In Part 1 we have seen what kind of material editors are available in Poser and DAZ Studio. In Part 2 we dug deeper on why those programs ended up with intimidating, difficult to use material editors. Today we are going to see the alternative and why it works.
We learn about materials before we learn how to speak. As infants, we are compelled to touch and explore the new world around us. Even though we don’t know what they are called, we have a very tactile experience of plastic, glass, metal, fabric, skin, and all the other great materials around us. Later on, our parents teach us the names for those materials and some time later we learn how to speak those names.
When we create a 3D scene we know what materials we want to assign to each area of the scene. A bottle will need to be made out of glass. A blade will need to be made out of metal. A swimming pool will have water in it. We are used to the entity that is a material, both visually and by the tactile experience of it. We are not, on the other hand, experts in the atomic composition of a material. We might have learned that glass is made by melting sand, and that water is two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, but that’s not how we experience the world.
Nevertheless, most 3D programs require us to do the equivalent of specifying the atomic structure of a material, in order to define it.
A good starting point in simplifying the material system is to assign to each material a type. Take for example these screenshots:
These are two vastly different materials and yet they look similar in the way they are presented, and we cannot easily find what is the difference between them. Most important, we don’t know what they are. We don’t know if they are representing metal, skin, or glass. Let’s now look at two node-based materials.
Again, can we say what kind of materials are they? Are they metal? Or skin? Or velvet? Also in this case we can’t determine what they are, because there is no indication of what type of material we are handling. We are deep into the “atomic structure” of the material and therefore unable to see the big picture. Keep also in mind that the way they are shown in the picture is because I spent considerable time in re-arranging the nodes for readability. When opening the material room, all the nodes were not nearly as readable.
From usability and simplicity point of view, it’s fundamental that we find a way of knowing the type of the material.
Compare the same situation in Reality:
All skin materials are marked as such. No guessing there. The Cornea is set to be of type Glass. Again, no doubt about the nature of that material. Regardless of the name, the material type tells us immediately what we are modifying.
Having a material type simplifies things in two ways: first we have a sense of context. Whenever we edit a material of type Glass, for example, we know what to expect. We know that we don’t need a transparency option–aka an alpha channel–because the material in inherently transparent. Our life experience tells us so.
Second, the number of parameters needed for each material is dramatically smaller. Because each material is a specialization, many parameters needed for a generic material are not present. For example, SSS–Sub-Surface Scattering–is not necessary for Metal, and so that parameter is simply not there. You will never have to see it when dealing with Metal. The same is for the multitude of parameters that don’t belong to that material. Out of sight, out of mind.
For a concrete example let’s consider the conversion of a Studio material for the face of Genesis. The Studio material is defined as:
All the parameters together give us a whopping 4241 pixels in height. On a screen with 1080 pixels of vertical resolution it takes more than four screens to scroll through that list. The same exact material is converted in Reality to this:
There are a total of 6 areas and the screen real estate needed to show this material is just 777 pixels high. It could easily fit a tablet screen. Not only that, but the Reality version is closer to the real-world result. The panel is also much more readable because of the amount of white space between the elements. That was a deliberate choice. The eye is able to roam and easily separate, for example, the Diffuse texture from the SSS panel. The material type tells us what we are editing and the rest of the screen is unpolluted. This is a material that mere mortals can understand and change.
Even when we have to deal with generic materials, for example the Glossy type used by Reality, it’s fundamental that the user is given a consistent representation of the material. In Reality the Glossy material is always like this:
The Diffuse channel is always at the top left, the Specular channel is always to its right, and all the other elements are always positioned in the same way. There is no need to spend time re-arranging things on the screen, like it’s needed by the node system, to make the material readable. As we navigate through all the materials, it’s very easy to find the properties for each one because the material panel is 420 by 280 and it’s presented in a consistent manner. All Glossy materials are presented with the same layout. Compare that with a node system where any node can be, and often is, in any place on the screen. Also compare it with a long list of parameters as in Studio. The order of those parameters is not always constant and the length of the list makes it impossible to keep all the relevant data in sight.
In Reality the screen is so compact that it could be easily presented on a smart phone and still be readable. All these elements make editing materials in Reality possible for the average user, with just a bit of practice.
So, if you thought that editing materials was outside your grasp, then please consider the Reality material editor. I have been told by several artists that it’s not only easy to use, but that it helps them in trying and finding new looks, new possibilities. A good material editor encourages experimentation, and Reality is designed to help experiment by making it easy to do so.
- By modeling materials after the real-world versions we simplify the design of the material and carry contextual information that help us in the creative process. When we know that we are editing Metal we have a context in mind that tells us what to expect.
- Materials that have types have a fraction of the parameters that non-physical materials have. In fact a typical Reality material has less than one tenth of the equivalent Studio material, and the Reality version is closer to the real-world result.
- Consistency of presentation makes it easy to find the right information because the same piece of data is always in the same position on the screen.
- All these elements make it easier to understand what a material does and how to customize it.
I hope this is of help, next time we will look into how to edit textures and how they fit in the overall material settings.