Chico Spans: Creating Stunning Environments with Unreal Engine and Substance
We at Allegorithmic spend a great amount of our daily time browsing the web, looking for the best Substance creations out there, to reshare them with the community. There is obviously a lot of great content, but sometimes there is an artwork that really shines and catches our attention.
It was the case for me, with the Abbot FV433 Tank interior made by Chico Spans. Not only was the scene complex and gorgeous, with a lot of attention to details, but it was rendered in real time using Unreal Engine. Therefore, we decided to contact Chico to see if he would share some of his secrets with us.
Hi Chico: before we start, could you introduce yourself to the community?
I am Chico, 23 years old and I live in The Netherlands in a place right next to Amsterdam called Diemen, but I will be moving to England soon to do an internship at Playground Games.
I am also a student at NHTV where I am currently in my third year.
At an early age, I developed an interest in everything that involves creativity, and I have never stopped exploring since. The first thing that I remember that had something to do with environment art was creating landscapes out of cardboard and papier mâché for Warhammer merchandise, and from that point, I took it digital.
You have been working as an environment artist for a few years now: how would you describe this role in a production?
I have been swapping between professional positions at Sticky, personal projects, educational studies and freelancing for Bluehole. For me, being an environment artist is about helping shape the game world from beginning to end. An environment artist is important in the early stages of a project to create benchmark assets, work on the blockout together with level designers, create and shape the world during production and make sure that everything is optimized for the target platform.
Substance Designer has been part of you toolset for quite a long time right now: do you remember in which context you discovered it, and what made you stick with it?
I figured out about Substance Designer because I am part of a lot of Facebook/LinkedIn communities so I am aware of most of the trends and developments, and I basically started noticing a lot of projects being made with Substance.
I did not immediately jump into the Substance boat, but I have always kept it in the back of my head as something interesting I should try out one day or another. For my first Substance, I made a concrete wall and I was immediately sold to Substance, the entire package felt intuitive and it changed the way I approached texturing entirely. I think the key factor for me to stick with Substance is the ability to change a texture at any given point even very far down the production pipeline.
Did you stumble upon any nice node combinations, to build effects or save time?
I found a lot of nice node combinations but I tend to use a lot of combinations to make objects “sink in”, especially useful for materials like bricks, pebbles etc.
This is a set up I use a lot, but there are other setups that work better for other scenarios. To save even more time you can replace the shape with an input node and add an output node at the end, to make it into a single node.
I used it to achieve the sunken into the sand look for the River Pebbles Substance.
The procedural art approach for texturing has been evolving a lot recently: people showing skepticism a few years ago are now praising the Substance. How did you see this evolve in your work environment?
Making the move from more “traditional” methods like Photoshop to Substance has been a move that in retrospect I should have done way sooner. The entire Substance package has been liberating and has made my pipeline so much more flexible and a lot quicker, allowing me to focus way more on the aesthetics which in turn helped me push my work to a better quality.
Now tell us a bit more about your tank interior project! What motivated you to choose this scene?
The main reason why I picked up the tank project is that I wanted to diversify my portfolio with more hard surface assets to show that I am capable of that as well. I also used a lot of Substance Designer at this point and wanted a project that would allow me to explore Substance Painter as well.
In the early stages of the project I was looking into creating a submarine interior but after doing some research it felt a little like overkill to do next to my studies, but I might do it in the future.
You decided to use Unreal Engine to make this scene: what were the main challenges related to the real-time aspect of your project?
The main challenge was the lighting. The scene is so cluttered that I had to work a lot with contrast for the entire image, but I also wanted to light all the scenes for the detailed video properly. In the end, I went for a baked and dynamic solution where all the main light sources like the sky and directional light are baked for proper bounces and most of the smaller highlights and fill lights are dynamic.
Now time to share some of your expertise!
My workflow is pretty straightforward: I start out by modeling a blockout to define all my main shapes and get a feel of how big or small the space is. I also split my blockout in assets that need to be made.
I then build a base low poly for my high poly, after which I use the base low poly to create my final low poly after cleaning up support edges etc.
I always make sure that all the objects I want to bake are named according to the Substance Painter naming convention.
Baking in Substance Painter
The baking tools in Substance Painter are a real time saver, they can bake every isolated object at once if you use the Match by Mesh name feature. Usually, I bake my normal/ambient occlusion at a lower resolution first and check those for errors. Once it’s error-free I will bake every map at the desired resolution.
Defining base materials
Once the baking is done you can very easily start defining your base materials. The way I approach this is by using the Polygon fill tool and set it to mesh. I then throw in the smart materials I think I will need to very quickly get an idea of what will be what.
As you can see in the image, I’m using some out of the box smart materials and I created some myself. With the tank project, I initially invested some time in reverse engineering smart materials and combining them to create specific smart materials for the tank to save a lot of time later in the process.
At this point, I find it a good idea to complete the pipeline and import everything into the target engine, and for me this was Unreal. I used the default Unreal 4 (Packed) export preset, and inside Unreal I made my master material to support the packed textures.
By completing the pipeline in the early stage you will get a really good idea of where your values should go, what are the visible areas, what needs more or less roughness, do the colors represent what you had in mind and most importantly what areas should be detailed.
I consider the detailing the most fun part, this is where I start telling the story. Has it been used? if so what gets touched the most, what parts rotate, what parts slide and will this affect the surrounding texture? With detailing I find it extremely important to use both procedural methods and hand work, to take control over the texture and give it the artistic touch it needs.
For the tank, most of my detailing consisted of adding dust and dirt and adding text to the text panels. I know Substance Painter has a text tool now but that was not released yet when I worked on the tank, so I created a black and white mask and loaded it as a stencil to project the text onto the panels.
Once everything is detailed and in target engine, I usually tend to do some more tweaks to the color and detailing to really make it fit in with the rest. For example, by adding some scratches that go from one object to another to tie it all together.
Overall I feel the Substance package is something that has redefined the modern pipeline and it’s not going to stop there. Thanks for having me and best of luck to every CG artist out there.
This is my (cleaned up ) work area, I hope you enjoyed reading the article.