Creating a Stylized Chinese Landscape
Carmen Schneidereit shared the details of her incredible Chinese mountain landscape made for the cinematics in UE4 (the project is not out yet). Vegetation production in ZBrush, Substance Designer & Maya, materials, subsurface scattering effect, lighting and more.
My name is Carmen Schneidereit. I am a 3D environment artist from Cologne, Germany. I recently finished my studies in game arts at the Cologne Game Lab. For my bachelor thesis, I joined a team to create an animated short film in Unreal Engine 4. My main responsibilities in the project were to create the 3D environments and lighting. Lighting has become an important aspect of everything I create as it heavily defines the mood and character of an artwork. Besides my studies, I also worked as a freelance artist and soon I want to move to a full-time studio position.
Catch It! Project (Cinematic in UE4)
Since watching Unreal Engine’s A Boy and His Kite tech demo I was fascinated by what can be achieved with real-time rendering in the field of cinematics.
During my university classes, and as a freelance artist, I only worked on game projects and didn’t gain prior experience working with cinematics. But I wanted to get a better understanding of this field. That’s why, for our bachelor theses, my fellow students Neysha Castritius, Raquel Rossetti and I formed a team to construct a real-time rendered short film called “Catch It!”. This short film will be released in 2019. Neysha and Raquel worked on the characters and animations for the film.
Chinese Mountain Landscape
The Chinese mountain landscape portrayed is one of the settings that I created for the project.
In the context of the narration, this environment is only depicted in the imagination of a girl and is part of a fantasy sequence in the film. A fantasy sequence portrays a state of dreaming or imagining. It is characteristic that a clear separation exists between the dream world and reality.
In this case, the goal was to make China look fantastical and colorful while for the corresponding real-world scene I used a darker and desaturated color palette.
I tried to create a specific look for the environment that I would describe as painterly realism. It matches well with the aesthetic of the stylized characters without being considered cartoony.
Even though the landscape is an imaginary place, its design is rooted in reality. The main inspiration for the scene is the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, a landscape with a very unique mountain structure. One of my teammates traveled through China and brought back amazing photos from the Zhangjiajie National Park. It immediately became clear to me that I wanted to base the design of the Chinese daydream landscape on this astonishing park. The hit movie Avatar also found inspiration from Zhangjiajie National Park for its world of Pandora.
Before I started building the scene, my main goal was to learn more about this landscape: the materials of the mountains and stones, the plants and trees growing there and also to identify how other artists captured the essence of this place. I also looked at how traditional Chinese painters approached the scene. I identified three main elements that characterize the landscape: the long mountains, the pine trees on top and the fog between the mountains.
CGMA Vegetation and Plants
It was my goal to learn new techniques for producing vegetation. To help achieve my goal, I joined Jeremy Huxley‘s Vegetation and Plants CGMA class. I wasn’t the typical student: I had my own schedule, deadlines and was working on a fairly large scene compared to the beautiful small landscape corners that are usually created during the class. Still, I was able to apply the techniques and general knowledge that I learned in Jeremy’s class to improve the scene. Jeremy was a great professor and offered the freedom and flexibility that I needed to work on the environments vegetation during the class.
Blockout & Composition
I was responsible for coming up with the design of the scene, as we didn’t have a dedicated concept artist in our team. In my case, a lot of the design process happened in the engine comparable to prototyping with Lego pieces. I first drew a small idea thumbnail, then laid down a very basic layout where I added the elements important for our storytelling to the scene: the mountains, the temple, and the river. As soon as camera angles and character positions/movements were determined during the development, I adjusted the composition of the scene and tried to stage the characters readable in the environment.
The portrayed shot of our Chinese landscape aims to give an overview of the setting and introduce the viewer to the place. My goal was to design the composition in a way so that it leads the viewer’s eye to the Chinese temple. The temple is an element of importance: in the film, a postcard featuring this temple triggered the daydream of the main protagonist.
Fish and girl by Neysha Castritius, Animations by Raquel Rosseti. Raquel also contributed to the Chinese lanterns.
I had to constantly keep the movement of the film characters in mind. In the displayed shot, the goldfish is entering the scene from the left, so there needs to be enough space for the character in the center.
The vegetation was created with the help of ZBrush, Substance Designer, Maya, and Photoshop. For sculpting and baking texture maps of the plants I used the techniques learned in Jeremy Huxley’s CGMA class.
Leaves of plants and trees were sculpted and polypainted in ZBrush. While polypainting I tried to achieve variance in my plants: I painted areas that are dry and damaged and others that are fresh and juicy. In ZBrush I baked a normal, height and an albedo map.
From there I took my plant’s maps into Substance Designer, where I made adjustments and created maps for ambient occlusion, roughness, and opacity. Translucency and subsurface color maps were later painted in Photoshop. The meshes for my vegetation maps were modeled in Maya.
Translucency & Subsurface Scattering
Subsurface scattering is an important effect for realistic rendering of vegetation and many other materials. The leaves of plants have semi-translucent surfaces. When light is passing through a translucent surface, it is scattered inside the surface and may come out in all kinds of different directions.
Unreal Engine 4 offers features to simulate translucency and subsurface scattering. In addition to the standard maps (normal, roughness, albedo etc.), two additional maps are needed: a translucency map and a subsurface color map. The translucency map defines how much light can pass through the surface. The subsurface color simulates a shift in color that happens when the light is passing through a translucent surface. It’s also possible to use a three-component vector to define the color in the engine.
For the translucency map, it’s important that the elements that should not be affected by subsurface scattering, like the tree branches, are masked out.
This is an example of a basic shader set-up:
One of my personal goals for this project was to make my first steps in Substance Designer. I created a handful of base materials for this scene. The materials themselves are simple and are combined to more complex materials in the engine, for example by blending between the base materials via vertex painting and height blending to break the coarse linear blended look.
For the mountains, I combined a unique normal map, that I baked from my large mountain structures ZBrush sculpt, with an additional detail normal map.
What is the best way to study the lighting for a dream sequence? Are dreams well lit or dark? Do they have a color tint? Do my neighbor’s dreams look the same way my dreams do? We are unable to capture our dreams and usually don’t remember them clearly enough to study their look in detail. That’s why, for the lighting of this setting, I analyzed lighting in film and games that inhabit an imagination/fantasy sequence. I looked at different movies and games to detect patterns and get some inspiration for my lighting design.
The following examples are reference images from Blade Runner 2049 (USA 2017, D: Denis Villeneuve) and The Wind Rises (Japan 2013, D: Hayao Miyazaki).
I noticed that fantasy sequences that express a desire often use a strong bright sun as the main light source. The sun is supporting the feelings of joy and happiness that the protagonist feels in the daydream.
In the overview shot of China, I did something similar. I only used a directional light and a skylight to illuminate the scene. I wanted to have a lot of indirect light bounce and achieved that by adjusting my lightmass settings in the following way:
During an interview that I read the chief lighting technician Franz Hjuber said, that technically spoken, the mood is created through irregular lighting. Differences between dark and bright areas establish the mood. With that in mind, I separated the shot into two sides to create visual interest: one half is brightly illuminated, the other lies in the shadows. To make the temple stand out as a focus point, I searched for a sun angle where rays of sunlight would hit and highlight the temple. For other shots the lighting was changed, light sources rotated and keyframed in the Unreal Engine sequencer.
Usually, when working on the lighting for an environment, I use an HDRi sky and adjust its exposure to my needs. This time though I bought the Ultra Dynamic Sky from the UE4 marketplace. It offers many parameters to customize a sky for your scene. It allows you to simulate real-time day and night cycles and introduces several more dynamic lighting features that we found a good use for in our project.
I hope the insights into my creative process were helpful to you! Feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions.
I would like to thank Chuy Salinas and Sebastian Schulz for sharing valuable environment production tips and tricks with me which helped me during the development of this project.
If you want to contact me, here are the links: ArtStation | Twitter | Email
Resources used: Water Materials | Ultra Dynamic Sky