Mika Kuwilsky talked about the work process behind the Gothic Architecture Modular Kit, shared the lighting setup, and explained how to solve the problem of sections looking repetitive.
I'm Mika Kuwilsky and I got interested in Environment Art while I was studying Media Informatics and Interactive Entertainment at the University of Mittweida. Before that, I only had experience with oil painting and stone sculpting, so digital art was quite new to me, but while doing group projects and game jams, I started working on the art aspects and realized that I enjoy it quite a lot and started some personal projects.
Since my studies were more based on programming than art, I used a lot of online tutorials to learn the workflows and I asked experienced artists for advice whenever I was stuck.
After that, I joined Ubisoft, first as an intern and then working as an Environment Artist on a couple of VR games. Whenever I am motivated, I work on some more personal projects in my spare time, trying new tools I am curious about and generally picking my favorite topics.
So, this kit is the most recent one.
The Modular Kit
Gothic architecture is one of my favorite styles that I simply can't get enough of, and I wanted to build a modular kit that I could use in various future projects.
I visited some gothic cathedrals and smaller buildings while I went on some city trips and vacations and took lots of reference references from the Cologne Cathedral in particular since it is very close to where I currently live.
I found it especially helpful to visit the area where people were working on the restoration of pieces that are usually too far away to see in detail, like some roof ornaments and gargoyles. Here are some example reference pictures:
However, since most gothic cathedrals have more detail than I needed for my purposes, I reduced them to the most characteristic elements. This way I was able to use a smaller number of individually baked assets and reduce the total amount of kit parts. This allowed me to keep the number of materials low as well, which allowed for faster iterations and material changes.
I was also very curious about Lumen, the new lighting system in Unreal Engine 5, so I also used this project to try it out and build some scenes with the kit.
To make sure everything would fit together, I started with a blockout version of the kit pieces that I could easily iterate on to figure out the dimensions.
I started with the traceries, using my own references as well as cross sections and breakdowns I found online. My goal was to build typical ornaments from a small set of baked assets, all on one texture for easier iterations.
I created simple shapes with curves in Blender, then sculpted some details and baked them in Substance 3D Painter.
Then I used these parts to build the actual kit pieces:
I made a tileable material for the walls and added some protruding stones, especially at the corners to create nice silhouettes and added ornament variations I could place on them.
The transitions between the wall parts are covered by an extruded part at the top of each piece, and on the sides, I used the square and round columns to cover the transitions. These overlapping covers help hide LOD transitions and allow some freedom with the wall angles.
I planned some parts to be combinable with multiple other parts. This ornament for example works with windows or gates and blends into the side parts of all exterior column types.
I sculpted the gargoyles in ZBrush, used the decimation master plugin, did some manual mesh cleanup, then baked them in Substance 3D Painter.
The Texturing Process
I used Substance 3D Designer to make the wall and floor materials, and Substance 3D Painter for the roof, window ornaments, and gargoyles.
While making the tileable base material for the wall, I took some iterations to try out different colors, stone types, and damage variations.
In the end, I went for a slightly less dirty version and exported a variation without the gaps to Substance 3D Painter so I could use it as the base material for the baked assets.
I made two glass materials for the windows, an opaque, very reflective one for the exterior and a translucent one for the interior. I initially tried making one that works for both sides, but I did not get it to look nice, so I am using these two for now and will try it again in future Unreal Engine versions.
I looked at a number of real gothic cathedral floor plans and decided to use a typical cross shape with two towers for my example scene. However, other variations are also possible.
I broke it down into segments I could copy throughout the scene. Then I used the kit pieces to build these sections in the engine as blueprint actors so I could easily iterate on them.
I modeled a low poly house cluster and a hill for the background and placed them in the scene to get some landscape and fog layering into the horizon.
I also wanted to populate the foreground of the scene a bit and since this type of architecture needs a lot of maintenance in real life, I went for scaffolding and construction work props for the scene.
The Lighting Setup
I used HDRI skies from Poly Haven for the backdrop and sky light and modified them a little to fit better with my scenes. For example, this is the image I used for the main scene.
I edited the visible area to have more clouds so it looked like it had just rained. This allowed me to add some puddles on the ground texture and get some sky reflections.
Here I used an HDRI sky with more vibrant sunset colors:
This is the first project in which I used Lumen real-time lighting from Unreal Engine 5. I tried using BP_Lightstudio first but encountered some crashes, most likely due to my hardware being below the recommended specs, so I used the HDRI Backdrop instead and made sure to match its texture and transforms with the sky light manually.
I used a directional light in the color of the sun in the HDRI and the picture itself as a sky light. I increased the indirect sunlight intensity a bit until I was happy with the shadows and placed two fake bounce point lights in the towers because they still looked a bit too dark to me.
I used the default post-processing settings and turned off the adaptive brightness.
The project took me about 70 hours, starting last autumn. However, I already took some of the reference photos on earlier vacations. In the beginning, I worked on it every second Saturday (the others are reserved for playing tabletop RPGs) and in the last weeks, I worked on it on a couple of evenings. Productive sessions varied between 2 and 5 hours.
The time is roughly split into the following:
- 10 hours for collecting references, taking photos, blocking out, and testing the dimensions in the engine.
- 15 hours for making the tracery pieces, details, and sculpted assets.
- 15 hours for assembling the kit pieces out of the baked elements and tracery pieces.
- 30 hours for materials, other scene assets, and working in the engine.
I think if it was another style than gothic architecture, the research and blockout phase would have taken a while longer, but since I already made similar projects before, it did not take as long as usual.
The biggest challenges were making fitting kit pieces for the rounded areas and getting large wall sections to not look repetitive.
I decided to only add rounded kit pieces for one specific angle, however, that limits the variety of round buildings I can build with the kit. I needed two new vault and roof pieces and larger/shorter variations of the windows and railings, some of which I am still planning to make.
The repetitiveness of the walls is a bit easier to solve by making additional kit pieces to place between some of the existing ones and adding some buttresses and support pillars, especially for larger structures, it helps break up the shape and give it a more stable look.
My main advice for new artists approaching similar projects would be to take enough time for research and blockout versions until the pieces work well together for their purposes.
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