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We interchangeably use terms like “Textures”, “Shaders”, and “Materials” when we begin our CGI journey. While it might seem okay at first, mixing them up causes confusion and makes it harder for us to really understand how materials work in CGI. I’ve observed students and interns, including myself at one point, grappling with the interchangeable use of CGI terms like textures, shaders, and materials.

Blind Leads the Blind

In between classes, in the computer lab, “the blind leads the blind” so to speak. Below are typical misinformed comments I overhear.

“Materials are better than Textures”
“Just set every texture to RAW because that holds the most data”
“Normal maps only work in Unreal Engine. Arnold can’t do it correctly”

While it’s perfectly understandable for the less experienced, it worries me when such misinformation spread like wildfire. There’s a real difference between Textures, Shaders and Materials. Here’s the thing, understanding the nuances between them allows us to unlock the true potential of beautiful materials and renders.

TL;DR

Shader + Texture = Material

Shaders

Shaders (or Shading Nodes) houses the parameters to control the appearance of the material when the light ray hits the object and return to the camera. This allows us to create rough reflections, metallic, glass materials with sliders on parameters like reflection roughness, metalness, and refraction.

Usually the values range between 0 and 1 for simplicity.

Textures

Sliders have limited control; the values are uniformly set between 0 and 1. Here’s where textures come into play, as they allow for varying data across the surface of the geometry.

The common misconception is that the objects don’t look great because there aren’t any textures applied to it. Yet, it’s more accurate and helpful to say that the materials haven’t been applied. Because textures are nothing more than images which help to vary the parametric values of the shaders.

Let’s use reflection roughness as an example, where 0 is perfectly glossy, and 1 is very rough. Plastics generally have a roughness of 0.3 to 0.5. We can vary the reflection roughness of a piece of plastic so be glossy and rougher in different areas by feeding a texture map of some grunge pattern, ranged to values of 0.3 and 0.5. This way, the resulting material will look like realistic plastic.

Materials

Yes, I’ve just used the term “resulting material”. Materials are a combination of Textures and Shaders to properly describe how a surface appear in real-world lighting conditions.

Final World on Difference between Textures, Shaders and Materials.

Well, that’s the difference between difference between Textures, Shaders and Materials. Now that we’ve cleared the air on what these terms mean, and I’ll see you in another post where we’ll dive a little deeper into the Practical Application of PBR Materials. If you’d like more of an overview of the 3D production, you can read about designing a 3D animation pipeline here.

Ronald Fong

Author Ronald Fong

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