Vincent Boichut talks about the process of creating a 3D landscape using Maya, Unreal Engine, and Substance Painter and shares his favorite tutorials and tool packs that helped him design the breathtaking French countryside-inspired piece.
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My name is Vincent, I am 23 years old, and I live in the south of France. I studied Game Art at ESA Games from 2016 to 2019 and graduated in 2020. In the meantime, I had the opportunity to start a 6-month internship at Force Field, a VR-oriented game studio based in Amsterdam. I then had the chance to join Station Interactive, a Swedish studio that has worked on various games including Little Big Planet. At Station Interactive, I worked as a Character Artist on Sackboy: A Big Adventure and as an Environment Artist on a project that got canceled. This was a great experience, and I definitely fell in love with the Swedish landscapes and the special atmosphere, but France was calling my name and I had to return home. So for approximately 6 months, I have been working as a 3D freelancer, at the moment I am working with Pendulo Studios on a super cool project I cannot even talk about yet.
Creating the French Countryside House
This scene was a bit special for me, as this is a part of a bigger project we are currently working on with my girlfriend, Jenny Mati. So it was definitely easier than my usual workflow, as we were able to talk and give each other feedback while moving forward. For the house architecture, she was inspired by one of Hyunsu Cha's concepts, and we knew we wanted to have that feeling of a big lonely house in the middle of nowhere, during a hot summer. I think she translated the idea we had really well, and it helped me a lot to build that base I could rely on to make it 3D. We used a lot of references, especially for the house's structures, the vegetation colors, and the specific lighting we wanted.
Speaking of composition and framing, we talked a lot about it and had a precise idea of what we wanted before starting anything. We wanted that dirt path to lead the eye of the spectator to the main house. As she was already using 3D for the illustration, I already had a basis to use, some sort of a blockout I could use to get the size and proportions right and have an idea about how to approach the different parts of the house and the final composition.
I imported the blockout my girlfriend did in Maya and used it as a base to model different parts. It was extremely useful to see how I would break the house into different elements and what parts could share the same textures or be duplicated to avoid wasting time.
I did not create any high-poly model for the assets, as the final render was going to be quite stylized, I knew I could get away with a couple of well-placed bevels and putting more emphasis on textures.
So once I had an idea of which elements I needed, I started modelling them by groups (all the walls, then all the doors, then the windows, and so on). I reduced it as much as I could to use them as modules, I also modelled some small assets I knew I would need everywhere, like wood beams and small bricks (to break the wide emptiness on the walls), flower pots. Also, I decided to take a bit of a risk for the roof. Instead of going for a textured plane, I decided to model 5 or 6 tiles I would then duplicate in Unreal Engine, creating groups of tiles. This gave me the impression of freedom where I could create unique roof parts and give more credibility to my roofs. I did this knowing the rest of the scene was not going to be too heavy, and the scene could still run smoothly with those roofs.
The bales of hay were also pretty tricky to make, they went through different styles and techniques, but I finally opted for the simplest one, a cylinder with a carton texture surrounded by some planes using an alpha to make it look like a messy pile of hay.
The rest of the assets that were going to be used outside of the main house as decorations (bike, chairs, table, fences), were modelled separately, each of them had its own textures. In the end, I also grabbed some assets from the Megascans library to add some more life to the scene and tweaked their textures a bit to make everything look more stylized.
Vegetation was clearly my biggest challenge on this project, as I was not used to working on it and I knew it would cause me a lot of problems.
I first started to look into the new Runtime Virtual Texturing process inside Unreal Engine, after reading through various breakdowns of stylized scenes such as the one by Jasmin Habezai-Fekri.
RVT helps your assets to blend in with the landscape. After watching a few tutorials on how to use it, I finally started to see my grass blending perfectly with the ground texture. For the grass, I started with a few planes crossing each other, and an alpha. But towards the end of the project, I decided to go for a less rounded shape which looked too cartoon-like in my opinion. I also unchecked cast shadows.
Regarding the material of the grass, I pretty much used the one described by David Holland in his breakdown of the Meadows, I loved the color variation in his grass and that beautiful wind effect he had. I added RVT to my grass and added the pixel depth offset modifier, which can be pretty close to what RVT does, but I found that the mix of the two was a great fit.
The vine plants come from the Unreal marketplace pack made by letsmakecoolart, I first used them as a placeholder but I decided to keep them, as they matched the style of the scene well. The bushes and the tree material were made using LucenDev one as a basis. I loved the way his trees looked and because he released a free project file, I was able to take a look at how he worked on those. I used pretty much the same workflow that he used, removing the stuff I did not need and adding RVT, pixel depth offset, and my own alpha for the leaves.
For the modeling, I first tried to use the Blender Particle System, but as I am really new to Blender, it did not really look like what I wanted. So after reading through Zurab Barisashvili’s breakdown on his The Last of Us scene, I discovered that Mash could be used to create trees and bushes in Maya. You can basically duplicate one mesh on a given surface and control how many meshes you want, as well as control rotation, variation, etc.
The final trick to have a great-looking tree inside Unreal Engine is to modify its normal. There are a lot of different ways to do it, I decided to follow Romain Durand’s tutorial for this one, which is basically transferring vertex normal information from a more simplified mesh onto your bush or tree leaves.
I mainly used Substance Painter for texturing all the assets of this scene. As I am still fairly new to Substance Designer, I decided to work only inside Painter, using the Master smart material for the textures that were going to be often seen such as wood, stone, glass, metal, etc. It helped me to speed up my workflow without losing consistency between different assets.
As the final look was going to be stylized, I wanted the textures to be simplified, without losing the small details that make them look interesting. So it is a mix of curvature masks to highlight the edges, gradient, AO dirt, color variation, and small damages.
Texturing the landscape was fairly simple, each layer consisted of basic colors I could easily tweak inside Unreal Engine. Again, the landscape is set up using Runtime Virtual Texturing.
Brushing Up the Details
The setup for the sky was not something I spent a lot of time on, I used the original sky sphere blueprint from Unreal Engine, I removed the clouds and tweaked the colors to make it look more like a French summer sky.
For the clouds, I used the awesome SkyCard pack by DF Productions and tweaked them to look stylized and fit the scene and the sky better. Those clouds can be affected by the sunlight direction, you can tweak pretty much anything, from density to shadow colors, I highly recommend them.
I also added an Exponential Height Fog to improve the atmospheric perspective, using the following settings :
When it comes to the wind/falling leaf effect, I learned it from a really amazing tutorial made by Rimaye. I am not going to break it down here, because he does it much better anyway.
The chimney smoke was made using the Niagara Visual Effects System, it basically spawns a ribbon with a long lifetime that fades over time.
The lighting of the scene is pretty basic, I wanted to keep it really simple and dynamic. It is basically one yellow-tinted directional light that creates that warm and cozy atmosphere you can feel at the end of the summer here in France. I switched the shadow filter sharpen to 1 for my directional light, once again I learned it from David Holland's breakdown of the Meadows, it gives the shadow a more cartoony look, it is a small detail but it is always nice to have. I then added spotlights and some point lights here and there to brighten up the shadows.
There is almost no post-production, except for a small AO adjustment and I also lightened up the shadows a bit and added a smooth vignette to the main camera.
This project took me around a month and a half to complete as I was working on it on and off after work and during the weekends.
I learned a lot of new stuff while working on this, reading through various breakdowns and watching tutorials. The main challenges I encountered were the creation of vegetation and keeping the overall scene credible and coherent.
Creating this scene was a big step forward for me and took me quite a lot of energy, but it was definitely worth it in the end.
I would like to thank all the amazing artists that helped me through the process, thanks to their tutorials I was able to lead my project in the right direction. Thanks to Jenny Mati who created the original concept and helped me with her feedback and her different perspective.
I also have to thank the community for all the unexpected love they gave me. And finally, thanks to 80 Level for the interview, I hope it will be useful to someone as all the 80 Level breakdowns were to me.