WE_E:Fluorescence - Complete Breakdown of Sci-fi scene by Mihai Muscan
For those of you who participated in the Rookie Awards 2019 you this following project will be familiar to you. We are lucky enough to have Mihai Muscan, a self-taught artist from Bistrita, a Transylvanian town in Romania, walk us through how he created the amazing WE_E:Fluorescence project.
After the release of my previous project N_IM: Translucent, I went on a one and a half years long hiatus due to personal events that had happened. During that time, I haven’t touched any 3D applications at all. I just wanted to try something new, something that doesn’t have to be, let’s say, modern or CGI related. I picked up drawing, reading, watching a tremendous amount of movies, experimenting with photography, studying cinematography, starting a band with my brother and traveling all around Transylvania (highly recommend). I used the internet just at the bare minimum like checking e-mails, talking to people via messenger, listening to music, watching documentaries or films (when nothing good was at the cinema).
My head was clean. I haven’t felt like doing something in 3D for that entire time, however, I noticed it was building in me. I had so many things I wanted to try, to express myself in this medium. It was really just a matter of time when I would pick it up again. But I never knew that and I thought I’d never do anything in 3D again. That would have been fine too.
Creating just another environment for the sake of doing an environment, without a soul or a meaning wouldn’t cut it.
I noticed how the internet culture and social media was evolving so very fast and how much time we spend looking at this fluorescent light coming from the screens of our phones, monitors, TV, etc. It’s as if WE Exist in this Fluorescence. I took references from the past when the internet and social media weren’t that well established. They gradually influence our lives more and more.
I decided to take on this subject. I wanted to show the viewers the way I see things.
WE_E: Fluorescence was created by modern society seen through my eyes. Being able to share our thoughts, feelings, and knowledge to everyone, everywhere, anytime via the internet is truly remarkable. However, we don’t really know how to use it, how not to abuse it. We created it, that’s true, but if we let IT control us, we lose our identity, values, and perception of what actually matters to us.
The production took around 3 months and here is the dissection of the madness that just happened.
I knew straight off the bat I wanted to bring this project towards a more cinematic and atmospheric look and feel. Plus not only that but also create a video. Thus I have bookmarked many videos about cinematography, and photography. I pretty much knew the visual style I was going for.
I got inspired by the “pitch movie” presented by Capcom on their Resident Evil 7 game. The aesthetic of Cyberpunk 2077, played a huge role as well. Also, I wanted to push my skills of creating assets with cloth, high poly modeling, texturing as well as my compositional and lighting skills.
I wanted to twist the visuals with the cyberpunk vibe. I blended the realistic look of the environment with cables and fluorescent lights. The cables represent how on the internet everything is connected and omnipresent.
Directors of cinematography like Roger Deakins, Bill Pope, Jonathan Sela were very influential . Thus I researched how they made use of the light and color in films like The Matrix, Black Hawk Dawn, Se7en. Lighting, colors, camera lenses, composition all these play a big role when creating an atmospheric scene.
Cold colors like blue teals, green teals, purples, whites, and greys will be the main background colors. Also, the environment will be made out of 2 corridors with one opened door. Thus I wanted to have a shift in the color palette on the second corridor. From greens and yellows, I wanted to go towards more blues and reds. The focal points will be illuminated by bright colors like yellow, orange, light green, light blue, and reds. Here are just some of the many references taken:
Having a reference folder with many props of various sizes and usage is very important. I found some old fuse boxes very interesting material. Like a metal painted with a very thick ceramic paint that over time it cracks or gets blobby type of material. The design of them is old fashioned and it looks very different than what we have/ see in our modern world.
I wanted to incorporate this old school technology props into the environment to give it a little spin on how future generations changed the world we live in and how some things can last the test of time. Pipes, cables, batteries, cable holes, barrels, metal doors on walls, everything that a city block interior has, more or less, will be in this environment.
3D Blockout and Lighting Passes
First pass of 3D blockout
In conveying am immersive environment with lots of storytelling elements, modularity plays a big role. From fuse boxes doors to walls, everything has to be modular to save time and memory space.
The ceiling was always the biggest struggle as I knew it had to be filled with cables. The hard part is to make it look flooded by cables but still, kinda look cohesive. Nothing here was set in stone but this is more of exploration thus anything could be changed.
First Pass of Lighting
I always block the lighting when I do any level design. Not only it gives me inspiration but also it guides how the composition will turn out to be. I made sure to disable the skylight and added the exponential height fog. I used Volumetric indoor lighting extensively with spotlights and point lights.
I started off by importing the first section of the level design into Unreal Engine to see how it looks like when lighting is being applied. I was using dynamic lights together with stationary to speed up the process of establishing the lighting setup.
These tests proved to be too dark, they hide most of the environment. If there were props, they would have been hidden in the dark. Not only that but the level design felt too ambiguous.
However, the last image on the bottom right, I liked that. I went ahead and explored more of that visual cue. More simplistic lighting will work better with the number of cables, graffiti, wall stains, power switches, etc.
I was satisfied with the result, therefore I went ahead and designed the corridor further, just to refresh my eyes and mind from lighting. Interesting enough the development of the second corridor was faster and better than the first one. As soon as I finished it, I used it as my reference and create the entire environment based on that.
Then I imported it in Unreal Engine and re-visited the lighting. Changes were made accordingly to the new design.
Advanced 3D Blockout (Second Pass)
Being satisfied with the color palette and lighting block out, I went ahead and worked more on the block out.
Advanced Lighting (Second Pass)
Next, I imported everything back to Unreal and tested the composition with the lighting. Made the adjustments accordingly.
I started the production of 3D assets using 3ds Max with Open Subdiv. I am creating them with the modularity aspect kept in mind. Combining them together can generate total new assets like lego pieces. I plan on using them for future projects as well.
Time is crucial, 3 months is not a lot of time for a project of this size. Therefore, I am using assets from my own kitbash library to keep the speed and momentum going but still have the quality bar up.
For the main props of the first corridor, I decided to have a globe and a cylinder. That's because of the shape language they have and how nice they break the linear shape language.
I started off by creating a base shape and iterated on that. Details are important, from touch screen tablet to small bits and pieces, I made sure to have First, Secondary and Tertiary shapes.
The production of the globe was the same as for the cylinder. But since it is sphere shaped, the high poly modeling was harder this time to get the smooth edge flow of the polygons.
I started off by working on the silhouette, adding the hole in the front and the 4 dents at the back. This gave me some ideas to try out, I wanted the globe to keep its original sphere-liked shape as much as possible.
Ok, we can do some magic with it. I went ahead and started the high poly modeling, including a bunch of floaters to further enhance the look. I decided to give the globe a more striking silhouette, therefore, I added 4 cylinders to the front. For the back section, since the player won’t see it, I did a simpler design.
To finish the globe, I combined some caps kitbash assets from my own library and job done.
I wanted to see how the globe and the cylinder look together with basic materials and lighting thus I imported them to Keyshot for a quick test.
Adding cloth to the environment will change the visual language since it has a more organic look. Also, it will easee the contrast between the assets.
I took the cables from the level design as a base to simulate the cloth and created multiple variations to be used throughout the environment. The cloth had to have many folds but not too many so that it wouldn’t look too thin. After a couple of tries, tweaking elasticity strength, shrinkage warp, fold angle, etc. I achieved the result I was looking for.
Retopology and UV-unwrapping
Using a combination of 3ds max and Topogun, I picked each and every assets and cut down the polygons as long as it would look fine when backed.
In order to save time and keep the momentum, when a set of meshes was done being UV-ed, I was baking it while working on another set.
Nothing fancy so we won’t dwell here.
I wanted to add as much storytelling as possible in the main assets of each set. the ones that the player see the most and are closer to them.
I created my own custom smart materials library. They fit the visual style I was looking for and also you can change really fast grunges, dust, scratches, blobbiness, fingerprints, rust, paint fades, wear and tear. For the monitors and tv screens I created a custom glass material that has dust, stains and fingerprints to add to the believability.
As for the metal doors, I exaggerated the dents. That's because in Unreal Engine I want them to be seen in the dark and because the person who did it must have been angry. Additionally, I added some text as a roughness just to give more storytelling elements.
I decided to create in a non-destructive way welds using gradient maps, layers and the basic weld brush provided by Substance Painter. I went over the internet and gather all sorts of different weld patterns and how it affects the metal. I paid closer attention to the references and noticed how colors such as orange (on the exterior), blue (in the middle) and black (as the base) appear most of the time.
Here are a couple of results:
I was never quite happy with the globe texturing, it was too flat in some areas and the overall texturing readability felt poor. Not enough roughness variation, barely any micro details such as scratches, stains. Not only that but the weld itself was not looking interesting at all.
I did some modifications. Every time I would do the weld using the weld brush I would paint the same pattern on a group that had the colors stacked together. With 1 stroke I had all the colors exactly how they looked in the references.
Not only that, but paint thickness, scratches, stains, surface irregularities and burned areas on the cylinders sockets were added to the surface as well.
I tested some sets in Unreal to see how they look like:
Since I’m not so used to Substance Designer, I used Substance Painter. I created a 1 by 1 plane in 3ds max and UV-ed it so that it would tile without any seams to use as “workspace”.
Inside Substance Painter, I started off with a simple layer which had as substance material mode Steel_rough. this gave me the dents and irregularities of a wall. I switched off the metallic propriety and kept only the color, height and normal.
I decided to have a brush painted surface. I always liked how it looked like, it tells a lot of story on how the individual created the strokes (human touches). To achieve that look, I created another fill layer but this time for the height and roughness input I used a grunge_wipe_brushed material preset.
On the white mask, I added a mg_mask_editor generator to control the intensity of the strokes and to give a little more surface details, I manually painted out some strokes or toned them down globally. To finish it off, I used a Level modifier to fine-tune the global intensities of the roughness and height.
I also created grainy plastic materials inside Substance Painter for when the splines stage is arriving.
By no means, I suggest using Substance Painter for tileable materials as you are very constrained. I used it because I am more familiar with it and knew how to achieve what I wanted.
Everybody loves stickers.
To create an immersive environment, I took notice of the real world. There are plenty of stickers, tags, ripped paper, marker signs on the walls, pillars, electrical boxes. Some of the decals I created myself from scratch. Yet, for most of them I took, pictures of the ones that look noticeable enough found around town. I turned them into game assets and together with the global roughness and normal map (you will see below), I managed to create a big library of decals.
I made sure to have a couple of variations of Normal and Roughness maps created in Substance Painter. They will be used as global maps on selected decals in order to add another level of details. Their size is small, 256px, since the player most probably won’t even look at the decal.
Duct tape was probably one of the most challenging materials to make. Transparent materials are really hard to create and look good in Unreal Engine in general.
I managed to achieve the desired look with the use of emissive, refraction and refraction nodes, Fresnel opacity and roughness swirls multiplier. Also, I created an alpha texture in photoshop that had the silhouette I wanted.
Wall damages, cracks, dirt, dust, scratches, paint, etc. a wall should have all of these. With the combination of Substance Painter, my phone’s photo camera, bitmap2material to extrude normal maps and using photoshop for color correction, I managed to create game decals from the real world. Furthermore, I used some textures from Textures.com when I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for.
This is an example of how the decals work together:
A downside of using decals is the shader complexity. The more decals you add, the more complex the scene gets. It can affect really badly the performance so be careful when using them, add only when it matters.
I created the splines blueprints inside Unreal Engine to speed up the assembly process. Since I made sure the cables were modeled and textured to fit the modular function in UE4, all is left to do is to create the blueprint itself. For this, I did some research on Unreal Engine docs website and found enough resources to understand some nodes. Also, I found a tutorial (link) that assisted the documentation.
Now the life reflecting, deep conversations with thy self. I had to create the cables for the corridors and I can tell you that this took a while, a very easy process but boring.
The fps would drop significantly every time the camera would move. I searched the internet and I found an easy fix for this. Apparently, every spline created has its scene component default setting as movable instead of static. This caused a massive performance loss but after changing it to static, the fps got back to normal. Props to Dan Powell for providing us the solution!
Here is a shot of how the cables work in the scene:
I wanted to have a working TV in this environment which meant I had to create a material that would play either some images or a video. Not only that but also, to tell the message I wanted to, images that I hand-picked were required to show in a specific order. They represent glitches, nature, religious and social aspects of our life. Not only that but also how chaotic and meaningless they can become if we look at them superficially, the same way we see an add. Most images are created inside Photoshop using the photobash technique or taken from places I visited around Romania.
After some experimentation with nodes and properties, I managed to achieve what I set myself up to. I created 3 images that each contains 4 different pictures with the exact same size (e.g 1024px). That's because when the flipbook node goes from rows to columns, there won’t be any texture stretching. This is how the graph looks like:
Now I could finally compile everything in Unreal Engine. I need to mention that I was scared to bones while at this stage. Because the lighting looked atrocious when I was using basic white point lights and I didn’t know I could manage to pull this project off the way I wanted to.
In order to make most of the light bounces and color propagation, I changed the lightmass volume settings to get the desired look and feel.
Below are the Lightmass settings and the general cinematic camera settings. I’ve changed the camera settings many times, from 30 mm to 70 mm lenses, aspect ratio, apertures, in order to get the shot I was looking for. Definitely recommend you to do it, you never know what shot you get if you change only 1 lens settings.
I could have turned the Static Lighting level scale to 0.1. But the results I’ve gotten with 0.8 was surprisingly good and the time taken to render was not too long.
After tweaking different dynamic and stationary light intensities, colors, volumes, inner and outer cones angles, source radius and attenuation, different light compositions, placing the reflection capsules and after setting up the cinematic camera settings, I managed to achieve the look and feel I was searching for.
For the post-processing volume, I used only the Grain, exposure and the chromatic aberration effects. Nothing fancy.
The character is a scan I bought from 3dscanstore.com, edited inside ZBrush and changed the textures for in Photoshop. He represents the modern culture we live in. The clothing, tattoos, etc. I used the TV here as a metaphor to how we express our believes and feelings like on a billboard or a TV screen, like adds.
All the videos were recorded using Sequencer and a cinematic camera. Nothing rocket science here, choose the shot you want to record, add the camera to the sequence and ACTION.
Music was very important, I spent a lot of time searching for the right track that has the tempo and the atmosphere I was looking for. An artist from Germany that goes by the name of FLESH had exactly what I was looking for. Eerie, slow-paced, techno and atmospheric. I immediately bought the entire album, please check him out he’s super rad!
The beginning of the video starts with an old recording of a natural landscape and the date is set to be 1999. The whole project is a critic towards modern society, how it evolves and gets saturated so fast that we can’t even digest everything that is shown to us. I’ve chosen the beginning with the natural landscape. That's because it resembles the real world, the quiet and peaceful place, something real and natural that wasn’t created by humans.
All the VHS look had to be created from scratch as I was using some photos I took from Romania in 2017. The play text, the dynamic glitched effects, etc. all created inside Premiere Pro. To achieve this, I downloaded a license-free pack of broken VHS cassette tapes played on an old TV. The raw and glitched recording was perfect for what I needed.
After the beginning is done, the environment follows on the beat as well. I added multiple Stamps on various triple-beat sequence or when it’s time to add a new image into place.
Not everything is rendered as a video, I used a combination of 2D images captured from the scene. Panning, zooming and camera rotation are techniques used throughout the video to “fake” the camera movement in some cases.
The final video
As stated in the very beginning, I took a long time off, if you want to call it that way, but to me, it was exactly how much I needed. I used to feel miserable and that’s only because of me. Because of what I was not doing, not reading, not seeing, not thinking. I never did a project like this before and I’m 100% sure I wouldn’t even think about it if it hadn’t been for the change of perspective.
Go outside, go hiking, go car racing, biking, jogging, go to a different town, country, change the environment, mentality, your perspective. Especially when you have a burnout.
Time management played a very big role here. I timed myself to see the average time it would take me to finish some assets. With this I could make an estimation on when I can start the next phase. Not only that but also, how can I optimize my workflow to go faster but keep the quality bar up. The hardest part was to stick to the schedule. You do that, you’re golden.
The people you surround yourself with play a big factor in your well being as well. Negative and slackers, come on man really? Trust me, you can push yourself to be a better artist, but if you have friends that are hard working and they believe in what they do as much as you do, who keep you on your track and not letting you off with “It’s good enough”, you can’t even imagine how much further you can go. A good example would be Doru Bogdan. Not only he’s an hard working artist but also he’s a great friend. Whenever he’d show me something, especially during the development of the project, I felt excited and terrible at the same time. It made me get up from bed because how can I let him be better than me right? I’m kidding of course but you get the idea.
Can’t recommend enough. I did this project in 3 months, and I don’t feel burned out at all. I already started my next project in my spare time and stuff is getting done as you read this article. And yes I go to the gym every morning, read, play in my band, go in the forest, hang out with my friends in the real world, enjoying life man.
I hope you found this article useful and have a great day!