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Ioana Oprisan
November 15, 2022

Recreating Historical Environments

Timothy Dries
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Hiya Ioana, Welcome back to Beyond Extent, can you introduce yourself?

Hiya, thanks for having me! Beyond Extent is one of my favourite places in the world and it’s helped me grow a lot as an artist, so I’m very happy to talk to you about my scene.

I’m an Environment Artist currently working as a Generalist Game Dev at Huddersfield Uni where we use games for good to teach kids about delicate issues like consent and violence. I also part-time lecture at the university.

Previously I was an Environment Artist at Cloud Imperium on Star Citizen.

How did you find the Inspiration for what to make?

I’ve wanted to do something WW2 themed for ages (and I still do, this isn’t the last for sure). I found this place to be a really cool space, to think that one of the biggest turning points in history and liberation of nearly an entire continent was orchestrated from small, damp, cramped rooms like these. If only those walls could talk, right?

It’s a very cluttered, very busy space and my first thought was ‘this is nuts look at all this stuff’ but then you start to break it down and it’s still nuts, but manageable.

I originally blocked it out roughly about a year and a bit ago and then forgot about it until sometime in August when I picked it up again.

Original reference

Historical Accuracy and where to find it

Potential Difficulties in finding it?

A simple Google goes a long way, you can spot so many cool details in other people’s holiday pictures or official photographs from sites like Getty images. But it’s not going to tell you the whole story of the place.

The best place to start is the website of whoever or wherever curates this place or object. This is where you find cool stories and anecdotes that you would otherwise miss just going by images.

For example, I wouldn’t have known about Wing Commander Heagerty’s sweet tooth and that he would keep sugar cubes on his desk or in his drawer to nibble on through the day. Or about the fact that entrants would need a clearance pass to be allowed into the Map Room.

Other references of the time period and location help a lot as well as other games set in the same period (Sniper Elite V in particular, such a stunning game). Film stills also helped a lot, especially when trying to determine a mood I was trying to create with my lighting and colour grading.

Did you have any difficulties finding certain parts?

Oh gosh, yes. Because parts of the room have been glassed off to be turned into a walk-in museum this means that nearly all the pictures of it are taken from the same angles – outside the exhibit areas. This also means that a lot of the smaller details like props on tables or small signs aren’t easy to make out. But after some digging, I managed to find some fairly low res pictures from immediately after the war taken from my missing angles. And yet I still had lots of missing or incomplete references.

Filling in the blanks for props was straightforward, I mostly checked auction sites for WW2 era antiques and either found exactly what I was looking for or other objects that could’ve fit.

But for really specific stuff, like the casualties board, I needed to get really creative; luckily, the original Medal of Honor games had a pre-rendered main menu also based on this room so it was fortunate to find a reproduction of the same prop in there which helped me build a complete picture of it between two references:

Here's what my moodboard ended up looking like (not too big considering):

Was there anything you left out on purpose? Or anything you took creative liberties on?

I took creative liberty on everything a little bit – on one hand because I knew I didn’t want too many unique textures so had to get clever with re-use, but also I wanted to enrich my atmosphere. For example I added an entire new area to the room with the projector and the projection screen.

I added in these tintable ration crates which aren’t in the original room, but they keep with the theme and they allow me to break things up.

I added the hanging helmets because they really help to sell the gravity of the situation – these people are at war and the fighting could come to their literal doorstep at any time. They don’t exist in the original room but they are quite frequent throughout other areas of the War Rooms.

The despatch box is originally black/navy, but I’ve represented in red simply because that’s probably the most famous box in the world: the ministerial red boxes (the monarch has one too!)

Some things like the door are just based on the original but I think my version incorporates into the environment better.

The map isn’t true to the original either. The original map was used to track supply convoys across the continents, so it was filled with little pins and string stretching across roads and ship routes. All the little ‘tickets’ on it would represent supply hubs.

Original map reference

On one hand I didn’t want to draw it all from scratch, so I managed to source a high-res version of the world map during WW2 which I altered by hand in photoshop and drew on the little flags before putting it into Painter for mode detailing. The smaller flags are entirely made up just to look like military waypoints – I didn’t think accuracy was all that important here. It was more about the aesthetics. The one thing I really wanted to keep were the little pinholes.

Outside of this handful of ‘liberties’, the room isn’t 100% to size because it’s built modularly. Same applies to the vent and pipe system. I think that’s a very good trade-off considering how much time and performance you save on building like this rather than doing unique meshes and shells.What I thought was important to keep was the mood and feel of the room – the clutter, the smoke and haze, the feeling that these people were working in stressful conditions, and it was reflecting in their environment and in the way they left things.

What was the most difficult thing in the scene and how did you approach it?

One thing that had me questioning myself for a while was how weathered things should look. Representing things as they were back in 1944-ish meant they would all be pretty much new. But I don’t think that helped me sell the era as well as adding a little bit of wear and yellowish-ness to everything did.

The message tube system was also a little difficult to nail – it was difficult to research, and I wasn’t convinced that anyone seeing my version could figure out what it was. Hence, I thought to add a maintenance message on it to basically tell anyone looking exactly what this object was.

I think this is the weakest element of the whole room, but it’s not something that you could skip. They’re very prominent in all the references and they were genuinely pivotal in the functioning of the War Rooms.

How did you go about filling the density of the space?

I knew from the start that I wanted to have A LOT of props, so I tried to design and plan things in a way that let me get as much variety as possible out of as few meshes and materials as possible. So, I tried to work as modularly as possible and texture using tinteable materials and mesh decals. This made me realise that I could also prepare this scene for sale on the marketplace now that if offered the kits you would need to build your own version.

Similarly, I tried to build modular props wherever possible because this allowed me to create lots of interesting variety in my scene.

Here’s what a few of my tintable base materials look like: raw metal, painted metal, wood and leather:

Similarly, the telephones are also tintable allowing me to make multiple varieties:

There are also unique textures on props where I just couldn’t give them enough character otherwise.

I did have some large pieces that required big areas of damage where a unique unwrap wouldn’t have been the best option, but I also couldn’t capture that with decals either. So this is where a 2nd UV came in (Beyond Extent has a great guide on how to do this). I was able to pack a mask for the damage on the desk and 2 varieties of damage for the chairs into a single texture using channel packing:

For the large pieces I used vertex painting to break things up and then brought in some decals that I painted in Substance Painter.

Working in this way I end up spending a lot more time in engine than I do in any other software so I’m always looking to make things easier for myself in there.I have a blueprint that changes the colour of these book and folder meshes to a random colour from a selection that I set.

Similarly, I have another blueprint that randomises which paper it uses every time I alter it.

I also use a spline blueprint to lay out cabling.

You could polish up these blueprints to have more control, but they were fine for now. They made set dressing infinitely easier, and I can’t imagine laying out all those meshes without it.

What are some of the things you used to make the scene more lifelike?

I always have a mannequin in the scene to check my scale, but at some point, I replaced him with a character from a pack I got from the Unreal marketplace.

I altered his textures and gave him some flavour props that I had in the scene and now he looked like he fit in. The next step was posing him.

I think that having a character in there, even not animated, adds so much to your scene, like sense of scale and context and gives it a bit of extra polish. I think it also reflects well on you for going that tiny extra step to present to your work in the best way possible.

He also had his own lighting setup to create the effect of rim lights.

These make him stand out from his background and make his overall silhouette more readable.

Even if the character isn’t animated, some of my environmental props are. I really enjoy finding ways to introduce motion into environments and they add so much to your cinematics.

Both of these are done in simple blueprints rotating meshes around an axis. The film and light beam on the projector are animated using a panner node.

But the thing I enjoyed exploring the most was the projection screen. I could’ve gone the easy route and not had the projector turned on, however I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to go researching for footage. I found a D-Day training video on Internet Archive that I clipped down to 3 minutes and then turned into a media texture.

The next thing that I think really helps to sell the believability of a scene is cabling. In games we aren’t bound by trivialities like having to plug things in, but it really helps to give credibility. This is why being able to lay it all in a blueprint is so good, it makes it quick and painless. Just make sure to convert them to static meshes because splines are expensive.

And finally, making the space feel lived in. Besides saving Europe from tyranny, these great military minds were still people with their own vices and needs. So, the inclusion of small props like cigarettes, spectacles or the sugar cubes help to build a portrait of the people that used this space.

How did you approach the atmosphere in the environment?

I went back and forth with lighting so many times, constantly shifting the focus from one area of the level to another.

Overall, the entire scene has a yellowish tint with a green tint for shadows. I think it helps sell the era, but also the dampness and mustiness of this underground space.

The lighting is quite muted, it relies mostly on dull lights with high indirect lighting values. I’m using Lumen, but if I weren’t, I could achieve the same effect with very dull point lights to fake the indirect lighting.

Using the temperature controls on lights you can create enough variety to create different focus points. That’s why the map lights are very cold, and the desk lamps are very warm.

Some lights are just there to emphasize certain shapes, like this light that adds some nice, curved highlights to the telephones.

The projection screen is also tied to a rectangular light that changes intensity based on the video (or a close approximation of it).

The last thing that was important to create the right mood were fog cards and volumetric fog. These rooms were very small, cramped, underground and poorly ventilated while being occupied by smokers (remember that smoking was considered healthy back then, mad times). They also add a lot of depth to the room.

You don’t have to go nuts with these since they can be quite expensive but place them in strategic areas like around brightly lit objects such as the projector and the screen.

Smoke also tends to rise so it makes sense to add a card towards the ceiling.

What would you recommend for other people approaching a historically accurate scene?

Real life doesn’t always translate well into 3D so be prepared to have to make compromises. Pick the things that are essential to this space and build everything else around it. In my case it was the phones, the large map, the pillars meant to sustain the ceiling in the case of an air raid, and the cluttery, damp feel of the space. Everything else I could have redesigned entirely and it would’ve still sold that it was a representation of this room.

But also give things your own touch – after all, it’s art and this is your interpretation of this. Try to think beyond the physical location and objects in the room, try to imagine what it would be like to be there, to work there, what cultural or emotional significance it has. Research beyond images, so read anecdotes and stories. Add storytelling to your scene, even if it’s not there in the original reference. Watch footage if it’s available and research other media that relates to this place, like games or film.

Most importantly, pick something that interests you – it helps tremendously if you enjoy the research process.


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