Chris Hodgson is a Senior Environment Artist at Starbreeze Studios. His recent personal project, 'Xeno,' is already making waves in our community, and we couldn't wait to hear about what inspired this otherworldly piece. Chris has also provided us with a thorough breakdown of his process packed with workflow and software tips that you can add to your own arsenal. Check it out the interview and Making Of below: 

We'd love to kick things off by learning a bit more about your background. What was the first project you worked on professionally, and how did you land it?

Whilst I had previously worked on small parts of projects before, it was at Headstrong Games in London that I worked on a game from concept to completion. The project was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice game for Nintendo DS. It’s a game that few remember and even fewer played but it was a fun project to work on because I had plenty of creative control over the environment art, and the team was really small, motivated and we got along incredibly well. I actually landed the job due in part to the fact that some of my portfolio work was almost identical in polygon count and texture budget to the work that was required for the project. It can actually be really helpful to structure your portfolio this way; making sure that the assets you have built fit the style and technical constraints of the games the company you are applying to is producing. Your work should effectively be able to be integrated into their games and not look out of place. From my experience, game companies tend to favour people who can fit easily into a role because they have already proven they can do the exact sort of work required.

That is definitely something worth noting! So, you recently completed your personal project, Xeno. Can you tell our users a bit about what inspired this project?

The idea for the project really came about after working on other substance materials and accidentally achieving some textural detail similar in style to the xenomorph architecture in the film ‘Alien.’ I am a huge fan of H.R Giger's work and thought it would be interesting to try to achieve something similar to the interior backdrops he designed for the film using Substance Designer. Most of my professional and personal Substance Designer work is very much based on real world reference and materials and so it was especially interesting for me to branch out and create something not only from science fiction, but also from a film I’m so incredibly fond of.

Awesome. And you used Marmoset Toolbag as well, correct? What drew you to the software, and what was the experience like? 

It wasn't initially the idea to use Marmoset Toolbag for rendering the scene but when I realised the tool had just gotten a big upgrade to version 3 I thought it would be a great opportunity to test out some of the new features whilst working on a new project. My experience with Toolbag during the project was a good one as it has always been a simple and easy to use application that produces some of the best real time renders available. I really pushed the displacement and fog in this project and for the most part it handled everything I could throw at it albeit with a little bit of slowdown. There are some features I’d still like to see in there such as multiple viewports and light specific fog settings but it generally served me well on the project.

How did your workflow on this piece vary from other projects you have done in the past, if at all?

This is the first project where I used Fusion 360 for any kind of modelling so it was interesting to use a completely new piece of software that I had only spent about 10 hours with previously. In the past I would normally do any high poly modelling in Maya or ZBrush, but for this project I wanted to try something new. Getting to use the new built in baker in Toolbag was also a new thing for me, and it really blew me away how fast and easy it was to set up. I think in the future I will definitely be using Toolbag 3’s baker as well as my usual method of baking assets in Substance Painter/Designer.

We imagine you stay pretty busy. Why is it so important to keep up with personal projects?

I think it is important to try to keep your work fresh and keep yourself motivated. In a real production scenario it can often be difficult to experiment with new technology or techniques due to impending deadlines or software restrictions. Personal projects can give you the opportunity to try new and interesting things without the pressures of project schedules and workflow limitations. They can also very easily become breeding grounds for new ideas that ultimately prove invaluable in your professional work. My understanding and experience with Substance Designer is a really good example of this. When I began learning the program It was something I used at home only on my personal projects. However, my experience I gained through personal use of the software was then carried over into my professional work when the studio started using Substance Designer in production, it allowed me to hit the ground running and share my knowledge with others in the studio.


1. Reference Gathering and Mood Boards

I always start every project with gathering plenty of good reference and creating a moodboard or a Kuadro collection. I normally have this reference visible on my second monitor so I can constantly see it while working directly on my Substance material. I usually just collect my reference from a combination of Google image search and Shutterstock, but for this project I also took screenshots from the Alien film itself to make sure I could get specific scenes at a high quality.

The initial moodboard I created for the project.

2. Scene Blocking and Shot Setup

I first modeled a very simple corridor scene at a low polygon density in Maya to establish the walls, floor and ceiling. At this point, I also was able to have a pretty good idea about where I was going to position the camera. Fine tuning of the camera and the exact wall positioning and geometry was something I tweaked throughout the project. I exported and set up the same scene in Marmoset Toolbag where I would tweak any camera settings going forward. I kept the geometry for the walls in strips of quads to make applying the tiling wall textures as easy as possible.

The corridor geometry I made for the scene in Maya.

3. Texturing the Walls in Substance Designer

Using the Metalness/Roughness template, I started by building up the height forms for the various shapes I wanted in the material. I worked on each component of the material separately, each in its own organisational frame to make it easier to work with.

The vertical pipes at the center of the texture were made using a combination of simple gradients transformed, tiled multiple times and then recombined to get a corrugated cable like effect. I then just ran this detail through a Tile Sampler to add position them correctly and add some random rotation. The central column of elliptical details was created by curving a segmented gradient using the Polar to Cartesian Grayscale node. It feels like a hacky way to use the node, but you can get some really interesting shapes when using the node this way. With some curved detail established I transform and use symmetry to create an ellipse that I could then tile 8 times vertically on the texture. The horizontal plates are just basic gradients transformed and tiled into position using a Tile Sampler and Transform 2D nodes.

The height information is mostly constructed using simple gradients, blends and transforms.

I subtracted a tiling capsule from a remapped gradient to create the teeth like shapes that were blurred and then sharpened to get a softer more curved edge. The teeth were then combined with some vertical corrugated pipes made from tiled gradients. Everything was then symmetrized and tiled to add more teeth to the texture.

Creating the teeth details in the substance graph.

With the main height details created, I combine them all together using blends with some extra masking to get rid of unwanted height information. It is also now that I add in the smaller details for surface damage and micro surface detail. It is always better to get your larger forms into the material first before you tackle fine surface details and such.

The microsurface damage is made from a combination of grunge and clouds that I use as the slope input on a slope blur node. This pushes the surface details around by a small amount giving realistic detail that I then mask off using an edge mask generated from a curvature smooth node.

To add some slightly more substantial surface damage to the material I used a high contrast Gauss Spots 2 node as a mask to blur only selected spots in the height map. This gives the effect of chips and knocks that are carved out of the surface leading to some very realistic looking wear and tear.

Combining all the height information and adding surface details.

Making the base color texture for the walls was a fairly simple process and like most substances I create makes heavy use of gradient maps turning gray grunge and noise into complex colored gradient patterns. In order to get some good base grayscale values I combine two high pass versions of the height map with some curvature detail generated from the normal map. The result is then gradient mapped to some random brown values sampled directly from some of my reference imagery. To add a more natural look I add dirt details using some warped grunge nodes passed through a complex gradient of dark blue and brown values. Finally to make the texture pop and have more depth I blend in some more blue grunge into the crevices using the ambient occlusion as a mask.

Creating the base color texture using gradient maps and grunge detail.

The roughness texture is almost always the last texture I work on in a material and is usually pretty quick to create. For the base roughness I use a combination of warped grunge maps and a grayscale version of the base color at a low opacity. I also add in an inverted ambient occlusion to increase the roughness in the crevices and add some light and dark speckles that will catch the light and look like dirt and liquid particles on the materials surface.

Creating the roughness texture.

The full node graph inside of Substance Designer.

The final textures exported from Substance Designer.

4. Materials, Lighting and Atmosphere

With the alien architecture textures finished I exported and brought them into a new material in Toolbag 3. In order to get all the detail I was striving for I enabled PN Triangle Subdivision and Displacement on the material. To make sure that the tessellation worked as best as it could, I kept the geometry from Maya equal in density and in strips of quads. As can be seen below, I also added some smaller tubes that run through the corridor to add a bit more complexity.

In order to get the dark moody atmosphere present in my reference I disabled the sky image based lighting and started adding lights from the back of the scene forward. I also added a Fog object and tweaked the settings to get the fog thickness I desired.

Adding the displacement materials, lighting and fog inside Toolbag 3

5. Finding a Focal Point

At this point, I felt the scene was a little bit lacking without some kind of focal point or presence in the corridor. I went back to gathering reference trying to find something that could be used as a focal point and happened upon some reference images of the mapping drones from Prometheus. I decided that something similar would make a good focal point and also wouldn't detract too much from the corridor architecture.

The new reference I gathered for the mapping drone.

6. Modelling ad Texturing the Mapping Drone

The design of the drone is a little bit different to the one in Prometheus, I wanted to put my own spin on the design. I decided to use Fusion 360 to create the high polygon model as I had been experimenting with the software over the holidays and the drone was a simple enough model to ease myself into using the program in production. One of the really cool features of Fusion 360 is you can play back the modelling process and see the journey you took getting to the final model.

The modelling process in Fusion 360.

After modelling the high poly in Fusion 360, I created a low poly model inside Maya and then baked the result in marmoset toolbag. The baked textures were then imported into Substance Painter to create a quick set of textures for the model. In the end I added much more detail to the drone than required but I wanted the option to move the drone closer to the camera if the final shot required some alterations.

The low poly drone, left: wireframe, center: normal map only, right: fully textured.

7. Creating the Light Beams

For the light beams being emitted from the drone I decided to use Substance Designer again. Substance Designer is my package of choice so I always feel I have a good grasp whether something is indeed possible to achieve in the package. Using Substance Designer to create light beams certainly isn’t conventional but I was pretty sure I could achieve the effect I wanted.

To begin, I remapped and increased the contrast on a gradient giving me a vertical beam of light that could then be transformed and flipped using symmetry to get a upside down V shape. This shape was then put through a Splatter Circular node to create multiple versions emanating from the center of the texture. I used Bruno Afonseca’s Advanced Radial Blur node to get some rotational looking blur on the texture and then added some dust particles made with a simple Tile Sampler node setup.

The node graph showing the creation of the light beams and dust particles.

To add some realism and variety to the beams of light I overlayed some Clouds 2. To get a swirling fog pattern I passed the Clouds 2 through multiple blurs and Multi Directional Warps. This warped clouds pattern was then combined with the light beams and then level adjusted to get a nice contrast in the final texture. To export I only needed one output in Substance Designer that would ultimately be used as a transparency texture in marmoset for the light beams.

The node graph showing the creation of the swirling fog part of the light beams texture.

Some of the stages the texture went through to get to the final result.

8. Adding the Drone and Final Lighting

When adding the drone it became clear that the spotlights used for the drone’s red lasers were causing problems as they interacted with the thick fog present in the background of the scene. They caused unsightly cones of fog in the foreground around each light and so to remedy this I split the scene in two and had one scene with the blue lighting and fog, and another duplicate scene for the red drone lighting. These two scenes would then be composited back together in Photoshop along with the final tweaks and color correction. In an ideal world I would have had all the lighting in one scene but currently Marmoset Toolbag 3 doesn’t support selective fog on a per light basis.

The first scene was the same as before but with the drone added in the correct position in the center of the shot. I added some slight emissive properties to the to the drones material using an emissive mask exported from Substance Painter.

The drone in the first scene containing the fog and general corridor lighting.

In the second scene, I applied the light beam texture to a square plane that cuts through the center of the drone. I kept the plane a separate object so it could be scaled and rotated independently allowing for exact placement of the light beams in Toolbag. The material for the light beams themselves was just a simple emissive material with opacity and a red color in the emissive properties. In order to get actual bouncing red light around the drone I added three spotlights with a gel(cookie) texture of a thin red line. These were rotated in one axis every 120 degrees to give a full 360 degrees of light emanating from the drone.

The drone and its light beams in the second scene.

When rendering out the scenes from Toolbag I used the following settings. Note the render resolution of 7680 x 4320. I render them out at high resolution to allow for downsampling later in Photoshop.

The render settings used in Toolbag 3

9. Post Processing and Final Presentation

In the final step I took the two renders into Photoshop and composited the drone lighting on top using Linear Dodge (Add). I painted in a quick red glow where the red beams were hitting the alien architecture and used some real life camera lens images as overlays to degrade the quality of the picture. After that it was just a matter of just adding final levels and curves tweaks, the black frame at the top and bottom and finally the title graphics and software logos

The process of compositing and final color correction.

The final image. 

10. Conclusion

I had a lot of fun creating the image and documenting the process. I hope you found the breakdown useful and enjoyed reading it. If you would like to see a more in depth look at my process of creating Substance Designer materials head over to my Gumroad page and check out my Substance Material Collection.