Sci-Fi Mat: Mastering Material Production in Substance Designer

Carlos Perfume-Garcia discussed the production of his Sci-Fi material made in Substance Designer, talked about the presentation in Marmoset, shared his approach to working with material structure, revealed biggest challenges, and his ways of learning the software.


Hello everyone, my name is Carlos Perfume-Garcia. I am an Environment/Material Artist working at 343 Industries. Basically, I do texturing for the assets that are used in the environments. I graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design and just recently started working at this company, so I have only contributed to the current game that we're working on. The rest of the works in my portfolio are mainly personal pieces I've done on the side.

Discovering Substance Designer

I think I've always been interested in textures since I was a child and I wonder at how it's such a prevalent concept in our world. I find it to be a core part of how we visualize reality and live our lives in a world of textures. When I was learning the game creation pipeline at school, one of the first things that I really enjoyed making was materials. I then took one summer to get as good as possible at it before my senior year. I learned from the masters like Rogelio Olguin, Daniel Thiger, Josh Lynch, Clark Coots, and Enrico Tammekand. Just seeing how much could be done in Substance Designer kept me motivated and made me want to explore it all the way. I've been using SD for at least 3 years now and I keep finding new nodes and workflows to try out. 

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Sci-Fi Mat: Goals

With this project, my main goal was to practice sci-fi more in-depth. I also had a side goal of creating something industrial and playing around with emissives. I started to gather references for submarines, planes, and other machines. Trying to distort the shapes and exaggerate them to get the feeling of sci-fi was part of the plan. I wanted to go more in the Star Wars direction with my sci-fi style. With that in mind, I just decided that I would approach the project by stacking basic shapes and using subtraction a lot.

Material Structure

At the beginning of production, I always set up all the output nodes like AO, height, etc. I make sure that there's a blend node at the end that I'm plugging everything into. Then I dive into making the height, AO, and Normal first. Sometimes, I make materials with multiple graphs but for this one, I was not planning on mixing anything so I decided against it. The first thing I decided to tackle was the main structure of the metal plating. Once I got all the bolts and polished the main metallic part I decided that the next step would be to add the circular vent part. I saw this element in a lot of other materials as well as in some submarine pictures and that inspired me. The structure of the entire material was the following: Main frame, Secondary elements, Pipes and pipe masks, Medium details, Wires, and finally Small details. The medium details were the biggest part of this material since I didn't have too many main elements besides the circular vent.

Height blend was an important node that I used for this material. Most times when I want overlapping bits or control over the height I tend to use the height blend node. Something that's always important for sci-fi is clear functionality. I think that in this case, the functionality was created during the process of designing the material. I wanted it to read as some type of canister that could be opened and lit up to show you if it was functioning properly. 


Setting up the metallic was pretty simple. I played around with different grunge maps to see where I wanted the roughness to come through. I also used AO to control certain corners of the mat to get some minor imperfections. Balancing the roughness and the metallic is where it started to get more complex. I made sure to have a high dirt grunge pass on the roughness so the AO looked more realistic. Here, I again used the dirt node, AO node, and different grunge maps to get the roughness where needed.


Apart from designing the material, the most challenging aspect was balancing the material so that it had all the features I wanted to incorporate and could communicate the main concept I had in mind to the viewer. I found myself redoing the pipes three times just to make sure they overlapped correctly and looked rounded enough. Picking out the colors is something that took a while and I had to redo it a couple of times as well. 

Hard-surface projects can be tough because just like with a lot of other materials, it is about maintaining crisp and beveled shapes that are not too noisy. This can be really hard to achieve in SD when you start to blend all nodes into each other; shapes can start losing definition if not finessed properly. Balancing the roughness and metallic can be pretty difficult too if you don't have a clear idea of how the surface should feel.


Marmoset Toolbag is a great tool for presenting materials and models. I have a very specific way of presenting my materials. The trick is to get a good three-point light setup which is pretty common. Sometimes with certain materials, I like to play with lighting and use one or two additional light to throw some more color on my material. I love adding bloom to my materials. An even bigger part of the process is controlling Global Illumination and AO/Cavity map to get a nice balance. The final thing I do for most of my materials nowadays is playing around with the curves in the tone mapping to add some slight variation in contrast, exposure, and color. It usually gives the material that extra sparkle, almost like adding a nice filter over an already nice photo.

For this part, my best advice would be to make sure you're using all the features Marmoset has to offer but also controlling them and analyzing what your priorities are. This way you will know what you can change or even exaggerate in order to get a certain mood or feeling. 

Learning Substance Designer

I would start by browsing ArtStation. I follow many incredible artists like Rogelio Olguin, Daniel Thiger, and Josh Lynch and they have tons of tutorials that help with the basic and intermediate level stuff in SD. I personally only used Daniel Thiger's fundamentals series and that's it, everything else was just me experimenting with the software and figuring out how to use it properly. I think a balance between personal exploration and using tutorials that teach fundamentals is a great way to get a grasp of Substance Designer.

Carlos Perfume-Garcia, Environment/Material Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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