Smokescapes - Subsurface City
Updated 2 months ago
Here's my entry for the Neon Challenge

My name is Stuart Lee, I've been an environment artist in the games industry since 2008 working on a number of PC games for various studios and recently as a freelance artist and indie developer. I worked on my entry for Neon Challenge alone, and made almost everything in the scene from scratch myself, except for the the VFX and skybox. All assets used in the scene are listed below.
The starting point for my scene were the 'Smokescapes' concepts by Georgi Simeonov. I really liked that they challenge the common image of what sci-fi looks like i.e. everything is made of metal and panels and pipes/cables everywhere. There is a great sense of history and age in the concepts, and they're an intriguing mix of 'otherworldly' and familiar at the same time - I live in England so I can see chimney stacks out of my window, but the monolithic scale in these images takes them to another place. There are more concepts in the same series on Georgi's ArtStation portfolio and I looked at them all for inspiration, as well as checking out some other games such as Overwatch (I like the bold use of shapes and colours) and Horizon Zero Dawn for the great mix of technology, history and natural environments.
The story I came up with was that on this world there is snow all year round, but in the winter it gets so cold that most people migrate inwards towards the core where it's warmer. The main building in my scene is the entrance to transport system that takes people down below the surface. To reinforce the story I wanted to give the impression of going downwards, so the entrance is at the lowest point in the scene and everything funnels down towards it. There was going to be an interior, like the entrance to a subway station with gates and an elevator, but since winter has arrived already (and I needed to finish before the deadline!) the doors have already been sealed ;)
Production Process
After the initial inspiration from the concepts above I had a look at a lot of other reference, including other games such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Destiny, Star Citizen, Overwatch and other concept art of both sci-fi and historical/fantasy environments.
After deciding on the story and focus for the scene, I made a rough block out to get the scale, proportions and layout right. The exact layout changed a few times during the process, but the main focus of the central building and entrance remained.
I wanted to keep the massive stone buildings very similar to the concept. The thing I like about them is they're so massive and bold, so I didn't want to sub-divide them and break up the surface with too many other features and details. I decided to go with modelling them in Zbrush to get all the large, unique details in the model, rather than using a tiling texture. I was a bit worried about the resolution of the textures and the size of the stacks so I chose the one that's split into sections, so I could have one texture set for each section and the resolution would be better overall. Also being split into four parts means I can rotate them and mix & match the pieces to make them look unique in the level, so other than the main building I only had to make one complete stack which I reused for the whole scene. The chimneys and bolt plates were modeled separately so that they can be placed individually to give more unique details in the scene.
The texturing for the whole scene was done with a mixture of Photoshop and Substance Painter. For the stacks I got the normal, AO and curvature maps from the Zbrush high-poly using Substance Painter, then hand painted in Photoshop the base colour using some custom splatter brushes and colours picked directly from the original concept. I added the AO map at a very low transparency, which I also tinted to a contrasting colour (red in this case) to emphasise the larger cracks/corners in the model. I used the curvature map (also tinted to a contrast colour) and set to blend using only the darkest areas to emphasise the cracks in the surface. I then used another copy of the curvature map and set it to 'screen' blend and low opacity to highlight the edges. The whole thing then went back to Substance Painter to paint out any seams. I added the carved symbols on the stacks later, using a combination of hand painted symbols in Photoshop and a normal map created from those symbols using nDo, which I blended over the base normal map. This allowed me to try out a number of different symbols easily without altering the original normal map, and I can always go back to the clean base if I need to since everything is in layers.
Originally I was going to have an interior for the main building and made a start on modelling that. I realised I wouldn't have time to finish everything before the deadline so I had to make the decision to cut it (it's still in the work in progress section below). I took what was going to be the elevator door and turned it into the entrance door instead. I was looking forward to the contrast between the cold, harsh exterior environment with the warmer, more enclosed space inside so to keep a bit of that I brought some of the set dressing outside, including the neon lights which seem to give warmth as well as light to the entrance area.
The other main element in the scene is the snow. I decided the fill in the area directly in front of the entrance rather than having a bridge, and built up the snow all around to cover the area. I recycled parts of the bridge as floor panels and the support pillars became the mini stacks with vents on either side of the pathway. The snow itself was made using Unity terrain so I could get the snow piled up exactly where I wanted it, interacting with the floor panels, steps and other parts of the environment. I then exported the terrain and brought it back into the scene as a model (deleting the unseen parts) so I could use a PBR material on it and get the nice sparkles in the snow. The material on the snow is a Standard (specular set up) material, with some pure white dots in the gloss map to catch the light.
For the snow on the stacks and other props, I used a snow accumulation shader from Amplify Shader. There was already an example shader for this included in the asset. Since some of my models were massive and some quite small I needed a little extra control over the falloff of the blend between snow and base textures so I added a 'power' node to the existing shader so I could sharpen or smooth it out as required for each model.
The snow VFX in the scene were based on effects from the Ultimate VFX asset. I tweaked them a little to fit the size and scale of my scene/camera view points. There are two versions, one for the opening shot which is more narrow and vertical, and one for the wide shot. The scale of the particles and the overall width/spread of the effect is a little different on each one. They are both attached to the camera, and using Timeline I activated/deactivated them to match the camera cuts.
Lighting in the scene is all real time. It's a fairly simple lighting set up and it's mostly a wide, exterior shot so I didn't need to spend too much time with lights. There is one main directional light, which matches up with the sun position/direction in the skybox and is mostly obscured by the main building. Then there are a few small point lights to fill in the entrance area, one each for the small, portable lamps and the red lights above the door for colour contrast with the overall blue of the environment.
Post processing was also fairly simple, I used Bloom and some colour grading, mostly to reduce the overall temperature (it's very cold on this planet, remember?!) and of course some distance fog and AA.
The use of Timeline and Cinemachine in the scene is quite straighforward - I'm using three dolly camera tracks, one vertical for the opening shot, then two pushing forward for the other angles. The real benefit of using Timeline/Cinemachine for these simple camera shots was that once they were set up I could very easily adjust the timing of the movement, amount of movement along the path and the cuts between them very easily in one place. It also really helped at the very end once I'd already recorded what I thought was the final movie clip, I decided at the last minute to add some music (should have thought about that earlier!) and having found some music I liked (from Jon Hillman Media on the Asset Store) I was able to very quickly go back and re-time the cameras/cuts to fit with the beats of the music.
I recorded the video with the Recorder asset from Unity. There are quite a lot of options in the settings, I tested them all and found these to be the best for me...
It's very straight forward and seamless to record with this asset and using Timeline, it just worked together seamlessly so that was one less thing to worry about!
Assets, Tools, Plugins
  • Cinemachine, Post Processing Stack, Recorder - Unity
  • Amplify Shader Editor - Amplify Creations
  • SSAO Pro - Thomas Hourdel
  • Ultimate VFX - Mirza Beig
  • AllSky (skybox) - rpgwhitelock
  • Into the Fire (music) - Jon Hillman Media
  • ScreenShooter - Borodar
Ok that's all! I've had a great time working on this challenge, I learned some new features in Unity (Timeline and Cinemachine) and finally got round to doing some work in Zbrush which I'd not really done before. Overall a great experience and I'm very happy with what I managed to do in the time. Now I just need to finish that interior...

Work In Progress Logs:
UPDATE 05 (12/01/18)
Small update because I'm still super busy! I realised I wasn't going to have enough time to finish everything I had planned to a good enough quality, so I decided to cut the interior of the building. It's disappointing because I really liked the interior, but I can finish it another time and I really need to get finished! The exterior is coming along well though, I made a few adjustments to the layout of the area in front of the main building, removing the bridge and using the parts of it to make the ground and using more snow to break it up. I love the snow accumulation shader on the props!
I still need to do a bit of set dressing, VFX and lighting and then set up the camera animations. And whatever time left for a final polish...

UPDATE 04 (04/01/18)
I've been working on making the big stone 'stacks'. They're modelled in Zbrush and textured mostly in PS, here's a screenshot of them set up in Unity. All the pieces are modular (each stack section, the chimney pieces and bolts) so I can do many variations with them. I still need to add the unique symbols to the stack and numbers on the chimneys, but I'll do that once I have the whole scene set up. The screenshot shows the low poly with normal map on the left, textured and props added on the right. I've also been working on some shaders using Amplify Shader. There is a snow accumulation one in the samples already so I'll probably make use of that on most of the assets in the outside area.

UPDATE (03 - 29/12/17)
I've been working on getting the modelling complete and set up in Unity. I have spent a bit more time on this stage because I want to make sure I'm happy with it before I start on unwrapping and texturing.
I ended up moving most of the detail into the interior, and keeping the exterior more simple, since the idea is that the outside environment is quite cold and hostile, so there would be more activity in the interior spaces. It makes for a nice contrast too, along with the lighting change from outside to inside - the outside is cold and desolate, the inside is warmer and.. if not cozy, at least warmer and a bit more inviting.
Everything is set up in Unity now, and I've done a quick pass of lighting to get the overall look going. Lots more to do though!

UPDATE (02 - 23/12/17)
I've mostly been working on adding detail to the models, and reworked/added the interior. I think there is going to be more interior now than I originally planned, it will be more visible at least, even if the camera doesn't end up going all the way inside. The earlier versions had stairs going down almost immediately inside, but from a distance the interior was a bit of a hole and didn't catch the lighting very well so I've flattened it out and put what could be a big elevator door in there. In front of that are some kind of gates/barriers which would help funnel people into lines to enter the elevator, a bit like at a subway station.
I've spent quite a bit of time on the modelling, putting all the details into the mesh, but the plan is to have more detail in the mesh and then use simpler/bold textures and materials rather than unique textures for everything.
I updated the exterior a bit too, with a bridge in the foreground which leads to the entrance.

It's a small update, but here is some more work on my scene...
I've worked on the overall layout a bit more, and while I might adjust a few things I think I'm pretty much set on the main focus being the entrance to the underground which is inside one of the stacks, and there being some kind of bridge/walkway in front of it.
I put the blockout into Unity to have a quick look with some basic lighting... it's definitely a work in progress! I want to get some dramatic light coming across the scene, with the sun being low in the sky as it is in winter, leaving the entrance in the shadows to emphasis the red/orange glow of the lighting coming from inside.
And I've made a start on some details for the entrance...

I chose the 'Smokescapes' series of concepts by Georgi Simeonov as my starting point. I like them a lot because they show a different take on sci-fi where everything isn't made of metal with panel lines, pipes and cables everywhere. Also there are several images in the series which gives a nice overview of what the world could be like, so that I can create my own corner within it, rather than a literal interpretation of an existing concept.
The architecture looks quite primitive on the surface, but there's more going on underneath, which ties in neatly with the story I came up with for my scene:
My scene is going to show an entry point for the migrating population to head down into the subterranean city. The general idea is that the outside world is quite harsh and often uninhabitable with a lot of snow and sub-zero temperatures, so the architecture outside is encased in large blocks of stone to insulate from the elements. Below the surface it's warmer and there's a lot more down there than we can see from outside.
I've been working on blockouts of a few areas and buildings, trying to find the right spot to concentrate on and get the location and composition to something I'm happy with before moving on to more details.
Since the focus will be an entrance to the inner core of the planet, it makes sense that it would be built at the lowest point on the ground so, as great as the wide shot with the bridge and big vista is, it doesn't really fit with the story I'm trying to tell.
I ended up with something that seems more sunken into the ground, with the stacks rising up around it and the snow starting to drift in around the edges. The circular vents allow heat up from below, causing clouds of vapor and melting the snow around them.

Stuart Lee
Stuart Lee
2 months ago
Ray LowengardI'm liking those rock towers. You captured the concept art really well, I think!
Thanks very much! They're so massive, I wasn't sure if they'd turn out well. They just need a final texture pass to put the symbols and unique details in :)
Ray Lowengard
2 months ago
Game Developer - Artist
I'm liking those rock towers. You captured the concept art really well, I think!
Stuart Lee
3 months ago
Denis MikhalevLooks nice
Thanks! :)
Denis Mikhalev
3 months ago
Dreamer - Other
Looks nice