The Flare Pistol: Texturing and Lighting a 3D Weapon

David Woodman discussed in detail how he textured his Flare Pistol in Substance Painter and presented it in Marmoset Toolbag 3.


Hello, my name is David Woodman. By day I am an Art Director but by night I like to create small assets for fun.

I have been in the games industry for fifteen years now, during that time I have been a part of nineteen published titles. Before all of that though, my first taste of game development was back in the late '90s. I would often work on my own game modifications in the evenings after school. One thing led to another; I went to art college, then specialised in videogames when I studied at university. 

There are many great articles on which explain the workflow for weapons/assets from start to finish. However, this is not one of those. What I'm going to focus on here instead is my pursuit for detail within that common workflow, and where and why my approach may differ from others. 

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The Flare Pistol: Idea

Whilst searching for reference for another project I came across this rather unusual-looking flare pistol. The peculiar trigger shapes and pivoting breech block sets it apart from many weapons.

The moment I found the Czech flare pistol, I knew it would be ideal for another personal project I had in mind – to create an asset with the clear objective to pursue as much detail as possible. These old vintage pistols have so much character in the finer details, it was a perfect fit for my texturing intentions.

Hard-Surface High Poly and Sculpting

We pick up the process where the high poly model is almost complete and bakes cleanly down to the low poly model, which is almost ready to head into Substance Painter.    

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Before I start texturing though, the first couple of steps of the detailing process require sculpting. First, I do a pass over the sharp metal edges to blunt them as it's an aged pistol after all. The intensity varies from a few big slices out of the edge, all the way down the spectrum to light dents and dulling. I find it easy to get carried away during the damaging process so restraint should be exercised, otherwise the prop can start to look stylised if there are many large cuts and dents. 

The second part of the sculpting process is to add a few sizeable scrapes into the wooden grip. I always try to delay as much of the detailing process into Substance Painter because of the flexibility and control it affords. But edge damage and large dents always look better coming from the high poly sculpt.


Most of my material work involves generating textures from scratch in Substance Painter with admittedly an inordinate amount of masking and stencils. There are some exceptions though where I find using a photo base will give great results, the wooden grip on the pistol is a demonstration of this.

Before a texture is taken into Painter, I prepare the image by reducing the luminosity range in Photoshop. I convert the image to the LAB format, then using Shadow/Highlights adjustment I strip back the contrast to get a neutral base to work from. Then finally a quick curve adjustment to recover the luminosity.

Repurposing a grainy tree bark height map I had to hand, I masked in macro wood details such as the subtle splintering in areas where I felt the pistol would receive blunt impacts.

These small details help communicate the vintage age of the wood, along with the subtle fading of the varnish on exposed corners or areas that receive frequent handling. For example, the rear of the grip becomes worn from frequent pressure from the user's lower palm.

When it comes to wear and tear on metals, I always take the route of manual masking through stencils rather than generators. Crafting the damage this way takes notably longer to complete the pass but greater control over the end result is worth the time investment in my opinion.

I generate my stencils from the photos of specific damage types, paint scrapes and scuffs are great for creating more natural-looking damage and are quick to mask. Making a damage sheet is an investment but, if the amount of reuse my sheets get is anything to go by, it pays off tenfold in the long run.

The damage detailing extends beyond contact with the ambient environment though. For example, I added radial scrapes around the pins that hold the pistol's components together. Metal pins like these can get wedged in pretty good sometimes, especially when heat expansion is considered. That is when the odd tool is required to persuade the pin out of its fitting with a pulling twisting motion, and as a result, the tool leaves scuff marks. 

Often you will see people generating the kerned elements in the high poly mesh, but I prefer to apply these through a height mask in Painter. I find it faster to produce this way, and crucially it gives me control over the density and intensity in the final normal map.  

My process for adding stamps to the metal has an additional height setup to what you may commonly see. So the first height is to generate the indentation as you would expect. The second set of height adds a raised area around that stamp.

So the theory here is not all of the metal material gets compressed back into the body when struck with the stamp tool. Rather, some of the material moves perpendicularly relative to the striking direction and creates a raised area around the indentation.

Like with many weapons, the parts of the flare pistol would have been machined from a block of metal on a cutting tool such as a lathe. Finer cutting marks in my reference images alluded to this so I set out to replicate this, even exaggerate it slightly to emphasise it to the viewer.

Substance Painter's brushed noise provided a more than adequate mask, however, a standard tri-planar projection fell short here in practice due to the UV layout. As a result, multiple masked projections were required to make sure the cut directions made some logical sense. 

Not every contour on the pistol appears to be shaped by a lathe though. In the reference, grinding on the rear of the barrel clearly suggests the frame for the breech was crudely cut in with another tool. It is always worth keeping in mind tooling methods and the marks they leave on surfaces, I believe it makes manufactured items appear more authentic.

Detailing Elsewhere

I stuck the goal of detailing throughout the project even on the peripheral items that make up the main scene. On the shells, I added finer brushing details to the colour band, I made sure it not only had that manually painted feel but also featured paint loading.

By paint loading, I mean where too much paint has been drawn on to the brush, and therefore when the brush is applied to a surface the excess generates raised edges. I reinforce these areas by darkening the base colour to suggest there is more paint material here too. 

For the vintage box, I added in shell indentations to give the impression that the ammunition had been stored in the box for a long period of time.

Outside of the aforementioned, I tried to add as many small details as possible to help reinforce that all these objects are vintage items. For example, the date markings, tired old labels, labels that had been peeled off, warped box corners where moisture has penetrated the cardboard over time.

Much like the pistol, with the box, I modeled in the minimum details required and deferred as much as possible to Substance Painter pass.

Initial Camera and Post Setup

When it comes to the camera and post, the first thing I always set up is my field of view (or focal length). I find the longer 50mm focal length more flattering for object close-ups when compared to the default 28mm in Marmoset Toolbag 3.

Overall, everything looks more balanced in the 50mm to 70mm range. At shorter focal lengths object proportions can appear exaggerated, whilst north of 70mm objects can start to look flatter as the field of view becomes narrower.

In my opinion, it is a worthwhile time investment considering the focal length in relation to the subject matter. Especially before any composition/placement setup is undertaken. As you can see above, focal length choice significantly changes the outcome.

Along with the focal adjustments, I also switch from the Linear tone mapper to ACES. ACES is one of the most widely adopted tone mappers in real-time engines, and for good reason too in my opinion. It provides great contrast and colour giving that film-like quality. It is a good starting point compared to Linear if your objective is to achieve a more realistic look.


For the lighting, I set myself the task of capturing that museum show cabinet look to fit with the vintage theme, so I was looking for a generous amount of top down high contrast lighting from a few sources.

With any scene, I start with desaturating everything into black and white through the camera settings. I do this so I can evaluate the scene light exclusively in terms of brightness and contrast.
As you might have seen in many tutorials and articles, a three-point lighting setup is commonly used for showcasing props. It works so well and transcends game art, photography, film, etc. My setup is an expansion on that: whilst I still use a fill light and key light, I have two back lights. Usually, these are positioned at rather acute angles to the camera and mirrored from the center point of the subject.
I use two back lights as the extra rim lighting results in helping the shape of the subject pop. Due to the acute angles of the back lights, the intensity has to be high to bring sufficient impact to the final image. 
I always give my lights some shape as it assists with two important aspects. First, it gives a broader source, it is particularly noticeable on the back lights as the length catches more edges. A bit as if the light source was bounced or projecting through a diffuser.
The second aspect is the effect on the shadows, it helps to simulate to some degree the soft shadowing we see in real life. Depending on the distance from the caster to the affected surface, the penumbra changes and so does the shadow sharpness. 

On the topic of shadows, whilst I might be tempted to light every angle of the subject to show off my texture detail work, for example, its critical shadows are present in the image to bind everything together, equally as light does. Photographer Shaun Tucker does a great job discussing the importance of shadows in this video:

One rule I adopted from elsewhere was the idea that light always carries a warmer or cooler colour due to its Kelvin temperature. It is a subtle adjustment to tweak the lights to a warm/cool off white, but I believe it benefits the final image.
Throughout the curve editing process, I'm primarily looking to ensure there is no unintentional loss of detail from shadows that are too deep or conversely highlights that are completely blown out. Or, that I am not using the desired intensity range as shown by Photoshop's histogram. Secondary to that, I am looking to bring the desired amount of contrast by simply modifying the midpoint of the curve.
In key scenes, I expand the lighting setup to add more polish to the pistol, adding a stack of local spotlights to catch various edges to help elements pop and draw the viewers’ eye. This is a technique you'll often see used in offline renders or static/baked lighting for environments, but it works just as well here with dynamic lights if you are prepared to take a possible frame rate hit.
My final point related to cameras and lighting is I will often follow a strategy of having a specific lighting setup per shot, much like film or photography does. It is a little extra work but helps make the most of each image when you have the finer per-shot control with the lighting.

Parenting each light set to its camera provides two benefits. Firstly, when the camera moves the light set remains at the intended orientation for that shot. Secondly, it helps me to keep the scene manageable when producing the final renders. Toggling the camera visibility ensures the correct child lights are enabled for that camera during the capture.      

Scene Setup

Even though I built a fair few assets to show the pistol off in a small scene, it turned out I did not quite have enough to create a proportionally balanced scene. In the image below, you can see there is a rather awkward empty space below the pistol.

The scene had already reached peak shell saturation, so adding even more was not a solution to the composition problem. Alternately, I spent an evening generating a lanyard that I could place in the space below the pistol. The flowing shape of the lanyard also made a welcome visual change to the numerous hard-surface elements in the scene.


Thanks for reading to the end of this colossus of an article! With a bit of luck, I hope to have brought a few of my methods and ideas to your attention that you can utilise in future!

Considering the article length, this only really scratches the surface of all the subtle elements that supported my goal to make a detailed piece of real-time art. If you wish to see more of the pistol or further breakdown images, these can be found in my original ArtStation post.

David Woodman, Art Director  at TT Games Studio

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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Comments 2

  • Marlow Adam

    I love the effort and detail went into explaining it! Great results too!


    Marlow Adam

    ·3 years ago·
  • Anonymous user

    Wow! Very impressive! I am still wondering how you painted the label onto the ammunition box.


    Anonymous user

    ·3 years ago·

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