If you’re a Marvel fan like us, here on the Substance team, you’ll certainly be excited to get some more insider details in the making of some of our favorite superheroes for the latest Avengers’ installment, Avengers: Endgame. Read on to learn how Substance was used at Industrial Light & Magic to texture some of the hero assets for the movie.
Hi Gareth, it’s a pleasure talking with you. Could you present yourself and your role at ILM to the community?
Hi Pierre, it’s great to make your acquaintance. My name is Gareth Jensen and I’m a texture supervisor at ILM in San Francisco. I’ve been working in visual effects for the past 11 years. Prior to that, I worked as a makeup FX and props artist for films.
What different projects have you been working on at ILM? What did your work consist of on Avengers: Endgame?
In recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to work on a wide range of projects including Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Warcraft, but my past few years have predominantly been spent on the last two installments of the Avengers movies. My role as Texture Supervisor on Avengers: Endgame had a few different areas to cover. I provided guidance and support to artists when they needed it, which can come in the form of art direction, paintovers, and material callouts, as well as technical support and interdepartmental communication, the goal being efficient asset approval from both Marvel Studios and our own VFX Supervisor, Russell Earl. I also painted several hero assets for the show: Smart Hulk aka Professor Hulk, Iron Man Mark 85, and my fellow alien New Zealander, Korg.
Why did you decide to adopt Substance in the production of the movie?
At ILM we have been lucky to be visited by the Substance development team several times over the past four or five years. Early on I was really taken with the power and flexibility of Substance Designer and its ability to create endless iterations of surfaces with the same level of fidelity as scan data. In between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, I was involved in a couple of real-time projects, like the Millennium Falcon ride for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
These projects were beginning to leverage Substance more and gave me some additional exposure to its usefulness. So when Endgame started to ramp up, I was keen to add these tools to our workflow. For instance, when we receive concept art for a character’s costume, we can start assembling material options in Substance Designer while the model is still being built. One of our Senior Texture artists, Zoe Lord, did this for several assets where the materials depicted in the concept art could be interpreted in various ways, and we could do this to get visual clarification.
On which assets have you used Substance Painter?
For Avengers: Endgame I used Substance Painter for smaller assets and environment dressing. I find it really shines on real-time projects, but I can definitely see it being used more and more in VFX as the hardware and workflows enable it to lift heavier assets.
Can you tell us more about your character texturing workflow with Substance Designer?
There were a couple of fun cases where Substance Designer was a huge help to my workflow. Marvel really wanted this version of Iron Man to be a little more grounded in the physical world, while still using the nanotechnology introduced in Avengers: Infinity War. To help with this we developed a two-specular-lobe material similar to a classic metallic car paint, but with the different auxetic nanopatterns woven into the shells. This was much like how we’d deal with a resin-sealed carbon fiber, but with much more complicated patterning.
While prototyping different looks for the underlying nanostructure visible in the red areas of the suit, I used Substance Designer to create the initial look. Having the control to set up custom outputs for our shaders allowed me to leverage directional anisotropic maps and anisotropic roughness, as well as all the standard outputs like occlusion, which was useful to create internal shadowing without having to implement expensive caustics. Once I had the graph set up we quickly made multiple versions of the material so the team at Marvel could pick what they wanted for the film.
Another fun Substance Designer case was the making of Korg’s infamous Pineapple Romper, based on Taika Waititi’s outfit from Comic-Con, a fan favorite. Marvel thought it would be a bit of fun to have the couch-bound rockman wearing the leisurewear of Taika, who voice acts for Korg. They sent us the largest size of the outfit they could find. While our Creature Model Supervisor Lana Lan set to building the outfit in Marvelous Designer, I started making the pineapple fabric.
I wanted to make an exact match of the pattern so I identified each element of the print, the different pineapples, parrots and tropical fronds. I found the cleanest area of each element on the shirt and scanned them with a flatbed scanner. With a little clean up, I could make each element into a bitmap and rebuild the pattern exactly in Substance Designer. Having quick and easy control over the scale/rotation/tiling and how each element overlaid on top of each other, as well as how the print ink sat in the fabric weave, was really great. While this is a relatively very simple use of Substance Designer, I can’t think of any other package that could produce these results this fast and perfectly clean.
What are the tips you can give to aspiring VFX artists when it comes to texturing character hero assets?
Never stop learning and experimenting. I find the best way to stay engaged and excited is to learn from the world around me, from nature, from science, and from fellow artists. If you don’t already, then take some time to make physical art. Make things in the real world; there are so many problems in digital art that can be solved by drawing upon experience in physical art and construction. Makeup FX, painting, sculpting, tattooing, airbrushing and automotive painting, photography, and wearable arts all have information to help inform us to make better decisions in our discipline.
What was your experience with Substance on this project and how do you see the use of Substance evolving in future projects?
It’s a fantastic suite of tools to have in the kit. I am continually amazed at the nodes and procedural materials being produced around the globe. I can only see it being used more and more on future projects as we build up our Substance Library.