post-Production
Lighting was the most interesting part! I am by no means a lighting artist and my setup may not be 100% accurate, but it got the mood I was looking for. Since I also wanted the scene to be more cinematic, I cared more about getting that right mood.
The main source over here was the tube light. I started by applying an emissive material to the mesh with Intensity set to around 25. Emissive textures were also applied on monitor screens. These are just simple CCTV grabs from Google Images.
I started by adding a spotlight which became my primary light source. I did not want to bake the scene so I kept it moveable. Using just the spotlight lacked the slight burn and highlight the ceiling had in the concept. I ended up using a point light too. The point light had extremely low intensity just enough to light up the surroundings and cast shadows turned off so that the scene doesn’t get multiple shadows from the same areas.
Another spotlight was used to cast some highlights on the edge of the metal wardrobe. It was used to give a rim light effect. A point light in the center and back of the camera was used to illuminate the foreground area and the door.
I was lucky enough to get my hands on a 3070FE card and wanted to try out ray tracing for a while. I was amazed by the performance of the card!
All my lights are set to moveable and the entire scene is dynamic.
Since I was new to ray-tracing inside UE4, I first went through the entire documentation online. Here are the settings I played with. Beware these are extremely heavy and only turn them on while previewing and taking renders.
While creating the scene, moving around in viewport, I set the Raytraced GI to Final gather instead of brute force, the quality goes down a little bit but the FPS doesn’t take a massive hit. I even turned off the raytraced reflections while navigating.
Coming to the post-production, I did my color grading inside Photoshop. I took a screengrab, adjusted levels, contrast to pop out the image.
Here are the settings.
These things are extremely subtle but helped with that oomph factor. Later I exported the settings out in the form of LookUp Tables (LUT).
This method just gives me more control over the grade. Apart from that, the temp in white balance is just changed to a cooler tone.
The main challenge was to get that holistic approach, making the entire environment one. I think it wasn’t until I added details to the walls, floor, and ceiling. After that, the scene just popped up and I knew exactly what was lacking until now.
The environment took about 3 months to finish. I started the blockout of this in December on my laptop. I didn’t have a PC at that time but I was planning to build one since my laptop was no longer supporting me! As I finally built my new PC in January, I started working on it again. One month into it and my 3070 got bad so I had to RMA it. The process took about 2 weeks so there was no progress made during that time. Once I got it replaced, I went full-fledged on it.
I think working on macro details first instead of micro helped me to move a bit faster. Though some props can be refined in terms of model and texture. It doesn't look bad but gets the job done in the scene. In my future projects, I would definitely spend some more time on getting the assets refined. It all comes down to what your goals are regarding the project.
I would also like to give a huge thanks to the Dinusty Empire for the great feedback! The artists over there are just amazing when it comes to helping people! I would also like to thank Prashant Mandowara and Nawaz Rajwadkar. They are Senior artists at Sumo and gave me great feedback!
Overall I am happy with how the scene turned out. The scene does not have the best quality of assets, but I got the mood right.