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How to Make Water Shader for Suzume-Inspired Environment

Gleb Ziuzin shared a breakdown of the Mythical Door project inspired by Suzume, showing how he set up a water shader and explaining the texturing algorithm that helps him achieve more organic materials.

Introduction

Hi, I'm Gleb Ziuzin, an environment artist. I'm incredibly passionate about how artistic compositions and visual images can evoke impressions in my viewers. I've always wanted to fully master these tools so that my creations can resonate with ideas, images, and emotions in people's hearts.

I decided to work in the game industry, and during my year of study, I created my first works for my portfolio. After that, I joined my first studio, Studio 1518, where I worked on the environment for the game "The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria". Later, I moved to Dekagon Studio and at the same time worked on weapons for the "World of Guns" project. Right now, I am looking for projects that might interest me. 

I've thought for a long time about the main direction in 3D, and I decided to focus my professional development on creating environments for two main reasons: firstly, environments best reflect the atmosphere and mood, and secondly, they take up a significant portion of the game space.

My final work

Mystical Door

I'm a big fan of Japanese animation. Makoto Shinkai's works have always stood out to me with their vast, deep, densely-clouded skies that expand the entire space, captivating camera angles, and detailed frame work. His style takes its color palette from Studio Ghibli but maintains rich shading and a modern Seinen drawing style.

Artworks by Makoto Shinkai

Choosing the right concept is one of the most important stages in working on a location, and selecting it can take up a significant amount of time. Often, the correct silhouette, composition, and guidelines can turn what seems to be a dull concept into something beautiful. I really enjoyed working with the concept from the anime "Suzume"; it's clear that an experienced team of artists worked on it.

Guiding elements highlighting the main object – the door

In this example, I schematically marked the compositional base.

  • The main guidelines are highlighted in red.
  • The path to the main object is in blue.
  • The secondary guidelines are in purple.
  • The weights in the picture are marked in yellow and green: if you add up the volumes on the left and right, they will be equal.

The dots indicate Value, which is the relative lightness or darkness of a color

Also, by converting the picture to black and white, we can understand how colors differ in Value. These differences also allow us to highlight the objects that the viewer will notice first (in our example, it's the door). Because the colors are less bright, the viewer will focus on other elements that stand out due to their Value.

References of mood, lighting and vegetation

When I settle on a style and concept, I draw inspiration from artists who have successfully realized the main ideas of this style in 3D. For example, I was impressed by the foliage and atmosphere of abandoned ruins by Kima Honma in the project "Stray".

References for the quality and detail of environment textures

I decided to set the level of detail on the objects to be realistic with a slight inclination towards stylization. The best example I found was from Pawel Kostecki in the "Dying Light" project.

The building process of the location

Blockout

Working on the blockout started with dividing everything into three groups: props, modules, and foliage.

I created a basic mesh model for the door and the first-floor modules, based on human dimensions. I set up the camera, calibrated the lens, and began fine-tuning the focal length so that all blockout lines exactly matched the concept.

The final blockout

I bought the sky from the marketplace and quickly modeled the hill in ZBrush.

The modules of the constructed environment

Assets

Firstly, I started working with assets and modules to industry standards. I did all the unwrapping in RizomUV. The main rules were to calculate the texel density, straighten the islands, overlap them, and pack them tightly. I baked the normal maps in Marmoset Toolbag or used a bevel normal in Blender.

Clouds, trees, and a sphere of the sky

Secondly, I decided to refine the entire background because I'm working with these kinds of backgrounds for the first time. I added a gradient to the sky image to make the colors more dynamic. I drew the clouds in Photoshop, making them fluffier and airier than in the concept. To reduce the contrast of the clouds, I added a slight transparency to the edges. Then I planted trees on the hill.

The light sources I used and the layers.

I chose to work through the layer system in UE5 as it seemed simpler to me than placing point lights. The directional light divided the scene into two halves, creating a directional light spot on the right. A second directional light was placed for additional shadows to give depth to the objects. The overall fill light illuminated the entire scene, and the skylight served to soften the black color in the shadows and to illuminate the water.

In the end, I achieved a result with basic lighting, shadows, and the background. Refining the props in Substance by setting a single contrast and HSL preset for all future textures imported into UE5 helps me save time on unique textures and materials with reflections.

Shaders

A shader is one of the most important parts of creating a detailed and optimized environment. To realize the full potential of the environment pipelines for this and future projects, I wrote my own shader.

Creating a texture in the shader

I provided an example of how materials were assembled in this scene using the pipeline with masks.

Creating a texture in the shader

In this way, I configured each layer in the shader's general material. I created it for the current and future projects to allow me to work with tile textures and displacement and blend them together using Blend, Tint, Reveal Masks, Vertex Color, and UV sets. This allows me to reuse many of the same textures, achieving various materials.

Final water material

Since I was working with water for the first time, I spent the most time experimenting with it.

Water shader material

In the liquid, four materials are combined at different distances from the surface, and a separate material is used to work with caustics. In the concept, we see shallow depth, light refraction giving us a gradient, and glares. To convey this, I had to create the water materials myself as the purchased water systems did not fit my task.

Final glass material

To create a sense of space and volume of light from the background as well as convey the feeling of abandoned empty interiors I created a glass material.

Glass shader material

Base color and material

Texturing

I can enthusiastically and in great detail talk about what good unique textures are and how important volumes, gradients, color variations, accents, and storytelling are. But that's a topic for a separate course. In this article, I want to focus more on the logic of texturing.

This illustration is intended to represent the importance of working with layers

To achieve more organic materials when working with unique textures, I use a specific texturing algorithm. Here's the list:

  1. Decals on Normal Map – This includes inscriptions, screw threads, holes, lock holes, and all other elements that we didn't reflect on the high-poly and decided to apply in Substance.
  2. Underlay – This is a layer marked with bright colors, which allows us to see the areas we haven't had time to work on.
  3. Base Color – This is the main color that covers the majority of the model, serving as the foundation for our tone.
  4. Color Variations – These come in masks, allowing us to dilute our base color with shades. Warning: avoid black and white in color variations, as these colors make the model look dirtier.
  5. Gradient – It helps us show where the bottom and top of our model are, add storytelling to the texture (for example, if it's wear and tear), and also play the model with warm and cold shades from opposite sides.
  6. Light – The light generator in Substance Painter allows us to quickly mark height differences on the model, making recesses dark and protruding areas light.
  7. Accents – This is a great tool that allows directing the viewer's attention around the model, be it dirt spots or chipped paint. Accents come in three types: small, medium, and large. Our task as artists is to find a balance between them.
  8. Edges – This is an important part of the silhouette. If you don't work on them, the object will be shapeless, and you won't feel the sharpness.
  9. Roughness – Here we work on the main areas with significant relief differences depending on the object's material, its wear level, and storytelling.

This logic serves as a foundation for development. Afterward, it's refined to the required level, considering the time you want to spend on the asset. You can work on textures indefinitely, just don't forget to eat.

Base color and material

I meticulously and for a long time adjusted the asset colors using color tint, contrast, and saturation in the shader to match the reference.

The colors and shades from the concept

That's why the color correction in UE was mainly needed to give the shadows the desired color and saturation. Another task was to refine the tonality of areas where the light was too bright.

Post process volume setup

Conclusion

Working on masterpieces like the works of Makoto Shinkai allows me to significantly expand my artistic skills. I've dived into the development of environment technologies and shaders.

The advice I'd like to give to readers: work on interesting and heart-touching concepts. My goal is to find a studio where I can realize my ambitions in collaboration with talented colleagues who share a passion for art.

I would like to express my gratitude to the 80 Level team for the opportunity to share this project with you.

Gleb Ziuzin, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Gloria Levine

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