General / 08 March 2018

Rust Project

So far...

A lot has happened in the last few weeks and what I've developed so far for my Honours project, I've turned into a mini project called Rust which has been great to make. The reason for making this scene was because it allowed me to go back to some of my older assets such as the Dodge truck model to improve the topology and texture. It also helped me understand the game mechanics better such as introducing LODs (levels of detail) and implement game mechanics such as particles and lighting together. The great thing is, everything I've learned here can be transferred into my Coral Reef environment. 

Anyone wondering what this project is about, it's my Honours project about raising awareness of the marine coral environment: Save our Coral

So continuing on from my last entree and what I wanted to achieve:

  1. Lighting effects (Caustics and God rays, tint) 
  2. Foilage (Grass, seaweed)
  3. Model optimisation + Game mechanics

1.Lights, Camera, Action!

Anyone who is anyone in the industry will tell you how important lighting is, lighting alone has the power to change a mood of the atmosphere completely. I wanted to nail two things that are essential to my environment to be a little more believable, which is underwater caustics (like you see in your bath) and God rays or light shafts. Something similar to this image here:

Image owned by Maniaks3d

After having a look around I found a few users post about making caustics in UE4 such as Water Caustics, taking the basics and using the 4waymotionchaos again I tweaked a version that will work for my environment. There is also scalar parameters that can be altered in the material instance for more control.  The 4waymotion gave the rippling animation needed to simulate the motion of caustics then I added a second caustics map to break it up. You can find more about this searching around on youtube, this is based on multiple tutorials but works great for me. 


I made the actual caustic maps from using a generator that will produce maps for free at 512px, however, there's quite a bit of tweaking involved. I then took these maps into Photoshop and altered the levels so the depth wasn't so extreme and added blur to cancel the strong ages. It was a case of applying a material instance where I could edit the caustic on the fly. This was especially helpful for setting the speed and size, the material is also a light function so any assets in the environment will have the caustic effect applied. 


Okay so the next thing was to add God rays that were piercing through the water, this was pretty hard for me as every tutorial I tried didn't work. Originally I made a cone shape following this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOdTrIB5te0  but towards the end, it wasn't working correctly so I decided to scrap that idea.  I did manage to take some things from it, however, such as using a panner with a noise texture to give movement to the light shaft. Once again just like the caustics I had parameters to allow for adjustments in the material instance.

I had seen this method for making light rays from a few other UE4 developers who also linked the static mesh to a sprite in the blueprints editor then giving variables to parameters such as time, scale, etc. 


Here is the cloud textured used as an alpha-map through the red and blue channels to give transparency to the light shaft and motion. I also changed the tint around which is an exponential hight fog that simulates the feel of underwater to a certain degree I'm still playing around with small things such as some blur and refraction/reflection. 

2. Green Planet

I started with implementing some seagrass to start with, I decided to just keep this one really basic. I wasn't really focusing deep into the best grass as the main focus will be corals. It is as simple as a basic mesh basically cards with PNG grass strands then in the material editor I tweaked the colour and made light pass through the blades 


I might go back and optimise the grass however as it's not the most efficient with the poly count, perhaps use LODs. It was also a case of using Substance on the grass PNG to get a Normal map and Ambient Occlusion.


To get the movement was simple enough as well it required playing around with the simple wind effect to mimic a motion that would relate to the ocean's current, I'm currently working on a more realistic way for the grass that would feel like a true current. Speaking of LODs I did make them for the B_assets we could call them. The seaweed for example which is made with Maya: 


After making the Grass and the seaweed I added them to the brush editor in UE4 and made the density high with a range for the scale and rotation to give the illusion of different sizes for a more natural look. 

There are multiple ways of animating the seaweed one way would of to make a skeleton rig and weight paint the model for animation. However, I decided to use a gradient weight and make a more advanced version that was used on the grass that wouldn't break the model. This took some time and effort with a lot of help from the UE4 community (A special thanks to them!)  There's also a ripple motion on the leave individually to simulate the current using the alpha from the diffuse map, the animation sweeps by using the meshes position. This took a lot of patience and trial and error.

after all, I'm, not a game developer 




Right now all the assets such as the rocks are individually textured however I think it will be much better for them to use a material that works on the world position perhaps with a dynamic moss on it. I think this will be much more effective than having to texture each one also there will a lot of rocks as that's what the majority of coral grow on. 

Assets like these are made in Zbrush and high to low poly projected to get the most detail. Just like the seaweed they also use LODs for the most poly count withing UE4. I used the clay tool with an alpha map set onto the spray to get that "rocky" look at the end, I start with just a standard sphere and moulded it around. 


Besides using LODs to optimise the poly count it would be wise to perhaps you cards with rendered images for the furthermost away content, I'm also looking into collision maps and the user interface. 

Next ...

You'll notice there was also particle effects that I will explain in the next post, I'm also still working in the script ( these things take time) I've just bought an HTC Vive so I'm waiting for that to come. In the meantime I'm looking a making the interface and the game structure, this could be the hardest part as I don't have any knowledge on how to do this. Besides these in making small coral assets that should be ready to implement at the end.

I also want to note I am looking at photogrammetry and finally have the tools to do it, however, I do know this can be a very tedious job and might be too overwhelming to feature in the final piece. Things are going well with the environment and I'm pleased with my work so far, hopefully, you like it too!


More about: Coral reef bleaching

Coral Reef before and after by Chasing Coral


General / 22 February 2018
Sebastian from The Little Mermaid (1989)

Whats New?

I've been quite productive for the last couple of weeks, from turning an idea into a product, as well as juggling around other modules. I have been busy working on three things primarily:

  1. I wanted to figure my production pipeline for producing assets and getting into UE4
  2. setting the scene environment in Unreal Engine 
  3. Obtaining real coral skeletons and laying the grounds for a narrative 

My main two problems are I don't have the strongest background in organic modelling/sculpting and I don't have much of an understanding in Blueprints with Unreal Engine so it has been quite a learning curve to tackle these issues. However, I've just thrown myself into the deep end and ran with it! 

1. Production pipeline, Concept to Coral

My main strengths are with Autodesk Maya and Pixologic ZBrush so I've stuck with what I know best, I decide to model a stovepipe sponge first (okay so it's not a coral but it's geometrically a simple shape to start with, Plus sponges play a big part in the coral reef)

More about sponges

Aplysina archeri 
(Stovepipe sponge) by Peter Nijenhuis

1st Attempt

I was more focused on trying to figure how to make the assets and to not so much on the model detail, I found the best way for me was to sculpt it with ZBrush and use the UV master tool to make the UV maps. After making a low and high poly version I took the low version into Maya to make sure everything was correct - I had to sort the material assigned and correct some UV issues. After, I learned to bake projections in substance painter to keep most of the detail and started to paint the model. As far as I'm aware it's better to keep the model structure Quads rather than triangulated, any game artist feels free to post your thoughts! 

High and low poly versions in ZBrush

Substance Painter

Somewhere around 2nd - 3rd attempt

I should note the reference I used had a sponge which was much more "Rock" looking 

So after refining the process and working out a couple of techniques and shortcuts, I managed to reduce the poly count and add more detail. I would perhaps change the top of the model to add more vertices so it looks smoother, I might change the topology using the diamond technique (also known as the Kite)  to keep the body of the structure the same but add more geometry to the top. No sponge is the same, not even texture although I want to produce some that look more "lumpy" as opposed to the "rock" look. Overall I'm happy with the outcome!

High and low poly versions in ZBrush

Projected and Baked in Substance Painter, altered normal maps to achieve the desired look

Substance Painter

Substance Painter (No Material)



So far has been a great outcome and positive experience, however, I still needed to get the asset into UE4 but first I wanted to make some sort of environment.

2. Setting the Scene

Its been quite a challenge to produce the underwater environment, I didn't really know where to begin or how to make it. I found barely any tutorials for what I needed so a lot of this was down to trial and error and a lot (a lot) of reading. First thing I started with was how can I make it look like water. 

Fog off 

Blue Hue

Exponential Height Fog works surprisingly well and took no time at all to achieve a blue tone that simulates underwater. Next was a little trickier I wanted a water plane that looked like the surface of the sea and has a reflection. The first thing I did was read as much about water planes as possible and after I found two ways of doing it. Using a displacement shader to mimic the waves or use alpha maps that represent noise. I went with the noise maps.

I made these maps in Substance Designer and Painter using a noise effect. 

With the maps, I went to it and found an interesting function called 'motion_4waychaos' (to actually find this you need to make a 'materialfunctioncall' node). This function is a material expression that mimics a motion pattern. ( A basic idea of this can be found here with caustics https://forums.unrealengine.com/community/community-content-tools-and-tutorials/38745-water-caustics)  


Waterplane blueprint

I was happy with the blueprint, the reflection was done with an HDR image and multiplied with colours of the sea (Green and blue). Several passes of the wave were made for different sizes of motion and displacement.  The normaL maps mixed with the 4waychaos is what gave the fluid life and depth. 


It looked like water, acted like water but didn't feel like water, but, it has very sharp lines which - you wouldn't find this in any water. This was because I made the maps too sharp. So I went back and redid my noise maps again ! 

Updated version

Result !

Water surface snapshot



Much better !, I tweaked it further with the material instance to get the desired look. Next step was to make a seabed for my assets to sit on, I managed to find some basic tutorials on UE4 landscaping with Pluralsight  (Great place for UE4 tutorials).  I used textures from allegorithmic Substance painter to make my material that works on blend layers.

Note: these are just the diffuse maps

Seabed blueprint

Blend Nodes (Making the textures blend together )

Material Instance

End Result 

I should also say I sculpted it using mostly the noise tool and adding corrosion then lightly smoothing out to make dunes. I knew I wanted the middle to dip as that's where the reef was going to sit.


Bringing it all together 

The last thing was to add my asset and I would have a very basic environment. up to this point has been challenging but a lot of fun! Luckily Substance has a render out for UE4 which made the process quite easy. Interestingly is uses the Occlusion, Roughness and metallic on the same map by reading the red, green and blue channels to differentiate.

The outcome so far...

whats next is to look into lighting such as God Rays and Caustics as well as other water effects, in terms of assets I'm planning to make the following:

  1. Hydnophora bonsai
  2. Acropora millepora
  3. Callyspongia siphonella
  4. Aplysina fistularis
  5. Aplysina archeri
  6. Subergorgia mollis
  7. Helioporidae coerulea
  8. Acropora cervicornis
  9.  Fungai scruposa
  10.  Diploria Strigosa
  11. Euphyllia ancora
  12. Rocks !!!

Speaking with Dan (Marine biologist) he said it would be good to show a variety that covered 5 areas of coral:

  • Branching
  • Massive
  • Encrusting
  • Plating
  • Free-living

3. Real Corals! Real Narration!

well, real skeletons anyway....

I've also looked into obtaining some real skeletons for my own interest but also to integrate into my VLE (Virtual learning environment), Hopefully, I will be able to use photogrammetry successfully on these guys and clean up in ZBrush. I'm planning on using Agisoft to capture and convert the data. If things don't work out at least I have photographic  data I can show viewers of the coral skeleton.

corals skeletons I've obtained

Just to add: the actual pictures used for the VLE will be professionally lit and taken within a studio environment. 


The script for the narration is being worked on with my associate Dan (Marine Biologist) who is making sure the science part is correct, the script is still under work but so far I've managed to find a great voice actor who is willing to take the part. The script is somewhat humorous and relatable although very serious where it has to be. 

The structure is made of three stages:

Stage 1 

  1. Introduction
  2. Reef construction (General coral facts)
  3. Coral - what is is, symbiotic algae relationship

Stage 2

  1. Applications (medicine, biodiversity)
  2. Climate sensitivity(Temperature, UV, ph)
  3. Bleaching event(Explain physiology)

Stage 3 

  1. Coral Death, fish gone(explain algae)
  2. Explain preventives (Carbon, waste, recycling)
  3. Get involved (References)

Thanks to Dan MacRae for his help

Whats next?

Next is to complete the lighting and effects for the scene and start looking into VR. I want to establish VR early on so I can optimise everything for it. I also need to look into my assets and use LOD's to get the most out of the game engine.  

Keep a lookout for more soon!

- Alex

 Coral reef in Phoenix Islands

Image by ISQ



General / 25 January 2018

Image was taken by Marcus Lange

Bringing you up to speed

This blog is about my honours project that I'm recording online. It also allows for anyone who is interested to view the journey that I'm undertaking and the process from beginning to end. During the start of last trimester (Sept 2017) when my BSc Honours began I spent a lot of time on proprietary work. The Honours project could be whatever you wanted, It was completely in your hands. For me, this meant two things:

  1. It had to show my interests, what my craft is about, push new skills and talents.
  2. Be sciencey.

- This wouldn't be an easy task for me, after all studying four years in digital arts meant I didn't have a "sciencey" bone in me.

However, I knew I wanted to showcase a 3D Environment, but it had to be more than just an environment...

Bringing things into perspective

Although I had brainstormed several ideas on what could be my honours project, for example, I originally intended to make a historical walkthrough based on the story of Burke and Hare with one of my colleagues. Unfortunately, this idea was shelved as the University dissuade us due to its ambitions and complications. It wasn't until one night sitting down I decided to watch a documentary called "Chasing Coral" after seeing this fascinating documentary, I felt compelled to do something about this.  I knew this is what my project had to be about and find a way to motivate others. 

Have a look - Chasing coral trailer 

For my honours project, I wanted to produce something that was meaningful and could be used in my portfolio. I couldn't think of anything greater than aiding awareness of our coral reefs by producing an environment to portray the situation. I decided to look further into the subject matter and found shocking details about our current climate situation - that I'm sure most of the public are either uninterested or unaware of. I wanted to come up with a product that could educate users on this coral epidemic and motivate them to take action against global warming. My idea was to express this visual learning environment with through VR and allow the user to interact and move freely through the scene.

My thesis abstract:

Virtual Reality, an instrument for conservation:

 What is the impact of global warming upon the marine coral ecosystem & how to educate the user.

Can virtual reality save our ecosystem? Using a 3D environment to educate upon the marine coral ecosystem due to the impacts of climate change. This will be achieved through an interactive time-lapse to show the stages of damage and show if action is taken to prevent global warming these effects can be reversed. This piece’s purpose is to educate the user with visual learning and give an empathetic insight into the user’s motivations by using virtual reality as a means of conservation.  

Let's start, with what is coral?

- by Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

In other words, Coral is an animal. Yes, an animal. They are closely related to jellyfish and sea anemones, grouped together as a phylum called Cnidaria, a coral is made up of polyps, and a coral can either be one polyp or lots of polyps living together. These ones are living as a colony but you can see how each polyp has a mouth, they also share food and body functions, so are still technically one animal. 

I should note: This was a new concept to me, I had no idea what a coral actually was at the time. To get to grips with understanding what coral is I met with a practitioner and MSc marine biology student in this field - Dan MacRae. It was Dan's massive help that got me up to speed and hit the floor running, Dan has also expressed his great interest in the project and has, fortunately, stayed close in contact with myself offering any assistance or questions I have with the marine coral environment. 

Whats the issue?


To put it simply:

  1. Greenhouse gases (GHC) rise from pollution and waste, This gas is any gas in the atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation which heats up the earth's surface.
  2. Coral lives by keeping algae inside its body called zooxanthellae, they usually live well together and share a symbiotic relationship. The algae get a safe place to live inside the coral, and the coral gets a share of the food that the algae make. 
  3. When the sea/water becomes warmer it causes the coral to stress. If the water temperature is too warm the algae produce toxic substances, the coral then expels the algae out to try and protect itself, which causes the bleaching effect.
  4. If the water returns to a more suitable temperature within a week or two the coral can then take the algae back inside its body and continue to live as if nothing happened. Which is apart of the coral bleaching cycle.
  5. The issue we have is that sea temperatures are rising for long periods of time, which results in coral death, bleaching cycles are also much more common now, so there is not enough time for the coral to grow and recover in between bleaching events
  6. Although warming is the main issue for coral there are also other factors, another big factor from greenhouse gases is acidification which contributes to coral stress. With current CO2 emission trends, there's a prediction of all tropical corals being lost by 2100.
  7. HOWEVER, we can still prevent this from happening if we can reduce our greenhouse gases! So the choices made today will shape the future of our reefs.

Once again special thanks to Dan MacRae for his help and information.


By National Ocean Service

Why should we care?

Really, why should you care? 

Even though we all have different backgrounds and particularly this blog's audience will mostly be readers of a creative industry. We all share the same Earth which we call home, the death of coral reefs would only be the start with severe knock-on effects to follow. We can already experience these effects with the Great barrier reef as marine habitats are disappearing from their spawning grounds. These coral reefs offer protection to prey and would create a negative impact and marine life, exacerbating the issue further, particularly with feeding groups. 

Life Noggin has made a great youtube video explaining what happens if all the coral dies:

By Life Noggin

Also to find out more about the current situation with the Great Barrier Reef I highly recommend the video by Vox:

 How dead is the Great Barrier Reef?

A coral reef Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) 

This is more than just a virtual learning environment. This is an experience. 

Most of us can barely pay attention to a white/smart board for more than 10 minutes or pay attention to other forms of learning in that regards. We always find a way to tune ourselves out of existence and cast our minds to other planes of our imagination. But what if our imaginations or escapes could be our platform for learning instead. I believe VR could hold the potential for a life-changing experience or at very least open one's mindset.  

The Chinese philosopher Confucius said “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand." Confucius, circa 450BC

I believe this quote stands strong today. If we only show people, we are not giving them the full experience, they might remember but will they take action ? is it enough to see something and get a positive response? We see media every day, on the television, in the high street, at work, but do we feel compelled to act upon it? For most of us, no. Change happens through experiences, be negative or positive as humans we make changes based on our own experiences. 

Virtual Reality (VR) could be the key. VR has great potential transport us anywhere our imaginations can take us. VR-based environments offer users new tangible ways of interaction through virtual objects and a flexibility towards learning. This dynamic experience can be the answer to make a stronger effect over traditional methods of teaching and creating a stronger emotional impact to act upon. If we use that keyword, involve, I believe that yes there is potential for someone to act  upon rather than to show someone.

I propose three learning encounters:

  1. The whole experience needs to be conveyed through a narration that interacts with the marine coral environment, this is the first encounter with learning
  2. Secondly, the user will be able to explore through their own will and experience first-hand of the situation, which will deepen the users learning further.
  3. The third is to acknowledge that the user is a key component to the wider context which is stopping global warming.

Empathy with VR 

So you might recall I also want to give the user an empathetic insight.

Empathy is an important emotion which passes beyond the grounds of sympathy, it allows us to connect with other individuals on a deeper emotional response. Empathy is the awareness of other people’s feelings reflected through our own emotions. Virtual Reality is the ‘ultimate empathy machine’ as dubbed by filmmaker Chris Milk at the TED talks 2015 who talks about his experience and exploration through empathy. 

Milk showcases his work ‘Clouds over Sidra’ which he created for the United Nations to give the user a deeper insight of the Syrian refugee camps and empowers emotional response from the immersed audience. He noted the VR film that it was most powerful and successful from any of his previous, this is most likely as you experience the film from the eyes of the protagonist Sidra a 12-year-old girl. Milk concludes by seeing through her eyes you emphasis with Sidra and “feel her humanity in a deeper way” (Milk, 2015). Milk ends his presentation with “So, it's a machine, but through this machine, we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human.”

But how do we do that with coral?

Interaction and Empathy is the main bulk of the project, users will be able to use VR headsets. This will allow users to be transferred to a flourishing coral reef and explore freely within a restricted area. The user is free to select objects that have markers for more information about and detailed references. During their time in the coral reef environment, there will be narrator introducing the coral and the situation. Over time the coral reef will adapt from this flourishing ecosystem to a bleached state and gradually disappears. This is in time with the narration that tries to invoke empathy with the user to inspire self-motivation for change. 

The centre of attention is the user themselves through self-realisation and their weight they play in saving the world. The piece is; in a hope to ignite marine support globally for the coral ecosystem !

The next steps

This is a basic overlook without trying to get too bogged down into the little details but if your interested feel free to contact me for a copy of my dissertation where I talk more intensively about VR covering topics such as:

  1. Virtual Reality and Learning.
  2. Current Trends & Limitations in VR.
  3. Utilising Virtual Reality.
  4. Empathy with VR.

Ill be posting more about Coral and my Production pipeline with methods and implementation over the following months. 

For those interested in what software I'll be using it's:

  • Maya
  • Z brush
  • Substance Painter
  • UE4

Thanks for reading all the way through I know it can be a lot to follow. 

- Alex 

Great Barrier Reef bleaching

From Havasi wilderness foundation