Virtual Production: World Building & Natural Aesthetics in the Unreal Engine

Summer 2022

World Building & Natural Aesthetics in Unreal

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This course will introduce the fundamentals of worldbuilding and environment design for digital worlds. The course will consider some conceptual frameworks for creating compelling worlds, the practical concerns for how to bring your worlds to life in Unreal Engine, as well as how best to capture, present, or explore your world. There is a strong focus on taking observations of and inspiration from nature.

This course involves rigorous application of your conceptual explorations in Unreal Engine. You will learn how to use the Landscape, Foliage, and Water tools, the Materials editor, the lighting system, Niagara particle engine, and a little Blueprints too.

Key Takeaways

Understand the basics of Unreal Engine’s environment/level design tool set (Landscapes, Foliage, Materials, Lighting, Effects, Camera)

Leverage the Quixel Megascans asset library to quickly prototype diverse environments.

Develop a vocabulary for both conceptual worldbuilding and practical environment design.

Apply aesthetic principles inspired by natural phenomena to scenes in Unreal Engine.

Identify and interrogate personal, technological, and societal trends between humans and the natural world. 

Hands-on experience creating three short digital/virtual projects inspired by nature, from concept to production.

Who Should Attend

Digital Fabricators - See your assets work in real-time

Traditional 3D Animators - Learn to optimize and prepare assets for real-time

Technical Directors - Gain insight to the technical artists pipeline 

UX Designers - Take your art into the 3rd dimension

Storytellers - Create your own 3D assets

3D artists / designers - Learn to create dynamic scenes in Unreal Engine

Immersive storytellers - Build experiential worlds


Week 1: Impressions

This section explores what it is to attempt to capture, depict, recreate nature in a synthetic medium. We look at some examples through (a heavily abridged) history of art, and interrogate ourselves and our own reactions to being in natural environments - both truly natural and entirely fabricated. 

Live Session (4/4): 6:00PM - 7:00PM EST

Unreal Topics:

  • Getting Started in UE4
  • Getting Started with the Landscape Tool
  • Adding Foliage (Quixel Megascans)
  • Materials I: Fundamentals
  • Lighting I: Fundamentals & The Environment Lighting Panel
  • Optional Extra: Water


Week 2: Constructions

This section explores how society constructs its relationship with nature. We delve further into a definition of “natural” and different ways that society attempts to interact with, exclude, contain, and access that natural world. 

Unreal Topics:

  • Sequencer: Changing your scene over Time
  • Camera I: Placing, moving, and recording
  • Interaction I: Adding a character, moving around your scene
  • Interaction II: Blueprints & interacting with your scene
  • Lighting I: Atmosphere & Atmosphere
  • Particles & Effects I: Fundamentals of Niagara


Week 3: Speculations

This section explores the relationship between nature and technology. We imagine coherent future possibilities - utopian, dystopian, anywhere in between. What do you predict the future will look like? What do you want the future to look like? 

Unreal Topics:

  • Materials II: Custom Materials & Infinite Possibilities
  • Lighting III: Real Time, Dynamic, Photorealistic
  • Camera II: Cinématographique
  • Post Processing
  • Particles & Effects II: Intermediary Niagara

Live Session (4/18): 6:00PM - 7:00PM EST


The course is split into three sections, and at the end of each section you will create a short project applying the concepts and skills of that section. 

1. Photo Series

Create a virtual world inspired by a memory/painting/photo/video of a natural environment. Curate a series of about 6 photographs (taken in-engine) which demonstrate the story of your world.

2. Virtual Garden

Design and build your own garden in Unreal Engine. What and who is this garden for? Where is it? What do you put in? What do you leave out? 

3. Visions of a Natural Future

Extend reality or envision the future with a speculative natural experience. You are welcome to think small in scope (tackle a problem for you and your neighbours) or think massive in scope (tackle a global problem), but keep in mind the time you have for the project. The project prompt is intentionally left open, but here are some ideas for potential projects:

  • A virtual city park for a post-Covid world
  • A VR garden for self care
  • A post-apocalyptic setting for the next summer blockbuster
  • Manhattan’s next-gen skyscraper
  • A natural history archive 500 years in the future

Technical Requirements & Prerequisites

  • An Epic Games account (register here)
  • A computer that runs Unreal Engine 4.27 (Recommended Specs)
  • At least 60 GB of free hard drive space (there will be a lot to download!)
  • A three-button mouse
  • Recommendations
    • Introduction to Unreal 
    • A general understanding of 3D software (you are now entering the third dimension)
    • Access to a broadband internet connection (there will be a lot to download!)


Leah Roh

James Hosken

Unity technical artist and NYU Adjunct Professor

Office Hours

By appointment weekdays 2pm-3pm & 5pm-6pm NYC time