FREIGHT: Telling Visual Stories Through Texturing
Sava: Thanks for the invite! My name is Sava Zivkovic and I’m a director from Belgrade, Serbia. I’ve studied interior and furniture design which introduced me to 3D and made me make a switch to archviz and motion design. Over the years of freelance work, I’ve produced a couple of personal projects in the form of full CGI short films, which got me to Axis Animation, where I am now working as a director. With me is the very talented Antonio Esparza, who was our character artist on FREIGHT. He’ll be sharing some of the processes behind the usage of Substance Painter in the project, too.
Antonio: My name is Antonio Esparza. I’m a 3D character artist/3D concept artist currently working with MASSRA studios. I studied HND in game development but decided to focus on 3D after finishing my studies in 2017. During the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity of working on projects for Netflix and EA, to name a few. Normally I work in advertising and TV, but I want to focus more on games and cinematic content in the coming years.
How FREIGHT was born
Sava: FREIGHT is one of those crazy ambitious personal projects that all of us have, but sadly not many of us get to go all the way and actually complete. The film tells a very personal story and also opens the world for our future short or longer format films. Like any personal project my friends and I tackle, we always strive to push our limits, whether it’s story, design or any technical skill. We are extremely drawn to the essence of filmmaking, which tells a story purely visually. This is something we like to push for our personal projects, so we leave the viewer with room for interpretation. On the merely technical side, we’ve done similar things before, but with this project one of the aspects we wanted to add to our skill set was facial animation and performance, and generally familiarize ourselves with that pipeline.
Roles in Production
Sava: My role is a varied one, spanning the responsibilities of director, writer and producer all the way to a CG Artist. I like to focus mostly on directing, as that is the career I’m pursuing, but with the small team we had, I did have to do a lot of production as well. So besides the high-level creative positions, I was responsible for the previz, editing, layout, camera animation, environment modeling and texturing, lighting, rendering, and compositing.
Antonio: My role in the project focused solely on character asset production. Given the high fidelity we were after, we’ve decided to utilize my time on the character asset solely. That meant starting by creating a high-res sculpt in ZBrush, based on the 3D concept sculpt that was done by our art director/concept designer Milan Nikolic. After that, I had to retopologize the high-res sculpt into an animation-friendly mesh, baking all the detail from a high-res sculpt and creating final textures in Substance Painter. I was also tasked with creating facial blend shapes for our rigging process down the line.
Sava: The project lasted around five months, but it wasn’t all full time; there was some downtime in between different stages of production. I would say if we condensed all work days it would amount to three-and-a-half months — and I know that because I’ve been keeping track! I was very curious myself how much time it would take now that we have a bit more experience than when we tackled this before in the earlier days of our careers.
The core team was composed of five people, our concept designer Milan Nikolic, music composer Iz Svemira, character artist Antonio Esparza, asset artist Mihailo Radosevic and myself. Wider additions to the team consisted of a local motion capture and animation studio, TakeOne, and a sound design studio, based in Bristol in the UK, Echoic Audio.
Story & Art Direction
Sava: Without diving too deep into what the story was to us, a simple synopsis is “a story of weight within us”, which is also displayed in the film’s description. We would like to stay away from the very details of what it means to us because we think it would ruin the film slightly. It was always designed to have room for interpretation — that is the beauty of filmmaking to me — and if we have viewers with varying opinions on what they thought the story was about, then we’ve succeeded in our goals with this project.
The art direction, on the other hand, is something I’ll gladly talk about. One of my biggest inspirations is my close friend Milan Nikolic, who was actually an art director on this project. A lot of the stuff Milan does looks very alien, but has quite a good dose of familiar as well, and that aspect alone fits within the worlds we try to create perfectly. The way we thought about the setting was not necessarily straight-up sci-fi; we described the world as being our character’s very own hell loop. Milan used a lot of serrated and sharp edges in the design of the environment, the suitcase, and the wall machines, giving us the impression of a hostile territory. This is all in contrast to a very smooth organic design approach to the character himself, as we’ve always thought that he’s not actually from here, but has been thrown into this world, doomed with performing a seemingly never-ending task. It’s all very Sisyphean!
Antonio: I discovered Substance Painter 3 years ago when I started to focus on 3D for production. I’ve tested other texturing software but I’ve decided to go with Substance Painter for my main application mainly because of the awesome masking and baking tools. Thanks to the power of Substance I could make different layers between roughness/color and height variations, giving me the mix between the body materials and the decals and breakups of the surface.
Sava: Substance Painter was used on every single asset you see in FREIGHT. I really wanted to push the visual quality on this project and one of the simple, albeit slightly time-consuming, workflows was to include a ZBrush + Substance Painter pass on every asset. I think it adds a level of polish and consistency across the film, because everything had the same level of attention devoted to it, it feels like all the assets belong to the same world.
Antonio: I used Substance Painter on the entire character. I also used a couple of materials from Substance Source for the fabric materials (technical fabrics and some motorbike materials).
Sava: 3ds Max was our main 3D application of choice, with Zbrush for the sculpt pass and Redshift for rendering. Substance integration was a breeze, whether it’s ingesting high poly objects from ZBrush for baking or outputting textures for final rendering in Redshift, everything worked like a charm, and it was probably one of the most fun aspects of asset production for me.
Antonio: I used 3ds Max and ZBrush as my main 3D application, but I’ve also used other software like Photoshop, Marvelous Designer for clothes, Uvlayout for UVs and Maya for Udims. Bakes and all textures were made in Substance Painter.
Antonio: Normally I would start with the normal map bake (bake options by default except subsampling at 4x4 and the use of the suffix on my meshes).
World space normal/curvature and position (these maps will help you in the texturing process). AO/Thickness and ID map, if everything is okay (check your maps by opening your channels and put it on a color fill layer, or put a simple color and mask by bitmap with your maps).
Once this is done it’s time to play!
Personally, I make the materials from scratch or using the normal map detail that I’ve sculpted before in ZBrush or tileable maps (normally I use Surface Mimic and Google). In the beginning, I focus only on color (I put a base roughness and, if it's skin, a base of scattering), start with the main colors and start to mix each one (I use realistic photos to pick colors and play with them in substance).
When my base color is done, it's time to tell your story: dirt, breakups, cuts, wear on the material (think about how real materials are made: leather will have several layers, and not all of them will have the same color. Even the environment can affect those factors).
Time to make your roughness map: to create it, I use the curvature, cavity and masks (dirt and downward-facing surfaces have different roughness from the base surface, so it’s important to keep this in mind during the process).
Last touches and voilà!
Here is an example of the number of layers I used on the head of the character.
Antonio: Don't be afraid of exporting your baked textures and having a play with them in Photoshop; try to create nice and different masks for use in Substance Painter later on to achieve different and interesting results.
Sava: I would like to thank you for the interview and for the amazing software you guys create, it has certainly made our lives easier! Lastly, once again, I’d like to thank my entire team for all the effort thrown into the production of FREIGHT!