Image courtesy of Shira Eilan

Exploring Asha: Go behind-the-scenes of a Rookie Award-winning game environment

Shira Eilan
When you look at Asha, it’s hard not to feel like you are staring at the concept art for some lost Game of Thrones cityscape, thousands of years in the future. It’s transportative, and something of a calling card for Shira Eilan, who turned this majestic final project into a Rookie Award win (People’s Choice) and new job with Ember Lab!
Today, we’re sitting down with her to learn more about Asha, her journey, and her tips for other students who want to build environments in Unreal Engine. Let’s get started!

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started as a 3D artist? What school did you attend and what program were you enrolled in?

Hi! My name is Shira Eilan, and I graduated last year from Think Tank Training Centre, studying environment art for games.
I was drawn to art from early childhood. After years of painting and drawing, I started studying classic animation. It was fun, but I found it hard to land a job in the industry with the skills I had. 

I worked for several years in news broadcasting (learning a lot about timing) and decided to try once again. So, I took a year-long Blender course at the Israeli Animation College, which gave me a good foundation for 3D art. From the first class, I fell in love and knew this is where I wanted to put all my efforts in; this is what I wanted to do, both artistically and professionally. I took another two short courses and sent a reel to Think Tank. I was absolutely delighted to be accepted.
My goal at Think Tank was to create a project that would help me jump start my career in the gaming industry. Here I will walk through my final project, Asha, which was showcased on Student Showcase Spring 2021 and also won the People’s Choice award in The Rookies – Rookie of the year: Game development contest.
How did you get started on project Asha and what were your goals coming into it? Where did you draw inspiration from?
Eilan: I started working on Asha after finding a beautiful piece of concept art by Muyang Xu. I began with a very basic blockout I made in Maya. My goal was to keep the timeless, serene atmosphere of the concept, the main shapes of the buildings, and the sense of scale.
Since the concept is not detailed, I gathered references for materials, foliage types, and patterns to help me. I took a lot of inspiration from Moorish architecture, shrines in the Far East, and from Naboo (Star Wars) for the city’s modular buildings.
The whole project took me about a year to complete. I started working on it during the mentorship semester, and then kept building it up and polishing it, even after that ended, until I felt satisfied with how everything looked.

How did your college empower you to create your project?
Eilan: Coming to study at Think Tank Training Centre was the best decision I could make to start my career in the gaming industry. The teachers and mentors are very knowledgeable since they work in the industry. Think Tank also fosters an atmosphere in which the students regularly help each other out, which is a huge plus.
The classes I took in the pre-mentorship semester helped me familiarize myself with all the necessary workflows and software that I needed to know to start working on a bigger project. The next semester, I chose to work with Aaron Dodd as my mentor. He helped me to delve deeper into Unreal Engine. Getting to know the different lighting workflows and the Material Editor in the engine has been especially interesting and helped me a lot when I was building up this scene.
For example, Here are a couple of simple and effective nodes I used in Asha’s main Master Material. I used two channels for vertex paint and then added a baked AO dirt mask using a precomputed AO Mask node. The node helped me break up the tileable materials and add another layer of dirt, mainly in corners and edges. I also found it helpful to use the Static Switch Parameter node in the Master Material to save memory and keep the instance materials organized.
Image courtesy of Shira Eilan
Image courtesy of Shira Eilan
Throughout the course of your schooling and working on your project, what were some valuable development skills you picked up along the way?
Eilan: I learned a lot while working on this project. From properly lighting a scene to optimizing assets to foliage creation—the list is very long. One of the most important things you can do, which I think ties all of the technical skills together, is organize yourself and plan ahead, especially if that means documenting the process. I kept a notebook where I wrote everything I had to do, and updated it after each task was finished. It helped me to keep track of the process and get prepared for the next task at hand.
How much Unreal Engine experience did you have going into it?

Eilan: When I started studying at Think Tank, I had no experience with Unreal or any other real-time packages at all. For me, the whole project was not just about getting to that final result, but also accepting the learning curve. I strongly believe the best way of learning is through experience.
You created nearly every element in Asha (except for the potted plants and the fruits on the patio), how did you manage to pull this off?
Eilan: Creating almost every element in Asha was a big task and with just me working on it, I had to find ways to save time. What helped me was working as modularly as I could. I used quite a lot of tileable materials in the scene and made instances for some of those which I could easily tweak in-engine.
Image courtesy of Shira Eilan
I also created a set of modular assets that helped me with set dressing and making the environment look inhabited without much effort.
When it came to workflow, I found it easier to work on a small task first, and then switch to a bigger one. I usually learned a thing or two in the process of working on a smaller task, which saved me time when I got to the bigger ones.
Image courtesy of Shira Eilan
Can you elaborate on how you developed the lighting for this scene?
Eilan: The lighting in the scene was one of the most time-consuming tasks I dealt with. I wanted to create a daytime, well-lit environment and have a nice contrast in the shadowed areas, but still have them visible. I used a Directional Stationary light with a warm temperature color to do this. I added Spot and Rect lights where I wanted to get a nice reflection and highlight, like off the metal roofs and the stained glass in the middle of the main building. To enhance the reflections off the metal roofs even more, I placed a couple of Reflection Captures with a slightly higher brightness on 1.5.
For the Skylight, I took an HDR and edited it, set the Intensity Scale slightly higher at 1.2, and set the light color to a very pale yellow.
Image courtesy of Shira Eilan
For the few dark corners, I added some candles with the help of a simple particle emitter. The whole scene has warm light colors. To add some contrast and a futuristic feel, I added a blue material with a flow map to the street lamps, the train bridge piers, and to the teleporter that stands under the bridge.
To get the colors, light, and shadows to pop out more, I created a LUT. That really helped with bringing the scene’s look to where I wanted it, and made everything look more vibrant.
Image courtesy of Shira Eilan
What was the most challenging aspect of development and how did you attempt to solve it? 
Eilan: I had several challenges that taught me a lot. An interesting one, to me, was the teleporter under the train piers. While looking at the area through a camera, I felt like something was missing, so I challenged myself to come up with an idea for that corner. I wanted to have some more futuristic elements in the scene, so I modeled a teleporter—or how I imagined a teleporter would look like in this world, to be precise.
Then, to make it visually clear that there’s a futuristic element to this structure, I added a particle emitter to the floor and also slightly increased the emissive channel of the glass material.
Image courtesy of Shira Eilan
Another challenge was deciding how to approach the patio area. I wanted to have a focal point there, but found it hard to decide what would sit well in the scene and look natural, as well as how to approach the layout. Since the patio doesn’t exist in the concept, I had to come up with a concept of my own. After asking for ideas and feedback from my peers I decided I wanted to set an altar in the corner of the balcony and have the dressing laid out in a way that guides from the stairs to the altar.
Image courtesy of Shira Eilan
Going back into your project with the knowledge you have now, are there things you would have done differently?
Eilan: Going back, I would have done a few things differently. I think it would take me far less time to get everything to work in-engine. My technical skills are far better now, and it doesn’t take me as long to create the assets as it did when I worked on this project. Another thing I would do is to organize everything in Unreal right from the start, putting everything in its right folder in the Content Browser and keeping the World Outliner clean with folders, too.
What tips would you give other students who are starting out with Unreal?
Eilan: The best tip I can give to anyone who is starting out with Unreal is: don’t be scared! Getting into an engine that has so many possibilities and options can be a little overwhelming. I think if you put your focus on one thing at a time, it can help a lot. Start by getting something in-engine and just explore. Ask questions and get yourself comfortable—you will learn a lot as you go.

I found it very helpful to ask my peers who studied with me how they did something I liked or was interested in and I also found an abundance of incredible tutorials online that are free for everyone. I also highly recommend using the official Unreal Engine documentation; it helped me a lot to get a deeper understanding before going into a new subject I was not familiar with.
What are you doing now that you are out of school? What projects or skills have helped you get this position? 
Eilan: I am now working as an Environment Artist at Ember Lab on Kena: Bridge of Spirits. I am working with three other team members and with our lead, Julian Vermeulen.

I am mainly creating assets for the environments, taking them from start to finish and also working on collision, asset optimization, and bug fixing.

What really helped me when I started working was that I was already familiar with Unreal Engine, the texturing packages, and optimizing assets. I learned a lot while working, too, but I wouldn’t have the knowledge I started out with without completing my personal project.

How did you land your position at Ember Lab?

Eilan: I landed my position at Ember Lab in a surprising way. A good friend of mine from Think Tank suggested my name to a team member at Ember Lab, who, in turn, sent my portfolio to the lead. They contacted me shortly after, and I quickly joined the team.

I think my portfolio proved I had enough knowledge to start working even though I had no prior experience in game development. I intentionally showed in my project both hard-surface modeling and organic sculpting, and tried to have a variety of materials and textures to show my skills. I was very happy to receive this opportunity and the way I received it also goes to show how important connections can be—even with friends from your class.
Image courtesy of Ember Labs
What does a typical day consist of at Ember Lab as an environment artist?

Eilan: A typical day at Ember Lab usually starts with working on the current task. Every two weeks we receive a sprint plan, organized into high/low priorities. After finishing each part of the task (like sculpting/texturing), I will send some screenshots to my lead, and he will either approve it so I can go on to the next stage, or give notes for me to fix. When it comes to bug fixing, it usually goes the same way—working from the higher priority to the lowest.
Is there any advice you can give students, who are about to graduate, on obtaining a career in the industry?

Eilan: The best advice I could give to students who are about to graduate or at the finishing line of their projects would be: don’t rush to the finish line. Keep asking for feedback even when you feel like you are done. The final polishing is very important and is looked at by people in the industry. Another polish to the lighting or even the video editing can really make or break your chances. Stick with it until you feel proud to show every part of your project.
Where do you hope this role will take you in the future?

Eilan: In my next role, I wish to continue my work as an environment artist and to develop my skills. I would love to work in a creative environment with great people who like to share their knowledge and ideas. I also think of being an art director one day in the future. In the meantime, I have several ideas for personal projects I want to get my hands on since I had such a great time working on the last one!

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