This tutorial was written by the amazing Clinton Crumpler and appeared in issue 104 of 3D Artist
Unreal Engine 4
Here we will discuss how to create mood and visual storytelling in UE4. Understanding how to craft a visual style and story can help you to create intense moods or to provoke a particular emotion from the viewer.
We will look at creating key visual story elements in the scene to help establish lighting, history, time, place, wear, damage and other characteristics. In order to make an impact on viewers, visual artists need to be able to establish a visual background story. Knowledge of the elements that help craft this story is important for any visual artists wanting to impact the viewer.
We will also examine the use of post-processing settings in Unreal to achieve mood through colour and value. Using Photoshop to process our image and establishing a lookup table (LUT) will help to form the colour palette for our whole scene, with a focus on custom shadow and highlight colours.
Step 01 – Establish the camera’s view
When creating a foundation for your mood and story, perspective is key to getting the right viewpoint. Try to think about where and how the viewer sees the scene. Are they right in the thick of things, seeing the view in a first-person perspective, or are they a distant viewer watching from the outside? Is the gameplay third person or first person? You will need to understand their perspective in order to create mood and ambience. It will also help you to tailor your scene and decide on level of asset detail.
Step 02 – Test multiple camera key shots
Place a few camera actors in your scene to establish a couple of key shots. Find what you want to focus on and what areas you want your viewer to see (or not see). Sometimes, alluding to more information off-camera can establish a mystery to be discovered and can provide much more visual interest and depth to your composition. Looking at the same area with a different perspective through the camera’s view can provide you with a radically better composition. You can take direct view of a camera placed in the scene by Ctrl/right-clicking it and selecting Pilot Camera.
Step 03 – Change the aspect ratio and FOV
When using the camera settings, you will find that increasing your aspect ratio to 2 or higher and lowering the default field of view from 90 to a value between 50 and 80 will provide a more realistic and cinematic look. This is different than what a player will typically use in a gameplay mode, but it provides a less distorted perspective of the environment for cutscenes and portfolio work.
Step 04 – Add life into the scene
Real-time animation and dynamic changes in your scene can also provide clues about what’s happening. Moving flags, flickering lights and neons, and animated monitors, for example, can all sell different ideas and themes. Using simple material tricks, such as vertex offset and emissive changes, can often provide big visual impact at a small cost.
Step 05 – Use varying material types
Try varying the types of surfaces in your scene. The newest games, using a PBR workflow, utilise all bells and whistles to make their visuals look good. Using various types of materials, such as metals, plastics, wood, concrete, plaster, ceramic and others, can help to sell the believability of the scene, illustrating the different ways the light plays off each surface.
Step 06 – Work with lighting before post-processing
It can sometimes be hard to wait until the end of your design to begin working with post-processing in Unreal, but delaying it will prevent it from muddling your final results. Work with lighting first and then do test builds to make sure you have a good composition and range of contrast values throughout your scene before moving on. Post-processing should strictly be the icing on the cake, not a device used to cover up a hastily made environment.
Step 07 – Establish a colour palette
List out all the films or other visual media you have seen that have a similar context and feel to that which you want to create. Pull a frame from a film or game that inspires you and use a basic Gaussian Blur on the image in Photoshop until there are a few colours remaining. Doing so provides a good framework for your colour palette. You can then use this palette to establish everything in the scene from the paint on the wall to the colour of the lighting.
Step 08 – Define the space with lighting
Lighting is sometimes an underused tool for environment artists, but it can be your biggest ally. Let the lighting help define the space. Be sure to allow each light in your scene to breathe, with enough space to see breaks or rests in high and low-contrast values. Try testing with Lighting Only mode or Detail Lighting to see the best results. Shape your assets and props with framing lights to push the sense of 3D space. You can change to Detail Lighting or Lighting Only under the View Modes options.
Step 09 – Establish visual priority
When placing lights, use the overall lighting value to define importance within any given shot. Using a range from brightest to weakest to establish visual priority or inverting light colours compared to your overall scene will provide focus to the viewer. For instance, if your scene is cool-coloured, try a warm light to draw more attention. Then you can cool the less important lights to make them blend into the environment more. Volumetric effects and meshes around lights can also really draw attention from the viewer to add heavier feeling to the lit areas.
Step 10 – Bake lighting with Lightmass
Do not forget to place and surround your scene with a Lightmass volume. Doing so allows the light bake to compute properly for all the assets and actors contained within the volume. Also, when baking and building lighting for your scene, start with lower-quality settings of preview. This view speeds lighting production time and allows for quicker iterations and faster results. For the best results, make sure to use production-quality lighting at the end.
Step 11 – Work with Stationary Lights
Using lights to highlight material attributes will breathe life into your scene. A baked lighting scene using only point lights can sometimes begin to look flat once the scene is built and baked. Stationary Lights include features from both static and dynamic lights that provide for interesting lighting options. Sometimes, when using a Stationary Light, you can create nice glints on surfaces and materials that bounce light to provide more visual interest. Another tactic is to face the light towards the camera at an acute angle to provide a nice reflection from the camera’s perspective. Remember to tweak the Shadow Bias and Filter Sharpen for good contact shadows.
Step 12 – Check the scene’s values
Try to keep your scene’s light and dark values from hitting the extremes. Avoid pure black shadows or pure white lighting. This not only allows more visibility in your scene, but also allows for more control when altering contrast or colours during the post-processing stages. Using the Post Process Volume in your scene, you can simply reduce the Saturation to 0, which allows you to easily see all values across the environment.
Step 13 – Add lights to taste
While setting up lighting, for a darker-style room like this one you may have areas of your scene that are too dark to read. While contrast is nice, try to keep most your lighting values balanced by adding fill lights to suit your visual taste. If you keep them small and with a softer falloff with their aim pointing from the direction of a light source, generally the visual will hold up and the mind’s eye will fill in the blanks that the light must be coming from one of the main lights in the scene.
Step 14 – Work in small increments
Once you begin working with the Post Process Volume, remember to make small changes at a time. Almost all of the controls in this Volume can have a dramatic impact on the overall visual for your scene. Take and save screenshots, and make notes of the changes made to achieve the look throughout the process. Oftentimes, you may realise that you have gone too far or prefer an earlier look. Maintaining history on your various looks can make it much easier to get back and also help you to understand the settings for the next time you create a scene and use the Post Process Volume.
Step 15 – Add scene colour options
Some of the quickest wins for Post Process Volumes are in the settings under the Scene Color options. Scene Color Tint, Vignetting, Fringe, and Grain can all make nice additions to the scene. Remember to use these in moderation, as they can quickly overpower and cheapen the look of your environment. I recommend a value of no greater than 0.5 for the Fringe or the Vignette Intensity, depending on the mood you are trying to achieve. This will add just a touch of camera effects for a more cinematic look.
Step 16 – Create and use a look up table (LUT)
Look up tables are one of the most efficient tools when working with post-processing. They can change the overall mood and look of a scene quickly along with using Photoshop tools to do it. Using the default LUT from the Unreal documentation, you can apply Levels, Curves, Filter, Contrast, Brightness and many other effects in Photoshop to alter the colour values throughout your scene. This should be left until very last, as it will change the colours and values of your scene from final tweaks.
Step 17 – Camera depth of field
When setting up depth of field for your camera, using the newer ‘CircleDOF’ method can provide the most convincing and real-world camera. When using this method, the two most important controls in the post-process settings are the Aperture F-stop and the Focal Distance. The F-stop controls the amount of information entering the lens, while the focal distance controls how far your main point of focus is from the camera. Use Show>Visualize>Depth Of Field Layers to enable an Unreal view mode to pinpoint the exact distance of where you want to focus in the scene.