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Making a Japanese-Sci-Fi Material in Substance Designer

Xiaopeng Shen showed us how to create a material that combines themes of sci-fi and traditional Japanese architecture.


My name is Xiaopeng Shen. I started my first job as an Environment Concept Artist back in China in 2012. Then, I moved to the U.S. and continued studying 3D art because I want to do so. I currently work as a Material and Texture Artist for First Watch Games. I was in charge of building the Environment Material library and creating procedural textures for Rogue Company. Besides Art, I also like helping the TA team with performance analysis, optimization, and write some customer shader code.

The first time I heard about Substance Designer was through a tech demo from Uncharted 4 in 2016, in which the developer talked about using new procedure software for the texture pipeline. All the procedure features like auto tiling, flexibility node are super attractive to me. Thus, I started to learn this software by myself. 

Japanese Geisha Project

The Japanese Geisha is a personal project which aims to explore the organic object-creating process. I get the idea from the movie Sakuran. The colorful imagery of that movie just inspires me of the cyberpunk color. Therefore, I decided to create a project to show the combination and the contract between traditional Geisha art and sci-fi element. After that, I did some research on both traditional Geisha references and spaceship references. 

In general, I like to manage my project through different graphs and organize each graph in a vertical way. The Blend node represents the “enter” key to me, so once I finish any part, I like to blend them and start the next part in a new line. By doing that, it helps me track my logic easily.

Face Process

The face part is a combination graph with Hair Clip, Flower, Flower_Leaf, and Face Foundation. Since the Flower_Leaf and Face Foundation are test graphs, I will not include them in the article.

For the main face part, I used the Directional Warp node a lot. I will use the right eye as an example: First, I get the general shape through the Crescent Shape node, then I Directional Warp it with itself to push the shape sharper to the left and reuse this logic until I get the muscle shape for the eye. Second, I use the Bell Shape node and the Capsule Shape node to get the pupil shape. Since a human’s pupil is higher than the eyeball surface. So, I transfer the pupil shape and blend it back on another larger Bell Shape. Last, I use the eye muscle shape as a mask to control the blend strength between the eyeball and the muscle part. 

The challenge for the human face is that the transition between facial organs to the bone should be very soft. To achieve the softness, I got the eye’s silhouette and used the Edge Detect node to get the silhouette’s edge, then I blurred the silhouette’s edge and reused it as the mask for the Non Uniform Blur node. Like that, I can control how sharp the eye part joins the face's Height Map. I use this logic to help me create a smooth female face.

Once I finish the face, I start to merge it with other graphics. During creating the flower graphic, I face a problem is the petal of peony are very large and each of them has many random warps on the surface. So, I find out that the Gradient (Dynamic) node with the Perlin Noise” node and can help me create this kind of natural shape.

For the color process, I use the Normal Map, Shadow node, and High Pass node to help me create a smooth color transition.

The last step is the packaging. I chose to export Height Map, Opacity Map, ALB Map, Roughness Map, and Metallic Map for further use.

Background Process

The Background graphic is a combination graph with Butterfly, Sci-Fi-Pattern, Background, and Wood. For the Sci-Fi-Pattern graphic, I create different sci-fi patterns through nodes like Shape, Bevel, Transform2D, Mirror, Curve, Histogram Scan, and so on. Then I use Shape Mapper and Blend to combine those patterns in the main graphic and make the large circle. 

For the butterfly part, I use a lot of Splatter Circular node with Bell Shape node to create the butterfly wing, and I use different wing heights as the mask input for the Tile Sampler node to create the color dot on the butterfly wing. 

For the background pattern, I used the splatter circular with a large pattern amount of gradation shape to help me generate multiple circles. Then I use two other Circle Shape nodes to cut the fan shape, and I use the Tile Generator to blend them together. Then I blend all those graphics together and add some connection pattern through the main graphic. The last step is tweaking the Color, Roughness, and Metallic, I constantly screenshot my graphic and tweak the tone in Photoshop. Then, using the result as a guide to help me get the result that I like. 

Some Suggestions for Beginners

Substance Designer can give the user a lot of conveniences, even you want to change a detail in the last step, you can always go back to the root node. However, it also can be frustrating for beginners. So, here are some of my personal suggestions for anyone who wants to build a complicated shape through Substance Designer:

  • Analyze the complicated shape of many pieces and start from the detail.
  • Keep a Photoshop file or notebook when you need to draw the structure of that piece.
  • For each piece, keep a silhouette layer and a Height Map layer. This can help you blend pieces together in the future.
  • Have a clear Height Map logic, so you can easily blend different pieces correctly.
  • For an organic shape like a human face, any grey ZBrush model can be helpful, and analyze how the light reacts to the face, and how to transfer that visual result to a 2D image.
  • Keep learning and exploring. There are always some new ways of using Substance Designer that can blow your mind.

Xiaopeng Shen, 3D Material Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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