Elie Paquiet, a Junior Texture Artist, explained how you can create a procedural material for a Japanese-style house using Substance Designer.
Hi everyone, my name is Elie Paquiet, I’m 23 and I’m a french Junior Texture Artist at Ubisoft Barcelona where I’ve been working on Hyper Scape. I had the amazing opportunity to join the Barcelona studio right after my graduation in June 2020 and it is my first experience in the game industry as a permanent employee. In the past, I had contributed to the Dekogon’s Horror and Decay Materials Set with many talented artists.
Like many children of my generation, I grew up with many well-known titles like the old Assassin’s Creed. And the more I played the more I wanted to be part of this amazing industry and I really wanted to work on AAA games. So, right after getting my high school diploma, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in a french school called Pôle 3D to learn environment art.
About Substance Designer
I discovered the Substance software three years ago, firstly with Painter. I was texturing my assets with classic grunge collections and materials and one day I decided to open Designer to do my own stuff with my own parameters. And then my life changed, I instantly fell in love with the software. The way it works, the nodal workflow, all the different possibilities. I’m still super impressed by what can be achieved with Substance Designer. As I often say, with Designer, the only limit is our imagination.
I checked a few famous Substance artists on Artstation, tried to imagine and understand how they work, what their processes were and what their pipelines were, why they are using Substance tools, and not something else. This inspired me a lot and I quickly understood that I had just found my way and I really wanted to master it. I wanted to have expertise in material creation. I practiced every day for a few months, I made many experiences and mistakes, I tried everything I thought about. I learned all of the nodes by plugging everything everywhere just to know what were the different possibilities the Substance Designer offers.
I think my young age has a lot of influence on my work. Like many junior artists, I really want to build my skills and show what I’m capable of. I need to challenge myself.
Idea and Inspiration
The main idea of making this substance material came when I saw a fabulous work of Erica Cai and Daniel Harris.
I didn’t really plan to make this material. I just thought that it would be nice to have a Substance material of this, so I opened the Substance Designer and started with the guardrail, simply to see how it looked. Getting complex shapes is difficult with the Height Map, as it only extrudes the shapes without modeling them. It’s impossible to go for the behind details as it is extruded and not modeled.
I gathered some references from Google, Pinterest, and also Artstation. As it is a 2D texture, I wanted to keep a full front view of the building. The goal here was to have an interesting result and to modify and adapt the reality to make this material doable without losing too much detail. So I set myself the challenge to make it and I started a big work of research on what to do, how to do it, and how to give life to something flat.
Setting Up a Multilayer Structure
Before anything else, the first thing to do is to “model/sculpt” the facade of the building. With the Height Map graph being impressive and big, it is easy to get lost. I tried to stay as clean as possible during my process and so I worked every element of the same height level together to make the final Height Blends easier. Here, each frame corresponds to a different layer.
Height Map graph with all the different layers:
The different height levels step by step:
First, the guardrail part which is on top of the lower floor.
The second floor blended between the two roof tiles layers:
Finally, the roof tiles blended with all the structure:
The Height Blend node is the key. If all of my layers were well set-up I only had to do one Height Blend after the other without any problem. It allowed me to combine different layers neatly and save clean masks of every part, which will be useful later for the albedo and roughness maps.
After every Height Blends, I used an Auto Level node to get back the true black and white values and create contrast in the Height Map.
Do not forget that in the Height Blend always keep the contrast setting equal to 1.
Creating a Wood Pattern
The wooden surface of the facade is the second level of detail of this material, with the first one being the modeling of the Height Map. A big part of the details come from this layer and it is the visual identity that is at stake, so I made a lot of research on surfaces that I liked. I got a big inspiration from Pierre Fleau’s work which has been really enlightening. So, I used the Gradient Dynamic node with a Perlin Noise node and a Gradient Linear 1 node. Here’s the graph of the large wood fibers:
Here’s the full graph of the large wood fibers blended with small wood fibers and micro details. Once blended, I add some surface imperfection and porosity (grunge and dirt):
Once the modeling of the Height Map and my wooden pattern were done, I blended the wood base on top of each element that required to be wooden.
A nice and cool thing I like to do, once you have the wood base finished, instead of blending it straight onto the different parts, is to use the Safe Transform node several times to get different scales and offsets to create more variation.
For the front wooden beams, those that are located under the roof, I added a tiny variation with the Swirl node and it gave me wood fibers that were neither horizontal nor vertical nor straight. The fibers were curved for the front beams.
Iterations and Parameters
One thing that is interesting to notice is how much the Substance Designer is a powerful tool thanks to its ability to iterate while keeping a non-destructive workflow. With this system of construction, every element is easily replaceable. For example, the first floor was built with only 2 units, which you can see on GIFs below, assembled thanks to the safe transform node (it keeps the tiling safe and clean with exact offset values, like -1, 0, and 1 for the exact position of each unit), and so we can imagine a full panoply of different modules and then create an infinity of variations.
Some example of modularity for the first floor:
Even though this material was not made to be customizable, it still offers certain possibilities. In addition to the first “modular” floor, some values can be tweaked to obtain different interesting results, like for the flags or the rolling shutters.
Obviously, the color palette, as well as the family crests, can be changed. The length and seed of the rolling shutters can be changed with a simple Directional Warp node.
Different examples of doable coats of arms:
A simple Directional Warp drives the rolling shutters:
Once the Height Map, normal map, and AO map set, I start working on the Albedo and the Roughness.
I usually follow the idea that every element has to have an impact in the Albedo as well as in the Roughness. It is very important as a big part of the details rely on these 2 maps, and they should not be neglected.
Concerning the colors, I used a simple color palette that reminds me of a Japanese ambiance. I wanted to recreate a strong and solemn atmosphere.
Usually, for the Albedo, I start from a curvature from one of my custom nodes, the EP_Curvature. I only blend a simple Curvature node with a Curvature smooth node in AddSub Mode. It is a simple way to combine the normal intensity and the amount of curvature.
It works simply and allows me to reach out for the amount of detail I need very easily directly via my Height Map. On top of it, I multiply the AO map so that the curvature and the AO drive the next Gradient Map nodes.
Base color process:
I always create some color variation with a simple Flood Fill To Random Grayscale node. One for each element: the roof tiles, the windows paper, the tapestries.
And then blend it in Overlay mode on top of my base colors, so every element will have a different shade of the color it had. It adds a touch of randomness and gives more life and a more natural aspect to the material.
One of the biggest challenges was to keep it fully procedural. After all, this material is not really complicated and advanced but it is indeed a weighty and substantial work, so you really have to stay clear and keep a certain rigor. You should always keep in mind what you want it to look like in the end.
The final graph:
I’d say the part that challenged me most was to create something believable. As well as in the shapes as in the colorimetry. I tried a lot of things before to get to this result.
When I finish a material, I always imagine a context, a situation where it could be used, but in this case, the material is different. It was more like a diorama/environment for me. I wanted people to imagine a little scene when they look at it, to feel the spirit of it and provide a particular feeling. I did not want my material to be realistic as I always like to add a stylized touch to my work, something to make it different from another artist.
Renders in Marmoset Toolbag
I think that today, in the industry's mind, a material must be represented on a sphere. Even though not every material looks good on it I think it is always important to show that it is a material. Applying your texture on a sphere deduce it is a material.
But I think it is also important to show that the material is usable and that it works in every situation you may encounter. You can apply it to different primitives and it will always work.
In addition to the primitives, I always like to make some beautiful shots of the materials I made. It shows the material in its normal usage, how it will look during production.
In Marmoset, I confess, I don’t really have a method. Usually, I apply the material on a plane, I add a strong skylight with an Alpha as a cookie, then I play with it until I have an interesting result
When I render my material, most of my attention goes to the colors. I try to make them look the best, and have good contrast. I’m really focusing on a colorful result because I think the most colorful images are those that speak the most. I like to make people imagine a story by looking at my pictures.
Advice and Afterword
To learn SD, I’d say you mostly need time and patience so you can learn and assimilate all the different aspects and every possibility this software offers. And please, never give up when you feel like you can’t do it!
There is one thing I encourage everyone who wishes to learn SD to do, is to push the limits of what’s traditionally possible to make. Making materials useful for productions is good, and we need them. But making “portfolio” materials like this one can be really enriching. Concretely, we can not really use this material, but it allows you to learn so much about the software and go for an original result that will make your portfolio different from another artist.
Watching and learning from others is a method that allows you to get the logic the Substance Designer requires. By luck, the Substance Community is huge and is present on a lot of social networks. Do not hesitate to ask for help, watch other artists’ work on the dozens of Discord servers and Facebook groups.
There are tons of articles and Substance dedicated contents on the Internet, my favourites are probably the different talks published on the Substance YouTube channel. They are not really tutorials but they are absolutely inspiring and they encourage you to keep it up!
I also encourage people to download some .sbs on Substance Source. This is a great resource for whoever wants to learn and see how materials are done. It gives ideas and leads to solve the problem of “How do I make this?”. The signature collections are especially super helpful!
Of course, I can’t fail to mention the SD Fundamentals by Daniel Thiger. It is complete and well explained. It introduces super useful notions and can help you to understand how SD works.
If you have any comments, critiques, or questions, please just reach out and ask me!
Thanks to 80 Level and Arti Sergeev for giving me the opportunity of writing these few words. It was a pleasure! I really hope it will help or inspire you as much as I did when I was reading other articles and breakdowns here.