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Building a Mysterious House in Maya & Substance Painter

David Eisenstadt talks about choosing the right art school that is going to be your starting point as a 3D Artist, explains how the spooky Curiosity House was created in Maya and Substance Painter, and shares some tips on working efficiently without wasting your time and effort overdoing things.


My name is David Eisenstadt. Since the wee kindergarten age, I have known I wanted to work in movies – I’ve been working up to this point in my life since then. In 2017, right after my sophomore year of high school, I studied animation at CSSSA, the California State Summer School for the Arts. Throughout the month-long experience, I learned an incredible amount about animation and met a load of wonderful people. At the time, I desperately wanted to attend CalArts, the same place where CSSSA was held. However, after having attended CSSSA, I realized that I wasn’t going to learn quite as much of what I really aspired to. This led me to talk with one of my teachers from that time, Keren Albala, who led me to Gnomon. After I discovered that Gnomon wasn’t only an online course site, but an in-the-flesh school, I was decided.

Over the course of a year, I stayed very connected with Hannah Webb, one of the admissions counselors at Gnomon, who guided me through the process of readying my portfolio to apply. Lo and behold, their suggestion to work with the admissions department was wise! Now that I’m here, a smidgen past halfway through the 12-term BFA program, I am more confident than I have ever been that I’m on the right track to achieving my dream role in the industry. 

Choosing the Art School

Unlike many other universities, Gnomon tells you exactly what you need to take and when, leaving none of the choices to you, because they know precisely what you need to know to succeed. Split into 3 possible tracks, 3D Generalist, Games, and VFX, the BFA program is beyond comprehension for anyone hoping to work their way into the industry. Speaking as someone who aspires to work at Disney and Pixar someday, I strongly feel that Gnomon is the best place I could have ended up to get me there. 

One of my favorite things about Gnomon is how open-ended the projects are — the inspiring instructors want you to create work that you enjoy creating. For instance, in my Texturing 2 class, taught by Tran Ma, our final project was to create something with unique and complex textures… and those were all of the parameters! I decided to go big or go home.

Designing Curiosity House

I designed a place called Curiosity House, full of unique and mysterious objects, things that should be impossible, things that couldn’t be. I wanted it to stand out on the street, to be a place you walk by and think, “something peculiar happens here.” I started with a terribly messy line-drawing, but sometimes that is all you need! A feeling in mind when working on a piece can really be what drives you to make it look how you picture it in your imagination. 

Because the assignment was my final, due at the end of a ten-week term, I was required to work at super-speed. Within the first five weeks, I was able to model the entirety of Curiosity House, as well as all of the surroundings, including but not limited to: a two-cent farthing, a piano, stacks of books, hats, teacups, clocks, spoons, and an armchair. Everything was modeled in Maya, keeping everything as clean as possible. As I was still learning, I had to go back and redo models on multiple occasions, being helped through much of it by Tran. 


When it came to texturing, I really got the opportunity to have fun and experiment. This was my first project ever having used Substance Painter. With such a great teacher and a fortunate prerequisite understanding of Photoshop, I was able to finish texturing in around 4 weeks, using Substance Painter, and a couple of Megascan/Mixer elements for the bricks and the street. One thing that any beginner should keep in mind, something that Tran made clear to me in my Texture 2 class, is to work procedurally as much as possible. The reason being, if you work procedurally, you can copy and paste the material you made onto any object and it will take you most of the way there. On the other hand, if you use lots of hand-painted elements, it will work exclusively for the one model you are using at the moment. 

I knew I wanted it to feel antique, so I really played up the wear on the objects, while also trying to make them seem as though they are touched often. For instance, on the piano (that you can hardly see at all, up on the top right of Curiosity House), I made sure that the keys had some wood showing through the white paint and some moss growing around the crevices because it had been left outside in the rain for so long. Sometimes, I find it valuable to play with adding more detail than necessary for the purpose of learning and practicing, rather than for the purpose of being seen. 

An element I added to the piano and almost everything else was the puddles. Though in theory, relatively simple, I decided to create a smart material in Substance Painter that I could pop onto any object I needed. Then, I added a fill layer that was only for height, color, and roughness, with the height blend mode set to normal so as to flatten out anything below it. The color was set to a very desaturated, almost entirely neutral gray, as a multiply blend type. The roughness was set to black, so it was perfectly reflective. On that fill layer, I set a black mask with a paint layer, so that anywhere I painted, a puddle would appear on the surface.

I used world space normals to mask off the bottom of any object, so nothing would show up there. I added an anchor point to that mask and created a second fill layer, only for color and roughness, the color being a lighter gray also set to multiply, and the roughness being a neutral gray. I added a mask to this with a fill layer that was connected to that previous anchor point. Then, I blurred that mask with a blur filter. This second fill layer would create wetness around the puddle where it has already started to dry. This was really effective for my rainy mood as it mimicked refractive puddles on the surfaces without actually needing to use refraction. 


When it came to lighting, I had a lot of fun. I wanted it to seem really warm on a cool rainy day, so I added lots of V-Ray sphere lights with really low temperatures around the 4500 range. Within the windows of the house, however, I did something more complex. I created a V-Ray Rect Light for each window with really high directionality, each pointed at a curtain on the inside with a 2-sided material to have a sense of translucency. For each of these Rect Lights, I created a black and white gobo to fake there being lots of objects inside casting shadows. I used that as a fun opportunity to include some easter eggs of things that inspire me (if you look closely, you can see the silhouette of Luxo Jr.) 


Using so many lights was extraordinarily helpful when it came to compositing, which until meeting with another mentor, Miguel Ortega, I knew nothing about. I want to seize this opportunity to extend a huge amount of gratitude to Miguel because in that project alone, he was able to teach and guide me through the compositing process to the point of my project looking almost like an entirely different image to my raw render. In a fantastic way. He helped me utilize Light Select AOVs in V-Ray so as to be able to control the lighting in compositing after my render, something that I do every time I render since then. Truly, without Tran Ma and Miguel Ortega, I wouldn’t be the artist I am today, and very likely won’t be the artist I am a year from now. They are both incredibly encouraging and thoroughly inspiring artists that have been invaluable to my education. For any new-coming artists out there, be inspired by those better than you, rather than putting yourself down out of comparison to them. 

David Eisenstadt, Art Student at Gnomon

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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