Environment Artist

The role, salary, software, and skills of a 3D environment Artist

Student work by Alexander Murdoch

What does an environment artist do?

Working from concept art, real-world reference, and scans, environment artists create and lay out digital 3D environments — from compiling an entire set to scattering tiny rocks — that form the world of a film or video game. It includes populating an environment with assets, commonly known as set dressing.  This role is commonly a specialization of an 3D modeler

For films or TV shows, environments are often built, or extended, digitally when it is not possible or practical to film in real life (e.g. outer space, historical recreations, fantasy lands). Actors may be recorded against a green screen and their surroundings replaced by computer-generated environments built by 3D Environment Artists. 

In video games, world building has an additional layer of complexity. The environments created must function and react according to the laws of physics and within the rules of the game universe. So characters must not be able to walk through walls, objects must react to gravity, etc. (unless these are unique features of the game universe).

3D environment artist job description

The stoic mountains framing the background of a game’s scene, the abandoned building you explore in search of supplies, even the ground your avatar walks on — all the modular pieces that make up the world of a film or game are the responsibility of an environment artist.

They are also commonly responsible for texturing and shading the environment assets they create, and when completed, are laying them out in the scene. Before building anything, environment artists must research and collate real-world references to map out the different aspects of a game’s geography.

CG Spectrum mentor of Virtual Production, Carl Shedd, defines world building and its importance in video games, 

“World building can be as simple as subtle environmental storytelling, for example, a messy desk in an otherwise sterile bedroom, children's artwork on a refrigerator in a kitchen with a work coat draped over a dining chair, and a briefcase on the table. World building can be as significant as defining global traits for your fictional universe, elements of huge consequence!”

Role & responsibilities of an environment artist in the film and games:

  • Producing high-quality organic (e.g., shrubs) and hard surface (e.g., buildings) models and texture maps in line with brief and reference material, including interpreting abstract ideas
  • Presenting work in a turntable style environment with acceptable lighting for progress reviews and approval (including scale reference)
  • Ensuring consistency of UV mapping and polygonal subdivisions 
  • Working closely with Design and Art Directors to ensure their geo (and textures maps) are working as they should be and addressing mesh fixes as required
  • Optimizing the topology of assets in their scene so the environment runs at a manageable frame rate
  • Mapping out scenery elements and props that help drive the story of the game

Skills required to become a 3D environment artist

An environment artist must have a keen eye for landscape, cityscapes, town planning, and geography as these skills will be used to create virtual worlds within a film or game.

Game artists must also have the technical skills to understand whether a game engine can support low-resolution images in distant backgrounds and the limits of high-resolution images in the foreground. 

While some junior positions are available in the industry, most environment artists have at least several years of 3D modeling, sculpture, and design. A good way to break into this field is to study 3D modeling and build up a portfolio of original 3D environment assets and set dressing pieces.

Film and game studios may look for the following skills in a 3D environment artist:

  • Familiarity with the VFX pipeline or the game development pipeline (depending on chosen field)
  • Strong knowledge of geography, architecture, and the laws of physics
  • Experience processing and working with scans (Megascans, LiDAR scans, etc.)
  • High-level drawing skills
  • Able to interpret and follow reference material to create clean, detailed, and accurate 3D environments and sets
  • Real-world understanding of proportion, depth, scale, and physical space
  • Highly efficient UV layout experience using a UDIM workflow
  • Ability to imagine expansive worlds that characters and objects can interact and move around in (video games specific)

What software and tools do 3D environment artists use?

Environmental artists work with various reference materials such as photography, geographical and political maps, architectural drawings, botanical elements, road structures, city planning layouts, etc. 

3D environment artists may need knowledge of a combination of the following software:

  • Maya
  • ZBrush
  • 3dsMax
  • Blender
  • Substance Painter
  • World Machine / Gaea
  • Unreal Engine (and other real-time engines such as Unity)

How much does an environment artist make? 

The average Salary of a 3D environmental artist ranges from USD $49,00 to USD $96,000. (Source: Glassdoor



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