Chris Hodgson, One With The Substance
While you see objects and colors, Chris can directly read the Matrix code: his ability to interpret patterns and reproduce them via Substance Designer is simply impressive. So let’s talk a bit more with Chris Hodgson, the man who reads the code: we may learn one or two tricks during the process ;-)
You can find his Artstation right here.
Hey Chris, it’s a pleasure to talk with you! As we always do before to delve into the heart of the interview, can you introduce yourself to the Substance community?
My pleasure. I'm Chris Hodgson, I grew up in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, in the UK and studied computer animation at Teesside University. After graduating I got my first job in the games industry and since then I've worked as an environment artist on a number of projects large and small including Watch_Dogs, Tom Clancy's The Division and Payday 2.
While my actual job title is still environment artist, I have increasingly become more and more interested in texturing over the years and now it is easily my favorite aspect of what I do.
You are one of our avid Substance Designer power users, creating awesome Substances on a regular basis, but do you remember what first led you to discover and use our tools?
I had known about the software for a year or two but it wasn't quite on my radar because at the time it wasn't industry standard and I simply didn't know many of my colleagues or friends using it. (That has all changed now, of course!)
Then just over two years ago, a lot of high quality texture work using Substance Designer started to appear on various forums and game art community sites. Hugo Beyer and Josh Lynch are two of the culprits behind this impressive work and I quickly realized how powerful the software actually was and that now was the time to start working with Substance Designer.
After months of using Substance Designer in my spare time after work and at lunch, I posted my first finished Substance on ArtStation and I have never really looked back since. Now I can't walk ten feet outside without seeing a potential material I can replicate lurking in a patch of mossy grass or a cobbled street.
What do you think are the main strength(s) of Substance Designer compared to other texturing applications?
I'd say that the major strength that keeps me coming back to Designer is its very non-destructive nature. Placing and arranging various 3D assets into a tiling pattern and then baking the result to a flat plane has been the default way of creating tiling textures for a good number of years now. Whilst I enjoy this approach and the high quality results it delivers, once complete it is very difficult to change aspects of your texture. Just adding an extra row of bricks in a tiling brick material for example can be a lengthy task as you have to delete and then manually replace your individual brick meshes into position once again.
Substance Designer allows these kinds of modifications to become as simple as moving a couple of sliders left and right. This increase in speed enables me to be more creative with the composition and content of my textures and the work is very easily reused in other substance materials in the future. I also just find it to be really good fun seeing the results of your work so quickly.
Do you think there are still some misconceptions about Substance Designer and procedural art in general?
Definitely. There is a lingering misconception that procedural art is somehow less creative and I've even heard the opinion that it is somehow taking control away from the artist. Personally, I've never had more control or felt as creative as I do when I am creating textures with Substance Designer. Luckily the proliferation of successful Substance pipelines in top studios around the world speaks for itself and is slowly putting these misconceptions to bed.
I believe these kinds of attitudes can arise from a fear of change rather than something inherent to Substance Designer specifically.
With a good amount of industry experience and a developed workflow, people can find it hard when a new piece of software drastically increases productivity and quality and makes a part of their workflow obsolete. This is understandable to a degree, but I don't believe that it is a sustainable attitude to have in the games industry due to the speed at which it evolves, I really enjoy the constant development of the tech and tools and it is something that is no doubt here to stay.
While you could sometimes decide to rely on bitmaps for small details (like leaves), you generally go 100% procedural: what are the pros (and potentially the cons), in your experience?
In production I use both methods for creating the smaller details but it really comes down to if it will be quicker to build them in Substance Designer or in an external application. Usually it’s best to build complex shapes externally and bring them in as height maps, but with simpler details you can go ahead and build them right in Designer.
The art that I post to ArtStation usually uses a more 100% procedural approach because I really like the challenge of keeping everything inside Substance Designer. I always learn new things when I take this approach and every new technique I learn by pushing myself in this way helps everything I make going forward.
What do you do when you don’t texture?
I like to spend time with my friends in the center of Stockholm and when I'm not doing that I like to play games and watch films. I've also recently gotten into photography and when I get the time I like to travel to new places to put the camera to good use.
Who would you like us to interview next ?
I'd love to hear from Bradford Smith, especially something about his workflow!
Finally, what about making a breakdown of one of your Substances for the community to learn from your workflow?
Over the course of creating more than a few rock Substances, I have discovered a good way to get a good base to start with. I use simple gradient maps multiplied together to get a shard that can then be scattered around with Tile sampler nodes. If you blend the two gradient maps with the (min) darken blend mode rather than multiply it can also give slightly different but still pleasing results.
In order to give the base rock a little more realism, I warp the shard I made in the previous step with “crystals 1b”, a custom node that allows me to alter the size of the crystals normally generated with the regular “crystals” node. I actually warp 3 times using this method with different crystal scales in order to get good variety in the details.
Now I use the tile samplers to position the shards with various amounts of randomness in their scale, value and rotation. The two tile samplers position the shards at slight angles to each other to give good directional flow to the rock surface going forward. The first tile sampler is then used to cut into the second using the darken blend mode. I use a histogram range node to position the cut at the height that looks the most visually pleasing. I take the result, offset and darken again in a similar way as before to get another cheap set of details into the rocks highest points.
This next step includes more cutting away at the rock shape. However, this time I also add some rock details into the lower areas of the height map using using the (max) lighten blend mode. I also do some slight blurring in the lower areas to keep the texture from having such harsh height changes. It helps the rock surface look more worn and eroded.
With the large scale shapes complete, I move onto smaller and smaller surface details. I blend in a small amount of grunge map 4, subtract some scratches and I build a complex noise pattern with medium to small details that is then used right at the end to directional warp and slope blur the rock height. This is the stage where the rock surface really starts to feel realistic with a range of shape variations from large to small.
Some more cutting into the shape using the darkening technique used earlier.
This is the last stage editing the height information before it is output to the normal map. I always add the smallest details right at the end. I use moisture noise to directional warp the surface a tiny amount and add in some final micro details with black and white spots 2.
Now onto the rock color. I warp the final height data using the complex noise pattern from earlier in the graph and pass the result through two different gradient maps. I then use a mask created from two of the preset grunge nodes to blend between the two. I also create a simple dirt gradient map in a similar way that will be blended in the next step.
In the final steps I combine the dirt and the rock base color using the the dust node. This allows the dirt to only sit on the upwards facing parts of the rock surface.
To finish the base color I add some very subtle amounts of curvature with some level adjustments. This just makes the final color pop a little more than it normally would.
The roughness is really simple and constructed from the results of previous stages of the map with a small amount of grunge added on top.
From there I output all the maps and present them in Marmoset Toolbag.
Chris just released some of his most famous Substance files on Gumroad: don't hesitate to support him ;-)
You can find Chris's Artstation right here.
And here is a look at his personal work space right here: