, by Pablo Munoz Gomez

Knight Creature: Showcasing Character Art with Stager

Pablo Munoz Gomez creates a stylized character with the Substance 3D toolset

  • Game
  • Interview

Hello! My name is Pablo Munoz Gomez and I’m a 3D concept artist and educator. I work as a freelancer for different studios, mostly during the pre-production stage, to develop concepts for characters and creatures. The other side of my ‘day-to-day’ job involves teaching online and developing instructional content relevant to the film and video games industry. I use a lot of different tools in my workflows so I also get to test and play around with new software to provide feedback.

I was born in Colombia but I moved to Costa Rica with my family when I was in high school; that’s when I had my first contact with 3D. I remember a friend had a magazine with some tutorials in it (I believe it was a rollercoaster tutorial on a very early version of Blender), and that was the first time I realized that getting into 3D was actually a job or career option.

Fast forward a couple of years and I enrolled at university to study ‘Digital Animation’ but it was a very new program (I think I was in the second intake of students for the program). Since the program was pretty new, I (with the rest of my class) was like a ‘guinea pig’ and we had to test a lot of the things… Ultimately, I think that because we were forced to figure things out as we moved along, it helped me to ‘fail’ faster and learn from the mistakes I made and I also got exposure to a whole bunch of workflows.

After graduating from university, I moved to Australia and enrolled in a Master’s in Animation and Interactive Media program where I got exposed to even more tools. I started to get small jobs, then some bigger ones; I started teaching 3D and eventually I got very comfortable with 3D concepts, and that’s what I do now.

Knight Creature

This is a character that I did for my 3DSnippets which is a personal project where I aim to complete a polished piece every month and people can subscribe to see different bits and pieces of the process and help me drive the content that I shared (kind of like a Patreon).

So the focus of the project was on building PBR materials and to show a bit of the integration of the Substance 3D tools. I chose to sketch a very stylized character because it’s always fun, but I kept it very simple so that I could focus on the surfaces and materials.

The character is some sort of fantasy medieval warrior and, because the focus was to show the material building process to my students, I decided on this theme so that I could explore different materials like leather, fabric, metals, wood, and skin.

I had two goals for this project:

For my 3DSnippets followers: to create something where I could demonstrate a simple and powerful process to create PBR materials without too many technicalities. Hence the use of Substance 3D Sampler.

For myself: To test out a workflow using some tools from the Substance 3D ecosystem to build base materials, texture a character and render it for presentation using Substance 3D Sampler, Painter, and Stager respectively. I was also part of the beta testing team for ZBrush 2021.7, so I also used this project as my testing ground to play around with the new ZBrush features while I was setting up the sculpt and base meshes.

Sampler to Painter to Stager workflow

I chose to try out this workflow for 3 reasons:

Simplicity – Sampler is a very powerful tool and really easy to use. I wanted to show this software to my students and reiterate the fact that you don’t have to get very technical. Substance 3D Stager for the rendering process also has virtually no learning curve once you understand the basics of the PBR workflow.

Convenience – One of the things I like the most about the Substance 3D tools is the integration and how easy you can move between them for prototyping. I love the fact you can click one button to send your custom materials from Sampler to Painter, and that you can then send your mesh and materials with one click to Stager for rendering. In fact, aside from updating the pose of my character, I didn’t feel I had to ‘export’ anything… I was just effortlessly sending things between the tools.

Quality – The third reason is obviously very important, and you can get awesome results. From Sampler you can get some really neat materials from simple photos. Substance 3D Painter is king (for me at least) when it comes to texture authoring, and Stager is a super-straightforward tool to get a high-quality image from your project.


Sampler → I used a combination of AI-powered tools to generate materials from photos and various adjustment layers to refine the look of the material. In most cases the automated tools in Sampler get 80% of the job done; the remaining 20% is just tweaking things to make the material tileable, and to add details like dust or dirt and maybe blend it with other assets before sending it to Painter.

Painter → In Painter I work primarily with fill layers and a bunch of custom masks and generators that take advantage of mesh maps like normal, curvature, and AO. I like to keep my base materials from Sampler relatively clean and simple and then blend them in Painter. For instance, for a rusty metal surface with some moss, I would create 3 materials in Sampler, one for each material: metal, rust, and moss. Then in Painter, I can use the custom masks and generators to add rust or moss only in the areas I want. Another awesome tool in Painter: anchor points, which in this project I used for details like stitches and painting height maps for ornaments around the shield. Setting up anchor points with masking layers allows you to paint details in the height and normal channels that also get affected by any other generators from other layers.

Stager → I don’t have much of a technique on this one because it’s very simple, and that’s exactly what I like about it. Sending the project from Painter to Stager doesn’t take too long and it sets up all the materials and texture sets for you so you can concentrate on ‘staging’ the character. In terms of lighting, I kept it very simple as I wanted to do some presentation renders that would showcase the design of the character and the quality of the materials. I tested a few environment maps to get some nice reflections, especially on the metal pieces, and then added a couple of lights to accentuate the silhouette and the face of the character.

The ray-tracing feature in Stager is fantastic, but one of my favorite features is actually the image match. You can basically bring any photo into Stager as a backplate and if you select camera match, Stager is going to do some magic to align the camera and angle of view to match that backplate. You can even try to match reflections and light sources from just a photo!

Image processing in Sampler

Step 1 for me is always a bit of research and finding references for what I want to achieve, so I collected a bunch of photos of different types of leather and metallic surfaces.

Step 2 consists of finding a good image for a specific texture or taking a photo with your own camera. Cloudy days work best for custom photos, and the flatter the perspective the better.

Step 3 is about bringing the photo into Sampler and choosing the AI-generated material option to get the base material 80% ready.

Step 4 is just a refinement process to fine-tune what you want to get out of the material you are building. This step is a lot of fun because you can use a wide range of adjustment layers and combine them to create all sorts of interesting patterns and surface details. For instance, using a couple of ‘cracks’ adjustment layers and ‘scratches’ over the leather material can be tweaked to simulate a damaged leather surface.

Step 5: An optional additional step is to simply send the material to Painter and quickly test it out on the mesh and go back to Sampler to tweak it further if needed.

Rendering in Stager

As mentioned before, the process of rendering in Stager is pretty straightforward. You can just bring the model from Painter and you’ll get all your texture sets connected and materials applied to the model, so you can basically choose a camera angle and turn on ray tracing and you’ll get a pretty impressive result. This image is literally a two-click operation: 1. from Painter click on File > ‘Send to Substance 3D Stager,’ and 2. Once in Stager, enable the ‘Ray Tracing’ switch:

One of the more specific tools that I use, and I think is awesome to speed up the ‘staging’ process of the model, is the snapping feature from the gizmo, to scale and set up the scene.

I also love playing around with the environment rotation (shift + right click and drag) to find cool speculars and reflections, especially on the metallic surfaces.

Another of my favorite and most impressive feature is the camera match. I like to put my characters in context and a simple photo as background could just do the trick. In Stager, you can just bring any photo as a backplate and use the camera match to get the perspective and lighting from the image.

I also like to adjust all the camera good stuff like the angle of view and a bit of DOF.

And obviously, to wrap it up, I use ray tracing for rendering, and that just gives some amazing results.

Key takeaways

I’m pretty comfortable with most of the tools and workflows that I used in this project, but there is always something to learn with every project. Here are a couple of little things that I found interesting and that I make a note for my next project:

Setting a high value for the height in Sampler will look very noisy and exaggerated in Painter, but I found that it gives me more control to adjust it during the returning and blending of other materials. I can just play with the opacity of the height channel to reduce the intensity.

In terms of tips, I’d definitely suggest trying out anchor points in Painter to add further details and that take generators and masks into account. If you work with plain base materials, like I did for the metal pieces, but you want to add some more manual decorations, you can create a new layer and paint the height channel and use anchor points to reference the effects of other layers like rust or dirt so that the generators react to the manual details.

Something else that I tried just for fun was the Mixamo rig and the add-on for Blender to work on the pose. although this is a stylized character and the A-Pose I had while sculpting wasn’t ideal for rigging, the Mixamo automated tool did a pretty good job. With a quick weight painting pass to adjust the hard surface bits, you can get something pretty decent to create a nice pose for the character.

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