How to Create an Environment Level in Unreal Engine

How to Create an Environment Level in Unreal Engine

Yuzhi Zhu aka Steven kindly wrote this article for The Rookies. This project 'Escape', was was for his final assignment while attending SCAD.

Yuzhi Zhu aka Steven kindly wrote this article for The Rookies.  This project 'Escape', was was for his  final assignment while attending SCAD.

As a big fan of “Prometheus” and “Alien” series, I have always wanted to make a project that is related to it. To challenge myself, I had decided to make it in different stages ”before” and “after”. It was something i have never done before.


Having that in mind, I started to gather some references from the internet. I looked up a lot of alien category movies, tried to get some idea of what the alien creatures and space station would look like. These are some of the references I found useful. I quite enjoy looking at these dark references. I have always enjoyed the dark Sci-fi stuff. I want to make my environment express two completely different moods. Storytelling was my main focus. Being able to tell stories through a piece of art, I think it's the biggest achievement for an artist.


In my opinion, It's very important for an artist to visualize work on the paper first. After collecting hundreds of reference pics, I started to draw some pencil sketches on the paper.

From here, I tried to get an overall look of my level for both stages.

3D Modeling

After having a general idea of what the level would potentially look like, I began my next process which is modeling. In here, I used Maya and ZBrush for all the modular hard-surfaces and organic models.

I had made sure all the hard-surfaces were well beveled. Even though hard-surfaces are hard-edged, but, in real life, hard-edged does not necessarily mean its the hardest edge. Here is an example of the benefit of using bevel.

As you can see there, there is a significant visual difference between without bevel, bevel fraction 0.2 and bevel fraction 0.2 plus segment 1.0.

I modeled all the organic objects in ZBrush then imported the lowpoly meshes back to maya and UVed them.


At this stage, it is important for me to get the feel of the space and make sure all the scales are correct. When I work on white-boxing in Unreal Engine 4, I usually like to add a few spot lights in the scene, that gives me a general idea and mood. I blocked out the entire scene with a few camera animations, so I had a clear idea of what my final sequence would look like.

3D Texturing

For this “Before“ version of the level, I figured it should contain some lighter value colours as the main colour, because a scientist is living here, no one will design a human living place with a lot of dark metals. It was very important to make sure all the modular models look consistent, so I imported multiple mesh to Substance Painter and textured them at the same time.

I actually found this trick very useful if you want to have consistent looking for your modular pieces.

For my texturing workflow, I usually work on the normal details first then colours, then roughness.

Substance Painter has an awesome feature called “Anchor point”, it's awesome. Check out Flipped Normal’s awesome tutorial for this particular feature.

While texturing, I always think about which layers of material should present the project more importantly. I used “Plastic Glossy” smart material as my base colour, then added metallic value on top of it. After that i added a small amount of rust, and a tiny job of blue and red to make the textures look a bit more interesting.

The last part is adding emissive. Here is a trick for emissive maps: “Don't add too much emissive to it”. Emissive maps are really cool in Substance painter and Unreal Engine 4, but if you overdone your emissive map, it could be distracting. At first i had too many emissive areas in my scene, I actually came back to Substance Painter to remove some of the emissive areas two times in a row.

I also made a few materials in Substance Designer for Fabric, Creature flesh, and metal ground metal.

Creature Flesh

Working on Substance Designer, I always start with Height, then colour. You want to have the basic form of the materials, and then work on the details. That way, your material graph will be more organized and its easier to find the problem nodes when something just doesn't work correctly.

This material essentially made of a few “cell” nodes then wrapped them up to create this brain looking shape, then I used “Slope Blur Grayscale” node to smooth it out.

For colour, I used real animal flesh as reference. Designer has this awesome feature where you can use your cursor just pick up all the colour information from any area on your monitor. One tip for new designer user: “Grunge map is your best friend”

Ground Metal

Unreal Engine 4 setup

In Unreal Engine 4, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for my scene, so I created a few master materials to speed up my process.

This master material was made for getting general texture setup for any object. It has several parameters you can adjust: UV x and y offset, rotation, scale, roughness and emissive intensity.

In order to make the creature flesh move, I created a material simply using two "panner", then combined them with X and Y axis.

Here is the result.

For hologram, I made a material based on Dean Ashford tutorial, be sure to check out this youtube channel.

I also made one for skybox. With this, I am able to adjust the brightness, offset and the rotation of the HDRI image.

It is very important to set up your material with parameters, that way you can have more control over your materials.

Next thing to do is set dressing the level.

In this stage, I put a male model in the scene to make sure the scale was reasonable. Then I added more details to the scene, for instance, pipes, crates, oxygen tank, trash can and books etc. In order to show more of the narrative, I added some Queen posters, and I hand wrote some words on the boards and sticky notes in substance painter. So that people would know Queen is this scientist favorite band, and something is about to go wrong.


Lighting is my favorite part, I used a lot of spot lights mainly to light up the scene, and a rectangle blue light to break the symmetry.

When working with lighting, it's important to think what would be the main light source for your scene. For my scene, ceiling light is the main light source for both stages. Sometimes the preview is kinda tricky, the scene may look good before you bake it. But a lot of time after you bake the scene, you might find you lose some of the lighting details. One way I usually do to fix it is to add some point lights, set them with super low value and turn off “cast shadow“.

For the “Before” scene, I used more bright colours to show a clean feeling, because I wanted to show that “everything is fine right now”.

For the “After” scene, I tried to present a feeling where “something went wrong, errors appeared” So having flicking light and some red light will do the magic here.

Final step of lighting is to bake it. But you bake it, it's important to adjust the lightmass in the world setting. No matter what you do, for interior, static lighting level x Indirect lighting smoothness should = 1. I learned that from Ryan Manning.


Finally, adding post process value to the scene. This is what it looks like with and without post process volume.

Without post process volume.

With post process volume.

As you can see here, post process volume helps to add a lot of definition to the scene. In this case, I mainly increased the AO value and adjusted the contrast and colours.

Here are my post process setting for “Before” and “After”



Final render:

After adjusted some value in Photoshop, here is the final result:


It was absolutely a blast to work on this project. Always look for references, and think ahead of time. Be sure to work with your passion, my passion is my power to push myself even further.

Thanks to The Rookies for this opportunity, I am grateful to be part of this community.

Special thanks to SCAD for having the amazing class, and Professor Manuel Prada for teaching this class amazingly, and my friend Tristan Minh Tri for lighting advice.