Creating Beautiful Environments in Unreal Engine

Creating Beautiful Environments in Unreal Engine

To create beautiful environments in Unreal Engine I had to draw inspiration from both horror films and games, I studied their use of lighting, composition and audio. I wanted to better understand how to immerse the player in the visual narrative I wanted to create. Ultimately my environments would be influenced by games like Dead Space and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Pre Production:

Creating environment beauty shots starts with thorough planning.

With any project, I start with a tonne of research on my location. I wanted to focus on a realistic representation of a modern coal mine. I separated my reference into props, materials, and lighting.

Reference/Style Guide

Unreal Engine

After amassing my reference material I spent time sketching storyboards for the trailer. Originally the trailer was going to have more of a gameplay focus. With the players hands visibly using tools and exploring the space. This transformed into the more cinematic, faster paced final cut.

Well thought out set dressing can draw the player’s attention by telling a story or guiding them in the right direction

Unreal Engine

Many iterations later I was able to visualize the shape of the environments based on the story being told. I then moved to sketching level designs. Making sure it could facilitate the shots for the trailer, and support our playable demo.

Finalizing the level layout I then created isometric renders. I used these renders to explore 3 main things. The first being player navigation, what path did I want the player to take? Second, being lighting and how it might guide/influence the player on that path. As a survival horror game lighting played a key role in atmosphere.

It was a balance between offering safe pockets of light for the player to feel safe and then plunging them into darkness to only rely on their flashlight. Third, being prop density within the space. Well thought out set dressing can draw the player’s attention by telling a story or guiding them in the right direction. These three concepts were vitally important in creating my larger maze-like environment.

2nd Environment: Mine Interior

Unreal Engine
With quite a bit of planning already in place and a good idea of what I needed to model, I then moved into asset creation. I broke my assets down into 2 categories, hard surface and natural material.

I created an early block-out of my level using primitive shapes, rough materials and basic lighting. The focus on this phase is getting a feel for the space in 3D.

Laying out my list of props as quick sketches helped me visualize what I needed versus what my scope would allow.

Hard Surface Prop List

Unreal Engine

In the block-out phase, some things in this list were cut in favour of new assets deemed more important for set dressing. Example being the mine truck, which was cut for a modular kit of steel girders and support beams used on tunnel entrances. Being able to quickly reassess what I needed and change accordingly helped maintain the project’s scope.

Natural Prop List

Unreal Engine

This outlines the modular kit I intended to create. As quick sketches, I included some reference to clarify the rocks blocky design. In several mining techniques, the coal deposits and surrounding limestone has sheared away into jagged layers, which I wanted to include in the environment.

Initial Blockout or Grey Box

Unreal Engine

Moving from 2D into 3D, I created an early block-out of my level using primitive shapes, rough materials and basic lighting. The focus on this phase is getting a feel for the space in 3D. It’s not beautiful, just quick revisions figuring out the scale of the world relative to my 2D designs.

Modeling Pipeline:

Modeling Process

Unreal Engine

Before continuing my progress on that scene here is a brief bit about my process/pipeline. Hard surface modeling for this project was created in Maya. This spinning blade is mounted on a real world piece of equipment called a longwall shearer.

Here I’m showing my process from block-out to high-poly model. After creating the high and low-poly mesh I baked my normal maps in Maya and prepared to texture.

Textures and Materials

Unreal EngineI created a blended material for the Longwall shearer. That blend includes industrial yellow paint, rust, dirt, and freshly worn metal. For texturing I prefer Substance Painter. With this model I used Substance to generate the masks for my blended material.

Integrated in the Scene

Unreal Engine

The final step was blending the model into my scene. I adjusted the machine mounted lights to get highlights across the top of the shearer’s arm.This was also a good opportunity to adjust my scene color. Having close to final models and materials, I tweaked diffuse colors and adjusted the areas post process volume.This particular mining tunnel is almost entirely coal. I wanted to use those darker cooler

This particular mining tunnel is almost entirely coal. I wanted to use those darker cooler colors to contrast the rest of my environment shots, which have small amounts of coal and cool accent lighting.

Updating my Level

Unreal Engine

Coming back to this screenshot in progress, after completing another round of models it was time to update my level. A crucial step in this phase was solidifying my camera placement. With this key element established, I could begin to refine the composition for the final screenshot. Next, I needed to finish modeling and begin polished materials.


Modeling/Material Progress

Unreal Engine

Texturing rocks for this project turned into a multi-faceted job. The size of the space required versatile material tricks to reduce the number of individual models needed. Shown on the left, I started with some rough test sculpts to practice the researched style of rock formations. On the right a completed rock wall sculpt, with details I would contribute to the tiling texture in the middle.

For my environments, most rock sculpts have that distinct horizontal sediment layering, contrasted by the vertical scoring left from mining equipment.

Besides micro normals, mix maps, and substance painting, textures for my rocks were sculpted in ZBrush.

Materials Part Two: Cool Rocks and Problem Solving

A major visual element to my environment was sedimentary layers. The surrounding earth is limestone, with thick bands of dark coal deposits and bright streaks of other impurities. This strata needed to stay consistent in world space despite my set dressing. To solve this I created a customizable material aligned to a world position. I could then create strata seamlessly across my environments.

Unreal EngineExample of strata material in world

Each row of columns has a slightly different variation to its mask, making the seam grow in size from left to right.

Function example:[


Unreal Engine

Material Example:

Unreal Engine

I applied multiple strata masks, all added together to blend my material.

Material function inputs:

Unreal Engine

Using inputs within the function I could distort the series of masks in unique ways.

Finishing lighting and final touches in Unreal Engine:

Final Environment Shot

Unreal Engine

My focus towards the end of the project was lighting. This scene was the largest of my environments, consisting of a grid like layout. I wanted to illuminate higher ceiling towards the front with generous bounce light. While letting it taper into darkness where the player would explore the back reaches.

When working with lighting in Unreal Engine I often found my light’s falloff too gradual for my tight and claustrophobic environment. I needed hotter light sources and faster falloff to create Pools of safety in the darkness. I found the setting “inverse square falloff” on spot lights to be the answer for many of my light sources. It creates the desired effect of faster and softer falloff.

I would like to say thank you to The Rookies for this opportunity. Thanks to my awesome thesis partner Andy Lang, who contributed outstanding work seen in our trailer. Thank you for checking out my process.