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Winter Environment in UE4: Assets, Plants, Lighting

Evgeniy Vegera shares his experience in developing an Artificial Glacier scene made in UE4 for the Organic World Building course with Anthony Vaccaro.


Hi, everyone! My name is Evgeniy Vegera. I am an environment artist and currently work as a lead compositing and modeling artist at an animation studio. When I was a kid, I played around with CryEngine 1 – it was an interesting but hard experience as I didn’t have enough materials for learning. Later, I went into graphic design and started learning 3D by myself in my school years, then completed a course on compositing at Moscow Film School. In the next 4 years, I had been working as a compositing artist in movies and advertising and at the same time studying 3D and game engines. Now, I returned to environment art again and this time I am not going to change the path.


Courses help you to grasp the basics of the industry and lay a solid foundation for future work, that’s why I wanted to take one. I was born in a small town by the sea where nature is very close and it became an inseparable part of me. Probably, it somehow influenced me when I chose the Organic World Building course with Anthony Vaccaro.

Artificial Glacier

Approach to Natural Scenes

I like to create nature down to the tiniest details and blend materials in Substance Designer to make them flow one into another – this helps to create a believable landscape. It so cool that nowadays we have all these game engines like Unreal Engine 4 which allow seeing the results without long rendering: light, raytracing, plant movements, and particles are calculated in real-time.

At the very beginning, I decided to make a rocky landscape. I found a place called The Cirque de Gavarnie, in the central Pyrenees, Southwestern France, and made quite a big reference board. There were environments, rocks in different seasons, with snow and without, with plants and without; references for rivers and waterfalls, different color schemes, sunsets, a dense fog, and snowstorm.

When making an environment, it is important to put first things first and meet the deadlines. Your time for each task is limited. Many artists begin to create an immense open world but aren’t able to finish it because filling such a large space requires way too many assets. That is why we have to limit ourselves. The smaller your location is, the more time you can devote to each asset, aiming at an AAA level. I had this mistake, too, and later reduced the size of my location by half.

Assets & Scale

My main approach to natural level designs is to create a level from assets ready for multiple reuses. Making rocks and mountains in 360°, you will be able to get versatility without many efforts by simply placing them at different angles. It also greatly helps to build the immersive gaming experience by improving the performance.

A lack of assets can be diversified by a few tileable textures with different level of detalization. Unreal Engine with its vertex painting gives the variety in textures via vertex color channels. All the textures were made in Substance Designer with Parallax Occlusion Mapping to make the landscape material more vibrant.

While designing a city, you need to understand the purpose and scale of the locations, be it a highway or a cozy park. While in case of a park or a city center you can rely on the size of the entrance doors or the width of the roads, how can we understand the scale in a forest or mountains? For this, I used a medium-sized character model from Unreal Engine 4 standard asset pack. You can also download this model from Clinton Crumpler absolutely for free. Use it to pick the right size for paths, grass, stones, and trees. Also, if you are going to record a video, don’t forget about finding a proper place for the camera. Always place it at the eye level of the character to show the scale to a viewer.

Vegetation & Snow

For the trees, I chose procedural generation in SpeedTree over sculpting. Before that, I had some experience with SpeedTree, so I did not have doubts about what workflow to use. This software allows for quick creation of various plants according to the desired settings.

For the secondary plants, I used more traditional methods. Grass, leaves, and branches were made in Maya, from photo textures applied to the slightly bent planes. The textures are from royalty free textures.com and Quixel.

Movement is life, and I applied this principle to the plants in the scene. I used a standard approach: movable parts are colored with a color of one of the three channels, while in Unreal the shader is connected to the SimpleGrassWind via the corresponding Vertex Color node – that’s it!

Without snow, the winter landscape would have lost its authenticity. I took particles from the Particle Effects scene and slightly adjusted the speed, direction, and density.


At a certain point, I decided to increase the number of locations from 2 to 6. It is not a problem and will not take long if you have enough assets and materials. Light baking, however, turned out to be a pain as it took way too much time during the tests, so I ditched the static lighting in favor of dynamic. One more problem was the lighting schemes (unique for each scene). They consist not only of Directional Light but also Volume fog and Skylight. I ended up dividing the schemes into levels. There was one main level, a separate level for all lighting schemes and one more level with geometry. In situations like this one, such workflow works fine. In some shots, I added God Rays, in Unreal Engine they called Light Shafts and can be found in Directional Light menu. There are no special settings here – just keep adjusting until you get something cool.


CGMA courses are a great possibility to learn about the right pipelines within a short period of time from professionals from AAA gaming studios (in my case, it was Naughty Dog). For sure, all of that can be learned from the Internet but you will not get professional feedback without which you might be trapped in a bunch of your own mistakes.

You will be taught the standards the whole industry follows. After that, you can be sure that you are doing everything right. Many thanks to Anthony Vaccaro and all the CGMA team for a well-organized process.

For those who are reading this – never give up on the way toward your goal, practice a lot and you’ll definitely succeed.