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Substance Designer Studies: Sci-Fi Details

Stanislav Mikhailov did another breakdown of his awesome Substance Designer studies, this time on Sci-Fi topic.

Stanislav Mikhailov did another breakdown of his awesome Substance Designer studies, this time on Sci-Fi topic. Read the previous article here.


Hi everyone! My name is Stanislav Mikhailov, sometimes I also use nicknames MIX or MXVZ. I live in Minsk, the capital of the Republic of Belarus. Now I am working part-time on an unannounced project at a young gaming company. After graduating from the architectural university, I had been working as an architect for 4 years: I began from the creation of stained glass blueprints and gradually moved to Arch Viz. In my last year in architecture, I had been actively developing my CG portfolio. After that, I got into the small GameDev studio where I became one of two artists. I had to learn how to create characters, textures and even promo materials. After the completion of the project I moved to the current one and now I have been spending most of my time on writing an Art Style Guide. I have been receiving invitations from big studious, but I decided to devote this year to ZBrush, MoI3D, Marvelous Designer, and probably 2D concept art. A heavy workload didn’t give me enough time for learning, so now I work remotely, on a part-time contract.

I decided to devote each month of this year to learning of the particular software for my portfolio. February and January are for Substance Designer. In March, I am going to get down to the classical Sub-D modeling of Sci-Fi objects. And so on. 

Substance Designer Practice: Sci-fi Details

Story of the Project

When I was creating my projects on architecture and natural materials like stones, I got interested in the creation of Sci-Fi details in Substance Designer. I was so inspired by this artwork by Yin Shiuan that I decided to write to him and ask some questions about his pipeline. He kindly satisfied my curiosity about the creation of Sci-Fi details. It helped me a lot in the future.

Initially, I had in mind an entirely different project: it was going to be a wooden hexagonal tile material with metallic Sci-Fi elements (I am going to bring this idea to life a bit later). As usual, I drew sketches for my future project by hand. I believe that the best way to understand the language of design and proportions is to develop them manually. Then, I turned the manual design into line graphics using the sketches as a base. Usually, I do the line graphics in 3ds Max with splines.

Here are good examples of line graphics from one of my 3ds Max projects:

All of these designs were made with splines in 3ds Max and some processing in Photoshop. I think that spline tools in 3ds Max are very powerful. Many of them remind me of AutoCAD, which I got acquainted with when I was an architect. Drawing 2D Sci-Fi details is a good warm up before serious projects: you will develop your own style and collect a big library of elements.

However, I didn’t need this type of graphics in this project since I used references.

Custom Nodes Creation

I noticed that Daniel Thiger and a few other artists simplify their workflow with their own nodes. So, the first thing I did at the beginning of that project was the creation of custom nodes. Here is the first group of nodes I created at the pre-production stage:

A node for names and logos of the fictional high tech corporations: 

Long ago I thought up and wrote down in a special document about 50 names of fictional companies and corporations for using in my future projects.

A node container for Japanese hieroglyphs which uses SVG-graphics:

This node contains hieroglyphs’ colors and the ability to switch between solid color and a contour. When the contour mode is chosen, a distance parameter will be shown.

Here’re two nodes, one changes the contour distance and the second makes round corners, blurs their borders, and allows the connection of the curve of complicated profiles to the chamfer on the edges:

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I also created quite a simple pattern generator which I’ve never used laterЖ

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The last node without details was a profile generator:

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This node contains adjustments for two types of profiles and their blending. There is also a possibility to shade the upper and lower parts of the profile to avoid sudden drops in the geometry. One more feature is additional bevel (top-down or vice versa).

These nodes helped me a lot, but what is more important, I realized that I am able to create node containers with full-fledged Sci-Fi details for my next projects. Of course, it is reasonable to use third-party height and normal maps in the case of big projects. But in that particular artwork, I was going to use Substance Designer only.

Being on that stage I still thought that I was creating nodes for the project with wooden tiles and Sci-Fi details. I wanted to create 3 containers, each with 6 details. As it happened at the end, there were only 5 details in the last node, as I was going to finish the project by the end of February.

Following the Yin Shiuan’s advice, I began working on the Sci-Fi details. There are 3 final versions of the graphs with all the details of the project. If you can’t see the preview for some reason – check this link on Google Drive, there are all the graphs with better resolution.

Simple details:

Details with average complexity:

Complex details:

Generally, I used Shape Node and modified it with Transform Nodes. Then, following the pipeline of Yin Shiuan, I rounded corners with Blur Node and Histogram Scan Node. Then, I used Blend Node to combine different elements, which were connected to Histogram Range Node to have control over the extrusion of each element.

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It is worth mentioning that I used Add Linear Dodge Blending Mode to put details on the curved surfaces, Subtract Blending Mode to dent details, and Max Lighten Blending Mode to cross details without summing up their heights. You’ll get more information studying the graphs from Google Drive I’ve mentioned above.

Before we dive into the showcase details, I want to share one more trick on the creation of a slope mask with Min (darken) Blending Mode. You just need to blend your shape and a slope gradient in Subtract Blending Mode instead of Min (darken) Blending Mode and add Histogram Scan to the result.

This .gif file illustrates the workflow:

Working on the Presentation in Substance Designer

When I had been making the third group of the complex details, I understood that I had departed from my initial plans. I decided to leave the idea about the creation of the wooden tile with Sci-Fi details. I had already made so many of them that I was able to showcase a separate artwork. Since then I began considering how to present these details and opted for an idea to place them on a cylinder in chessboard order, as it gives interesting glares on the curved surface.

Since I am fond of modern high-tech architecture, especially Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Rogers Stirk Harbour, and others, I decided not to showcase the Sci-Fi only. Metal and LEDs always look good, but I arrived at the idea to make a background from very familiar and pleasant material. What I mean is wood. My idea was to reach an interesting contrast – shiny high-tech metal on the soft pleasant wood.

Honestly, I took standard wood materials from the Substance Designer library and slightly modified them for my own needs. I think it didn’t contradict with the general concept, as far as the workflow was focused on the creation of Sci-Fi geometry in Substance Designer. As to wood and metal, they are just for presentation.

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To create the final texture sets for Marmoset materials, I made a graph for the distribution of the details on the surface of the cylinder. It allowed placing the diagonal lines on the wood and adding companies’ names which made the wood material much more interesting.

That graph also combines the wood with three (or two) types of details placed in chessboard order. Watch the showcase to see the result. Some parameters like shift and scale of details and texts were exposed. Nearly everything was done with such nodes as Tile Generator, 2D Transform, and Blend. Check Google Drive to find this graph in a good resolution.

While observing this graph you’ll notice that the first frame contains Blend Nodes with a gray color (128 Gray is strictly between 0 Black and 256 White ) connected to them. This construction lets me blend in one material the details pressed into the surface with Subtract Blending Mode and the details that were extruded with Add Linear Dodge Blending Mode.

Working on the Presentation in Marmoset Toolbag

The presentation in Marmoset was done with a cylinder and a background plane. The plane was for blue emissive material behind the cylinder. I placed the camera in the necessary position, applied a white material to the cylinder and take a screenshot. Then I cut the bright cylinder on a dark background in Photoshop and blurred the results in a few copies of the layers. When I finally merged them, I got the alpha channel for the blue glow behind the cylinder. For sure, I could add this glow later, at the post-processing stage. But I believe that it is better to add tricks as early as possible.

Below is my final version of Glossiness Map. The blue color was added later in the Marmoset material. 

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All the materials were adjusted in Marmoset and tested on the cylinder with lighting. I wanted to estimate the value of extrusion for all materials. One more trick I want to share: with metalness = 1, the metal details looked too dark, so I decreased metalness to 0.9. It made the details softer but didn’t ruin the metal roughness. Usually, professionals advise keeping metalness equal to 0 or 1, ideally, it should be a black and white map without middle tints. But I believe that sometimes it is worth breaking the rules in favor of the fine adjustments. If it looks good, who cares how “correctly” it was done.

Here is my lighting scheme in Marmoset. I believe that tutorials on portrait and advertising photography are very useful. Watch a few of them and you’ll get a clear understanding of how different types of light sources work. I can tell from my experience that there are 5 types of lights:

  • Key Light. A main source of light, which I usually place above the object, from the right side, 45 degrees to the camera. The color is neutral or warm depending on the current color palette. In that artwork, I made the Key Light neutral not to spoil the natural color of the material.
  • Fill Light. Usually, it is placed opposite to the Key Light. The intensity is very poor. Its purpose is to make shadows from Key Light less rough and dark. It adds lightness and airiness to the photos. Desiring to show the volume of the details in that project, I didn’t smooth the shadows with Fill Light.
  • Rim Light. It gives a bright outline of the object’s silhouette. Here, I made it bluish to have a connection with the blue glow in the background.
  • Detail (Accent) Light. It is a focused source of light which emphasizes a particular detail. It also could be used to enhance the color of the detail if the colors of the Accent Light and the detail are the same. In my case, I wanted to get a bluish glare in the bottom right to enhance the shining of the metal and hieroglyphs.
  • Background Light. It falls on the background surface. Usually, it doesn’t influence the main object. In that artwork, I made a bluish background bordering light to get a contrast between warm wood and a cold background.

More about the technical adjustment of the scene in Marmoset: I used a method called Pn Triangles Tessellation, with Tessellation = 700. I also set render resolution to 2:1 and chose the highest values for GI to get the glares from the blue LEDs on the metal surfaces.


That is probably all I can say about this project. To those artists who are just making their first steps in the creation of Sci-Fi objects and materials, I wouldn’t recommend focusing only on the technical side of the learning. I am sure that software tools will be more and more powerful becoming more intuitive at the same time. From a technical point of view, the barrier to entry will become lower. What will be really important is your artistic skills and knowledge. I have always been interested in studying Andrew Loomis and Johannes Itten. It is also worth to read Nikolay Krymov’s works in which he talks about the theory of tone (though I’m afraid it’s available only in Russian).

Thanks to the 80.lv team for the opportunity to publish this article!

Stanislav Mikhailov, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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