Building an Entire City with Substance – A Texturing Story with Mostafa Samir

How came the idea of the Baghdad cinematic project? What were the goals and the visual style you wanted to achieve?

The idea began with the need to use Clarisse iFX in massive environment creation in order to improve my skills. So the goal was to create a fully cinematic shot with animated elements. The reference visual style that I wanted to achieve is similar to Alamut City from Prince of Persia (I’m a big fan of this movie). That’s why I took it as a reference with some other cinematic shots.

Tell us more about your method to tackle this huge-scale project.

The layout and camera animation are the most important phases. I’ve tried and modified the actual environment a lot in these two phases in order to get the look that I wanted.

Secondly, in the asset creation process, I tried to create 360 assets in order to reuse them as I want through the project to save time. Also, I created a bunch of props to be attached to any of the buildings.

The assets are divided into categories:

  • Buildings (Luxury for rich people, medium for the merchants, mall for the public). 
  • General props for the streets.
  • Animated assets such as water, fabrics, and smoke elements.

Why did you decide to use Substance? Was it your first time using Substance Painter?

I was using Photoshop for texturing but this project is different than any other thing I did before. The texturing is very essential because If I didn’t get the realistic details the project would collapse entirely. So it was time to use the next-generation texturing software: Substance.

I’ve used Substance Painter once before when I wrote a “Substance Painter importer” for Maya. That tool helps artists import textures for multiple materials in Maya.

I began using Substance Painter in a small test to see how things go. The test was the city’s old wall and I was stunned by the number of realistic details that I could get in a short amount of time. That encouraged me to continue with the project without fear of limitations.

Could you tell us more about your pipeline and how Substance integrated into it?

My pipeline starts with Blender. Then, I export the assets to Substance Painter and assemble everything in Clarisse for the look development and final rendering.

Actually, because of the large number of assets I have in the project, I decided to eliminate the time-consuming phases in the workflow to save as much time as possible. I began by writing a Blender script to export the finished assets into a folder structure that I made for the project to keep things organized. Afterward, I import the asset directly into Substance Painter. Also, I’ve created an export preset from Substance Painter to Clarisse iFX that matches Clarisse iFX material. Finally, I wrote a script in Clarisse iFX to generate the texture nodes with the color variety that I want. This script was based on the Isotropix script which assigns materials to multiple assets.

Can you give us a step-by-step breakdown of your material creation and texturing with Substance? 

I’ve started the texturing process by creating the base materials for the city buildings. So I created Smart materials in order to reuse them all over the project. For instance, concrete, fabric, and gold.

One of the major Smart materials in the project is concrete. I began this material with a simple concrete layer then added a noise to the texture. I then added an ambient occlusion mask mixed with an edge mask to darken some areas. Finally, I added a ground mask to darken the areas near the ground to help blend the buildings into the ground. This is the base material for all the buildings in the city including the castle.

Another example is the fabric material. It starts with a base fabric layer with patterns to be able to see it clearly from a height. Then a dust layer has been added to it. Afterward, I added the falloff in the fabrics using Clarisse iFX material.

Through the project, I used wood in many areas for the props, which were included in every house, or even the separated props, such as harbor elements. So I used a wood material with some edge effects and noise to be able to blend it with all the different elements. I want to thank Substance Share for such a great source of materials. Really, it’s a huge time saver. For instance, I used the wood material, which was created by raycoh1299, and the rusted metal material created by Game Textures.

Can you tell us more about the different masks and particles you used to achieve a sense of groundedness for your assets?

  • Ambient occlusion for darkening some areas. 
  • Ground dirt to get the ground blending layer in the buildings. 
  • Particles (Organic spread, Leaks) for adding color variety. 

What are the tips and tricks you can share with the community?

“Start now, get perfect later.” At the beginning of every project, you shouldn’t seek perfection; don’t look for perfection at the beginning or even the early stages. Just continue the work till you reach something good in the visual style, then you can improve what you’ve done.

Always use smart materials in order to save time.

How was your experience with Substance? How do you see the use of it evolve for your future projects?

Substance really pushed my frames to the next level and now I can’t work without it. Substance now is my main tool for texturing.

Lastly, I want to thank my friends who supported me since the beginning of the project: 

All images courtesy of Mostafa Samir

About the artist

My name is Mostafa Samir. I’m 26 years old and I started learning 3D in 2012, then I got my first job as a 3D artist in 2013. After the first year, I found my passion in environments, so I started learning in this direction and specialized in environments. Also, I learned Python in order to be able to create custom tools to speed up the workflow between applications. Moreover, I became envolved in the process of research and development for the massive environment pipeline. I worked with Maya, 3ds Max, Cinema4D, Blender, Vue, and Clarisse iFX, thanks to the different pipelines I worked in.

In my childhood, I loved playing video games and would spend hours in front of the PC screen playing games such as Prince of Persia. Also, I loved watching fantasy movies such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Currently, I’m living and working as an environment TD in the UK.