The Robust Material Creation Tool Made a Splash at SIGGRAPH

Allegorithmic, maker of the Substance toolset for physically based rendering (PBR) materials authoring, kicked off SIGGRAPH with the first demo of Project Alchemist, an ambitious (and surprisingly intuitive) new system for browsing a materials library, including sophisticated but easy-to-use tools for look development. The company hopes it will introduce non-CG artists to the world of PBR materials — files that define surfaces, often based on scans or photographs of real-world objects, that enhance the realistic appearance and behavior of 3D models and environments.

“We see more people coming to Substance who want a new approach to materials authoring, either because they are less technical and don’t want to dive into a complex, node-based system, or because they just need to do simple operations on them,” Allegorithmic VP François Cottin told StudioDaily. “Today, if you’re not really a CG artist, you have no way of looking at the different parameters of materials. In the design industry, even someone from the marketing team or the CMO will soon be able to handle materials and create presets and compare and choose and give their opinions.”

Project Alchemist screen shot

Among the many look-development capabilities of Project Alchemist is the ability to derive the color palette of a given material (the stitched ball in the main viewport) from an unrelated photograph (bottom right).

Leveraging the latest in AI techniques for visualization, Alchemist allows users to preview different materials and change their properties — color, lighting, and other qualities — quickly using parameter sliders. Materials can also be stacked on top of each other to quickly iterate new materials that combine properties of the source files, and multiple images of the same material under different lighting conditions can be combined into a single, precise material.

One of the most impressive elements of the demo showed off Alchemist’s ability to convert a simple photograph into a full-fledged material, complete with all of the required information about that material’s characteristics, as well as a very impressive “Delighter.” Essentially, Allegorithmic trained a neural network to remove baked-in shadows from a photographic source and apply a flat-lighting look to a material without removing detail.

Watch the video above to see the SIGGRAPH demo of Project Alchemist, starting at 31:40.

“The filters that have been made thanks to AI are mainly things that are not creative, but that an artist would spend a lot of time on,” Cottin explained. “For instance, delighting is really a pain today. With AI, you can kill the pain. We believe that AI will never replace an artist, but it’s a new way of giving power to artists.”

Alchemist screen shot

A material created from a 2D photograph in Allegorithmic Alchemist.

During the demo, a photograph of ground covered with rocks and pebbles was imported and instantly, with minimal tweaking, converted to a properly layered material. Because the material still looked too much like a flat image when viewed in 3D space, Alchemist’s Delighter was used to remove the originally photographed shadows, allowing the material to cast its own, more accurate shadows based on the position of light in 3D space and the height information in the material.

The pebbles with sand and water added via layer-stacking.

The demo artist went on to drag procedural materials — sand, water, moss — on top of the just-created material to create a surprisingly realistic landscape using sliders, color pickers, and other simple adjusters to get the look right. It promises to be a huge time-saver for artists, but Allegorithmic thinks it may introduce the concept of materials authoring to a new category of users.

One of the tedious processes that Alchemist will soon be able to handle is applying changes in bulk — like making all of the fabrics in your library a certain shade of blue. Alchemist will also incorporate Nvidia’s machine-learning-based UpRes technology, meaning 1K textures can be used as the basis of new 2K textures with acceptable results “in the vast majority of cases,” Cottin said.

Allegorithmic CEO Sebastien Deguy suggested thinking of Alchemist as an Adobe Lightroom for materials, but, keeping the emphasis on its relative simplicity, he also said it could be called Substance Player — a kind of PDF reader for substances. Moreover, it’s being positioned as an open platform, with a plug-in API that allows filters to be written in C++, rather than using Allegorithmic’s Substance Designer software.

Alchemist is in closed beta with a small number of users at the moment, Cottin said, but will be opened up for wider testing in the coming weeks, with the eventual public beta phase to be announced at the Allegorithmic blog. Cottin would not commit to an ETA for the finished software, though he did point to the fact that the SIGGRAPH demo did not crash as a sign that Alchemist is already in relatively good shape.

“We know that we must deliver, on day one, something really robust, because it will be used by our power users in professional studios,” he said. “This is the result of years and years of endeavor, and of our close relationship to our users.”