Only One Week Left to Register, Enroll Today!

All articles

Crafting a Modular Greek Scene

Derek Kruk talked about taking CGMA course Organic World Building and broke down the scene created during his training.


Hello, my name is Derek Kruk and I am currently working as a 3D Artist at Wayfair in Boston, MA. I originally come from Columbus, Ohio. I studied at Ohio University, in Game Development. During my time at university, I interned at The Mill, and Jaunt VR as a 3D Artist. From there, I worked at a small company called The Soap Collective, working on a VR experience called Beyond Tokyo. My journey into digital art started in high school, when I was making some short video productions, and then steered more toward digital art when I arrived at University. My love for 3D only started to grow more while I was there, and continued as I interned for The Mill and Jaunt VR.

Taking a CGMA Course

I decided to join this particular CGMA course because I wanted to learn how to create organic environments. Up until this class, I had worked on hard surface environments and props, but I wanted to learn more about industry standards and practices when it came to organic environments. My goals were definitely met after taking the class. The class instructor was Anthony Vaccaro, he shared and provided feedback during the class that allowed me to understand how to make interesting and believable organic environments.


The way I started planning my environment was by gathering reference. It started by deciding the place, time period, season, and scale. My decision to choose ancient Greece was inspired by Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which had just been released before the class started. Due to that, I used a lot of reference from Odyssey and looked up many photos from rural Greece and ancient Greek architecture. The start of the layout was first done as a 2D overhead view to get the idea of where key points of interest would be placed.


To start the block out phase it was starting with very basic shapes of different aspects of the scene in Maya. The idea was to first make sure that the scene layout would make sense to the player. It was important to make sure that the player would understand where to go within the scene, with so many different models and shapes it was important to make sure that the temple, and bridge, were key points of interest of the scene and you could lead the player’s eye to understand how to get there. In order to do this, the focus was on Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary shapes within the scene. The blockout is extremely important when it comes to this scale of the scene. It was easy to get carried away in the blockout phase without truly understanding the amount of work and time it would take as you grow in scale. With 10 weeks for the class, I only had so much time to get everything done and the blockout phase helped me understand the scale of the project. Ways to help with correcting the scale could be focusing on aspects of the scene that the player could relate to such as the bridge and temple. Considering those are man-made objects, it gives the viewer the best sense of scale in the scene in relation to them.


The main form of the terrain was created using UE4 terrain sculpting tools. They were a bit difficult to get used to as they don’t have the greatest amount of control and detail. From there it was utilizing Unreal Engine’s landscape material to blend between each material using their height maps. In order to get the mountains, I used ZBrush to sculpt the high poly mountains and then used marmoset toolbag in order to bake out the normal maps and height maps for the low poly. The rock textures were created using a mix of ZBrush and Substance Designer. Once those were done, it was placing them within the scene and forming the terrain around them in a way that felt natural. It was using the terrain tools to build up layered terrain that felt as if it had been eroded naturally.

Organic Elements

Reference, reference, reference. It was stressed so much by Anthony and there is a reason for it. It is so important to always be using the references for rocks that you had collected. The class helped you identify primary, secondary and tertiary shapes in rocks. It was something that I struggled within the class, and after feedback and help from Anthony, allowed me to better understand and create believable rocks. It is easy to get carried away in the details of the rocks, but really it’s the primary and secondary shapes that help get it across the finish line, and help it feel like a believable rock.

Approaching Modular Buildings

When it comes to creating modular buildings, the pre-planning is extremely important. If that part is not done properly everything starts to break down after that. Breaking down what needs to be separate pieces, the scale of those pieces, and how they snap together is important for a modular piece to work. Breaking up the monotony of pieces is helped by variation in textures and if you can have variation in models that helps as well, but you have to weigh if it’s necessary to create a separate model, or if the variation can be achieved in the texture. To help with the modular environments in the scene is creating enough variation within each piece that they won’t be easy to identify as the same. Getting variation in silhouette from different angles can help with that a lot, as well as, utilizing blend materials to paint variation into each of the assets.


Most of the tileable materials were made using Substance Designer. I used Daniel Thiger’s material tutorials to help me create a lot of my materials within the scene, particularly for the terrain material blends. As for the texture on the temple, it consisted of a few tileable materials created in designer and a trim sheet that I created in ZBrush and then textured in Substance Painter. As for the gradients of the Temple stones, those were generated by blending between 2 variations of the stone material and vertex painting grunge on stones to help further break up the repetitiveness of it.


The lighting of this scene went through a few iterations to get to the point it is in now. I wanted to aim for the scene to be a warm and inviting scene. Somewhere the player would be excited to explore. The biggest challenge was trying to strike a balance between light and shadow so that the details and forms are not lost. For these environments, utilizing a directional light and an HDRI were the main points of lighting for the scene. This scene mainly uses the directional light as the key light for the scene. It gives the main sense of mood and directionality for the scene. I also utilized a few other spotlights to highlight the rock shapes and forms around the waterfall, as well as the temple.


Overall, the course was very beneficial in helping me understand all of the different aspects that go into making an organic environment. Not only the technical side but also the design and layout of what makes an environment exciting for a player to want to explore. The biggest difficulty faced during this project was creating a scene that didn’t get too cluttered and overbearing. It was very easy to spend too much time on one aspect of the scene, as the rocks or foliage, while forgetting how they fit into the bigger picture. Making sure you stick to your references and your original breakdown of the primary, secondary, and tertiary is key. It is easy to make too much of the scene tertiary and secondary shapes and lose the primary shapes in the composition.

Yes, I would love to take another CGMA class in the future. I am not sure which one yet, but Advanced Substance for Environment Art looks like it would be a great class!