Thursday 21 September 2017

From Small to Complex: Level Art in a Box

Alexander Sychov talked about the way he creates exquisite environment art with cardboard boxes in Unreal. This scene is actually available for download at Unreal Marketplace.


Hello, everyone! My name is Alexander Sychov, and I’m a 3D Artist. At the moment, I’m wrapping up my contract as a Senior 3D Artist at Deep Silver Fishlabs in Hamburg, Germany and preparing to transition to a Level Artist position at Ubisoft, Toronto.

I have worked in the game industry since 2006, honing my craft at companies like Crytek Ukraine, Nikitova and Ulysses Games. Some games I’ve worked on are Warface, Crysis 2 & 3, Ryse and others.

I began teaching myself 3D art when I was around 15. As I remember it, my parents bought a used PC that had 3D Studio Max installed on it, and that was my first step towards my dream of making games. From there, I started making mini-games with my friends and animating short amateur video clips with my brothers (who are now professional animators). These passion projects were my art school.

How it started

It all started with an idea that I’ve had for a long time. I’ve always been interested in and eager to learn Unreal Engine, and I knew that the best way to learn would be to dive right in. I decided to create a modular warehouse environment. I had a pretty smooth start at the beginning due to the user-friendly UI, readable documentation, and the volume of super helpful free tutorials on youtube. Pre-production and learning the basics for the Engine were simultaneous and ongoing throughout the project.


My workflow is not anything revolutionary – I use a familiar, conventional approach to level art.

Everything goes from small to big, from primitive to complex. The beginning always starts on paper. In this case, I used Trello to structure and break down the level into stages (block out, rough low-poly, low-poly + UV, high-poly + baking, texturing, asset polishing, level beautification – pipeline might vary in some cases), and smaller tasks, like gathering inspirational materials, videos, screenshots, etc. Enough time was spent on collecting references and putting them together into one library on Pinterest. Also PureRef is perfect to store all essential refs on the one huge sheet.

I always have PureRef opened on top of all windows during blocking out, modeling, texturing, level dressing, or whatever- always. It helps me keep attention to the details, scale, and to get the right immersion, especially when combined with relevant music.

Music is another topic to narrate. I am a huge Half-Life geek, and while I worked, I listened to the OST so that I could imagine the “universe” in which this warehouse might exist, although I listen to different music genres depending on my mood and asset complexity- if it is something technical, I change from rapid music to calm, chill, ambient music to stay focused. If I do fast and creative work, I change my music to Drum and Bass to speed up the workflow to keep me charged up.

Once I have a list of major architecture and prop assets, particularly for this kind of environment, I start modeling in 3DS Max. Since I planned to create a set that would be modular and flexible, there was no need to start doing a basement in the engine. Also important is that I always have reference objects like a human scale body in my scene to have quick, accurate visual measurements of the object I’m modeling. Sometimes I use boxes sized to 1, 2, or 3 meters just so I have a sense of scale.

Once major block out assets are complete, I check them live in the Engine and snap them together. I do this to verify modularity and to ensure that everything snaps properly. This creates little milestones that help me see the bigger picture over time because I can see how the pieces start fitting together. Additionally, I can establish a first lighting pass in order to make the proper mood in the level.

Cardboard boxes

I wanted to be as efficient and as fast as possible to save time, but try to minimize visual fidelity and overall look. It’s a challenge, but I found that it’s possible by working smarter! In some rare cases, it was still a bit tricky to achieve the desired result.

Instead of creating standard high-poly models with support edges from the low-poly model, I tried to modify slightly low-poly mesh (with some extra rounds on the corners where needed) and then put the mesh through ZBrush to apply Dynamesh and polish it with the tools in Deformation scroll.

This workflow worked out pretty well on most of the props (barrels, crates, racks, boxes and other stuff), because I literally didn’t waste time on preparing high-poly that much and if I needed I could always add some wear details in ZBrush. Yes, hard-surface and no support edges on high-poly models!

In the end, I had decent bevels on the normal map.

Creating a diffuse texture was a bit of a process. I admit that I was thinking of using simple cardboard textures from the internet, but after a few tries, I gave up on that idea. Who uses photo textures these days anyway? Not me, thanks. I decided to find some basic free substance materials on the internet and then improve them to my particular specifications. I definitely made the right decision, since this gave me possibilities to control dirtiness, alter the internal structure of the edges of the cardboard, and explore other procedural options. Procedural materials for everyone! Hell yeah!

The next problem to solve as how to get many variations of the boxes into the level. Unfortunately, I didn’t create a blueprint to magically place all the stickers, notes, and shortcuts- I did it by hand during level dressing pass. I prepared a few assembled prefabs of boxes in advance, and after making an extra beautification pass on the level, I tried to tell the warehouse’s story by making all the visible areas look unique and according to my references. In a perfect world, I would have made a blueprint that automates the small details on the boxes. That would’ve been the better way to do it, but I did not do this due to time constraints. Next time, I’ll try to make some blueprints for sure!


The main direction were real-life references of warehouses that I collected at the beginning of the project. One thing I really liked in the references was having this super clean and tidy warehouse floor and surrounding environment, so my goal was to have it “like new”, but with some slightly visible wear and tear.

Also, I really liked to create bright color combinations to make it pop, particularly yellow and blue, which I used ended up using in the entry facility interior. What really helps to make the picture balanced is to use opposing colors and brightness differentials to distinguish the floor, ceilings, and walls. This visual trick is very handy to scale up the attractiveness of the level, and gives the player a good overview in the level by preventing them from being lost in a mass of warehouse details. Aside from the color scheme, I used light and properly arranged assets to enhance the aesthetics of the environment.

Substance Designer & Painter

At the same time I was learning UE4, I was also exploring Substance products like Designer, which I wanted to use to create several essential materials like polished concrete floor, and different metals for the warehouse’s walls and ceilings. (They can be downloaded here for free).

I spent the most time creating the floor because this is one of the most visible parts in the warehouse theme. I had to get used to the new Substance Designer workflow, which also took up some time. I knew the power of Designer, but couldn’t use it at full range due to my lack of experience with it, but I think after chipping away at it, I was able to get the results I wanted. And again, it really helped to have references on top of the screen at all times, catching my eyes and reminding me what I wanted the warehouse to look like.

I made most of the textures for the props and architecture assets in Substance Painter. Basically, for all crates, barrels, buckets, and other related props, I took a default plastic material from the library and created a custom Smart material where I stored a few levels of dirtiness and wear such that when I applied it to the asset, I could select which type of effect I wanted (low dust, heavy dust; plastic scratches, paint dots). As you may have noticed, some of the plastic objects are not completely new, but rather variations of small details, like wear.

One thing I decided to have on hand while texturing props in Substance Painter is a set of alpha masks with different text variations. The collection grew as the project went on. These were generic texts used to “simulate” the imaginary production and use for the assets- I wanted to bring as much realism and authenticity to the assets as possible.

Project Materials

Being relatively new to UE4, I’d say the master materials set up I created in the materials editor were not as complex and unique as I would have wished for. However, there is one thing I implemented almost everywhere, which was to change the color by using grayscale masks and a correlating colormask (RGB and black mask in the alpha channel) if the object had different material types. I am really happy how it worked out! After having the proper set up, I prepared a set of instance materials with different colors for each asset so that during level dressing I could change it to any color I wanted on the fly.

This is how the basic master material looks:

There are a few materials that different slightly (props, architecture, decals, signage, etc). I made adjustments to the roughness parameters to create create glossier or rougher asset materials.

I found this very helpful in designing different areas of the level, especially making the floor surfaces “wet” and “clean”.


Since there is no directional source of light, I decided to make the key lighting mostly by using Spot Lights placed above every ceiling lamp. The focus was mainly on creating “artificial” lighting look. Furthermore, I didn’t hesitate to use simple point lights (static, without shadows) to fake illumination in dark corners where I noticed low visibility.

To create contrast, I employed different environment artist trickery. Specifically, for the closed passage area, I used “warm” lighting just to make it look different from the other “colder” locations. In addition, most of the surrounding props were changed to a similar color pallet (yellow racks, for instance), along with weathered warehouse wall materials to create significant visual patterning.

Another trick I used was to accurately highlight details throughout the levels, like signage, numbers and letterings by using the same spot lights.

I had to fiddle with the SkyLight actor, which had a minor, but still visible impact on the scene. I added an Atmospheric Fog element to have the dusty sort of look, which helped to underscore the “emptiness” of the negative spaces between the numerous prop clusters.


In this project, one of the challenges for me was to manage modularity and the interconnection between the assets. It was all I could do to keep myself from adding even more walls, rooms, and corridors.

Another challenge was to adjust the baked lighting in the level, which I feel I probably could have spent way more time perfecting.

Because only right now I finally got familiar how baked lighting works and how to manage baking time more efficiently. For instance, merging some modular parts on the level like walls into combined groups (entire ceiling may be as one mesh) will reduce time for baking lightmaps significantly. I spent a bit of time on the Unreal forums getting answers for lightmap baking but I highly recommend taking a look at it if you have any questions yourself. 

Even when I reached the end of the project, that is, with all the requirements satisfied, I was left with a feeling of “incompleteness”. Like all artists, I knew that I could polish the it endlessly, but I thought it better to be disciplined as save some creative (and physical energy) for the next environment.

The goal I set for myself was to learn how to apply my years of environment design to Unreal. With project planning, the right inspirations, and a healthy dollop of elbow grease, I succeeded in making the warehouse set modular, customizable, and usable in UE4. I am grateful and proud to be able to share the product, as well as the process by which it was created, with you. I hope that by reading this article, you might be inspired to capitalize on your potential too.

If you’re interested in seeing more of my work, you can check out my artstation.

If you want to use my assets in your upcoming products, or if you just want the best view of the asset in a custom scene, you can find them available in the marketplace.

As a final note, I’d like to give a quick thank you to friends and colleagues that have help me with their constructive feedback, inspiration, and encouragement, including my fellow 3D artists Denis Novikov, Denis Rutkovsky, and Cyrill Vitkovskiy, and game designer Phillip Chan.

Alexander Sychov, Senior 3D Artist at Deep Silver FISHLABS

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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