Walt Disney Animation Studios‘ Frozen 2 journeys far beyond Arendelle. Check out how they used Substance Designer to recreate some of the iconic environments of the movie.
We spoke with filmmakers Joshua Fry (Look development artist), Jay Jackson (Look development artist), and Lance Summers (Environment look development supervisor) to discuss how they used certain tools to create the beautiful settings of Arendelle and more.
What were your respective roles at Walt Disney Animation Studios on Frozen 2?
Josh: I’m an Environment Look artist, and mainly worked on outdoor sets and early ice development on Frozen 2.
Lance: On Frozen 2 I was Environment Look Supervisor. I started out as an artist on Frozen 2 helping get our assets transferred from the first Frozen. Later, I worked on the dam set, integrating farms into our new fall Arendelle hills, and lots of fjords for the eventual flooding from the dam breaking. Currently, I’m an artist on an upcoming project.
Jay: On Frozen 2 I was an environment look artist. I worked on things such as the autumn forest look, the dark sea beach, the caverns, the river area, and the ship area. I am currently an environment supervisor on the 2021 film.
How was it to work on the sequel of such a successful movie? What were your expectations and how did you meet them?
Lance: Expectations were very high, especially for the story. We also knew the environments would need to be revamped for the current times as well. There were many more shots in the already existing town of Arendelle that we transferred from the original Frozen data area. Those shots got closer to areas we never saw before. We knew we would need to up-res textures and munge sets together to fit the story and layout of a particular shot. Part of that up-res we needed more accurate textures that had proper color with no baked-in lighting, proper displacements, and reflectance as well.
Jay: There was definitely a lot of internal motivation to continue to push the boundaries of our technology and the look of the film. We knew there would be a lot of eyes on us. We tried a few things differently in this film, such as having the entire environment team do a broader range of tasks such as set dressing. We also worked closely with a lighting lead from the start to vet our environments in various lighting conditions.
The environment team discovered Substance Designer midway through production. What made you decide to adopt Substance into your texturing pipeline while production had already begun?
Josh: There was a small team testing out new workflows and Substance Designer stood out as something that would fit well into our current pipeline with little to no development time needed. There was a great promise with being able to quickly iterate on tileable PBR maps and then generate variations on those designs easily.
How did the environment art team reorganize its material creation workflow?
Josh: I didn’t have the time to integrate it tightly into my workflow on Frozen 2, we were just starting out using it pretty far into production, and I moved onto a different production soon after I started working with Substance Designer. So, at the time, I was using Substance Designer mainly for situations that would be particularly difficult without it.
How did Substance help you upscale the visual quality of Frozen 2 vs the original 2013 movie?
Lance: For example, Josh was able to re-create textures from 2013 so they were a higher resolution and accurate displacements. We had a ton of new shots flying over the rooftops of the castle and those wooden roof tiles were originally just a map that held up only for more distant shots in Frozen 1.
Josh: Besides that example, there were a few ground planes that I created Substance materials for, like the pebble beach at the end of the film. But I think the heaviest use of Substance Designer on Frozen 2 for me was in the creation of smaller utility maps that weren’t full PBR materials, many of these were generated for patterns within ice materials.
Jay: For me, it helped a lot with the ship area ground and rotted wood. We had a lot of closeups that held up a little better, and it was quicker to get variation across large areas.
What were the key features and use cases Substance Designer was helpful for?
Josh: Fast iteration was the main draw for me, our previous methods for making custom tileable maps were significantly slower.
Jay: We were able to set up networks that could get us lots of variation really quickly and make it easy to modify if needed. Because some of our environments get so complex, it is difficult to get enough broad variation with the same few textures, so Substance allowed us to output different kinds.
Josh: I was still learning the software at the time, and most of the graphs I created on Frozen 2 were fairly simple. This one was of note because it was sort of the first test of getting it to work on the show for a full material, we knew we’d be seeing the roofs of the castle a little closer than in the original, so I brought in the maps we were using and tried to recreate the idea within Substance Designer, the result was significantly improved.
Were there any specific challenges you encountered and managed to resolve?
Lance: One of the biggest challenges was the need to up-res textures yet stick to the original art direction. Especially with any sort of pattern like roof tiles — which aren’t the most fun to up-res by hand, painting out any sort of artifacts.
Are there any tips or tricks you can share with the Substance community?
Josh: I’m still in the process of learning from the Substance community; it’s been fun seeing what’s possible in the software and how far people can take it.
Lance: To add to Josh’s point, I think we can learn a lot from the Substance community. I enjoy seeing all the different types of materials coming from the community.
Jay: For me, I’m much more into building “tools” and networks to quickly get multiple variations of a material from. Also, I used to hate building patterns but now I love it.
How is your use of Substance evolving on current and future productions?
Josh: We’ve since built a library of Substance materials, shapes and utilities within Substance Designer that artists are continually adding to. Personally, I’ve been using it nonstop on Raya and the Last Dragon, creating Substance materials that the rest of the team can use as production moves forward.
Jay: We are using it extremely heavily to build up our material library for the 2021 film. We have a lot of intricate details/patterns, so it is coming in handy!
What is your all-time favorite Disney character?
Lance: That’s impossible to answer. But if I had to pick, today I would pick Maui from Moana.
Jay: Hmmmmm probably currently Judy Hopps, but ask me again next week and it could be different.
Josh: I’ve got the same problem picking just one — for now, I’ll pick Stitch.
Anything we forgot to ask or that you’d like to add?
Lance: I think that as our films become more and more complex throughout the years it’s necessary for us to find ways to manage that scope and complexity efficiently. We as artists are always looking for things to help us achieve our art direction for any film.
All images courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios.