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Capsule Studio: How to use Substance Painter Optimally in Small VFX Teams

Pierre Bosset on September 4 2018 | Substance Painter, Stories, Film/VFX

Hi guys, thanks for taking your time for this interview. Could you tell us more about yourselves and Capsule Studio?

You’re very welcome! My name is Mhamed Elmezoued. I work as Head of CG at Capsule Studio, a young animation studio based in Paris, France. We craft creative content such as game trailers, cinematics, and TV commercials.

The studio was founded two years ago by Stéphane Montel, Raoul Barbet and myself. We come from different backgrounds. Raoul has a lot of experience in the game industry, working for companies like Quantic Dream & Dontnod. He recently shipped the critically acclaimed title Life Is Strange, on which he was Game Director. Stéphane and I have been doing animation movies for a decade, first as CG Artists in various French studios and then as CG Supervisors. We’ve worked on numerous commercials and game trailers like VW Hedgehogs and Rayman Legends.

We are very passionate about our work. Our studio is small but very nimble. This gives us an edge in many ways – we bring a tailored approach to every project, pipeline development and in our choice of software tools.

What was the idea behind the creation of the studio?

The taste for adventure? Seriously, after several years of experience in different companies, we took the opportunity to build a great creative workplace for people who want to work in a human-size company (most of our projects involved 10 to 15 artists). It was also the occasion to stay close to our network of talented artists with whom we love to work!

What is important to know when working in VFX for commercials and trailers?

When you work in such an environment, you need to be smart and you have to be curious. It’s by looking for new ways to improve your work that you will make better projects, be original and save time in future productions. Another important quality is to pay attention to every detail.

Nowadays, tools are more focused on artistry and less on the technical aspect. That’s great because a wider range of profiles can use the tools and bring something interesting to the production.

How did you discover Substance and when did you start using it?

We had the chance to meet Sébastien Deguy in 2013 at the very beginning of Substance Painter. It was already a very promising software and we were conquered by this new approach of texturing which combines the positive points of 3D painting and Photoshop.

From there, we closely followed the evolution of the software until it was mature enough to be used in VFX productions and CGI. Today, we can say that Substance Painter has changed our way of creating materials for high-end CG assets.

On what projects have you been using Substance?

We’ve used Substance Painter on almost every project involving characters since we started the studio. The level of use depends on the type of content we have to create. More specifically, we used Substance Painter on The Surge Cinematics & Trailer, our McDonald’s TV commercial, and the Farming Simulator trailers.

The McDonald’s Commercial

“Enjoy the Now” is a commercial for McDonald’s Switzerland. It says, in a lighthearted way, that the life we are living – we’re only living it once. We follow a frog through his journey until we realize that he is a reincarnated fast food lover 🙂 “Don’t wait for your next life. Enjoy the Now.”

In this spot, the challenge was to create a frog as cute and funny as possible, while remaining realistic. We chose to base our model on a real-life frog: the white-lipped tree frog (Litoria Infrafrenata). First of all, we begin the project with the most important part: gathering as many references as possible, like animal documentaries, pictures, on-set resources, etc.

Real references
Real references
Real references
Real references
On-set references
On-set references
On-set references
On-set references

Then we study every inch of the animal, like anatomy, body motion, etc. As we start the sculpting stage, we define the character’s main shapes, muscle, skin, and details.

The frog skin is very particular to reproduce. It’s moist, wet, smooth and shiny. It’s in such a case that Substance Painter was a real advantage, with its capacity to be flexible and iterate on various looks quickly, and to manage multiple layers of diffuse color and specular variation.

Tell us more about your use of Substance on the project. Did you encounter any challenges?

Hi guys, my name is Julien Nicolas and I’m Senior Character Artist at Capsule Studio. As part of the McDonald’s commercial, I was in charge of developing the look of a photo-realistic frog.

First of all, Substance Painter now has many more features than the version we used for this project. I had four different species to shade and texture: a frog, a turtle, a hedgehog and an owl. Quite challenging…

But let’s talk about our frog. What is funny with this animal is the fact that its skin has quite a lot of variation. And because of that, Substance Painter was a great help! It’s quite fast to bring a lot of diversity to our textures, with all the smart mask\materials and the Substance Share library (2 of my all-time favorite features provided by Substance). There are some nice assets available that you can use as a starting point for your shading work. For example, in the skin category, you can find some Frog Leather and Crocodile Skin.

What’s cool about Substance Painter is the very quick and convincing result you get directly in the viewport, thanks to PBR, but the challenge was that we had to bring it back to 3ds Max\Vray. Fortunately, with a little bit of practice, you can accomplish this quite easily.

Breakdown

Partitions by UDIM, with 2 UV sets, one for the body and one for the legs

UVs

Here’s the base model for the painting process; we use the high poly/sculpted mesh for the baking.

Basemesh LOW (for painting)
Basemesh HIGH (for detail projection)
Substance Painter – BaseColor
Substance Painter – Normal
Substance Painter – Roughness
Substance Painter – Material
Substance Painter viewport
Final image

The E3 Farming Simulator 2019 trailer

Developed by Giants Software and published by Focus Home Interactive, Farming Simulator is the number 1 farming simulation game on the market. After producing a short teaser late February, Capsule Studio also made a full-length trailer announcing the next major update of the franchise at the E3 in Los Angeles.

Again, Substance Painter was part of our toolset for many different tasks such as environment, props, tractors and also the textures of the main human character.

Could you explain your use of Substance on the project? What was specific to this trailer, in relation to the tractor asset?

Hi, my name is Alexandre Ferra and I’m a Lead Assets and Scene Assembly Artist at Capsule Studio. A part of my job was to work on the look dev of the assets and, more specifically, on the two different tractors.

Those were hero assets, mainly the John Deere tractor which had to be seen in close-up and in various environments, with different kinds of texture layers depending on the sequence, from a clean version to something dirtier.

The John Deere had to be clean in the barn shots, with a slight touch of dust to keep a realistic result. Meanwhile, it had to be muddy and dirtier dirty for the plowing shots. The final asset had to match the production standards but also the client’s and the manufacturer’s expectations.

The result is the need for a large degree of versatility in the texture management, and the ability to provide fast feedback to the clients. On top of that, the vehicles were all CAD files with thousands of elements and dozens of millions of polygons split over multiple UDIMS.

After some consideration regarding the needs of the production, I decided to use Substance Painter for the texturing in combination with the VRayBlend shader (which allows the blending of multiple materials with BW masks). It allowed me to work in a more interactive way, creating the more realistic textures in Substance Painter while using the V-Ray materials as a base. All the different layers of dust and mud from Substance Painter are separated in the VRayBlend to have an easier texture management process.

The layer instancing feature of Substance Painter allowed me to manage complex dirt and mud projection effects and dust particles on dozens of UDIMs. This partially automated feature was perfect to update all the improvements in real-time, and change the amount, and style, of dust for the whole tractor.

The smart masks were also very helpful once the baking was done, allowing automatically consistent splatter, mud or edge dirt on the whole tractor. Combined with the instances, the updates and reviews were very fast and easy to manage to target the optimal level of dirt we wanted.

Finally, once the first assets were validated, it was very easy to save the different smart masks and particle effects to use them as base presets on the other assets. These features created a really terrific combination, which drastically increased the productivity and the quality of the look-dev stage.

Breakdown

There’s no real magic on this asset; we have to unfold every piece to be able to paint each detail correctly.

16 UDIMs

Here are some images of the process. The maps were mainly done with smart masks, and some adjustments with hand painting.

Dust Mask
Dist+Dust Mask

And then the final result. The top image presents the tractor with clean and simple V-Ray shaders. The bottom image presents the tractor after we’ve worked on it with Substance Painter; all the dirt, dust and mud has been added to the shading.

Clean version (top) / Dirt+Dust+Mud (bottom)

What are your next projects? Do you plan on using Substance Designer in the future?

We have several projects under pre-production right now but unfortunately, we can’t say much about them 🙂 Stay tuned!

Concerning Substance Designer, we’ve started running some tests to see how it could fit into our pipeline. This is something we’re going to push further in the next few months because we believe it has the potential to become the backbone of our shading workflow.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Dear Santa, in the next version of Substance Painter, please give us the ability to paint across multiple UDIMs as well as a projection tool with a lattice/grid deformation. PS: I’ll even leave extra delicious cookies for you!

All images courtesy of Capsule Studio