, by Onur Dursun

Onur Dursun Reinvents the X-TAON Showcar

Creating high-end automotive images with Substance, 3ds Max and Corona render.

  • Interview
  • Transportation

I am one of the children who played with cars the most: it started with Hot Wheels and went on to building with Lego bricks. 

At some point I started drawing cars. At that time it was much more fun for me to use my pen to draw either existing vehicles or to bring my own interpretations of cars right out of my head, onto the paper. So, even as a child, I’d already discovered my first interests in design. After I got my first PC at the age of 13, I scanned my drawings and drew the lines in Microsoft Paint and filled the faces with solid color. 

When my older brother saw how ambitious I was, he borrowed Photoshop CS2 from a friend. So I came in touch with Photoshop at the age of 14. I started to modify existing photos and created renders on 2D basis.

During this time I noticed that I wanted more than just 2D. I wanted to see my own design ideas in 3D. That’s how I came into contact with 3ds Max at the age of 16. With this, I quickly learned how to model surfaces and how to model and render my own vehicles. 

Together with the amazing Substance team, we joined forces for a very cool project. My task was to bring the car, which in the first place had completely different goal, to a level where it could later be used to create high-end visualizations. The project also had a special background: we wanted to show the use of Substance apps for automotive visualization, but also the value of the asset libraries already offer. 

When I think back to my early days in 3D, it was an extreme challenge to become a generalist. To be precise, you had to rely much more on yourself and your skills. 

Today, the number of assets offered — and their quality — have increased dramatically. So an artist can focus more on the design instead of spreading their effort on so many different task, unlike when we had to generate almost everything from A-Z ourselves, such as materials, textures, 3D models and HDRI.

The Exterior: revealing the shape of the model

Modifying the X-TAON car model

When the X-TAON car was created, it needed to fit specific requirements. It was going to be used for a texturing contest, and some of the details didn’t need too much attention, since they would be more contextual and not the focus point of images. But for my part in the project — the creation of PR visuals — the lights and wheels needed an update, because they would be visible in hi-res renders and closeups. 

In the X-TAON, not all the details are in the model since it is a concept car — I focused on what was already present in the model so I could highlight these elements. If something was missing I added it (headlights, etc.). 

I used 3ds Max to remodel existing parts (the headlights and wheels) with a custom design; in these cases, I used classic poly modeling. I made sure that the shape and appearance of the headlights matched the overall look of the car and integrated well. During that phase, we regularly checked with Takumi Yamamoto, the original designer of the X-TAON concept car, to make sure that my updates would fit his design intention.

Takumi, upon seeing Onur’s final renders of the X-TAON, had this to say: “Finally! I am very happy to showcase the original purpose, intention and the full potential of this car & the project through there great images! Great job Onur! And big thanks to the Substance team!

After Before

It took some time to get the rims right. Not everyone might agree, but I believe that rim design needs to be specifically tailored for the car. Vehicles have their own ‘character’ and not every rim matches that. It’s like going to the optician and buying a pair of sunglasses: a good optician won’t recommend just any frame. A large part of which design fits best depends on your personality — it is the same with rims. 

I created an overview of several existing designs to see what kind of rim would fit the X-TAON. With this overview, I came up with a design in my head and started modeling on the iPad with Shapr3D software. 

Getting to the final look

When I work on visuals, I try to get to my final look as quickly as possible. That’s why I don’t really break down my workflow in stages — modeling, preparing, texturing, staging, rendering. There’s only one single step in my mind: getting the final look. I tend to rely a lot on my experience. 

When I prepare a car like the X-TAON — sporty and classy, Gran Turismo style — for PR visuals, there’s only one type of car paint that’s really going to work: silverish greyish metallic. Silver paint is often chosen by car designers because it’s the most efficient. Indeed, in a design visualization use case, what we want to show is just the car under its best light. This is the best color to showcase the car under a maximum number of angles, in a 360° environment.

It’s a professional convention of sorts: a red car paint wouldn’t work in the shadows, and black paint wouldn’t reveal the shape of the car. I’d have to go for other colors if we wanted to do a special campaign with new colors, I’d have to work with a palette, but the PR visuals work within a specific convention that gives me a good idea of what will yield the best results. 

Over the last 15 years of creating digital vehicles, I have built up my own material library. All the technical materials you see in the X-TAON are from my personal shader library.

But I didn’t have everything I needed, and I had a lot of fun creating missing textures with Substance 3D Designer for my shaders. For example, I used the textures for the brake discs, headlight normals, leather materials. See, for instance, how I used Designer to create a perforated leather, which I later used on the steering wheel.

Working as a Digital Photographer

For this project, I worked as a one-man studio. It was vital for me to organize well and avoid burnout on one specific task. As mentioned above, I consider all the phases of the workflow as one: preparation for the final render. This means that I need to focus on tasks which will get the most impact. Being efficient helps me maximize results, and then I can fine-tune. 

The first thing that I have to do right is the materials. If they’re not done well, the light won’t look good. 

Then, I concentrate on the lighting, which needs to match the shape of the car. I actually follow the same rules as for portrait photography — in a way, I am creating the portrait of a car. And just like portrait photography, the model doesn’t matter as much because my job is to get the best result with the model I have. 

The final part to produce a really interesting image which will catch people’s interest is the look: the image should look moody. 

Detailing the interior

Color serving lighting

In the interior of the car, materials are also essential in getting a refined look as early as possible. 

It’s important to work with area lights: a skylight only (or sunlight) would not be sufficient to expose the details as well as reveal glossier elements. With a “sunset” or “blue hour” scenery, any reflective surface would turn into a mirror of your environment. It’s all a game of finding the right reflection and angle to reveal how the body shape reacts to the environment. 

In the interior, you have more non-reflective surfaces, so it’s crucial to have extra lights to shape and light up specific areas. Of course, that also depends on the type of car you’re working with: convertibles have an open roof which lets in the light. But here, in the case of the X-TAON, we’re working with a coupé. Light enters the interior through narrow openings. That’s not enough to emphasize the interior design. 

The material coloring also has an impact: in a full black interior, very little light bounces, so you’ll have to rely on specular highlights to shape out everything. White-only absorbs too much light, and makes working with light difficult. I wanted to be able to use both lighting styles, so I decided to go for a bi-color scenario for that car. 

Indeed, working with both dark and light brings in a contrast: the bright areas bounce the exterior light, but you still have a balance between bright and dark surfaces. You could also mix things up and have a grayed-out interior, but that could easily be boring. 

Using gray in the exterior isn’t monotone, as it reflects the environment: we get color variation from the world, so nothing looks desaturated. However, for the interior, we’re not going to work with reflections as much, so our colors should be neutral, but balanced.

Setting the stage: storytelling via environments

A note on HDRI and CG environments

At the beginning, when I started my work on cars, I relied on backplates and HDRIs for my backgrounds, as we all did then. But I wasn’t always happy with what the internet offered me, quality-wise. It wasn’t enough for me, so I quickly realized I would have to create my own HDRIs and backplates.  

One of the problems I encountered was that even the industry leaders in that segment weren’t always educated in 3D. So they wouldn’t necessarily provide the HDRI for their backplates. And even if they did, it was sometimes not very qualitative, because they didn’t always know how to shoot an HDRI. Sometimes, they were even unusable.  

Indeed, processing an HDRI at 32 bits is limited; unlike a RAW image, you don’t have the freedom to adjust your color. That’s why, sometimes, the color balance wouldn’t match between backplate and HDRI.  

I moved away from backplates and started creating full CGI scenes because it was less limiting, and so a lot more future-proof.  

In the X-TAON project, we chose to do a full CGI environment because it was interesting to try and make an entire scene with Substance, but also because a full CGI environment just gives you the ability to choose your camera angles. And with that comes the freedom to change the light setup, the time of day, and how light is shaping the car. 

You do need to be careful, though. A car is so glossy that it’s almost like a mirror, so you have to keep in mind what’s behind the camera at all times. The biggest struggle in a full CGI environment is that it’s a lot of work to make sure that nothing unwanted is going to reflect in the car. In a big industry visualization, there’s a full team working on this. But if you’re by yourself, you need to be very watchful to maintain quality, because every detail could reflect. 

Creating the desert environment

I like deserts. I like the creamy, sandy, rocky look, the color palette of the desert, and its look and feel; it suits my style. I’m a big fan of California though — my biggest dream would be to live around LA, and take my car for a ride straight into the desert. It’s a dream of mine and I like to recreate it, like I did for my In The Desert project already.

This project is all about creating great images with the X-TAON. So I asked myself the following questions: how would an art director see it for a campaign shot? They’d want to create a story: where is the car? Is it in the city, driving? What’s the story behind the scene? 

In general, when I create an environment I want to have a house to help with storytelling. We are at home; this is a weekend car for a really successful person.  

Since I’m not an architect, and I had to respect the project deadline which didn’t give me time to create a massive residence from scratch, I bought a pre-made house online and made some small modifications to make it my own, and applied materials from the Substance 3D Assets library on it.

The walls changed colors through my iterations, until I finally decided to go for what ended up the final version. I also expanded the model with a garage.

Creating the city environment

This wasn’t my first car park scene. However, it was always a challenge to create the surrounding area. 

Anyone who has created a 360°-capable scene knows that this is quite time-consuming for a single person, because from every angle everything must appear cleanly detailed and plausible. Even if you master this challenge you have a big opponent in front of you that is difficult to defeat: memory. 

I tried to fill my older parking lot scene with lots of Evermotion assets. However, I quickly reached the limits of what is possible. The scene quickly becomes slow due to the high number of details and polys, and the work becomes inefficient. That can cause you to lose the motivation to create. 

Textured Clay

This is where the Substance 3D assets have helped me a lot. I grabbed a few building facade materials from the library and saved a few styles. Then, I prepared very simple low-poly boxes with the correct UVs, and put the textured them with the resources from Substance 3D Assets. After using a scatter tool to distribute the boxes in the surrounding area, I had a light but dense city; this all took me just a few minutes. I was very taken by the idea to setdress a scene in this innovative way. 

Taking 3D photos of a car

Photography as a reference

A 3D photographer creates commercial photography. His or her job is to shape up things that exist already and try to make them look as good as possible. You could do really abstract imagery with a car, but we still need to create a commercial image. You can get powerful inspiration from work that already exists. I believe that you are only as good as your references. 

As for us, CGI content creators in the commercial industry, we have to rely on photography. Whether we’re creating packaging, cars, etc. — we are recreating real life. CGI here, with 3ds Max and Corona, is used as an alternative to photography.

You can even be your own source of references and take photos yourself. I do a lot of photography to train my eyes to get the angles and lighting right.  

There are many ways to choose the right palette for a campaign. Here, we decided to go for a neutral warm summer morning ambiance without heavy effects added in post. I often like to recreate a style that feels like the petrolhead who drives the car has their own camera gear and takes images here and there. He or she uses almost only the available light, catching the right time to shoot at the best possible place.

Your images always should have a key light which establishes the look of your renders. It can be an HDRI, it can be a built-in sun/sky system. It’s best if no more lights are needed, because that is always the most natural. Less is more!

I’m not that satisfied with the final images today, because getting all the details right in a full CGI environment is nearly impossible when I’m alone, and working with limited time. However, an artist is also going to progress with every project, so it’s normal to both love and hate your own work, because you always see what you could have done better. Still, you have to recognize which elements in it are good. This is fuel for improvement! 

As a content creator, you should always look back at your previous work and take some notes about the difference with your more recent stuff. You will get better, and if you can see what was wrong with your previous work, your skill will improve! You will progress.

More about the X-TAON project with Onur Dursun

Watch Onur join Pierre Maheut to discuss automotive CGI with Substance on Car Design Dialogues.

Read more