Jake Dunlop is an Environment Artist from Victoria, Australia, who has worked on notable projects such as neon-soaked arena brawler Hyper Jam, and futuristic combat racer GRIP. Jake graduated from Melbourne’s Academy of Interactive Entertainment in 2016, and is currently a freelance artist. Speaking to ENVISION, Jake spoke about his career path and showcased his ‘Rainforest Cavern’ project that was completed part time, over a 6 month period:
Where did your inspiration for working within the games industry come from?
I knew I wanted to have a job in the games industry ever since I started High School. I remember teachers always taking my drawing books away from me (because I spent to much time drawing in class). My Careers teacher came up to me one day with all my books and told me that I should keep drawing and being creative. She suggested that I aim to go to the Academy of Interactive Entertainment after high school and pursue a career in the games industry. I thought this was amazing, I constantly went to holiday programs at the Academy, took online courses there and even convinced my principal to let me do a custom subject through the academy in Year 11. After completing Year 12 I was accepted and did my two year course there and it’s been helpful ever since.
What inspired you to pursue your Rainforest Cavern project, and what did you want to achieve?
I started this project to further my photo-scanning skills and show them off in a similar way that ArtByRens does. I loved how his small scenes were so real looking and therefore I was very inspired. I ended out rendering this image as a test and thought I’d turn it into a portfolio piece.
But after a little while, I thought maybe I should turn it into something bigger, and that’s exactly what happened.
Can you go into a bit of the pre-production. Why this particular art direction and what research was undertaken to make the final piece of work?
The reason I went for a realistic style is because I have such a massive passion for realism. I researched the project by figuring out how to light and render really well. That sort of consisted of some searching through forums and just testing things out in general. I have heaps of Unreal Engine 4 knowledge already stored in my head so after finding the missing pieces it was all about putting them together.
There was never an all over plan for the project. I just went with the flow, it turned from a little scene focusing on the detail of some plants I 3D scanned and then it turned into a full on environment and then even a video.
What were some of your key considerations?
The biggest consideration I had was to destroy the scene and redesign the composition with some more sharper rocks. It was a great choice and I benefited greatly in the end but it was tough getting rid of it all and only keeping my lighting and materials.
The finished environment is looks amazing. What stages were made to ensure this and did you face any challenges during this process?
When working on the cliffs in particular I used some megascans of mossy rocks. They were alright, but the shape and roundness of them made the scene way too smooth. After creating the whole scene with these rocks I was not happy with it. It didn’t really look like much and I knew that if I played around with scale and possibly had sharper rocks then it might look a little nicer composition wise. This is when I decided to rip it up and start the scene again.
I had to figure out the best ways to speed up the development process on this piece. In the end I decided to stop scanning my own textures and models and quickly get them from somewhere. I already had a couple megascans assets in the project so I continued to gather assets from there.
For the rocks, I went back onto megascans and the best rock that fit the scene was this nice flat sandstone rock. But it was sandstone, So I knew I had to really heavily edit it for it to work out for this scene. This is the difference I ended up with:
That’s a nice lesson for anyone who uses megascans too, it’s not ever simply download a model and it’s perfect, you’ll always have to change settings of some form.
How did you manage to create such highly detailed textures? What decisions did you have to make the ensure this quality was achieved?
I’ll start with explaining the big one, the moss/wet rock material. With this one I started with a regular material, but as I worked further on in the scene I kept adding to it. I firstly added some moss textures that I found on megascans and edited them in substance designer to either create a better normal, AO and displacement map. I masked those with a vertex colour node plugged into a height lerp node. This blends the textures together depending on the height from each height map and what’s great about it is you can use the resulting alpha mask to plug into extra lerps to blend all of your other textures.
I used a slightly different version of that vertex texture blending technique on the rain streaks that go down the rock and the wetness. With those I didn’t need to blend with height so I just used simple lerp nodes with the vertex colour plugged into the alpha input.
Adding all of these tileable textures/ effects help make the material as a whole more diverse and detailed. Below is the end result after painting a spot of each colour:
The final video of the project really speaks for itself. How was this achieved?
The video was simple enough to choose camera angles and setup all of those in sequencer.
But the real problem you’ll have when making a video is when exporting. You’ll have a lot of issues everytime you render. But I can give a couple tips I’ve gathered so far on ways to help UE4 render your video correctly.
1. Don’t use the video export setting, it severely downgrades the gamma and quality of your scene.
2. In that case, always render as images and compose them in your favourite video editing software. I use PNGs.
3. Don’t bother with audio because even if you decide to go with the bad quality video export option I haven’t even gotten it to work.
4. Always have a value in the frame warmup count to let physics/particles and animations to start early (unless you don’t want this effect).
5. You’ll most likely not have to do this but because of the way distance field AO works it sometimes takes a couple seconds to settle down when switching cameras. The way I waited for it to settle down was to actually render an extra 20 frames at the start of the shot for each individual shot. (I was rendering at 60fps but if you’re rendering at 30fps then only around 10 extra frames are needed)
6. As soon as you click render don’t touch your computer at all until it’s done. I’m not sure why but Unreal Engine 4 can very easily corrupt your images, make the depth of field change values and screw up other important things as soon as you do something on your computer.
Now for one positive tip: you can render your scene at 4K and downsample it in your video editing software to get much nicer crisper details. I didn’t end up doing that myself as I uploaded the video at 4K. That does take longer to upload but I think it’s the better option.
Is this environment game ready? What considerations were made to ensure this and could it be optimised?
Yes the environment is game ready. I could throw in a first person BP and it would be all fine. Considerations I made to get this would have mostly been the choice to not tessellate the rocks, not including a planar reflection, not using shadow cascades, not super-sampling, I only had 12 fog sheets along the ground when I could have had much more and finally I only used one reflection capture as most of the surfaces were quite rough.
Some optimisations I can think of would be lowering the amount of shadow cascades, lowering my texture resolutions (they are all 4K), packing my texture maps (I didn’t do this for the only reason being that it would take a huge amount of time, so I cut it) and lastly one more thing I would do to optimise would most likely be to put all of my moss foliage on the rocks in Maya and not in the engine. It would decrease the amount of meshes dramatically.
Are there any tips you’d like to give for people aiming to achieve such a high standard of work?
1. You should make the choice to go to Uni for this job or not. Always remember you can online just as well as you can in Uni, its just the Uni will cost you!
2. Sit at your favourite artist’s portfolio for hours, study some of their work, really look into it and try your absolute best to figure out how it was made, technically and artistically. Once you can do that you can make anything. Go copy their work and you’ll gather a bit more of an understanding about how they made it. (Always think back to this if you can, it will help you out enormously).
If you’d like to check out more of Jake Dunlop’s work, you can do so at: https://www.artstation.com/jakedunlop