Learn to Make Realistic Natural Materials
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Learn to Make Realistic Natural Materials
10 February, 2016
Interview

If you are into environment art and 3d art in general, you must have heard about Jacob Norris. Jacob is an incredibly talented texture artist, who worked on a number of big projects including Metal Gear Solid V, Resistance 3 and the most recent hit Uncharted 4 from Naughty Dog. He’s also the developer behind an awesome solution, that helps to build wonderful natural environments in Unreal Engine 4 completely procedurally.

One of his biggest projects today is PurePolygons, which produces great visual and also sells some incredible assets and Unreal Engine Marketplace. Most recently PurePolygons presented a new tutorial “Forest Ground – Tiling Texture Tutorial“, which shows how you can sculpt a great material for your environment project.

You can get this tutorial with a 10% discount if you click this link on our website. The offer is limited to first 10 clients, so do not hesitate for too long. For those not entirely convinced that this package is worth the money, you can read Jacob’s take on environment design and material production.

Introduction

Hi everyone, my name is Jacob Norris and I am currently an Environment Texture Artist at Naughty Dog. I’ve worked on such titles as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (MGO), Resistance 3, and currently Uncharted 4. As an environment artist your job can consist of many things and depending what studio you work at the title can mean many different things as well. What I do personally, as an environment artist, is creating a game environment from start to finish. That means that i will work on everything from the texturing process, modeling, high-poly work, props, scene layout, world building, terrain, etc. I try to learn as much as I can and be a lot more independent about what i am capable of. This isn’t because I love having control, or possession of what I’m working on, it’s simply because the more things you can do, then the less likely it is that you will be out of a job haha. If you specialize too much, there is a higher chance that your job may eventually be replaced by a computer program or fancy new piece of hardware, like scanning devices and procedural workflows.

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As for PurePolygons, that’s a very short story haha. Basically in college for our portfolio class we needed to create a website for ourselves and the URL jacobnorris.com was already taken. So I just tried to come up with a cool name that I could go by and people could remember in order to find my website easier. The name PurePolygons popped into my head and I ended up just sticking with it.

Environment Production

The approach to creating environments hasn’t really changed too much over the years, even with all the fancy new programs that have come out, because approaching an environment always starts out the same. It’s the process of actually creating everything that has only changed over time. For me personally though, the approach always begins with an understanding of what you are trying to create and most importantly what it is being created for. If you are making a video game, the entire environment needs to be able to be explored and every inch looked over. If on the other hand you are simply creating a portfolio piece or a cinematic for film/games, then your environment only needs to look good from the camera angle and the rest can be anything you want since people will never see it. Throw in some unicorns or jaggy poly’s, no one’s looking.

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After you understand your environment and what it will be used for then you can start planning out where to start. Deciding what can have re-usable textures and assets is always the best place to start in order to reduce your work load and know where you need to apply your effort. After that it’s all about modularity, while still finding ways to make those modular pieces look unique. Such as decals, vertex painting, or placing other assets or “add-ons” on top of them to stretch the re-usability of the assets. Then you finish it all off with some nice unique pieces, some sweet lighting atmosphere, and top it all off with your foliage and smaller decoration bits. Like rubble, pieces of paper, debris on the ground, cables, or whatever suite your environment.

Creating Materials

For me personally, I like to create the materials first. Once I have a large library of tiling or procedural materials it makes things a lot easier when you can just apply a re-usable texture and start UV mapping a new model. Unless as I mentioned you are creating a unique prop or centerpiece that requires a 1 to 1 UV mapped material. Then I generally create the High Poly first, bake it down onto the low poly, and start texturing from there. Even then though, with software like Substance Painter, Designer, and Quixel, if you have a strong library of base materials like metal/wood/fabric/etc. you can very easily just start applying materials and painting away. I’ve seen it way too often that a very high quality model ends up being ruined by the texture work, the lighting, or the final render. So starting with a strong set of materials will definitely help with that in the end.

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Generally I would say that material productions always starts with a strong idea or reference to go off of. From there in most cases you will have a very well fleshed out High Poly model that you will be baking down in order to get the nice details inside of your material. Or in the case of Substance Designer, you will just need to have a strong understanding of the node system in order to create the shapes and look to the type of material you want to create.

Using Zbrush

Zbrush can be an incredible tool for sculpting organic shapes and for some people even really awesome hard surface details. If you want to use Zbrush in “combo” with Quixel or Substance Designer, I would say that you can use zbrush to create some nice height alpha’s that you can use in both of the other two softwares for interesting surface details on your model or in your organic texture. Such as creating a leaf alpha in Zbrush or a rock alpha, branch alpha, etc. That can then be scattered in substance across the surface of the material.

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Textures

I believe that the process of modeling the different parts of your texture would need an entire tutorial in itself to properly explain how it works haha, but using it in productions I can provide a small example for that. So say in the tutorial I show how to create broken branches and twigs that I place on top of the texture surface. Well this can be very useful in ways that Quixel and Substance cannot. Because now after I have created my branches in an actual 3d model, not only can I use them as alpha’s and nanomeshes inside of zbrush and other programs, but I can actually create a low poly model from the branch, bake down the details and paint it out so that I now have a branch model that I can paint over the terrain as foliage. So while simply creating parts to my texture I am also creating awesome ground debris that can be used in game!

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Tutorial

This tutorial was actually quite an undertaking for me. Since it is my first full length tutorial video (As I have given presentations and done tutorials in person, but never over gumroad so far). I totally went for it! This is a 14+ hour tutorial showing my entire process for creating a texture from the very start with nothing but an idea and some reference images, to the very end where we take it all the way into marmoset and render it out with some nice photos. So it covers everything! My thought process, gathering reference, sculpting in zbrush, creating a ground plane in substance designer, nanomesh, dynamesh, brush alpha’s, polypainting in zbrush, the zbrush spotlight texturing tool, tiling textures, subtools, rocks, leaves, polygroups, photoshop, marmoset toolbag, and on and on and on haha. It’s like a one stop shop for making textures for videos games! It will help to speed up your tiling texture workflow, hopefully help you to know what makes a texture look good and what hurts a texture, and of course shows you how to make some organic ground goodness.

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The tutorial includes all of the files that you see me working with in the video, like the final ground zbrush file, the photoshop file, substance designer file, and all of the docs and settings that I use for my zbrush setup. I tried my best to make it a video for all skill levels of people. From beginners to advanced users, by starting out slow in each video with the simple keyboard shortcuts and then ramping up the video as it goes on to talk about thought process and workflow.

Procedural Nature of Environment and Material Design

I think that by the very nature of the world, it was formed “procedurally” in a sense. When a river flows over rocks it very specifically forms a canyon based off of all the groves and pits and the canyon it forms under those same conditions would form the same every time. When rain erodes a mountain top and we see the water trails dug out running down the sides of the mountain, it formed that way because of all of the peaks and valley’s that the mountain had when they were formed. So I think that creating worlds and environments procedurally (if you want the world to be realistic and not stylized) is actually the best workflow that you could choose, because it’s actually the most “natural.” Of course it still requires an artistic eye to decide what actually looks good, because not everything that is “realistic” or “natural” necessarily looks good haha. But I’d say that observing the world constantly when you are outside and how rust forms, water leaves stains, leaves pile up in corners and gutters, that it is all done very specifically and naturally. So as you start to come across these natural pieces of art, you can really come up with some time saving procedural techniques in order to get the same effect for your environment. Understanding is the hard part, creating the tools, nodes, or scripts after that is as simple as taking the time to learn it and then you’re unstoppable!

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I believe, that as I mentioned in the last section, that understanding environments and sort of “storytelling” with your environments is the key to making great artwork and making it unique. You can turn a very mundane city alleyway into a crime scene, or some intricate story about an alien abduction, or even keep it as a simple alleyway showing the excellent storytelling of decay and wear. Perhaps a spilled milkshake next to a trashcan, or a pair of shoes hanging from the telephone wires that the school bullies threw up there. Just have fun with it. As well as composition and mood is huge! I’ve seen people creating incredible textures and models that are just WOW, but then they render them out with some lame camera angle or very uneventful lighting or background and it totally kills the piece. In contrast, I have seen completely lame models or textures renders out with an awesome composition. Where the artist took the time to come up with a really cool mood, sweet lighting, and maybe some subtle effects to emphasise their point of interest and it takes their artwork to the next level. So I guess what I am saying, is that presentation is final key. When all of these things come together, that’s when something becomes really really special and this is hard. I think it’s what we’re all trying for, but only a few achieve.

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How to create great environments?

I think people could give a lot of different answers to this question, like time, a good eye, friends, a strong team, the “best program”, but I believe that it all actually starts with how much you really want it. If you’re just looking for the “quick fix” or the “easy” road then I don’t think your environments are going to go as far. There really needs to be a strong passion or desire to make not just a good environment, but the best environment that you can make. Because only that passion is what is going to be there to keep pushing you and telling you that just when you think you’re done you say, I can still make this better. Only once you find that in yourself will you really be devoting the time and effort into creating a great environment, no matter how many tries, or how long it takes. Maybe your first 5 environments will be totally horrible, maybe 10 or 20, or 100, but eventually you will make that great environment. Having and setting a goal for yourself is a good way to actually see that you’re making progress though. Perhaps pick a few artists that you admire and try to achieve that quality. So you have something to aim for, a tangible goal that you can actually see. Then don’t be afraid to take some harsh feedback. It can only make you better.

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PurePolygons’ future

I don’t know what’s next, but I know that I want to have some fun with whatever it might be and I hope whatever it is, that other people will be able to enjoy it also. Please feel free to follow my Facebook or my Artstation page and you’ll be sure to see what’s coming next!

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Slowly, but surely, a chapter 2 to my Forest Ground Tutorial will be coming out. Where I will be creating a snow shader to be layered on top of the Forest Ground. I will then be taking it all into the Unreal 4 Engine and talking a bit about material creation, setup, and perhaps a bit of terrain work. After that I’m definitely up for suggestions and ideas! I hope though to cover a bit more on some other texturing techniques, like some more substance, perhaps some Unreal Engine Blueprints, and maybe some procedural workflow techniques. We’ll see where it goes. Thanks everyone for reading and I hope you’ve enjoy the articles. As I mentioned, if you are interested in learning anything specific from me, please reach out and let me know your thoughts. All the best and let’s keep making this industry awesome.

Purchase “Forest Ground – Tiling Texture Tutorial” for $44.99.

Jacob Norris, Texture Artist

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