Nightmare Alley Carnival

Nightmare Alley Carnival

Jasmijn Decuyper
by jasmijn on 4 Jun 2023

This is my latest personal project, based on Guillermo Del Toro's movie Nightmare Alley with Tamara Deverell as Production Designer. This scene is a carnival, (heavily) based on the carnival in the movie, with a bit of my own ideas added to it.

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As soon as I saw the Carnival scenes in the movie Nightmare Alley I fell in love with the mood and atmosphere and knew I would try and recreate something similar as a game scene. This was a project I worked on after hours and weekends, so it was less planned out and more like what I had time and energy for. This is not an ideal way to work but I am still happy with the result and can't wait to get started on part two!

The lighting was very important as I wanted the atmosphere the movie had but also give it my own flavor. In the movie the carnival looks normal but has this kind of eerie, creepy undertone. I feel like I accomplished that with my scene as well, despite it being quite different in lighting compared to the movie. 

The second important choice was to handpaint a lot of the textures for the banners and signs in Photoshop. I think this really added to the 'handmade' feel the carnival in the movie has. A big challenge here was making sure the colours didn't all clash too much, I wanted it all to still look nice as a whole. 

Due to the nature of my schedule I divided the planning into smaller pipeline-chunks. So instead of doing all the modeling first, I chose 1 or a group of assets and took them through the entire pipeline. I found this was easier to divide my time and helped me stay motivated through the variety of work I was doing. 

I try to learn more about different parts of 3D environment with each project I do. This was my first exterior and bigger scene, so I was learning how to tackle that. The two biggest factors that came with that were trying to work more efficiently (both in terms of time spent but also polycount, atlassing, etc) and give the scene more life through animations. 

For most of my props I really tried to keep the polycount in check and tried to be as efficient as possible. For the cat targets for example, I started with one doll and made it so it would work front and back. I did this by making the material one-sided, so you would only see 1 colour of fur (the backside of each doll has a different face and fur colour). Then I make two more variations, which made for 6 different targets while only really making one.  1 cat doll is 380 tris.

The horses for the carousel had a similar approach. I started with sculpting 1 horse. I then changed the position of the feet and head to have a different silhouette. I baked and UV'd those 2 and then mirrored them (so the hair is on a different side and the legs are in a different position). So eventually I have 4 different horses. Combined with different textures it was easier to create some variation (in total there are 20 horses on the carousel so it was necessary). 1 horse is 6k tris.

When possible I tried to approach each prop this way, figuring out if I could have varieties with little effort.  For example I used the banners for the strongman with only little adjustments to use as other banners. The stalls are set up in a kind of modular way, where the frame and roof are one asset, but I made different inserts that fit into the frame (sidewalls, half sidewalls, shelves, counter, no counter, etc...). This was fun to figure out and I think it really helped make the most out of all my assets (and time). 1 banner with frame is 1,5k tris. The stalls are on average 1.5-2k tris.

The popcorn cart was a hero prop, which means I put extra attention into this. It is also way more intricate than all the other props so it took more time. Thankfully I found a listing on an online auction platform which had a very similar cart to the one they used in the movie. This meant I had accurate dimensions and detailed pictures which really helped.

For the popcorn I sculped 6 popped kernels (and yes, I used real life reference YUM :D ), used physics in Maya to drop them in a box, then merged that into a mesh which I baked ontop of a low poly mesh. I then added some low poly kernels on top of that for volume and realism. It's not as low poly as I'd hoped but I'm still quite pleased with the result.

As always I tried to pack the UV's as nicely as possible, using UV atlas for smaller props like the signs.

For the ground I made 3 materials in Substance designer: Wet mud with footprints and puddles, that same wet mud but with hay and then one with almost only hay. I used vertex painting to blend them together for an interesting ground material. (You can see in the video). I really love using Substance Designer and the freedom it gives (no longer searching for the exact materials you need for hours on end). I used paralax occlusion mapping to create shape and depth on the material, for extra realism. I then added the hay by making some very low poly 'straws' and using them as vegetation so I could easily spread them among the ground for even more variation and texture. 

For the animations in the video I used the Unreal Niagara system to simulate moths and little dust particles around the lights. The carousel and horses were very easy to set up and all done within the Actor properties, without blueprint. I did use blueprint for the boardwalk which is a spline that randomly selects out of an array of static meshes. This way I could easily adjust the boardwalks and extend them without having to place each mesh separately. The flags were also done this way, but I couldn't figure out how to make a spline work with skeletal meshes so I had to make the spline first and then convert it to a skeletal mesh for cloth sim animations.

These are very basic animations and systems to use but they did really help bring the scene to life. I have learned a lot and will only add to it in my next project to make it even better.

That's it! I hope you liked this little breakdown and the result, I'm very proud of this scene and will for sure be bringing you a part two (with the Haunted House! Spooky!)

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