SpinVFX: Integrating Substance for Feature Film and TV Series

Today, we chat with Ryan Cromie (Texture Supervisor), Gautam Singh (Model Lead) and Eryn Thorsley (Lead Texture Artist) from the SpinVFX team, as they go through their use of Substance on Zombieland: Doubletap and Amazon’s The Expanse.

Ryan: I first became aware of Substance a few years ago at a previous studio that I worked for. There were a few artists there who used it as their primary texture tool, and I was immediately impressed and could see the potential for my own texture use. 

Once a model is completed and approved, it is ready for texturing. During the texturing process, I, along with the CG Supervisor and VFX Supervisor will do deskside rounds to oversee the evolution of the asset, and to make sure the artist is matching the reference material correctly. Then the artist will output maps to Katana, where they will do final look development and render using Renderman. 

Gautam: We use Substance Painter and Substance Designer primarily for hard surface assets starting from small props to big environment sets. When it comes to the features, the ability to instance layers in Substance Painter makes it easy to tweak all texture-sets material through one layer. This standardization enables us to share our work-in-progress Substance files, allowing artists to pick up seamlessly from where the other may have left off. 

Another helpful feature that we use frequently is the Planer projections (surface tool drop) under instance, which can be very helpful in case one has to paint decals across the texture set. The “UV border distance” is also a very helpful generator when used under the instance layer across multiple texture-sets to remove the UV seams. 

Additionally, the use of our Substance Painter/Designer materials, which have been tested to work best in the renderer, allow us to create an initial look for the shot and have it ready for an initial review. Depending upon the shots, we frequently use procedural materials rendered with Substance Painter exported masks such as dirt, drips, rust, moisture, and wet maps among others. This allows us to get the desired texture quality. 

Zombieland: Double Tap

Gautam: Most of the assets that I worked on were from the Pisa, Italy, scenes, which required the architecture to look abandoned and worn down. All materials such as dirt, moisture, ivy treatment, moss, marble and burnt surfaces were prepared to maintain look consistency. The leaning Tower of Pisa was textured entirely in Substance Painter. I ingested the textures for the Tower asset from its scan data as a starting point and added the directed treatment.

For the initial passes, I leveraged the standard Substance Painter procedure to get the basic look and feel of the asset right. I then worked into finer detailing by adding specific dirt drips through planer projection to keep everything non-destructive.

To achieve the stained look from the deterioration of the marble over the years, a common stained look material was created, and the mask was painted looking through the shot camera for accuracy. The same procedure was followed to add the ivy and grout on the marble blocks and finished off with moss patches all over. The various materials were controlled to give a good color balance so that they work with each other.  

Eryn: What really works well for a studio working with many set pieces and props is the ability to create a consistent look across the board. Substance has the ability to create and share materials between artists with ease. Artists can create a look that works, then package it up and send it to everyone else — and it’s almost a perfect drag and drop due to the way you can bake out auxiliary maps per object.  

Substance Painter offers a thorough and well-rounded suite of tools for our artists. So much so that there are few “tricks” necessary to complete any project. It is user-friendly and reliable for most creative tasks.   

Amazon’s The Expanse 

Gautam: We have been working on The Expanse since the beginning and it has been great to work on some cool assets, including background props, spaceships, and environments. Some of the shots and assets worked on include the Mars sequence from season 4. For the Mars environment, background props and rock details were all textured in Substance Painter, along with most of the Megascans asset textures, which were processed through Substance Painter to work better with the renderer.  

Since the look of the show is very futuristic, we put together a material library and tools that allow us to keep the look well balanced in the environment as the assets get staged. The variant of red/amber Mars dust materials was created to be layered on top of all the Mars assets. The same preparation was done for the metal elements, carbon fiber, glass, etc. Once the initial material blocking was done, the dirt and wear-tear treatment were applied overall, and micro detailing the functional and exposed area, upon referring to the shot layout. Substance Painter was great on performance, handling such a high numbered polycount and UDIMS.  

Future Projects

Ryan: I think we will be using Substance more and more on future projects as our artists are always updating our own material library. We can quickly call upon these materials to efficiently develop a look for our assets.  

About SpinVFX

SpinVFX has been in the visual effects business for over 30 years, and today we have studios in Toronto and Atlanta with over 250 talented staff. Our recent work includes:

Stranger Things S3 (Netflix) 
The Umbrella Academy (Netflix); we received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects for S1, and we are currently working on S2 
– Zombieland: Double Tap (Sony Pictures) 
The Expanse S4 (Amazon Prime) 

You can find our full filmography here and our reels here

All images courtesy of SpinVFX.