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Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Jonathan Holmes has presented a couple of tutorials on using NDO and DDO. These guides to Quixel SUITE might be a perfect start for your hard surface texturing experiments, so take some time to study them and be sure to spread the word.
Here is a little piece of one of the two guides:
Intro to NDO
A general overview of the 3DO interface with my tank car loaded.
Before we start doing any work, here’s the vehicle that I’ll be demonstrating. I’m building normal details for a Trinity Rail 31,808 gallon tank car used on United States and Canadian railways. I’ve already baked out the normals I need for rounded edges, but I’ll be doing the rest of the detailing entirely in NDO. Bear in mind that while I’ll be working on a vehicle that’s probably different than what you’re developing, the techniques and theory will be perfectly compatible with any hard-surface (and even organic) project.
To build this vehicle’s normal map, I’ll need a lot of references to properly reflect its real-world details. To start, I suggest that you begin collecting reference images into a scene organized with a tool like PureRef. Using a camera or camera phone, you’ll be able to photograph things that you may have trouble getting reference of with a Google Image Search. I prefer to get my own up-close shots to supplement anything I find on Google – here’s some of my personally photographed reference for this project.
PureRef is an amazing tool and comes highly recommended from the Quixel staff.
Setting Up Your Workspace
Laying out your workspace is another vital part of successfully working with NDO. Photoshop’s default layout is not entirely intuitive for most texture artists – its default layout is cluttered with unnecessary panels and doesn’t really have important tools within easy reach. It’s a good idea to lay out your Photoshop panels to utilize less screen space in your main display. I use three 1080p monitors, so I keep Photoshop’s primary window on the right with Layers, Channels, Paths and Navigator located adjacent.
Using as much of your screen(s) as you can will help you work efficiently and keep your workspace clean of the plethora of Photoshop panels available in an unmodified workspace. You can create your own workspace that the program will use each time you load it if you’d like to keep your workspace the same when you start Photoshop: just position your windows and panels the way you prefer them, then click Window → Workspace → New Workspace. The name you give it is entirely up to you, but I’d suggest picking something you’ll remember easily if you ever need to switch to a different layout.
PureRef is on the left with the 3DS Max Command Panel. 3DS Max is in the center with two Photoshop panels, and Photoshop itself is on the right.
I’ve provided the layout that I personally use in the image above. Photoshop is located on the right, 3DS Max is located in the center, and PureRef occupies the left monitor. There’s some overlap in the programs – Max has the Command Panel torn off which sits on the left monitor, and Photoshop has several panels taking up the right-most part of the center monitor. This allows me to see more of my work with the least amount of navigating and unnecessary moving-about. Photoshop will pop under or above what I’m doing in my center screen depending on which program I’m actively using, while PureRef is aligned to the edge of the Command Panel so that it never pops up over Max.