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Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Material artist (and a real wizard) Josh Lynch talked about advantages and disadvantages of scanned materials and how they can benefit your work.
The first thing I want to say about Substance Designer and scanned data is this. As someone who uses Substance Designer to do most of their work I can say that working with and studying photogrammetry data has made me a better texture artist. It has single-handedly been the biggest driving force behind my growth. I have said it before but you can’t fool people, they know what real life surfaces, so trying to push myself to match the quality of realistic art has done me a world of good. I am thankful for it.
Ultimately, it is going to come down to the type of game you want to make, the art direction, the size of the team, and budget you have for your game. DICE does extremely well with this workflow, there’s no denying that. They built their entire pipeline around it, leveraged their engines strengths towards it, and it shows. However not every studio is going to have the same resources, tech, or want for that particular workflow or direction.
Photogrammetry is a very powerful tool that has a place, but in my opinion, it is not a “silver bullet” for a studios art pipeline. It also won’t outright replace traditional workflows when the surfaces that need to be made are not readily accessible or may not even exist. One idea I hear that gets tossed around is going out and scanning entire buildings along with the items inside and plugging it into a game engine. I think that sounds good as a talking point, but it’s definitely not as simple as that statement makes it out to be. However leveraging scan or point cloud data to make accurate worlds is something that’s already done to great effect.
From artist to artist there is always a good amount of discussion and debate to be had about photogrammetry or Substance Designer. But this discussion isn’t like BETA VS VHS or Blu Ray VS HD-DVD where we will be stuck with one, in the end, there isn’t a need to pick a camp. Both of these are extremely valid tools/workflows that can create beautiful end results that can and have sat side by side in recent AAA titles.
Much like any type of art created using any tool such as, let’s say Photoshop or ZBrush, there are good and bad results to any workflow. It still takes care and know how to pull off good scans. I don’t think that just because something is scanned means that it is the pinnacle of quality.
From a tools perspective, I don’t see a conflict between 3D Scans and Substance Designer. In fact, I see them working well together. Substance as a toolset is geared for pipeline use so it is much more adaptable to a studio’s needs. Allegorithmic is very attuned to the direction of the industry and the requests of the studios they talk to and I think you see that reflected in the most recent release of Substance Designer 6.
While we continue forward with PBR, studios are looking for tools that they can build pipelines around and create the textures they need for their worlds. Just a few years ago Quixel was the go to because it plugged directly into Photoshop and used all scanned data (to an extent), which ended up being the very same thing that made a lot of artists move away from the tool. Photoshop was a limiting factor. Most artists ended up doing their own pass on top of data generated by Quixel’s dDo anyway. I feel like Substance tools are better because they offer strong pipeline ability, which studios want for consistency and flexibility. Substance Painter also allows artists to paint in 3D which is a blast, and along with Substance Designer it also offers a nondestructive and flexible workflow.
You mentioned that used scanned data can save time, and while that is true, using Substance Designer can save a lot of time for a project as well. Substance Designer is all about front loading a lot of data to be leveraged for a nearly infinite number of variations and spin offs afterward.
As with anything, there are downsides and upsides to photogrammetry workflows.
Rigid Workflow – First, with photogrammetry an artist might feel handcuffed by it all. I am an artist, I want to create and give things shape and personality. Secondly, I have worked with a variety of Art Directors and Leads who request many changes, being able to make changes quickly is important, and that’s not something that’s easy with photogrammetry. There are some great tools in the recent releases of Substance Designer to help with this, so I am hopeful it will get easier over time.
IP Identity – One of the problems with photogrammetry data is that if multiple games use it they all start to look somewhat the same. I’m not saying there aren’t ways around it, but it is something to consider.
Art Cohesion / Harmony – This is the one area where I think there is potential for conflict. Scanned data can cause cohesion / harmony issues in games. If a game has very specific direction or “style” to it and photogrammetry assets are brought in the result can be very jarring. On top of that photogrammetry can get very noisy.
Scale – For me this is a big deal, I always try to match the details of the texture work to the scale of a character in game. If it is not done properly from the start, the photogrammetry data has the potential to feel out of scale with the rest of the world. With handcrafted workflows such as ZBrush / Substance Designer you have much more control over noise distribution and scale in relation to the character. This is especially true in a 3rd person game.
Height Map – Having a crisp / clean read from the heightmap is important and there have been several cases where I see height map data that feels just downright muddy. This is where I feel like a ZBrush / Substance Designer workflow wins out.
Knowledge From Studying – As I mentioned earlier, photogrammetry has made me a better artist. Whenever I am making a texture I am paying very close attention to my reference and any scanned data I can find that relates to the surface I am making. I would be a fool not to do so.
Detail Levels – I get a lot from studying the details in the textures. Such as noise levels, distribution of details, over getting a better understand of what feels or looks “real world”. Getting inspired by that information and putting that into my work is amazing.
Albedo Creation – This is probably the best use of photogrammetry. I know I keep mentioning this but really looking at scanned data for this aspect of texture creation is invaluable. I can say that as soon as I started to really focus in on albedo scanned data and get inspired by it my art quality went way up. Add to that PBR workflows needs realistic luminance values and hue data, scanned data is the best for this.
Advice For Students
If I am reviewing a portfolio, I want to see what you make and how you go about creating your own art. If you just have a lot of well-done photogrammetry and it looks great that’s awesome. However, if an artist only has a bunch of photogrammetry work and doesn’t show how they author anything by any other methods that will give me pause. You can’t always go out and scan something, so it’s important to show that you can make art with other tools.