We talk with The Mill VFX Supervisors Edward Shires and Dan Moller, who explain how the Substance software is useful on commercials such as Bentley’s Centenary – 100 Years of Extraordinary. Texture artist Maria Carriedo further shows us how she used Substance Designer to create some of the unique materials used for the ad.
Hi guys, thanks for taking the time for this interview! Could you introduce yourselves to the community?
Edward Shires: I’m a VFX supervisor at The Mill where I have worked for the last 11 years, 4 of which I spent in New York. I started here straight out of university, and have always loved the wide range of projects that we work on here.
Dan Moller: I was a VFX supervisor with The Mill, having been there for 5 years since arriving from Australia. My background has always been in VFX for advertising, so this was very much my kind of project. Since the commercial’s release I’ve actually moved with the industry deeper into realtime, and am now working in augmented reality. This is similarly a really exciting space to be working with materials developed in Substance.
What do you do at The Mill London and what were your respective roles on the Bentley commercial?
Dan: Both working as VFX supervisors, Ed and I had very similar responsibilities. These ranged from developing pitches with clients and directors, bidding on jobs, working with scheduling to book out artist teams, supervising film shoots, project managing the post-production, setting the standard for artistic work, being a key point of contact for clients and producers regarding the execution of the work, mentoring junior artists, coordinating with the 2D supervisors to complete the work and acting as final quality control.
We also tend to find broader departmental scope in our work, including pushing for newer and better ways to get work done – including deploying Substance, and Ed and I both have a passion for training and developing junior talent.
On Bentley, I worked with our directors to develop key imagery to go into the pitch during the bidding process. After a few cycles of narrowing down the pool of vendors who were bidding, we were super-excited to have won the job, and could move into pre-production. I worked with storyboard and concept artists while developing our previz, then supervised the shoot.
At this point we entered full post-production, Ed had just delivered his previous spot and joined the team. We actually only had a few days supervising the job together simultaneously, before Ed went off to get married! By the time he got back, I jetted off on a quick holiday in Australia, and on my return, Ed went off to have his honeymoon, true story!
Oddly, we shared a lot of information back and forth while both fulfilling the supervisor role, but we didn’t actually spend a lot of time on the job together. This is where Substance was very helpful to us, as the setups were very easy to reverse engineer and push updated work through. Neither of us needed to worry about briefing the other on anything there while handing the job back and forward, which was a huge relief.
Tell us more about the commercial, what was the creative brief? The visual style you wanted to achieve?
Dan: The primary focus of the brief was to speak to the craft and engineering that Bentley puts into every one of their cars, while telling several key stories from the history of the brand and its passionate community of drivers and fans. We worked with several highly talented concept artists to develop and settle on an overall look. When we used the statue of Walter Owen Bentley (Founder of Bentley Motors) as an example, we wanted the statue to look highly engineered and elegant, while also having a sense of history – without looking too weathered.
It was important to Bentley that everything looked warm and inviting, as well as authentically showcasing the luxurious materials used to craft the car interiors. Fortunately, Bentley supplied us with a “commissioning kit” – a case full of material samples – from their “Engine Spin” metal, to various types of wood with fascinating layers of anisotropic highlights and myriads of colors of leather and stitching patterns.
Edward: The visual style was very much based around these Bentley materials. We used them to bring shape and compose our shots, along with using them to represent the different ages of Bentley. For example, we would use the materials to create a modern look for the new GT, however, when flashing back to previous models, our environment would turn to wood to represent the material of the time.
The materials we designed to partly show “craft and development in process” by using scratches, grime and a rougher look on an aluminum surface; up against wonderfully finished leathers and woods which would bring accents and details to the images. This “craft” look can always be a challenge with a premium brand as it’s a fine line to tread before they feel it looks “old, dirty and off brand”. Substance allowed us to dial in and out of these details with ease.
How did Substance help you meet these goals while allowing you to respect the tight deadline of the project?
Dan: Substance made it easy to get started on developing a palette of materials immediately. We had several artists sitting with the swatches from the commissioning kit just starting to rough them out, which we could then more or less drag and drop onto separate chunks of sculptures to develop the look. Given the short deadline, these sculptures were also continuously being refined up until almost the last day. Substance made it a breeze to take the latest versions, push it back through to very quickly generate an entirely new set of textures conformed to the updated models and get them back into renders super fast.
As with the W.O. Bentley sculpture, we also needed to find a balance between polish and engineering vs. weathering and history. By setting up things like weathering as separate layers, it was fairly trivial to dial up and down to quickly find exactly the right balance.
Edward: Agreed, the procedural nature of Substance was incredibly useful on this project. Being able to react to a client comment without issue and with speed was the least of our worries. I was actually blown away by the complexity of some of the materials the team managed to create: some of the woods and patterned metals would have been an enormous amount of work had we not used Substance Designer.
On what aspects of the commercial did you use the Substance software?
Edward: In the early stages, I used Substance for some quick look development, presenting the render straight out of Substance. There is a part of the commercial where Bentley’s history is told with an explosion of paper that has been blown into the air by the passing car. I used Substance to very quickly take some high contrast artwork and use it to explore the idea of etching those images on to the ‘paper’ (attached. Images were just taken from google at this stage as a test, the artwork is not The Mill’s).
Dan: Substance Painter was used extensively throughout the commercial; it features on all of the sculptures of the Bentley Boys and Girls, the abstract background landscapes including the wood, brushed steel and copper, the floors including the finish line, the flying copper papers and many of the materials you see in the car interior.
Maria Carriedo: The client supplied us with an extensive box of Bentley material swatches. They were the real materials they use in store for their clients to pick out what finishings they would like on their actual car. This gave us amazing references for texture building, since we could actually see how the different woods, metals and carbon fibre worked in real life and different lighting scenarios. For this reason, we built a material library from scratch on Substance Designer, giving us amazing flexibility and fast iterations for our environments and sculptures.
How did Substance integrate into your pipeline?
Dan: Substance integrated into our pipeline fairly fluidly. We have robust pipeline tools, but we don’t allow them to compromise flexibility and speed where we need it. We maintain strict version control on our models, and adhere to naming conventions and predictable file structures in our texturing pipelines. It was always easy for us to work out where the latest Substance files would be stored, since they were using the correct version models and the output would go into a consistent and predictable place. We also maintain large libraries of textures in fixed locations we can call on easily to enhance our work.
Creating the Materials
Maria: One of the most interesting materials was a beautiful anisotropic wood that Bentley uses on their interior panels. It has a stunning natural pattern, which is later treated in a way that makes the reflection anisotropic and then coated with a clear resin. The result is unlike any other material we’ve seen before so that’s why we chose to recreate it.
Substance Designer allowed us to create this complex look in a surprisingly easy way. We used a Tile Sampler node and warped it a few times to get that natural wobbly pattern. The trickiest part was building the anisotropic angle map, since it was a mix of the original pattern with some directional waves across to later render in Arnold as an anisotropy angle. The end result was very close to the original and just very fun and beautiful to create.
Another material we used extensively was a simple aluminum plate: we used it throughout the job in the environments. We needed to have a metal that would look beautiful but not distract us from the main story, while complementing the general design of the spot. We created this material entirely in Substance Designer for the simple iteration nature of the software, which allowed us to be able to change the look and feel on the fly, according to our client’s feedback.
How do you see your use of the Substance software evolve on your future projects?
Dan: Release by release, Substance is becoming an increasingly powerful and compelling package. As the tools become progressively more robust and our own custom material libraries continue to grow, it’ll be ever easier to turn to Substance to quickly apply high-quality materials to any given model. More of our artists will become fully proficient and this will in turn drive faster, higher quality output across the studio.
Edward: With so many artist’s well versed in Substance now at The Mill, I find that I more or less end up using it on all of my projects. You can get such good results in such a time-efficient manner, that under the pressure of a short deadline it’s great.
It’s not just the speed of the result, for a rough sign off for example, but the software can be pushed with relative ease to really give you those crazy high detail final quality textures in every map you need.
What advice would you give to texture artists wanting to work in VFX for advertisement?
Dan: I’m a firm believer that all texture artists should have a firm grasp of the fundamentals – what makes up a pixel, basic colour maths, blending modes & their respective algorithms, manually working with channels and so on. That being said, it’s important in advertising to work fast and to a very high standard, and Substance is the perfect helper here. It’s definitely a package that should be in any texture artist’s toolkit, just be sure to keep an eye on what’s going on under the hood.
Edward: As Dan says, developing a natural eye and understanding is always the best base on which to progress. Once you have those skills, learning a software like Substance Designer and Substance Painter will make you a useful asset to any Supervisor or Lead on a production very quickly. Learning how to create a wide range of materials will be incredibly valuable, from the most boring to the most complex.
Artists need to really study the texture of a surface (its reflectivity, bump, how it handles colour) and think about how to achieve it. There are usually far more subtleties than one would think. I would also recommend learning the hand painting side of Substance. While it’s great to work procedurally, you will often find that the thing that makes the very best textures will always be that little artist lead input.
Dan: As tools like Substance become increasingly mature, creating compelling imagery is becoming ever more attainable. At the same time, we’re reaching a golden age of AR / VR / XR, with advancements in PBR materials and ray tracing starting to penetrate that space too. It’s an incredibly exciting time and I can’t wait to see what everyone’s creating next!
Edward: I can’t wait to see how Substance progresses in the future!
All images courtesy of The Mill London.