The Meet MAT 2 Winners! Part Two: Displacement

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This is the second part of a series of articles interviewing the winners of the Meet MAT 2 contest, and after taking a look at art direction, this time we examine displacement. The second edition of the Meet MAT contest differed from its predecessor by allowing artists to use displacement in Substance Painter on the mesh, thus allowing for even more creative possibilities. Most of you took full advantage of this new rule and we were thrilled to see all the different forms you gave to our beloved MAT. Let’s explore the winners’ take on MAT using displacement, starting from the original mesh:

William Ruhlig, ‘Polar CliMATe Scientist’  

When I first saw the contest, displacement was highlighted as being a newly available feature allowed in the contest. So I knew for sure that, whatever I created, I wanted to take advantage of this.  

The first step was to jump into Substance Painter and see just how far the displacement could be pushed. I was excited to discover through experimenting with the settings that one can get a detailed and strong displacement that could completely revamp the underlying model.  

I experimented first with the penguin’s face, seeing if I could achieve what I was visualizing in my head with pure displacement, no modeling, and just by pushing the surface out perpendicular to the model. This has the limitation of no overhanging areas, and you must make sure that you don’t clip the mesh through itself. I did this in certain areas, like the fur, and I used various procedural masks and paint layers.  

I started with a larger brush to establish base shapes, and gradually reduced the size and opacity to create smaller and smaller details in the height. I did find, however, that lower-strength brushes are more effective when working with height because they make softer changes; if the brush is too strong, the effect can be very sudden, sharp transitions. These sharp transitions can be cool for making hard surface shapes though, and I used this for making various things like the bits of equipment mounted on the character like his walkie-talkie and ‘Faux-Pro’ camera.  

As I mentioned before, this was my first-time using Substance Painter at all, and I found the process intuitive and very satisfactory. I think that adding displacement really adds to the feeling that an object is real. Very few things are perfectly flat and smooth, and normal maps can only go so far for the illusion of rough shapes. I had a lot of fun figuring out just how far I could push it; this involved a lot of playing around and getting familiar with the tool before I found what worked.   

Nikolay Marinov, ‘KukerMat’ 

Because of the big difference between the height values of the horns and everything else I had to constantly rely on Levels to control the height more precisely. The most important part is that I used most of the alphas that come with Substance Painter to hand-paint the shape of the horns. Everything else was just playing around with alphas and noises to get the result I desired. 

I use displacement a lot in my materials in Substance Designer and then in Marmoset Toolbag 3 when I’m rendering them out, but I’ve never used it in Substance Painter. It was like puzzle-solving because I had to carefully plan out which details I wanted in the height versus only in the normal map. Having the horns extruded so high on the head meant precise work with all the other elements of the head/mask. 

Adam Scott, ‘Sea Monkey’ 

Once I was happy with the design I painted on the model, I’d create simple layers to start blocking in regions of the mesh. Generally, these regions had their own displacement material type, so I slapped on an initial color, metalness, and roughness to help provide a full picture of what I was creating.  

Once I was happy with the main forms then I’d block in some medium-sized details. Some of these were displacement-only layers. After each pass, I’d go into finer detail until my graphics card reminded me I needed to upgrade (sadly at 2k resolution).  

Since I set up these displacement layers in my layer masks, they later served as ‘region masks’ by using Substance Painter’s anchor points. This means that if I wanted some grunge to affect just the brass helmet, I wouldn’t have to recreate my paint mask, but instead reference the earlier mask I painted.  

The monkey face displacement was painted in a single layer’s mask, and it took a lot of finessing. It didn’t work well if I had irregular strokes or noise in the displacement mask, so I found it easiest to break the face into simple shapes then detail on top.    

Other than some basic experimenting in school, I’d say this is my first time using per pixel displacement.  I was amazed at the amount of detail you can pull out of it, and how well it worked with Substance Painter’s Iray renderer. 

Florian Bobe, ‘SubMecha’ 

First, I planned my views piece by piece, so I don’t get lost when painting details. So, painting with an intermediary software (Photoshop), I first painted the face from the front view, then the side, then the back.   

I’ve had to be careful on the superposition of each piece, so they don’t go together awkwardly. I did multiple pieces of the same part for the head.   

Of course, I had to do a lot of testing for the exposure displacement, so that it isn’t pushed too far, or not enough. In the end, I just projected all my alphas on the 2D view, so they don’t distort the alpha. 

It was the first time I’d used displacement. I had to interact with all the functions of it, and just had to play with all the settings! 

Ayi Sanchez, ‘Sea Sadness’ 

Displacement was very minimalistic since I was mostly relying on good materials. Also, it’s difficult to make complex shapes where albedo doesn’t get too stretched or distorted. This usually works better with clean or simple stuff, but I still managed to use it for the handle and the planks and metal parts. Since I typically work on games, I try to be realistic with what I can achieve with my given tools.  

In the parts where I used it, it was mostly hand-painted stuff, I did some high-poly versions only if needed and got them baked into height maps that I later used as stencils. 

It was my first time using displacement in Substance Painter. And it was quite easy; to be fair, I guess if I did it again now, I’d have tried to get more use out of it, but without compromising albedo details. One of the things that took me the most time to figure out was how to project it nicely — quite a difficult task in some cases. 

Francesc Loyo Valls, ‘Ancient Mat Armor’ 

The displacement feature was a key component behind the creation of the Ancient Mat Armor. Coming from the Substance Designer pipeline, I’d already used a similar process. I started with the height map, going from the big shapes to the small details. After testing different techniques, I found that the use of fill layers with painted masks was the best way to edit the displacement. This was the best process that I found to work in a non-destructive way because the fill layer allowed me to control the final amount of displacement, independently from the design or pattern used in the mask. 

I also used filters to modify these masks to define and polish the shapes, carrying the mask information from the previous layers and modifying it a bit with the Blur filter and the Levels filter. With this technique I would create different layers and overlay them to get the result: 

I’d only used this feature before in Substance Designer. I found it a very interesting and useful option for this project, and if my Ancient Mat Armor has ended up looking the way it looks, this is largely the reason why. What I liked most about this tool is that, starting from a 2D base, it allows you to model and sculpt in a very organic way. 

Guilherme Marconi, ‘A Tale to Illuminate the Backlands’ 

My MAT is inspired by the traditional stamping process used in printing cordel booklets, in Brazil. I started trying to find the correct shape to represent the attrition engendered on the wood during the stamping, and the best way to do this was really using the displacement.   

It was my first time using displacement, and the setup was very quick and intuitive. I discovered how powerful it is, and how it can create fantastic results in subsequent projects. I keep studying more about how to use it; the experience is really incredible. 

Keep an eye out for the third and final article of this series, which will explore texturing and layering! 

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