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Forging Viking Axes in Substance Designer

Javier Perez was kind enough to share production details behind his astonishing Viking axe created inside Substance Designer.


My name is Javier Perez, and I’m a senior environment artist currently working at Intrepid Studios. I’ve been in the industry for 7 years now and I graduated from The Art Institute of California – San Diego. Throughout my career, I’ve worked at studios such as Infinity Ward, Kojima Production, Sony Online, and Redemption Games. I’ve contributed to projects such as Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Lawbreakers, and Planetside 2.

The Viking Project

I’ve been using Substance designer for a little over 2 years now, and with every project, I always want to push what’s possible in the program. I had been making quite a few different tiling materials, so I thought it was time to try something new. I’m constantly browsing ArtStation and noticed a trend of people trying to model things with Substance Designer. Daniel Thiger’s Rapier Sword was really inspiring, and I wanted to put my own spin on the weapon idea.


I would say it all started with a lot of planning and trying to decide on which specific weapon I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to make a weapon but I had to make sure it was something that was achievable. One thing I kept in mind was that it had to be something symmetrical, that way when applied to a double-sided plane it would look like extruded geo. I gathered a lot of references for different kinds of axes and got to work. My approach with the whole project was to work in a layer format, starting with the main handle and beginning to layer the other components.

There’s no real secret to this project. Tessellation is a really powerful tool in any engine that can be used to fake geometry with a defined height map. The whole axe was broken up into 4 different graphs: Axe, Viking, Swirls, and shield. At first, I was trying to consolidate the whole axe into one graph, but for neatness and performance purposes I decided to break out the Viking and swirls into their own graphs. The shield was actually an afterthought and was completed for composition purposes in the main shot.


Each piece of the axe was broken down into smaller more manageable graphs within the main graph. As I began working on the axe, I focused on the big shapes and forms that would define the entire object. The shape of the wooden handle was the first thing I created. Using a combination of shape, transforms and directional warps produced a handle I was satisfied with. From there on, it was all about creating each separate element and layering it on top of the handle.

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Before even starting the project I knew I was going to have trouble with the swirly bits I wanted to have on the axe. Luckily I remembered a node that I recently came across on ArtStation made by Ilya Kuzmichev. The curve drawing system he created for Substance made it incredibly easy to create nice smooth curves just like you would with the pen tool in illustrator.


The Viking was a real challenge as it involved a lot of different shapes and blends to create the entire thing. A huge factor that helped with the production of the Viking was the new Quad transform node that Allegorithmic introduced in the latest substance update. Again, I just worked in a layered format with height blends layering the face, then the nose, beard, hair and so on. The shield he carries was a smaller graph that was layered on at the end over the Viking.


When rendering my substances I usually have a complex scene, but with this axe I wanted to go with a more simple route. I chose an HDR I liked, made the background a dark gray, and added a blue spotlight coming from the bottom. I didn’t want to distract the viewer with any post effects, and just make the Axe the main set piece.


Overall I think creating anything that can trick people into thinking is modeled rather than made in a texturing software is a challenge in itself. Definitely, the most difficult part was the layering of different elements within the axe, and having correct height values so that Marmoset wouldn’t extrude anything too intensely. It was a constant back and forth tweaking the tesselation slider and messing with the levels in Substance Designer. I definitely learned a lot this project, my main goal was to use as many new nodes that were introduced in the latest update as possible so that I could be more familiar with them in future projects. My advice to readers is to think outside the box when using Substance Designer. We all know that it is a great texturing program, but with the recent additions of the shape extrude, there are a lot more possibilities that can be done to fake geometry.

Javier Perez, Senior Material Artist at Intrepid Studios

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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