Developing a Moody 3D Scene for Games: The Witch Forest House

Developing a Moody 3D Scene for Games: The Witch Forest House

In this article, Rainbow Academy graduate Nicola Liso, showcases a post-course project, detailing how, with dedication, he set a new standard of quality as a foundation for further growth.

Nicola Liso's passion for environments flourished during his high school years through landscape painting. Later, he delved into the 3D as a self-taught enthusiast, exploring modeling with Maya and creating scenes in Unreal Engine.

Realising his passion could be his profession, he sought specialised education to pursue a career as a Level Artist. After extensive research, he enrolled in the Rainbow Academy, an institution renowned for nurturing talents in the 3D industry. Through the 'Game Asset' course, he learned industry-standard workflows directly from professionals, refining his skills and elevating the quality of his work.

In this article, he aims to showcase a post-course project, detailing how, with dedication, he set a new standard of quality as a foundation for further growth.

The Journey

When I began my artistic journey in high school, I had a profound passion for painting, particularly with watercolours. I started creating landscapes and glimpses of cityscapes. After finishing my formal education, I got into 3D through small courses and tutorials. I freelanced for visual content on audio and video platforms.

A few years later, I discovered the Rainbow Academy and made the decision to leave my hometown and relocate to Rome for the 'Game Asset' course. I was warmly welcomed into the academy, feeling like part of a family. I encountered skilled and reliable professionals who guided me step by step through the course. Balancing work and study during the master's program was challenging, but I managed to complete it with top grades.

The lessons were intense. They were full of valuable information. They focused on practical work to improve techniques. Professors were always available to clarify any doubts. During my training, I aimed to convey my strong curiosity and constant pursuit of detail as a student. Currently, this reflects in my approach to environments, prioritising storytelling through asset placement and emphasising their significance through lighting.

The Concept

After completing my Master's, I felt the need for a project that would set a new quality standard in my career. I decided to draw inspiration from one of the concepts I had initially chosen for my thesis but had set aside due to time constraints. The concept revolved around dark and creepy themes, intending to depict a witch's house immersed in a dense forest.

I started with a big visual research phase. I collected many images to set the scene's mood and show the workflow stages.

Mood Board

Model Planning

The main asset of the scene is a run-down shack. To create it, I began by modeling 4 wooden planks in Maya. I added simple deformations to make needed variations and avoid repetition. The immediate challenge was making each plank appear different. To achieve this, I manually positioned each plank on a blockout model of the house, understanding its dimensions and volumes.

During this phase, I diversified the planks more. I modified their shapes by elongating and rotating pieces. I did this based on their positions around the block. When integrating the asset into Unreal, I noticed a lack of micro-detail on the edges, disrupting the asset's regularity. As a result, I made more adjustments to the planks. I added smaller, sharper versions along the edges to resemble chipped boards.

To speed up the texturing phase, I moved the first four planks in the UV space. I did this expecting to use tileable textures. I owe thanks to Lamberto Gioia, he is an excellent material artist with whom I had the pleasure of sharing experiences and collaboring with at the academy.

Maya Viewport

Set Dressing

This is my favourite phase of the entire creative process. As a passionate gamer, I often pause to observe how other artists place assets along the player's path and, through careful scene assembly, silently tell the story of an environment. Studying game levels has improved my ability to understand their structure. It taught me that to be a good Level Artist, one must keenly observe their surroundings.

For this scene, I aimed to create a central perspective structure, with the main asset, the house, serving as the focal point. I used assets from Megascans, primarily foliage, to define the boundaries of the house. The challenge was to seamlessly blend the main asset with nature. I drew inspiration from Naughty Dog's environments. I focused on Uncharted and The Last Of Us. I worked on the presence of foliage covering the house. It looks like nature is reclaiming the structure. This shows neglect by its inhabitants.

Given that it's a witch's natural habitat, I incorporated objects evoking the eerie imagery of magic, enriching the scene with skulls, candles, cobwebs, and various other items deliberately placed in disarray. To bring the assets to life, I initially activated wind in the foliage shader, but it wasn't enough. I then created a simple VFX simulating pollen and nature particles, providing subtle movement and enhancing the sense of magical energy permeating the environment.

Finally, the scene lacked animals. I addressed this by adding several crows on the house's roof and a deer along the pathway leading to the lair. I used a package to add them.

Unlit View (Unreal Engine)

Lighting and Mood

The process of defining the lighting and mood is another phase that I particularly enjoy. But, it posed big challenges for this project. Initially, I was undecided about whether to approach a daytime or nighttime lighting setup. To resolve this, I imagined two simple scenarios. I put myself in the shoes of a player and thought about how they would approach the house based on its lighting.

If there were sunlight, the player would likely approach the house with curiosity and perhaps without fear. In contrast, if the scene were darker and more ominous, the player would approach the main asset with more caution. They would be apprehensive, fearing that something terrible might await them. This latter mood is precisely what I aimed to convey.

The new challenge was to highlight the house in a nighttime setting. This had to be done while leaving the trees and foliage in silhouette. To achieve this, I began by placing a Directional Light to provide global illumination. However, this alone was insufficient to highlight the house in its context. I positioned six RectLights around it. They served as Rimlights. They helped where the model did not get light from the directional light.

The placement of the RectLights also served to enhance the foliage around the house, with a focus on adjusting the roughness of the plants.

Lighting Only view (Unreal Engine)

Once the lighting and contrasts were defined, it was necessary to flatten and unify everything. To accomplish this, I utilised Volumetric Fog. Immediately, the scene gained depth. By adjusting the fog distance parameters, I aimed to exclude the house and immediately blur behind it. However, I had not yet achieved the desired effect because Volumetric Fog is a global parameter.

To overcome this obstacle, I created a shader with a fog volume that reacted very well when highlighted with lights. Therefore, I positioned this fog volume around the house, almost as if to outline it.

Detail Lighting view (Unreal Engine)

Once the lighting work was completed, my next task was to make the scene more creepy. To achieve this, I utilised post-processing techniques, focusing on exposure, shadow intensity, adjusting light points, and desaturating colours. I spent a significant amount of time experimenting with different combinations to match the mood of the references. After tweaking the parameters extensively, I finally achieved a visual result that met my expectations.

What I learned

During the development of this project, I set myself a series of personal goals that helped me grow. The first goal was choosing the concept. It wasn't easy to find the right setting. I had to work with many types of foliage. Before this project, I had never created something so immersed in nature. Bringing an asset to life and integrating it into the forest gave me a new view. It also gave me a new workflow for making convincing and well-structured scenes.

Certainly, another goal was to avoid repetition. I worked on the wooden planks a lot. I completely removed their repetitiveness. It was relatively straightforward because all I had to do was move, rotate, deform, and change the position of the planks in the UV space. This method became the foundation of my workflow. I create variations to remove repetitiveness (which is boring).

Another goal I achieved was the final scene's rendering. Honestly, I didn't expect to reach this level with such a complex scene. I certainly hoped to do my best, but I truly applied all my knowledge to create something I had never done before. Conveying such a dark mood with a few seconds of video is a total victory for me and a significant step forward in my career. With this project, I managed to set the quality standard I aimed for at the beginning, which continues to be the cornerstone of my artistic growth.

When I develop a concept for a new project, my goal is to surpass the previous one because I enjoy challenges. I am satisfied when I surpass myself, and I already know that the next project will set a new quality standard that I will never want to fall below.

Future Aspirations

What has distinguished my personal and artistic growth is determination and the desire to challenge myself. I love my job and I love creating art; it's the ultimate expression of myself. I hope, perhaps soon or maybe later on, to be able to work in a major video game company as a Level Artist. I believe this will help me grow as an artist, a professional, and as a person because experiences make you more aware of your surroundings, inspire you to create something, and teach you that even when obstacles seem insurmountable, you must be prepared to overcome them in the best possible way.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it engaging and insightful as we explored my creative journey and evolution.

You can find more of Nicola's work on his profile here.