Ariel Adasme has shared an extensive breakdown of the Island of the Néfeles project, spoke about the stylized approach to texturing, and talked about the challenges behind creating the water.
Hi! My name is Ariel Adasme, I’m a 2D/3D artist from Santiago, Chile; and I have recently graduated from Digital Animation, and focused my work on environment art and game art.
Since I was a kid, I’ve been curious about how video games are made, but it was in my last year of university when I really found out where I wanted to insert myself as an Environment Artist. Since that moment I dedicated my time to studying as much as I could to create a portfolio that reflected my passion for bringing life to environments.
Goals and Concept Process
When I started the project, I always wanted to create something that paid homage to my referents and what I believe is important to me. I wanted to achieve something fully stylized and colorful, very much along the lines of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Ghibli Studio.
Having never been faced with such a big project as this one before, it was very helpful to start by studying the work of Jasmin Habezai-Fekri, Jaume Rovira, Silke Van Der Smissen, and Florian Elie, as I centered on the objective of having a complete pipeline of work focused on a stylized look. They really gave me a push and a direction on what style of art I wanted to get into.
When I start the conceptualization, I always have my mood board/references by my side to find out the general mood of my scene. Having clearly defined what I wanted to do, I elaborated a mini concept with keynotes about the type of island I wanted to create, as well as a mini-investigation of what story the place would have.
Broadly speaking, the story was inspired by Greek mythology and the cloud nymph character, Nephele. The idea was that these nymphs once upon a time lived on this island which now is abandoned.
The next step was to define the central concept which I would work on and make it my main shot as well. I wanted a concept where depth and difference of scales between the elements in the scene will be perceived. Moreover, at this point, I also defined the concepts on which the assets within the scene would be based.
Setting the Scale and the Terrain
Before I started with Unreal, to guide myself on the main idea and the scale of the landscape, I elaborated a concept map of the island. This process helped me to achieve some ideas about the scale. I decided that it would be a scene focused on magnificence and the difference in scale between the elements in the scene, from the macro to the micro.
Thereafter, it was time to take my first step on the block out – I made it thinking on the main concept, starting from very simple meshes, playing around with the landscape tools using some alphas for the terrain.
After that, as I focused on finding a good scale ratio, I made some changes in order to improve the scene composition and to find the perfect ratio to accentuate the tower in the scene. In this step, I added the Skylight, Directional Light, and Exponential Height Fog to create a basic mood.
I organized the production of assets through the concept guide that I had already made, and I divided the assets into modular blocks. For modeling, I used Blender, with quite simple primitives. Once the models were defined, I worked on a high poly version of every asset on ZBrush, as I wanted to texturize every prop uniquely in Substance 3D Painter and accentuate every detail sculpted inside the bake.
For the stones, I tried to keep it simple: just three big stones and three smaller ones. I used ZBrush, without entering a workflow with procedural rocks, just with the help of the brushes that Michel Vicente had shared on Gumroad. I tried to be careful when working every angle differently, with strong silhouettes and shapes to make the set dressing process much easier.
For me, the texturing process was quite a challenge, since I was rather new using Substance 3D Designer and Substance 3D Painter. In the beginning, I divided the process between the assets that I would work with in Substance 3D Painter and the materials that I would prepare on Substance 3D Designer for my landscape material.
As I wanted a more stylized approach, I tried to make it simple using some techniques learned on Stylized Station. I started working in layers and used a variety of filters and Smart Mask, which helped to achieve the approach that I wanted.
To obtain a hand-painted look, I added Slope Blur, which works very well for more stylized texturing, since it allows adding custom noise inside the source type. In my situation, I used a texture of clouds to achieve that watercolor-like effect.
From there, I continued with the Dirt Mask with which I was able to simulate vegetation attached to edifications and statues, with the Ambient Occlusion Mask tool I could reinforce some ambient shadows, and finally, the Curvature tool allowed me to define edges lines and make them more pronounced.
As it was quite new to me, the workflow within Substance 3D Designer was a bit more complicated, so I took on the task of studying everything I could about it to achieve a more streamlined approach. Fortunately, within my research, I found the AnArtBrand YouTube channel, which has a very useful video on how to make art as seen in the Arcane series.
After this process, I had an idea of how I wanted to work on my materials, so I prepared the dirt of my terrain, the bark of the trees, the texture for stones, and a texture for the smaller stones.
As for the trees and foliage, I started by analyzing some insights about vegetation inside the films of Studio Ghibli, this helped me to clarify and organize my ideas regarding how my final trees should look like. The next step was to find a workflow to reach my goals on these 3D/2D types of trees, luckily I found a highly interesting tutorial about how to make trees by transferring normals from a half-sphere to my leaf cards.
I used the tool particles of Blender for the process of creating the trees, making an intersection between two planes to use them over spheres as particles. To arrange the normals on the leaf cards, I used the modifier of Transfer Data, transferring the normals of a half-sphere to the mentioned mesh. As a result, the look of the trees was much closer to what I was looking for.
The next step was to prepare some alphas for the process of the shader creation inside Unreal. Having this, what was left to do was the configuration of the shader, so I did it by setting the Blend Mode to Masked, the Shading Model to Two Sided, and checking the Two Sided option. Then I deactivated the contact shadows and fixed the normals with the TwoSidedSign node. Here you can take a look at a small process and my material graph.
As for the grass, I relied entirely on Florian Elie’s article in which he explained the process that he used in Unreal to get this variation of color on the grass, following this post on the Unreal Engine forum.
To emulate the process, I designed my own texture in Substance 3D Designer and I retouched it in Photoshop, using the Smudge tool to soften the color transitions and avoid contrasting solid blocks of colors, but rather a fluid variation from one color to another.
For the Mesh Grass, I worked on some alphas that I organized on three levels, according to their height. Then, I created three different Mesh Grass for these alphas, randomly positioning them in between to contribute to the density inside the scene. Beyond that, I altered the normals of these Grass Planes for these to point upwards to get the correct shading for grass.
Lastly, I elaborated on some flower mesh, following the steps of Thomas Hooke’s breakdown, which was in his Stylized Station video, but I did some color variations within the textures to create more range of color inside the flowers.
Assembling the Scene
Probably one of the most time-consuming things in my project was the preparation of the shots because I had to detail each one of them separately while trying to preserve the contemplative essence of Studio Ghibli inside the camera’s work. So, to prepare the shots, I worked on bringing as much life as I could to the scene.
I used the simple Winds Node for the grass and the trees, giving them more movement. The grass also has the detail of these "wind-lines", that give it a rippling glow when the wind blows; this was possible due to Jess Hider’s informative guide that's available on her website.
Along with this process, I also created a waves texture, which will serve as the wind mask.
An important element inside the scene was the use of fog cards to help enhance the mood of the island, these fog cards came included in The Blueprints Project on Unreal Marketplace. The final touch was to add RVT blending to the materials inside my scene, which gave me the beautiful gradients of the intersections of the assets with the landscape.
Water was a difficult task and it was the result of a variety of tutorials that I found and combined depending on what I needed. Along the way, I found Simon Schreibt’s tech talk about the water inside RIME, which was of great help to comprehend and achieve my final goal of water inside the scene. I totally recommend it.
If we talk about the material, using the Depth Fade was really easy to create the depth of water and was easily customizable. Also, I had the problem of the repetition of the water normal, but with the help of the informative guide within the WorldofLevelDesign channel, I worked these normals in 3 layers with different tile sizes, which eliminated the tile repetition of the water, and this helped it look much better from a distance.
Achieving a Skybox totally stylized and similar to my references, was one of my main goals in this environment. This process was the one I enjoyed the most, painting clouds is always very relaxing. I started by painting two different cloud textures over on a base HDRI in Photoshop, as I just wanted to use them inside Unreal as Translucent Materials separated into different Skyspheres with different values in the Panner node, to create this parallax effect. Also, I added another Skysphere using a color gradient in the base color, to simulate the sky and make it fully editable with parameters.
Lighting and Post-Process
One of the reasons for developing this environment in UE5 was to use Lumen. Seeing those bounces of light in real-time really makes it a very powerful tool, and it's really exciting to know that it looks very promising for the future.
There were some problems along the way while Unreal 5 was in its Early Access version, such as too noisy shadows on vegetation, or not supporting translucency and opacity masks. Later, I moved on to its Preview 2 version, and those problems were mostly fixed.
To begin with, all the lights in the process were dynamic. At first, I struggled a bit with getting more stylized lighting, but I managed to balance the lighting with the help of two directional lights in addition to the main one, supporting the shadows with blue fill light, and a warm one to accentuate some details, as well as accentuating focal points with some spotlights.
Also, to work much more on the mood of the environment, I added an exponential height fog, and a sphere with an emissive material, to simulate the sun a little bit. Then, when I finished, I added some details in the post-processing, giving more value to the shadows, accentuating some colors, activating the lens flare for the sun, giving contrast to the scene, and some chromatic aberration for that cinematic effect.
This was my first major project focused on stylization, as well as my first approach to finding what I want to do from now on. It was a very challenging project, in terms of art direction and creating a workflow that worked with my goals. The project took me about 6 months to develop, in which I learned many things along the way, seeing and revising as much as I could.
One of the keys to achieving these goals is the correct planning of each task. It took me a while to realize where I wanted to go and how to plan them so that they would work out in the end.
I think the best advice is to stay inspired, keep your references up, learn from other artists, and keep creating. I believe there is an amazing network of artists who share their tutorials and knowledge, and it is very valuable to learn from them when you start a project.
Finally, thanks to 80 Level for the interview, I hope this information was useful to someone! Thanks for reading!
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