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Crafting a Japanese Fantasy Environment

Michał Baca talked about his Japanese Fantasy Environment made for the recent ArtStation Challenge: blockout, rock and vegetation workflows in ZBrush and 3ds Max, lighting in UE4.


Hello, my name is Michał Baca, I’m Junior Environment Artist at People Can Fly from Poland. It has been a long time since my last article which was about my previous project (Cyberpunk City Alley). During the last year, I was working with a small team from Łódź, Poland called Render Cube Games, and I was working on their game called Monster League which is available on Steam early access. Now I just started working in People Can Fly as a Junior Environment Artist.

Japanese Fantasy Environment

First Stage: Idea, Reference, Blockout

After my previous project, I decided that my next would be an organic environment because I wanted to practice this type of environments. Main idea was to create a scene like World of Warcraft Mists of Pandaria cinematic which was my first inspiration.

I started collecting references from Pinterest, Google, ArtStation, etc. and planning the scene. When I had the idea of what I wanted to achieve, I started the blockout phase during which the scene was changing a couple of times.

The blockout phase took me more time than usual because I was looking for that perfect match of architecture, lights and rocks formations. Feedback from friends was very helpful because they could take a look on the project with a fresh eye and tell how it was starting to look or if something was wrong.

With a good blockout which can take some time in case of big scenes, I divide the scene into parts and plan modular assets for building up the environment. The first stage is the most important one because a good concept and blockout are base for creating good-looking environments.


In the case of rocks, I wanted to create some nice variations and use them as modular pieces. It was a perfect solution for this environment with cliffs, valleys and rock structures. So I created a couple of variations of rocks including vertical and horizontal for planned composition.

My workflow for rocks starts with blocking out basic shapes based on references. Sculpting starts from big details to small, everything is done in ZBrush. In this case, I did not created small details on high poly because I wanted to use tiled textures for material and detail.

I created two materials in Substance Designer for texturing this rocks, one is from photogrammetry and the second is fully made in Designer. In Unreal, I mixed these materials with curvature and moss with World Aligned Blend function.


For all the small vegetation like grass, bushes, vines or branches of the trees I create high poly in 3ds Max or ZBrush with textures from scans or Substance Designer and render them into 2D textures in V-Ray.

My workflow for trees start in ZBrush with ZSpheres: I’m creating a basic shape based on references, and when I’m happy with the result I make a low poly Adaptive Skin and export this to 3ds Max.

In Max, I create UV for the tree and add some more geometry where needed. Next, I create branches with textures baked in V-Ray and arrange them on the tree. When the model is finished I’m checking normals of the branches and bake AO on vertex color of the model. For the bark, I use tileable textures with vertex paint of the moss or some details for texture in Unreal.

For the color variation of the leaves on the trees, I created a mask for branches and used it in Unreal to set custom colors variations.


The temple buildings were planned to be constructed from modular pieces. I crafted them in 3ds Max based on the concepts and blockout. The temple structure had to match the rock structures and create a consistent composition. To finish the composition, I also added some medium details like lamps to light up the building in the shadow and some ivy. The building was designed to be viewed from a distance so it isn’t detailed that much.

Tileable materials the for temple were created in Substance Designer. In Unreal, I created material instances for color variation of wood.


Planning the lighting for this scene took me a lot of time and tests, and I kept checking references and concepts. I wanted to achieve an afternoon golden hour lighting with warm colors and volumetric lighting interacting with the trees.

The main scene lights were directional light and skylight with some fill lights in a few places. For GI, I enabled Light Propagation Volumes and experimented with settings to achieve a nice look.

The most challenging part of this environment was lighting because the scene was huge and had a lot of trees, foliage and particles. It took me some time to get the desired look. Light Propagation Volumes with some fill lights were a perfect solution to achieve the final result.

Michał Baca, Junior Environment Artist at People Can Fly

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Post tags: 3d art, 3DS Max, Artstation Challenge, environments, Feudal Japan, gamedev, indiedev, ZBrush

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