Hi there, thanks for taking the time for this interview! Could you present yourselves to the community?
Jamaal Bradley: Hey everyone, my name is Jamaal Bradley and I’ve been working in the animation industry for close to two decades (man, I feel old.. Haha). I’ve worked at some great studios during my run including Disney, Dreamworks, and Valve Software. I’m currently back at Valve after being away for a few years.
Nikie Monteleone: Hello! My name is Nikie Monteleone and I’m currently a surfacing artist at DreamWorks Animation TV. I’ve been in the industry for about 9 years, and have worked with clients such as Nike, M&Ms, Supercell, Nickelodeon, and Adidas along with working on a few short films through Artella.
What are your respective roles in the production of Substance?
Jamaal: On Substance, I served as writer, director, producer, character designer, animation supervisor, layout artist, and a few other things. I had to wear a lot of hats due to this project being so independent. The people who have helped me believed in the project, and in the work being put into it. I truly think this is why the project has made progress.
Tell us more about Substance. When did the project start? How did it evolve to its current form?
Jamaal: The story idea began around 2008, if I remember correctly. I was going through a few things and I just started writing like crazy. After dissecting what was coming out on paper I began to look more closely at what was going on around me. I was reading collected works by James Baldwin at the time, and I was inspired by the connection that his work was making with the real-life events surrounding him.
The first story pass of Substance was still based on truth and reality, but I took a lot of animation liberties. Funny motion, exaggerated expressions, and special effects created using 2D animation were all on the table. I paid for tests to be done by professional 2D FX artists, seasoned lighters, and a few other people, but once I started to calculate the scope of things and the real-world financials it started to look out of reach.
Another thing that made me reevaluate how to tell the story was people saying they could help, but in reality, it was a lot of talking without any productive action. So this led to a big simplification pass. This is when I decided to shoot it like a live-action film, and use animation principles to enhance it. The lead story artist, Michael Yates, always said it had a stage play feel, which works for the story and message we are sending. The really huge part of the evolution came from knowing our limitations, working within them, and from using them to our advantage.
What is the artistic goal you wanted to achieve, especially for the visual part?
Jamaal: The major thing for me was to make black characters look and feel unique but authentic. There are many ranges you can hit because our culture is so diverse, but for the story I’m telling it had to feel authentic. We’ve received a lot of praise so far for the look, and this has made us very happy. When people pointed out the ‘walk’ in the teaser, it was a huge, humbling rush. The affirmation that we captured a feeling that no one has approached in animation meant a lot. It was great to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse break some ground in this area. As far as Substance goes, we’re telling a story that is real so the visuals had to support it.
At first, I was going for a very stylized, painterly look that probably would have looked very cool – but, again, looking at the financials I ultimately made the decision to ‘let CG, be CG’. This was my way of saying we were going to use the tools present in the software to give us what we needed. So our lead modeler, Mridul Sen, and our surfacing lead, Nikie Monteleone, really captured what we needed to make the impact necessary.
How did Substance help you achieve the visual quality you were aiming for?
Nikie: Substance Painter played a huge role in art directing looks on the fly. Jamaal was able to scroll through Substance Source without needing an account to pick his favorite fabrics, woods, metals, and so on. Because I was starting with a base I knew he already liked, surfacing moved along quickly with more time to do the fun stuff.
Iray also played a huge part in getting quick feedback on something we both knew would look pretty similar inside Maya with Arnold. I wasn’t spending time exporting and rendering within another program. It provided more time to do the fun stuff!
Tell us more about the workflow of the movie. Which software tools did you use?
Jamaal: We adhered to most of the classic framework for production workflow. I began on the story, as well as the character designs, years ahead of time. When I got the story to a decent place, that’s when I started searching for story artists. During the search, we got our first character modeled. With the character being ready, I was able to convince a rigger to come on and throw something together that could be roughly animated. The animation tests and the promise of a decent idea got us our lead story artist. Then we got to work.
We worked on story, character development, and modeling at the same time. Sitting on a lot of content for a while, we didn’t push forward hard until we felt like the story was in a great place. Once the story was around 70% refined, we began sending things to the layout artist. This is when things got tricky because as we evolved the story, we were NOT going to re-send things to layout and have this massive back and forth. It would have slowed down things immensely. So for any changes going forward, we’d just add them to the animatic, and address them in animation production. Once the animatic was pretty solid, and certain shots were locked down, I began to animate. At this time, we still had no surfacing artists or lighters. This is the part when non-conventional kicked in. I was using milestone success as leverage to gain confidence for people to sign on to help. Usually, in production, all of these things are set.
Once I had a few shots animated and the story was solid, we were able to show a WIP of the short, which attracted Nikie Monteleone to the project. I was also finally able to show it to my friend and old colleague from Imageworks, Eric Warren, and he was more than excited to help the effort. Since much of the modeling work was complete, Nikie had a chunk of work to attack for us. So we didn’t go the traditional route where the models are completed in a few weeks, then sent to the surfacing department. We spent time making assets beforehand, because I didn’t want the modeler to have to wait. Eric helped us get the CFX pipeline going for cloth and hair, which Nikie also helped us refine. The Substance team was pulling double duty on many fronts.
With the team in place, we set up our pipeline through Google Drive, and stayed in sync using Google Backup and Sync. Using the storyboard, we’d alter the layout accordingly, or start it from scratch; finished animation shots would be sent to CFX for cloth pass and turned into alembic files, and then I would assemble and send the shots for lighting.
Could you give us a breakdown of a character you textured with Substance?
Nikie: The first character we did look development on was John. For the fabric, I ended up using a few Substance templates and creating a sort of hand-painted, noticeable brush stroke effect in the shadows and highlights for the fabric. The skin was look-developed a bit further inside Arnold. This was before Substance’s new SSS shader, which I wish I’d been able to use for this project!
We kept the skin pretty simple. Adding details with small and large pores and a pretty stylized, faded beard.
John Skin SSS Breakdown.
For the SSS map, the baked-out AO and curvature maps did most of the work.
What are your favorite features in Substance?
Nikie: The ability to quickly render inside Substance Painter with Iray, knowing that the renders will look almost identical inside Maya with Arnold.
Jo Iray vs Arnold.
Are there any tips or tricks you can share with the community?
Nikie: With limited personal time, I made sure all similar meshes for each character were on the same UDIM tile, aka texture set. For instance, the UVs for the faces of Jo, Jason, and John were all on 1001, and their body UVs were all on 1002. Shirts on 1003, and so on. Of course, there were a few differences between the main 3 characters but this was a huge help in the Maya shader set up. I was able to keep the number of shaders necessary for the characters down to only 1 or 2 by using the UDIM-based workflow instead of having multiple texture sets and shaders.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Jamaal: The team is very thankful for Substance Painter, because it came into our pipeline at a great time. When Nikie introduced her skill set with the tools, we broke new ground getting the team excited to continue pushing on with the project. Making a short film is a labor of love, and the biggest reward is improving your personal growth and hopefully bringing something inspiring to our industry and to the world.