Substance Designer: Making Incredible Materials with Daniel Thiger aka “Dete”
Daniel Thiger is an experienced artist in the game industry, but he only recently started picking up Substance Designer. By dedicating his spare time solely to the learning of it, he managed to master the software and achieve mind-blowing results pretty fast. In this interview, you will learn more about his workflow, and maybe even get a tip or two!
Hey, Daniel! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Could you introduce yourself to the community?
My pleasure, thanks for having me. My name is Daniel Thiger, I grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden, and am currently residing in Seattle with my wife Bella.
What is your background?
I’ve been working in the game industry since 2005. My career started at Dice in Stockholm, Sweden. Over the years I held many different roles, from Environment Artist, Concept Artist, to Technical Art Director.
I worked on most Battlefield games released during that time, the last one being Battlefield 3.
In 2011, I moved to Seattle to work for Bungie as a Lead Environment artist on Destiny and Destiny 2.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Being an environment artist, I can get inspired by almost anything around me from nature to architecture to artwork on websites like ArtStation. Natural materials offer an infinite diversity when it comes to shape and material response, so personally, those have always been the most interesting to create.
I’m also fortunate in that I work with a bunch of very talented artists at Bungie, which is a continuous stream of inspiration.
How did you discover the Allegorithmic tools?
I was introduced to the tools during an Allegorithmic presentation at work a few years ago. At that time, we evaluated it mostly as a tool to help us automate certain tasks and not really as a content creation tool.
Substance Designer and Substance Painter kind of fell off my radar until I ‘rediscovered’ them not too long ago, and was blown away by the art that people were creating with it.
So in my spare time, I decided to finally try to learn Substance Designer properly. I started by watching all the video tutorials and breakdowns that I could find, even ones where the subject matter wasn’t of particular interest to me. There is always some nugget of information you can pick up.
You recently created an ArtStation channel just to post creations made with Substance Designer. Could you tell us more about it?
I pretty much set up the ArtStation account to document my own learning experience and to help me stay consistent in quality. In order to learn and understand the capabilities of Substance Designer, I wanted to use it exclusively to create my materials and not rely on other pieces of software to bail me out.
Most of my career has been focused on creating natural environments and terrain, so I was curious about recreating those kinds of materials.
With so much 3D scan data around these days, there is a unique opportunity to utilize them as reference for nuances in shape, diffuse, roughness, and normals. You can really zoom in on details and try to match your Substance textures more closely to real life examples. 3D scanned quality is almost impossible to match but it’s been an interesting experiment and challenge to see how close I can get with 100% Substance Designer generated materials.
To me, the advantage of the Substance Designer workflow is that it’s scalable. Once you have a finished substance, just by tweaking a few parameters, you can easily create endless diversity. It opens up new opportunities for giving and receiving feedback. For example, art directors now have the ability to give feedback even after something is finished, which was previously almost impossible when dealing with baked or sculpted textures.
How much work do you usually put in creating one Substance material?
It depends. Since it’s my pastime entertainment, and I’m using my evenings and weekends, I don’t really keep track of time. But typically something like 10-15 hours, depending on the complexity of the material. There is a lot of trial and error involved, since what I like one day I might dislike the next, but ultimately it’s based on when I think it’s completed.
When a Substance material is finished, I like putting together a simple scene in Marmoset to contextualize my material. It’s a useful tool to help me catch smaller issues that I may have overlooked.
Could you make a breakdown of one material you find particularly interesting?
Sure! Most of my materials are rocks, so let’s walk through one of those. This material is a desert rock slab with small rocks and pebbles scattered around.The original reference was taken by the Curiosity Rover on Mars.
The first step is to create a separate graph for the main slab shape that will be the base for this material.
Instead of setting up a series of shape control parameters, I rely on the ‘Random Seed’ function to create the diversity I need here.
In the main graph, I use three instances of the newly created Slab node. Just by tweaking the Random Seed slider, I quickly generate shapes that I like. These get connected as pattern inputs on a Tile Sampler node. Tweaking scale, position, rotation, and color generates my main shape.
I then create another separate graph for the small pebbles using the same technique as I did for the slab shapes. I use three different Tile Samplers to generate different scale pebbles around the slab shape. The Mask Map input is heavily in use to make sure there is minimal overlap of pebbles onto the main shape.
The last element to this material is the sand component, which is just an inverted cell noise with some warping applied.
Warping, detailing, and layering are added to the slab shapes before combining all of the components together using the Height Blend node. This node is extremely useful, as it doesn’t just output the blended result, but also a mask for how the inputs intersect. These masks can then be used when working on diffuse, roughness etc.
For Diffuse, I create the sand and rock detail separately and then blend them together using the output masks from the height blend nodes.
Which nodes do you usually use in your workflow?
Almost all of my materials start with the Tile Sampler to generate the main shapes. With all of its input parameters, you can customize the output in any way desirable. It’s crazy powerful. I tend to use all of the available warp nodes and also Slope Blur for details and shape manipulation.
When I need to blend shapes together, I find Height Blend to be among the most useful nodes.
For diffuse and roughness creation, the obvious superstar is the Gradient Map; it can sometimes be the only thing you need. I also tend to use Dust a lot, it can be used to brush surfaces with a layer of sand, snow, or dirt.
What tips would you give to artists who want to start out with Substance Designer?
Since my job includes building most of the environment art shaders we use at Bungie, I have a strong node-based background, so I felt right at home in Substance Designer. But even so, I pretty much started learning the program from scratch.
I guess for a new user, it might be daunting to see all of the nodes and confusing to interpret how they are best combined. Watching tutorial videos of anything made in Substance Designer was a very useful learning tool for me. You will quickly get exposed to many of the nodes and different ways of working with them. Another great way to quickly learn is to dissect other artists’ graphs, Substance Share is a great resource for this.
Once you start building your own materials, I think it’s important to focus on the shape (height) first. Try not to get distracted by details like diffuse, roughness, etc. until later on. That’s why when creating a new material, my base setup is just medium gray for diffuse and roughness, which helps me focus before diving into details.
It’s important that your height information is as accurate as possible, as it might hurt you later on down the line. Subtle differences in height can be hard to catch by just looking at the height information. However, with tessellation enabled in the viewport, it’s very easily caught. That’s why I recommend enabling tessellation in the 3D viewport even if you’re not considering using it as a part of your project. It will help you understand how different shapes relate in terms of height. For instance, if you have vines growing on top of a rock, you want them to hug the cliff and not sit meters above the surface.
Are there any features you would love us to implement?
Something I find myself wanting to do is to warp/bend shapes or details in a specific direction. There are quite a few ways to do this already, but they don’t really offer any precise control. I find myself wanting to use some kind of lattice tool or the ability to bend something along a curve, kind of like the Puppet Warp tool in Photoshop.
It would also be interesting to be able to do WorldMachine-style erosion. I recently took a stab at creating something like it, which turned out ok but still pretty far from what could be achieved with Worldmachine.
Terrain creation is already possible within Substance Designer, but what sets Worldmachine apart is its erosion filters. I think with that capability integrated, Allegorithmic could seriously tap into the market of terrain generation.
What are your next projects?
I think I’m barely scratching the surface of what Substance Designer is capable of, so to further explore and learn, I plan to continue making more projects like the ones you can find on my ArtStation account.
Other than that, I’m working with a couple of friends on a hobby project for mobile devices. It’s a turn-based strategy game set in World War 2 called Day of Victory. Being the only artist on the project, I tried looking for ways where Substance Designer could boost my output.
For instance, we needed a few medals to be built. Traditional 3d modeling/rendering would have been sufficient but time-consuming. Instead with a substance I created, we can now generate as many medal permutations as needed with very little effort.
Which Substance artist inspires you and would you like us to interview next time?
The high quality work of Chris Hodgson, Bradford Smith, and Peter Sekula really caught my eye when I first picked up the program. They continue to be great sources of inspiration.
An old colleague of mine just started an ArtStation account dedicated to Substance Designer experiments. His name is Eric Wiley and he is someone to look out for.
Lastly, could you send us a picture of you and your working desk?