When using a program like DAZ Studio or Poser we have several phases during the construction of a scene:
- Add the characters and objects
- Pose the characters and move/rotate/scale the objects
- Design the lighting
- Adjust the materials
Sadly, the last part, adjusting the materials, is generally not performed, beyond applying some presets. For example, we might apply a certain skin to a character, but what if the skin does not react to the lighting as we hoped? Or what if a given material doesn’t render as we hoped? What if the blade of a sword is not providing the reflection that we wanted?
The material challenge
Sadly, both Studio and Poser present daunting challenges to the artist, when it comes to customizing the materials. Sure, there are several presets in the market, but that solution is inconvenient and cumbersome. For once, it costs you money, while the program should give you all the power to change the materials as you need. In addition, the result is not guaranteed and in many cases there is simply nothing that can work for a specific need. Lastly, if everybody is using the same products then many scenes start looking alike, which is in fact visible in the gallery submissions.
The issue here is that both Poser and DAZ Studio have very complex interfaces, when it comes to material customization. Material editing, in those programs, has not been designed with the artist in mind.
The node issue
One of the established ways of defining materials in the 3D world is the node system. Nodes provide functions on parts of the material and the idea is that the artist can string multiple nodes together to achieve the desired effect. That sounds good on paper, but it’s a terrible system in practice for the following reasons:
- Artists don’t think in terms of functions. The node system appeals to programmers, but is not a natural solution for art-oriented minds.
- A person unfamiliar with the nodes has no other way of learning how they work but to read the description of each function of each node, followed by the description of all the parameters of each node. It’s a mind-numbing, tedious process with a very steep learning curve.
- A node-based material is very hard, in some cases nearly impossible to read after it has been written. The only way to understand it is to re-trace each step and mentally recreate the effect of each node.
- We know now by several psychology studies that the human brain works best when it breaks data in small chunks. The size of the chunk is actually pretty small, between 6 to 7 elements. This means that a material that has up to 7 nodes can be understood by another person, but beyond that point things get too complex to be managed. The node system simply does not scale beyond the simplest cases.
- Several nodes have obscure names that make sense only to an elite of 3D gurus. For example, what kind of meaning a new 3D artist should give to a node called “Blinn?” Or “dPdv?” Or “phong?” Those terms are common in the halls of Computer Science but have no meaning to the non-initiated and as such represent just a terrible choice in User Interface design.
Case in point, the following is a typical example of a skin material defined in Poser 9:
As complex as that seems, it is not the most complex example. Here it’s how the node system can get become unmanageable:
Both examples are from real-life, commercial products that are sold online. If the user needs to make a change in the material, for any reason–art has been known to be unpredictable–trying to make sense of that tangle of nodes will likely de-motivate the artist pretty quickly.
Several Poser users, the majority of them from what I saw in years of reading the forums, are intimidated by the Material Room and have no familiarity with customizing the materials using the node system. This is very understandable, given the points outlined above. With Poser 11 things have become even worse, as now there are three families of nodes, instead of one. Up to Poser 10 the artists had to select from a set of nodes used with the Firefly renderer. Now there are nodes for Firefly, Superfly, and the raw Cycles nodes. From the artist’s point of view, this represents a big challenge, with the result that many Poser users are now convinced that customizing materials is not something that they can do.
This article will show you that it is possible to be in control of the materials and to customize them to your heart’s content.
The situation in DAZ Studio
Customizing materials in DAZ Studio is a little better, but it’s far from being artist-friendly. Studio doesn’t use nodes, but instead it provides a very long list of properties for each material. This list spans several screen lengths and is made of many interconnected parameters, named often using very technical terms. In its unfiltered form, what the user sees by default, the list doesn’t fit a screen length and in fact it can span several screens. Once a parameters is off the screen, it’s hard for the artist to keep it in mind or to remember the values of that parameter. When a parameter holds a reference to an image it is presented as a tiny thumbnail with a button superimposed on it, which takes more than a quarter of the image. The name is not visible and the image is too small and obstructed to be of any use:
The list system is almost as user-unfriendly as the node system when it comes to reading and customizing a material. This is a portion of a typical Studio material. The screenshot is 1,317 pixels high and it’s less than a third of the actual list:
Such a long list of parameters is very hard to manage and not the optimal way of working. It also runs against the creative workflow. Artists are known for working in a non-linear way. Studio provides grouping of the material properties, and that makes the solution a little better, but the fact is that grouping is simply a palliative, a correction to a system that is inherently difficult to manage. When we select a group we exclude parts of the material, we don’t use a simpler version of it. We simply hide parameters that are there and that have an effect on the final result. It’s a little bit easier, but not by much. And when it comes to iRay shaders, a choice made upstream can change a whole series of parameters downhill, making the user wonder what parameters went away and if one choice is better than the other.
In both Poser and Studio it’s clear that the material editors were designed to prioritize the technical aspect, instead of providing a material editor that feels natural to the artist. The artist has to conform to the need of the machine, instead of the other way around. As a result, the majority of Poser and Studio users have grown convinced that customizing materials is something reserved for material nerds; that materials are not something that should be, and could be changed to express the artistic vision. Granted, there are a few artists who do customize their materials, but they are, unfortunately, a very small minority.
In the next few posts to this blog, I will demystify the notion that material customization is beyond the reach of the majority of users and show you how you can be in control of your materials and how you can turn any scene into an original piece that expresses your vision.