Substance Designer Insanity Award Winner Emrecan Cubucku – Village Material and More!

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At the Substance team, we’re still regularly surprised and amazed by the crazy materials users are making with Substance Designer. Emrecan Cubukcu is one of those users, whose sheer amount of attention and detail brought into a material is simply amazing. No wonder he won this year’s Substance Designer insanity award with his Advanced Village material. Learn more about this material, and others, in this interview.

Hi Emrecan, thanks for taking the time for this interview. Could you introduce yourself to the community?

I have a Ph.D. in Engineering and over 20 years of 3D developing experience. I’m also an instructor in the Industrial Design department of the Architecture faculty at METU (Ankara, Turkey). In addition to that, I have a passion for art and art history, and I’ve been doing art direction for a long time. I use Unity3D (rarely Unreal) and C4D. I recently fell in love with Substance Designer and made some hobby projects. And I was invited to the ‘everything procedural’ conference in The Netherlands and Substance Days in Shanghai as an instructor and speaker. I’m very sorry for not being able to attend either of them, and thank you very much for this interview!

Tell us more about your background. How did you get into 3D?

After my graduation from university, I developed an industrial process control software for a while. In 2001 my Ph.D. thesis was about the development of atomic force microscope software, a nanotechnology device. In the beginning, I developed the control systems and interface of the device. When I started to develop visualization parts, I unintentionally met OpenGL API for 3D drawings. After dealing with some 3D programming with OpenGL, implementing the other parts started to become quite boring. After my Ph.D., I started to develop a structural light-based 3D scanner software with my company. While developing this software, I learned a lot about 3D mesh operations, image processing, and computational geometry.

For the next ten years, I’ve worked for museums with my company. I worked on a lot of topics like education & 3D information systems, multiscreen touch interfaces, warping and edge blending for dome and irregular surfaces for projection mapping, animal AI, crowd simulation, content development for motion simulator devices, virtual archeological reconstruction, interactive projection, and hologram installations, and educational games for more than forty museums.

As I’ve worked in many areas over the years I’ve had a chance to study a lot of different branches such as photography, modeling, character animation, lighting, visual composition, film making, and environment design, alongside software development. Yes, it is a true ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ story – but It was a lot of fun and I feel lucky.

I have a small digital studio (Kreatin Studios) that currently makes AR and VR software especially focused on education. I’ve been giving an interactive multimedia design course in architecture and industrial design departments for ten years now.

Pirate Island Material

Art by Emrecan Cubucku

How did you discover Substance, and particularly Substance Designer?

The first time I saw Substance Painter, I said, “Wow, everything’s going to be easier.” When I saw Substance Designer, I said, “Wow, everything’s going to change A LOT!”. I’d used similar programs before, but they were always tasteless utility-type software. These two software tools were really tasteful and elegant. Our talented artists in the office began to use them, but since I’m on the development part of the projects, I didn’t have the chance to try it. I’ve been seeing material balls on Artstation; they were really impressive. I was waiting for an opportunity to learn.

One day, on the Substance page, I saw that the interior design of Hyundai Genesis G380 had been created with Substance Designer. When I realized the importance of procedural materials in industrial design, I decided to teach it to the designers in my class, and this was the moment when I began to really learn about Substance Designer.

So as the best learning method, I decided to work on a hobby project. Generally, my learning algorithm is:

  1. Open the software, do reconnaissance. Try to create something, fail.
  2. Read the user manual and take notes (because I’m an engineer, the theoretical background is important!)
  3. Search for a written tutorial on Google. (I couldn’t find one, go to the next step.)
  4. Watch a tutorial on YouTube, fast forward, skip, skip, skip…
  5. Don’t understand anything; watch again for missed and critical parts of the tutorial.
  6. Analyze well-implemented examples, have an epiphany!
  7. Go to step one.

When I started learning Substance Designer, I was surprised to see the zen philosophy behind it. It was easy and there was little to learn. Also, there was no limit to what could be done with a few node combinations. As they say for the game Go, “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.”

Pirate Island Material is almost a terrain editor. You can wrap parameters for topology (noise, erosion, terraces etc.)

Art by Emrecan Cubucku

What inspired you to make crazy materials such as Advanced Village and Pirate Island?

Pirate Island is my learning project. I watched a rock production tutorial on YouTube while eating popcorn, and suddenly I saw Saint Lucia Island in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie on TV with my other eye. I saw the challenge, and accepted it! I shut the video down and opened Substance Designer. Surprisingly, I felt at home using the software. I studied the nodes from the help document, and the node I needed immediately appeared in my hand! It felt like solving a very fun puzzle. I didn’t open my Playstation for days. It was a really exciting week!

With the parameters, it is possible to change sea level, depth, the opacity of the water and foam intensity. Also, it allows you to add rocks (you can play with sizes and the number of rocks), and shorelines (change the shore distance if you like).

My first use of Substance Designer for business was Farm Material. For a motion simulator project that is made with Unity3D, we needed a farm texture for the flight scene. I used Substance Designer for it, and it looked very good. With orientations and color variations, it was very easy to add different farms to the terrain. Thus, Farm Material was born in a very short time.

Farm Material

Art by Emrecan Cubucku

In Farm Material, you have three generic plant types, easy-to-change parameters of colors, soil bump amount, bump deformation, plant scale, ground moisture, rocks, and branches.

Art by Emrecan Cubucku

Then I wondered if I could use this farm material to create another material. I wanted to create a terrain consisting of side-by-side farm variations.

The roads were necessary for reaching the farms. After solving the logistics problems, it turned out that the villagers needed trees to rest after working on the farm. I should have left it there, but no! The villagers would need homes. And the villagers had to have towns nearby. Of course, lakes and the river should be near farms for irrigation purposes.

Days passed and the needs of the villagers were not finished. In the end, as I was adding sailboats in the lake, I decided to stop listening to the demands of the villagers, and the Village Material was born.

Village Material is the winner of the 2018 Substance Designer insanity award.

Art by Emrecan Cubucku

You can add small villages, lakes, sailing boats, farms and forest with this material, and play with the topography, toggle roads, and change their widths.

Art by Emrecan Cubucku

Breakdown: Village Material

Village Material has a sophisticated structure. In order to simulate a natural look, I had to define a lot of rules. There should be roads to the farm fields. Trees and houses should be concentrated on the edge of the lake and the river. There had to be trees and houses on the sides of the roads. For the edges of the farm fields, there should be bushes showing boundaries. Also farms, houses, trees and roads should not overlap.

When I started creating the material, I acted as nature would. I started with basic terrain, grass and trees, and water and green fields (Genesis 1-11). Then homo sapiens came and turned into an agricultural society. They cut the forests while singing songs. They made farms and houses.

Color map and height map breakdown of the village material

Houses and boats height maps

Village Material graph view

Vintage Synth Material

I was wondering if I could create an electronic device with Substance Designer without any modeling. There was no such example when I started. I felt that the electronic control elements (knobs switches, LEDs, wheel controllers, jacks, etc.) could be produced flawlessly as 2.5D. The Minimoog is one of the most iconic synthesizers ever created and very suitable for my needs. It also has plastic, leather, wood and chrome details – it has a lot of exciting materials to work on. I’ve added an aging parameter to amp up the nostalgia. When it was finished, nobody believed that it was created only using Substance Designer. It really looks like a 3D model. It is probably the most useless material of all time but it was a weekend hobby project and I really enjoyed it!

Minimoog material

Art by Emrecan Cubucku
Art by Emrecan Cubucku

Node graphs of the vintage synth components

Are there any tips or tricks in Substance Designer you would like to share with the community?

I’m using Substance Designer in my hobby projects. First of all, I strongly recommend going through tips and tricks of talented artists who do this job professionally. Another important suggestion for beginners is that all of the nodes have to be studied from the Substance Designer help document. As a tutorial option, I personally prefer step-by-step written tutorials instead of a video tutorial. I am very sorry that written tutorials are species in danger of extinction.

When I start working on a material, I think of it like drawing a caricature/cartoon. And I ask myself what makes that material unique. What is the essence and spirit of the material? what makes it so exciting, and what should I emphasize? I consider all natural physical, geological or organic processes in my mind. After achieving a certain realism, I think what I can do to make it look nice and interesting.

What are your upcoming projects with Substance?

My most recent material is Marbling Maker material imitating and pushing the boundaries of traditional marbling art. Designers and architects have used Marbling Maker in their projects, and have achieved impressive results. Traditional Turkish marbling art is an inspirational way of creating beautiful visuals and I transferred this tradition into an innovative approach.

All-in-one Marbling Maker with 25 presets

Art by Emrecan Cubucku

Marbling Maker in action! Designers and architects have used Marbling Maker in their projects

Another one is the Blood Cells material. I wanted to experiment microworlds, and I couldn’t resist imitating an electron microscopy view. You can turn off/on red blood cells (erythrocytes) white blood cells (leukocytes) and viruses; change emissivity, hue, luminosity, saturation values, and electron microscopy effect! By the way, this is not scientifically correct; do not use for educational purposes!

The Blood Cells material and electron microscopy effect

Art by Emrecan Cubucku
Art by Emrecan Cubucku

I have just started working on Satellite View Generator. I would like to produce maps that are similar to the landscapes that seem to be more than 10,000 feet from the airplane window. it took longer than I expected. But finishing quickly isn’t so important. Dealing with and solving issues as they arise is enjoyable, so I’m not in a hurry.

Satellite View Generator

Art by Emrecan Cubucku

Anything you would like to add?

Substance Designer is a smartly designed, simple, elegant and powerful piece of software and has a nice learning curve. I really fell in love with Substance Designer after I found it. Thank you so much for adding color to my life, Allegorithmic!

Here is my workspace (and the invaders!)

Courtesy of Emrecan Cubucku

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