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Modeling & Lighting a Beautiful 3D Scene From Scratch in 5 Hours

Marcos Silva returns to 80 Level to tell us how to set up a stunning 3D environment from scratch in just 5 hours using Maya, Substance 3D Painter, Unreal Engine 5, and Megascans.


This Unreal Engine project was a fan art piece inspired by the incredible Firewatch poster. I saw it as a chance to experiment with creating more realistic graphics. It wasn't about improving the original game's already fantastic art direction, but rather about developing my skills and having fun with the process

When working with Unreal Engine on PreVis or VP tasks, there's a consistent need to wrap up our levels rapidly. For this personal project, my primary objective was to attempt to complete everything – from the first polygon creation to the final render – within the timeframe of a typical workday. This challenge served two purposes: it allowed me to practice quick turnovers and also accommodated the reality of limited time for personal projects. Hence, setting a short deadline served as a practical approach on both fronts.

In the end, I managed to complete it in roughly five hours. In this breakdown, I'll aim to present as much of my workflow as possible, detailing how I completed it.

Beauty; Base Colour; Roughness; Nanite Triangles; Shader Complexity; Light Complexity:

Modeling Hero Asset

The central focus of the project is the Watch Tower. Initially, I attempted to locate a similar model available for free download, but my search provided only a few options on Sketchfab that didn't quite match the look of the poster. Consequently, I opted to create the model from scratch, which turned out to be the most time-consuming aspect of the project.

Using Maya, I spent approximately two hours on the modeling process and then proceeded to apply textures using Substance 3D Painter, which was about 10 minutes in total. While the modeling itself was enjoyable, I found myself getting carried away with adding details that weren't strictly necessary. For instance, meticulously adding tiny little nails to the wooden planks ended up being an unnecessarily lengthy task, however, it was still enjoyable!

Below you can see a timelapse of the Watch Tower modeling and textures process:

Environment & Lighting

The work with the environment began with the background mountains. Using Gaea made this step super easy. It only took around 10 minutes to create and export a single mountain. After importing it into Unreal, I duplicated and rearranged it to establish the backdrop of three mountains. Initially, I didn't use the provided textures, but eventually, as I found some time, I decided to incorporate them at the end for an extra nice detail.

After having the mountains I imported the Ultra Dynamic Sky and Weather into the level to have a quick light setup to start visualizing. I also added the main CineCamera to start creating the composition.

After this, the main next elements to be added were the trees. I downloaded the Spruce Forest free asset pack from the Unreal Engine Marketplace and started populating the environment using the Foliage Tool while sculpting the main landscape trying not to have a completely flat ground. I like to add trees manually usually, it gives us more creative control and is much easier to edit if needed. These tasks took me about an hour.

First pass of the composition, environment, and lighting

Extra Elements

Once the initial setup for the environment, lighting, and camera was completed, I began enhancing the composition of the shot by incorporating additional elements. I introduced a refined glass material to the Watch Tower windows using the Advanced Glass Material Pack, integrated fog for atmosphere enhancement through Easy Fog by William Faucher, and incorporated various Megascans assets such as the Tower Roof and other small props. Additionally, I included flying birds using the Beefy Blackbirds assets. To complete these additional marketplace elements, I strategically placed a few hero trees from the Redwood Forest Collection close to the camera, added some assets from the Rooftop Props pack, and added two characters from the TwinMotion Posed Humans pack. This stage took me about 30 minutes to finish.

Most of these assets were free or were assets that I got from old projects. I only spent money buying the Beefy Blackbirds assets, which will be quite handy for future personal projects as well.

Additional Hero Assets

At this point, all the primary elements were in place. I took the opportunity to fine-tune the composition further and began considering additional elements to enhance the frame. I noticed a lack of movement in the scene, beyond the fog and clouds. In the original poster, there were light post cables that added a sense of movement and improved the composition. Additionally, I felt that including the wind vane and a flag atop the roof would be a nice animated asset to further enhance the overall composition.

After fine-tuning the composition and grading.

So I returned to Maya to model, animate, and simulate those assets. I utilized the nCloth system to simulate the flag and light cables. As for textures, I once again turned to Substance 3D Painter. It took me about 40 minutes to create and export the wind vane, light cables, and the flag.

nCloth system of the cables in Maya

In the end, I also ended up rendering a timelapse of the shot just for the fun of it:

Approximate duration of each task:

  • Watch Tower: Modeling: 2 hours / Texturing: 10 minutes
  • Background Mountains: 10 minutes
  • Environment First Pass: 20 minutes
  • Lighting, Weather, and Camera Setup: 20 minutes
  • Tree Scattering: 15 minutes
  • Lighting Improvements and Grading: 10 minutes
  • Adding New Assets: 30 minutes
  • Additional Hero Elements: 40 minutes
  • Rendering and Composition Final Touches: 30 minutes


In summary, the idea was to demonstrate the efficiency of utilizing UE Marketplace and Megascans assets. By prioritizing essential modeling and leveraging pre-made elements, it was super easy to create a compelling shot that, while not hyperrealistic, effectively communicates the composition's concept. It could serve as a valuable reference for directors of photography or VFX Artists working on the final pixel version. Additionally, all elements are easily modifiable, making it simple to incorporate any feedback received.

Marcos Silva, Lead Unreal Engine Generalist

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