Artwork by Ronan Mahon | Courtesy of Adobe

Building a better car with Adobe Substance 3D and Unreal Engine

Back in 2018, Substance 3D, the makers of Substance 3D Painter and Substance 3D Designer, decided to design a car. But you won’t see their car on the Nürburgring. Instead, it exists only as a 3D digital model, created as part of a bigger push into automotive design, centered on five major releases from Substance 3D that introduced over 700 ready-to-use materials. For the first time, professional and amateur artists alike could simply choose the automotive building assets they wanted, from chrome to vinyl to rubber, to create a new type of digital prototype.

Now, the “X-TAON” model is back with a new look, and a new real-time pipeline, made possible through Unreal Engine.

As part of its initial launch of the X-TAON and Substance 3D’s automotive collection, a contest was held. Professionals and amateurs alike entered their original designs of the X-TAON, with results ranging from the bizarre to the next hot aftermarket look. One of the winners, environmental artist Ronan Mahon, impressed the judges so much that when it came time to re-introduce the X-TAON, the team at Substance 3D brought him onboard. And he brought Unreal Engine with him.

Second lap

During his time at game studios like Free Radical Design, Rebellion Developments, and Rocksteady Studios, Mahon was no stranger to Substance 3D tools for texturing. Substance did, after all, begin as a game dev tool before expanding into countless industries. But part of what made him ideal to help create the new look of the X-TAON was his experience with Unreal Engine—including years spent working with a modified version of Unreal Engine 3 on the iconic Batman: Arkham series, and more recently with Unreal Engine 4 on upcoming AAA blockbusters like Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League.

Mahon even created his own app for Unreal Engine that enables users to create decals and certain materials directly in the Unreal Editor viewport. His “Decal Designer” is available now, and was recently tapped by Epic staff for an Unreal Marketplace Showcase.

“Unreal Engine and Substance 3D are such an empowering combination, and when you throw real-time raytracing to the mix, it honestly feels like magic,” said Mahon.

The exterior look of the new X-TAON was a collaborative effort between Mahon and two Adobe Substance 3D employees: Anaïs Lamellière, color material and finish designer, and Nicolas Paulhac, the head of 3D content and one of the originators of the X-TAON project. Together the trio determined the look and textures of the car’s exterior, from the metallic sheen highlighted to the coarseness of the rubber in the tires. Mahon then created much of the interior on his own, giving the new X-TAON a fresh look for 2022.
“Even though we’ve never met in person and live in different countries, we treat each project as a real-world production exercise,” said Mahon. “There was a back-and-forth design and feedback process between myself and Anais and Nicolas.”

The sculpted X-TAON is arguably a work of art in its own right, but it—like all cars—was always designed to convey a sense of speed. And the best way to suggest that is to put the model in motion. So with the look and textures complete, Mahon began to create a video around the X-TAON in Unreal Engine featuring a realistic background, and complete with scenes of the car rolling out.
Artwork by Ronan Mahon | Courtesy of Adobe

Bringing motion to a static design

With the general look of the X-TAON established, Mahon began creating a background environment, utilizing the Substance in Unreal plugin and materials from the Substance 3D Assets library (created with Substance 3D Designer). This enabled him to edit and tweak the procedural parameters of a Substance material graph directly in Unreal Editor.

While the X-TAON was the focal point of the video, the background needed to match the level of quality, or it could potentially draw attention from the car itself. Mahon gave careful attention to everything, from the number of blocks in the pillars to the wear and tear of the concrete to the proper color under the selected lights. He then began to focus on the movement of the virtual camera, making adjustments to the look and resolution directly within Unreal Engine.
Artwork by Ronan Mahon | Courtesy of Adobe
Mahon knew he wouldn’t have time to build extensive sets for the car, so instead he suggested to Lamellière and Paulhac that the car reflect the “mood of racing through neon tunnels, and late-night city streets.” That led the team to use the Media Texture playback on rectangle lights, with video from Adobe Stock converted to PNG.
Artwork by Ronan Mahon | Courtesy of Adobe
Reflections were also vital to help convey the sense of movement, so Mahon used RT reflection, GI and AO to make the forms shine. For a show car designed to impress through its looks, reflections on the stylized curves were vitally important. That encouraged Mahon to utilize ray tracing—specifically ray-traced reflections—shadows, global illumination and transparencies, powered by a NVIDIA RTX 3090 GPU.
Artwork by Ronan Mahon | Courtesy of Adobe
Everything was then put together and shot using Unreal Engine’s Sequencer. Music was added and edited, before the full project was rendered in Movie Render Queue.

Real problems, real-time solutions

Substance 3D Painter was designed to enable iterative creation, and each of the thousands of materials available in the Substance 3D Assets library for cars, environments, fabrics, etc., were meant to be experimented with. For video, however, experimentation hasn’t really been an option when each new tweak could, in theory, require hours—or in some cases days—of rendering. That’s where Unreal Engine comes in.
“I’m a one-person studio, so I can’t waste time waiting for offline renders from large render farms to finish, or even worse, wondering what my final render will look like because my viewport doesn’t match the final output,” said Mahon. “I need to spend my time creating, not waiting.”

That need for a quick change became vital in the creation of the X-TAON video. Late in the production cycle with the video nearing completion, the team decided that the theme for the X-TAON wasn’t quite right. It was a potentially massive shift for a video that was nearly complete, but thankfully, the pipeline was built for exactly this sort of change. Lamellière would adjust the materials to match the new theme, then send them directly to Mahon, who then added them directly into Substance 3D Painter.

Mahon was then able to return to the authoring stage and the texturing, and see the results mirrored with Unreal Engine in real time through the use of the “Auto Reimporter.” That enabled him to continue working on the overall look of the video without worrying about multiple re-renders while the design of the car was in flux. Using the real-time capabilities inherent in Unreal Engine meant the difference between a quick change and weeks of waiting.

“As most creatives will tell you, projects like this rarely follow a linear A to B to C path,” said Mahon. “You really need the flexibility to jump back to the start of your pipeline and make updates and improvements as you go, and this Substance 3D-to-Unreal Engine pipeline enables a lot of flexibility and feedback.”
Artwork by Ronan Mahon | Courtesy of Adobe

New solutions from new solutions

For a project like this involving automotive design, the advantages of iterating videos in real time can’t be understated. Designers in the auto world no longer need to create physical models. Instead, they can select the type of material they want from a library of assets numbering in the thousands, then easily edit and tweak them as needed using Adobe Substance 3D.

This is especially powerful for Color, Material, and Finish (CMF) designers, who are applying this workflow to their digital mood boards and color and trim reviews, achieving realistic results faster than ever before. Add in the versatility of Unreal Engine—a platform that opens up virtual production, game development, virtual reality, and more—and suddenly the design team has everything they need to take a concept wherever they want to go.

The Substance 3D automotive material library currently features over 900 materials, and is now available to all Substance 3D users. The Substance 3D in Unreal plugin is also available to download.

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