Axis Animation – Bringing the Summerset Isle to life with Substance Painter

The team at Axis Animation give us an overview of their use of Substance Painter for their Elder Scrolls Online cinematic.

  • Film
  • Game

The high-quality output of Axis Studios’ asset team is due in part to the excellent tools at their artists’ disposal. The Axis team were hard at work, bringing the fantasy landscape of Summerset Isle to life with Substance Painter. We spoke with the asset team to find out how they utilized Substance Painter to produce designs of the highest quality.

Set roughly 1,000 years before the events in Bethesda’s critically acclaimed The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls Online takes the explorative fantasy landscapes of this fan-favorite franchise online. Players of the series can experience the game with friends, exploring dungeons and completing quests for hours on end.

Axis Studios maintains a high production output with incredibly fast delivery rates. To meet demand, the company is continually looking at ways to maximize performance and maintain high levels of quality.

“Substance Painter is a perfect way to extract the best out of both approaches, procedural tools were needed to speed up our work whilst still being able to handcraft the best results,” explained Ewan Wright, Head of Assets.

The shareability between artists helps boost a strong cohesion between the team, with studios operating from multiple locations.

“We are an international company working with artists both in the studio and around the globe – the widespread use of Substance Painter gives us access to a global pool of talent. Substance Painter allows us to work within the same PBR (physically based rendering) environment, meaning the Substance previews closely resemble the end result in our renderer. We can also share libraries of materials, tools, and resources with all of our artists with speed and ease.”

The logical processes of Substance Painter allow for a succinctly balanced workflow for artists looking to create detailed but realistic textures. As Amy Ash, Character Artist explains:

“The non-destructive workflow makes it much easier to iterate materials or respond to feedback with speed, and the smart masks are great for adding variation and for making the most of the sculpted details. I build textures in layers with masks rather than use pre-existing materials, providing maximum flexibility. It helps me avoid an overly-processed look. Once I have something that works, I’ll usually turn it into a smart material that I can apply across other assets within the same project; this allows me to save time and increase efficiency.”

“I needed to ensure that metals were visually represented correctly on armor and swords – adding fine but sharp scratches and dirt in recesses. Substance Painter’s viewport proved to be a very accurate preview of the final render.”

The Spider asset was very different. I needed to ensure that the textures were considerably brighter than their appearance in the final render in order for them to behave correctly in the shader. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, providing an opportunity to add a variety of colors, bringing subtlety to the final look.”

Ease of use is a founding principle of Substance Painter’s appeal, focusing on its widespread usability among artists of different stylistic approaches. For the artist resistant to complex programming, Substance Painter is designed with simplicity in mind. As Character Artist Carlo Kasongo explains:

“The procedural aspect of Substance Painter may intimidate new users, but in reality, it’s one of the easiest software to learn. After a quick 30-minute tutorial, artists can become confident”

“Substance Painter was a great asset for our project because it enabled a succinct continuation when the asset passed through departments, all without any reduction in style or quality.”

For the Summerset cinematic, creating rich and detailed textures became a vital component in bringing the characters of The Elder Scrolls Online world to life. Claudio Tumiati, a Character Artist in the Asset team, coined some layering tricks for creating detailed clothing.

“One trick that I found useful when texturing the Elf soldier in The Elder Scrolls Online Summerset Cinematic was the utilization of layers in an overlay or soft lighting. I can add a tileable texture of old yellowish paper with stains, instantly producing a range of natural color variations throughout the surface.”

A strong environment is integral to creating an atmospheric reflection of the film’s mood. The ability to share material assets amongst team members across different locations became an important part of the studio’s workflow, as Environment Lead Chris Livesey describes:

“The software allows us to build initial smart materials that we can pass through to all members of the team. As we are a multi-location studio, the ability for the team to be working from the same base has been integral on numerous occasions, helping tie environment assets together and keep the look of the world consistent.”

Designing environments can sometimes lead artist’s to over-articulate scenery because of the amount of space available to fill. With the long list of tools at their disposal, it’s easy for artists to get carried away. In the case of Environment Artist Dmitry Kremiansky, using Substance Painter for so many years has helped refine his technique.

“The moment I understood that ‘less is more,’ I started to use Substance Painter tastefully, and over the years it has become my primary texturing software. My workflow consists of creating folders with fill layers containing photographed and scanned textures as base materials, all alternated with fill layers using procedurals from Substance Painter’s shelf for detail. Those folders are being masked by generators —usually dirt— and light (for dust from the top) and metal edge wear.”

“For The Elder Scrolls Online’s Summerset Isle, I’ve used Substance Painter to blend the different cliff sections and create consistency. This worked efficiently and, while modeling, I baked the maps and dropped the same smart material preset on everything. This includes a dirt generator, multiplied by a map set to tri-planar projection, and a mesh thickness map that switches automatically between meshes to brighten thinner areas.

One of the tricks I’ve used to speed up my workflow in Substance is generating the masks in ZBrush whilst sculpting. The final high-poly surfaces were covered with a consistent amount of small detail, resulting in uniform curvature and thickness of maps.”

We’re looking forward to seeing what the talented Axis asset team will produce with Substance Painter next time!

All images courtesy of Axis Animation.

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