Setting Up a Calming 3D Forest Scene With Blender & UE5

Ray Vanderhaegen explained the modeling and texturing workflows behind the Finnish Serenity project, showed how the vegetation was set up, and discussed the rendering process in Unreal Engine 5.


Hi! My name is Ray Vanderhaegen, I’m a self-taught Environment Artist who's been in the industry for around three years! I first got into 3D after playing the demo for Crysis, which came on a demo disk in a gaming magazine. Does anyone remember those?

This demo had an editor in it, you could open up the demo level (the first level of Crysis) and take a look around and mess with things to see how they worked. That's where it all started. Somehow, I still didn't realize this was an actual job I could do until about 2017, and I decided to bite the bullet and just go for it in 2019. I was lucky enough to land my first junior role in early 2020 working in VR. Since then, I've shipped two titles and am currently working on a first-person multiplayer horror game.

The Finnish Serenity Project

The project as a whole was quite tumultuous and went through a lot of changes. It all started with the below image. I wanted to go stay in a log cabin in Finland, so I started looking at pictures before I was overwhelmed by this sense of calm and comfort. 

So, I started gathering references. I got a ton for the interior and gathered refs for every room in the house and thought I would just make a nice relaxing indoor scene, and maybe one would be able to see outside in a few angles, so I might need to finally dive into proper foliage production. That was my first mistake.

I blocked out the cabin itself and then started blocking out interior assets. I stupidly ignored the outside.
Once my blockout was finished, I realized I'd been really silly and not considered the exterior. I'd never done "proper" foliage before this, so I wrongly assumed it was just a case of making some stuff and putting it into place.

I began ref-gathering for the exterior, thinking I'd need one type of tree and maybe some underbrush.
I picked a rough region and looked into what plants grow there. I found YouTube videos of people going on hikes and picked out plants and shapes and general density and ended up completely enthralled by the forests I saw. They were so pretty and nice, I just wanted to be there. It wasn't the cabin I wanted, it was the cabin IN THE FOREST that I wanted. So I decided to not do the interior, choosing to set up proper foliage instead and make an exterior scene with the cabin as the focal point.

My main references at this point were these four images. You can see the vibe of the cabin surrounded by wilderness, the paths in the very dense forest, the bright colors in the top left image and the very dense floor in the top right:

Planning the Composition

This project as a whole was a victim of bad planning on my end. I felt I had been overly specific in my planning with my previous project, so I wanted something much looser this time. That was definitely a mistake and I think I’ve now found a good middle ground. My initial composition looked like this:

I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking at the time or why I was thinking it, but this wasn’t great. The core is there though, cabin, trees, that’s about it, really. This clearly needed work, so I deleted everything, as that’s what the blockout is for, and started over.

I pulled the cabin into an empty scene and just looked at it, trying to figure out what was interesting about it and if I needed to change the entire shape. I also thought I’d bring in some elements to make it a little more interesting, so I threw together some props and took a screenshot that looked like this:

Hey that looks like something! It’s also worth noting that I had left the interior built, I thought I might be able to use it later, it looks like this at this point in the project (remembering my initial focus was the interior).

Featuring magical reflection orb!

That second image there of the cabin is what pushed me forward. I decided to start building a forest around it with that as my primary angle and thought I could pick some more as time went on. This was one of them that eventually turned into the rear angle.

Modeling the Assets

Blender is my primary modeling tool. My general workflow is Blender > ZBrush > Blender -> Substance 3D Painter.

As for the interior assets, they were purely Blender and simple box modeling. Some are still blockout and some were “final” low poly, such as the lamp in this example, as they’re all quite simple in their slightly too far blockout state. This really was just a case of pushing and pulling polys and modeling from reference.

The cabin itself is also pretty simple as far as the model is concerned. The one slightly strange thing is that it’s split into pieces. This was a consideration for Lumen, as the mesh cards in Unreal Engine 5 were very messy with the full cabin.

The small foliage was all made the same way. First I made a blockout in Photoshop, I’ll show this off with the trees. Then the initial blockout in Blender, that is then taken into ZBrush and sculpted. I primarily use the Standard brush and the Move brush, with some gentle Dam Standard for smaller veins.

I then bake that to a plane and texture in Substance 3D Painter.

The only extra trick going on here is adding in some Perlin noise in Painter. I find this makes small foliage like this look much nicer. My texturing for these plants was relatively simple. Base color, some variation, some grunge, edge highlights and then from there with foliage, I like getting small splashes of color. Some yellow, some orange, some dark. It helps bring a little life to the surface.

From here, this can now be built as an actual 3D mesh in your program of choice. This is how one of my meshes looked in Blender. From here, I just import to engine and they use my foliage shader!

The trees take a similar approach. Step one is a quick blockout in Photoshop (or Affinity Photo if you’re a cool kid). This is really important, and I would never skip it. You can quickly iterate and change it and at this point start building your bush or tree. You’ll know right away what works and what doesn’t and what to change.

Above you can see my “final” Photoshop blockout. From here, I made my tree in SpeedTree and got relatively close to the result I wanted with my main tree.

The next big step here is making the card atlas for real! Some people can do this in Designer, some ZBrush. For me, the easiest and fastest way is to make some high poly bits in Blender or ZBrush and then bring those meshes into speed tree and build the mesh there. So I made some very quick needles in Blender and brought those meshes into SpeedTree and built my branch cards there. This technique is used and better explained in Daniel Peres’ tutorial Creating Vegetation For Games, which I highly recommend.

As always, we can then bake that high poly down to a plane. Because we’ve already done all the hard work with our hand drawn blockout, once we’ve baked down to a plane we don’t really need to do anything else other than a few tweaks. In my case, you can see I removed the pine cones since I wasn’t using them.

I think this foliage can definitely be improved, this example spruce in particular, but for a non-foliage artist, I think it’s alright and it works in the scene.

The Texturing Workflow

Texturing was kept pretty simple. It’s covered above for the foliage but lets take a look at a simple prop and the cabin itself.

As for the props, I stuck to the tried and true workflow. Model in program of choice, sculpting pass if needed or wanted, I almost always want to. Then bake that down to a low poly and texture it in Substance 3D Painter!

My texturing for most surfaces starts the same. A base color and roughness, a lighter highlight color and roughness and then a darker color and roughness. From here, the variation can start. In the case of the wood here, some dark patches, darkening the edges, getting some scratches in, etc. Also, a bit of wood grain goes a long way.

The cabin is similar in terms of how the wood was made. However, it also utilizes an RGB mask in a 2nd UV channel.

The cabin was mapped to a trim in UV0 and then uniquely packed in UV1. This doesn’t need to be very high res as it’s just a mask.

Red has different logs in different greyscale values. This is to give each one a tint. Green is simply grunge. It helps give more shape overall. Blue is yet another grunge, but this is from the bottom up to make the bottom dirtier since it’s closer to the ground

Assembling the Scene

Final composition was a mixed bag. I knew the cabin was going to be the center of the frame. It was just about building a convincing scene around that. You can sort of see it coming together in the progress GIF:

I essentially picked a nice angle of the cabin and dressed around it, I did that 4 or 5 times and then sort of bridged that dressing together and then made it a little more coherent. The big part here was adding paths. I feel that paths add a lot to a space and really help make it feel lived in. You’ll notice the paths themselves exist in some earlier images. They’re just painted in the terrain tool but as I neared the end, I felt the best way to handle this was a real 3D mesh along a spline. That way I could tesselate the mesh, displace it and then decimate it back down to something reasonable. I think the result is pretty good! These are subtle, but just having some directionality instead of just a landscape material change makes a big difference.

The foliage used UE's procedural foliage spawning system. I’m not an expert on how it works by any means, I used it as a first pass for all my foliage types and then cleaned up by hand from there. It was a great way to decide what is and isn’t forest, where ferns are or what areas are more open and so on. From there you can kind of dress around that procedural work. Let it do all the heavy lifting. Below is an image before a big lighting pass but also before a lot of manual foliage work was done to balance the lighting and make some contrast and balance. I wouldn’t have been able to make this kind of framing without hand placing some things, so it’s always worth doing.

Lighting and Rendering

My final lighting was relatively simple, I think everyone says that! It’s an exterior scene, so the lighting is a big sun, a sky light, sky atmosphere and some height fog. That was all dropped in with the environment light mixer and then just tweaked as I needed it. I do actually have a 2nd lighting scenario that I used for exactly 1 shot, the shot of the forest.

I think a lot of the magic comes from the fog. This uses a volumetric material that I then just applied to a cube in some instances and some spheres elsewhere to thicken it up where I needed. As you can see in the example below, without this, things can be a little flat. There are god rays from the sun, but to have the fog thick enough to make them clearer, it would be too thick elsewhere, so this is a perfect use case for some area fog.

I also placed many fog cards which came directly from epic’s blueprints example scene and the clouds are a mix of volumetric clouds and hand placed cloud cards. These use an RGB technique to color different parts of the clouds.

Around the cabin, I kept things quite clean. I’ve boosted the lights here to make it more clear what they do. To brighten up the interior, I placed soft rectangular lights in the window frames to emulate light coming in, Lumen wasn’t doing enough of this for me so I helped it out a bit with some manual work. I also placed some subtle colored point lights to help the coloration of the final image a bit and highlight parts of the cabin.

You’ll also notice a stray point light by the smoke. I don’t really understand VFX, but it was black at some angles, so this was a cheeky fix that worked in this instance. The many cubes and rectangles are procedural foliage exclusion volumes, so I don’t have trees poking through the cabin!


I think the main challenge with personal work is always going to be motivation. It’s hard to work on something all day and then finish work and keep working on something else. Always try to do a task different from your work task. In my case, I wasn’t really making any trees at work, so that part was really fun for me. In the same vein, I’d been working on a dark spooky horror game, so being able to finish work and do something bright and relaxing was a really nice way to break my day up and feel motivated to do the personal work.

My biggest lesson learned from this scene and my advice to other artists is to just trust the process. I had a lot of times where I was very unhappy with the scene, but I just wasn’t at all used to the foliage blockout process, so it felt weird to me. As the scene came together, I got happier and happier with it, so I think just trusting the process and not making drastic changes where they aren’t needed is a good idea. I came very close to starting over a few times, but I’m really glad I didn’t.

Ray Vanderhaegen, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more