Construct a 3D blockout for a fantasy snowy scene

Introduction

Greetings! In this tutorial I will be walking through some of the steps I took in turning the concept, Bon Dragetit by Greg Rutkowski, into a wintery wonderland version in Unreal Engine 4. I’ll be covering topics such as, blocking out a scene in Unreal, gathering useful reference, sculpting in ZBrush, lighting, and useful tips/tricks to help bring stylized environments to life.

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Final composed shot of the Smok scene in Unreal Engine

Gathering useful reference

Before I start any project, I will go on the search for reference images that serve many different purposes. Since I was working from a concept, I had a blueprint for composition, style (for the most part), proportion/scale, color scheme, and so on. Because I was changing the concept to be more of a winter scene, I was looking for references that had different moods and lighting schemes related to winter. I also looked at how snow settled on rooftops and trees for example. I also find inspiration pieces; images that are achieving a desired look that I want to replicate in my scene.

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PureRef Board is helpful for keeping everything organized and seeing everything at once.

Blocking out the scene pt. 1

When I start blocking out my scene, I like to use Maya. And one thing I always do is to import a scale reference model. In this case, I use a generic male model that has the height of 6 feet or 1.83 meters. This will help to ensure that I will get my proportions correct, especially for things like the wood cabin. Fortunately, in the concept there were children in various locations around the scene; that also really helped to gauge scale. However, I want to point out that even though I was paying attention to scale, objects in the scene are very stylized in their shape language and scale. So I had to find the balance of “correct scale” versus “Stylized.”

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A few blockout meshes inside of Maya

Blocking out the scene pt. 2

I try to spend as much time as I can in the blockout phase, since everything after is adding on top of this base. (You wouldn’t want to build a house on a bad foundation, same goes for art). When I am in the early stages of the scene blockout, I really like trying to match basic colors: red dragon, green grass/trees, blue sky, and so on. For me, it really helps to see how the objects interact with one another on screen and how light is bouncing off the surfaces. Plus, I really don’t like looking at greyscale for too long. Lastly, when I start to get assets imported into Unreal, I always hop in my game view (which was 3rd person) and run around the scene and get a sense of how the scale feels.

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Rough blockout in Unreal Engine using simple base shaders with color and roughness

From Summer to Winter pt.1

I decided to go with more of a winter scene because it was something I don’t do too often and felt it would be a fun challenge to take on. One of the places I first looked for inspiration was the film, Klaus. It has such a fun, lighthearted, and whimsical feel to it that I wanted to incorporate into the mood of the scene. In order to match that whimsical feel, some of the key elements that needed to change were: snowy ground, roof, trees, and rocks. That also meant coming up with a unique shape language for the snowy look; which I wanted to be soft and fluffy looking. I wanted everything to feel fun and welcoming.

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Key references that were used for the inspiration for the winter environment

From Summer to Winter pt.2

Another important element of the scene was the lighting. I had concepted a couple lighting schemes that I thought would be fun to try, one being what you see in the final render and the other was a nighttime setup with Christmas lights. I used the sunset scheme ultimately because I thought it would bring a nice warmth to the house and dragon which fit into the theme of everything feeling warm and inviting. A more in-depth look at lighting in the coming steps!

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Quick paintovers of screenshots I took in Unreal to get some lighting ideas out

Beginning the first assets

For most of my personal environments, the first thing I like to start making are the tiling textures. There’s no big reason for this other than it’s a comfortable place for me to begin. I use a layered blend material in Unreal that utilizes the height map for blending. I knew I wanted to have at least 2 types of snow, one being windblown snow and the other a softer clumped up snow. I also wanted a muddy snow and bare dirt for the pathway to show that the path is frequently being used, which brings a little more life into the environment.

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Sculpted materials accompanied by some of the reference that was used

Constructing the House/Towers

Before I start on a structure I like to analyze it and look at what materials it’s composed of. In this case it was: brick, plaster, wood beams, and wooden roof tiles. Instead of sculpting the actual buildings out in ZBrush, what I did was create a tiled texture for each of the surfaces (excluding the wooden beams). There’s nothing wrong with sculpting the individual asset, however in my case I wanted to get the best resolution I could out of the assets; and using tiling textures is one of the best ways to do that. To keep to the stylized theme, I sculpted all of my tileable textures in ZBrush. I ended up not using the wooden roof tiles because I ended up just using separate snow clump meshes that sat on top of the roof. The initial approach was to have snow blended with the roof tiles, but the big fluffy snow ended up serving the structure better. For the actual wood beams, I thought it would be fun to sculpt them and give them a more whimsical and hand crafted feel.

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Breakdown of the different materials I looked at for the house and tower

Making the Dragon pt.1

The dragon was definitely the trickiest portion of the environment. One reason being that it is really huge! And the other was simply getting the body and head in a similar position that showed its excitement. Since I wasn’t making this asset for game production, I ended up breaking some rules. It wasn’t rigged or treated like a character, no tiling textures for it. I wanted to keep it simple and use 2 texture sheets. One for the head and the other for the body. When I initially did the blockout, the head wasn’t symmetrical. So what I did was take the blockout head and center it back the best I could in Maya and create new symmetry so I could easily use it in ZBrush.

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Turning concept art into a sculpt

Making the Dragon pt.2

Some things that I think about when I start sculpt assets for a 3D environment: how close is the player/camera going to get to this object? Should I break up the sculpt into multiple chunks to get high-res detail? Do I sculpt micro details now or leave that for a shader in Unreal or perhaps Substance Painter? It’s good to ask questions like that because it sets you up for success down the road. Mainly for the head I focus on big shapes first; looking at the curvature of the jaw, the bulging cheek bones, how the nose tilts up a little bit. The concept was fairly loose but there was enough information there for me to make out all of the subtle shapes of the face.

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Turning a blockout into a sculpt

Making the Dragon pt.3

The body of the dragon wasn’t as complicated as the head. I knew I would approach it with an asymmetrical sculpt since that was its natural position in the environment. The majority of the work was using the Move brush to get the nice curves of the body and then smoothing it all out again. The technique was just using ZRemesher to get clean topology and then using subdivisions to easily move the forms around. Overall, it was a simple sculpt utilizing simple techniques.

Lighting the Environment pt.1

One of my newly favorite things: Lighting! The very first thing I do when lighting a scene is…you guessed it, finding reference! That’s both a combination of real world ref and also illustrations, concepts, and anything I can find that’s helpful. I really try to dissect what’s going on with the light in these images and make mental notes of things like, light direction angle, time of day, temperature, saturation of color (or lack of color) moisture in the air, is the light helping to convey any extra information? I tend to lean towards lighting schemes that have a complimentary color scheme, example: bright orange sunlight draping over everything with nice, cool blue/violet shadows. I think it makes for a more pleasing image to look at.

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Steps I take to see if the complementary color scheme is working well

Lighting the Environment pt.2

I really liked the idea of the sun setting and casting that nice orange, almost crimson-like light on everything with violet shadows. However, since the dragon is a bright red orange, it was hard to get it to stand out because it was really similar in value as its surroundings. I really wanted the focal point to be on the dragon, house, and little girl holding up the candy cane. So instead what I did was take a slightly different approach and cooled the environment down quite a bit and focused my lighting directly on my focal point.

Lighting the Environment pt.3

For the lighting set up in Unreal, I have a strong directional light that is my main sunlight. That’s going to be the main light in the scene. For the ambient skylight I have it set to be a baby blue color, that helps cast a nice cool tone on top of everything and also helps the shadows become a little bluer. There’s several fill lights casting on the dragon’s face, it helps to bring attention to it in a not so obvious way. Without them, the face would be really cool and not lit in a way that would draw your gaze to it. One thing I really like to do as well is use lights to create nice rim lights. So behind the tower on the left, there’s a few blue lights that are casting on its side to help pop out the form and it helps it to not get lost in the background. I also use a cool technique of using ‘Light blockers’ which are cubes stretched out in the scene that are invisible to help block areas that I don’t want the directional light to be. I use it somewhat sparingly because I don’t want it to be obvious or unnatural looking. It’s basically simulating clouds in the sky to diffuse the light.

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Example of what the old lightning scheme looked like compared to the new one

Bringing it all together

One of the last things I do before finishing the environment is honing in on the post-process effects in Unreal. It’s a really powerful feature that can help with bringing 3D scenes to look more polished and refined. It’s similar to using levels/hue saturation inside of Photoshop. I like to use the ‘gain’ option in the color grading settings to reinforce my complimentary color scheme. I can push the saturation and intensity of the blue/violet color in the shadows and push warm tones of the light up to create separation of light and shadow.

Another feature in the post-process volume I use is bloom. I’ve been told that some of my environments look similar to paintings or concept art. The bloom is probably what’s achieving that. It adds this nice glossy light over everything and it really adds a cool surreal effect to the environment. Lastly, I added things in the scene that weren’t there to help sell the idea that it’s a wintery, festive scene such as the snowman, candy cane instead of the lollipop, icicles, falling snow VFX, hat and scarf for the bird, and so on.

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Supporting lights to help pop out objects in the scene

Top tip 1 - Plan ahead

Before attempting to create a 3D environment, plan out ahead of time all the things you want to achieve. Creating asset lists, finding lots of reference, and being realistic about the amount of work you want to do is really helpful. Especially those who want to work in the industry, having excellent time management skills is really important. A big pitfall I see often is when someone picks a concept or some really cool idea, but never finishing it because it ends up being a lot more work than they anticipated.

Top tip 2 - Advice for beginners

Getting into the videogame industry can be quite challenging these days. My advice is to choose a few studios you want to work at and cater your portfolio specifically towards them. For example, if you wanted to work at Sony Santa Monica or Naughty Dog, make sure to have some hyperreal looking props and or environments that show you can hit their style of game.

Top tip 3 - More advice for beginners

Something I have found incredibly valuable in getting attention from recruiters or companies in general to view your work, is to have a strong social media presence. It doesn’t mean you have to use every form of social media but be consistent about posting work often on a couple of sites whether it be LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or ArtStation. Consistency is the key here.

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