Only One Week Left to Register, Enroll Today!

All articles

Temple in the Mountains

Emily Henderson discusses her environment Up Top made for the Organic World Building in UE4 course taught by Anthony Vacarro.


My name is Emily Henderson.  I’m from Los Angeles, California, but currently live in Austin, Texas, and work for Bioware on Star Wars: The Old Republic Onslaught.

Joining a CGMA Course

The Up Top project was made at CGMA course Organic World Building mentored by Anthony Vacarro. My main goal was to learn how to build a world on a larger scale.  I made small scenes and environments before but didn’t try anything large. When I play games I tend to really get into the organic levels so I was quite interested in learning more about the production.

Up Top

Choosing a Concept

I often look at works by concept artists to gather ideas and inspiration for new projects, and  I came across a project by Stanton Feng that really inspired me. It reminded me of the floating mountains in China. The scale in the concept piece was far too large for me to replicate during  Anthony’s course, so I decided to make my own rough concept based on Stanton’s work.

Blockout & Modularity

This landscape starts as a very blocky blockout. Generally, I’ll use spheres for rocks and cylinders for trees. Using these blocks I build up a general idea of the space and the player path. I set up a foreground, middle ground, and background. Unreal has a pretty good landscape tool that I use to build up a base ground in these areas.

Modularity is very handy for making larger scenes.  The entire level is made with just a few different shaped rocks. The key is making each rock look very different from all the angles. That way they can be repeated in the level several times without the repetition being very noticeable.


I always build levels from largest to smallest details, so naturally, after I make the rocks I move on to the trees and foliage. I sculpt and poly paint a high poly branch and leaves in ZBrush. ZBrush has a handy tool (ZGrab) that allows me to grab images from the viewport and export them as a Photoshop document. From Photoshop, I edit and make the needed texture sheets. I actually explained my whole process in the previous 80.lv article that featured me!  It’s a very useful technique I learned at CGMA. After making these sheets I form my geo in Maya starting with the smallest branch and working my way up to the large branches that get attached directly to the base trunk.  Making the trunk “live” in Maya allows me to quickly attach each branch accordingly.

Color is generally added at the beginning during the ZBrush phase, but I have also created some shaders in Unreal that allow for very quick changes and iterations for just about anything in my scene. Unreal, like many other engines, has a very nice foliage tool that allows me to quickly populate or reduce trees through painting.  This allows me to make very fast changes to the level if I want to.


The water plane and shader actually come from one of the free sample scenes in the Epic Games store (“Water Planes” and “Particle Effects”). I am currently trying to learn VFX in my spare time to make a water shader and waterfall particles of my own.


Lighting was a huge hurdle. This is the first large-scale level I’ve made and there were a lot of technical challenges I ran into. The direct light takes care of the main shadows, allowing for new shapes to be formed by shadows and negative space.  Spotlights are the next step, I highlighted the important areas in the level like the red tree and the temples above it. My last step in lighting was to place lights in the areas that wouldn’t exist in real life, such as mysterious lights appearing from behind the trees.


The biggest challenge was getting done as much as I could in just ten weeks. I have recently gone back to it to sculpt some new background mountains and change some of the fog and lighting settings. In order to overcome the challenge of time, I relied heavily on help from my peers.  By the end of ten weeks, I had spent more hours looking at the level than I had slept so it was important to have a fresh eye to spot things I couldn’t notice. Art can always be improved but at a certain point, it’s good to move on to the next project. I am going to come back to this level later to improve it, though!