How to Make a Unique "Stroke effect" for a Stylized Animation Short
French studio Tu Nous ZA Pas Vus shows its mastery of stylized animation techniques. Read on to learn more about the team’s use of Substance, and the meaning of the studio’s name in English.
Hello Gaëtan, thanks for taking the time for this interview. Could you please introduce yourself to the community?
Hi Pierre, thanks for your interest in our projects. My name is Gaëtan Jayle. I’m Lead Surfacing Artist at Tu Nous ZA Pas Vus. I’m in charge of the look development of our projects and the technical supervision of some of our short movies. I also teach texturing and follow up on the progress of the graduate movies of the students at “l’Ecole des Nouvelles Images”.
Could you tell us more about Tu Nous ZA Pas Vus? What projects does the studio focus on?
Sure, for our non-French-speaking friends, the literal translation would be, “You haven’t seen us”. I hope that’s not so true ;)
The studio is in Arles in the south of France. The team is composed of around 35 artists, mainly working with Blender, the Substance software, Guerilla Render, Nuke, and Ventoux, our asset manager.
We’re lucky enough to work on a lot of different formats: features like White Fang or Marona’s Fantastic Tale by Anca Damian, and animated TV shows like Team Dronix or The Legendaries, as well as short films and CG for documentaries.
Another very important part is to develop our own projects of short films, series, and features.
We like to experiment with mostly 3D, and some 2D, to be able to work with artists with very different graphic styles.
Tell us more about the Substance workflow at the studio.
That’s a big part! We switched to Substance a few years ago. We use the Substance toolset on all of our projects that need texturing.
We start by issuing a breakdown of the materials and effects present in the project. Once we’ve found the ‘recipe’ for the desired style, we create a template and all kinds of materials, filters, and smart materials to help texture artists.
Most of the main materials and filters are created in Substance Designer, sometimes for every aspect, and sometimes blended with photographs or illustrations.
The way we use the software changes according to the project, to its graphic style, to its size, and so on.
For example, with Team Dronix, there are multiple characters and drones, and sets including a large number of elements. So we took advantage of the benefits of the Substance Automation Toolkit (SAT) to automate the baking. To improve the speed of production, for props and many of the sets, we painted ‘IDs’ in Substance Painter as needed, and applied the materials in Substance Designer. It was also a good way to exchange and standardize files with Mikros Animation Paris, with whom we shared the project.
For short films, it depends on the artistic direction but Substance Painter is often our main software.
It’s also about ‘extra-textures’. As we work a lot with non-realistic looks, we frequently have to create textures that are later used in compositing to get the final result.
We also share shelves based on resources created by artists on Substance Designer. All of the surfacing team has access to these resources, and we update it weekly with materials created by Substance Painter artists.
What is your particular role in the studio?
My role is mainly to find how to convert 2D illustrations to the final 3D result, from texturing to compositing. I try to find the best way to stay faithful to the artistic direction in realistic production terms and within the limits of the budget. This also requires frequent exchanges with our pipeline supervisors, Françoise Bres, and Manuel Rais, to adapt some parts of this to each project.
Then we create the tools and templates to establish the most efficient way of working for the surfacing team.
Depending on the project, I also work on texturing, shading and sometimes lighting, rendering, and compositing.
Tell us more about Deux Oiseaux. What is the short film about?
Deux Oiseaux (Two Birds) takes place in 1967. It is about an eight-year-old boy, Jean, spending his holidays at his grandparents' farm. He takes part in candid yet cruel games on the surrounding animals. But this violence is nothing compared to what takes place in the shed, a room that Jean does not even dare enter. One day, Jean kills a tit by accident. He decides to take in the bird’s orphan to nurse him…
How about the visual style of the short? Tell us more about the art direction.
I remember the start of the project really well. The director, Antoine Robert, showed me some of his illustrations. Black and white, lots of details, lots of graphic materials, and many little strokes in shadows, occlusion, etc.
On the other hand, he had pictures from Raymond Depardon movies and documentaries like La Vie Moderne (Modern Life), with a huge amount of film grain, realistic natural light, and some old movie colors.
He said: “I want something between the two”. With his graphic style but a filmic aspect. It was important to have an illustrative side, and not too realistic materials.
One of the most important aspects of the artistic direction was to have dark strokes in shadows, and ‘white’ strokes in highlights, dynamically with the lighting.
It was also a collaboration with Cyril Flous, who worked on all matte paintings and color mood of main environments. I gave him lighting information without textures:
He gave me back a painted version which helped us to validate the atmosphere of the set and work faster in lookdev and surfacing:
And this allowed us to validate the final look with Antoine:
How did Substance help you achieve the visual style you were looking for?
It allowed us to do non-realistic materials (never pure metal or too-low roughness), and create brushes and filters to maintain the spirit of the illustration.
We could also easily generate graphic strokes, interacting with AO and cavity.
It was also a big help in terms of efficiency, because there were only two of us, myself and Charlotte Piogé, working on the surface of the project.
We use smart materials to create the hierarchy of our files, automate the creation of the strokes, and then materials we can tweak to adapt to our assets.
As there are many wood and stone materials, it was also possible to quickly create variations for each board, beam or wall.
Substance Designer gave us the ability to get close to a style of handmade strokes, in a way that was doable within the production constraints of a short movie.
Could you give us a more detailed breakdown of your use of Substance Designer to scan details?
I wanted to get as close as possible to the original illustration, so I scanned some of them, to capture some of the little strokes.
These strokes reproduced, and splattered onto material, in Substance Designer in order to produce a more hand-drawn look.
This was a good way to quickly change the amount, orientation and size of the strokes, without spending too much time on each asset.
This material was often a part of many of our material creations.
Could you give a step-by-step breakdown of your use of Substance Painter on one or several assets?
It starts with a template to set the scene configuration and automatically add an extra channel for the strokes:
Then we add a description to UDIMs and bakes of technicals maps:
To have a quick layer organization, we use a smart material created for this project containing the main hierarchy and quick setting. A first pass is made to set the initial value of each material, as well as a first masking pass:
We apply/create materials, and add details, painting effects, and handmade painting:
Then come graphic materials:
To paint little strokes, we created a brush with a scan from the original illustration and adapted the size, angle and position jitter to obtain quicker results.
We’d repeat this for all objects:
The final step was to apply and adapt materials created for extra-texture (stokes) to the asset size, by creating a custom channel in Substance Painter:
These extra textures are rendered as another albedo set. Then we used Nuke, mixed with the render and masked by lighting to get the final result.
Here’s an example of using strokes in a shot:
Are there any tips or tricks with Substance you would like to share with the community?
One of the things that saved me the most time is to stay organized. I think it’s a good way to maintain a ‘small’ scene, high software performance, and avoid doing repetitive things.
Some smart materials (only for hierarchy) and good use of templates can easily give the ability to quickly debug a scene or share your work in a team. It’s also a good way to be able to instantiate materials between UDIMs, keeping a way of editing and masking by UDIMs, and to save them for other assets.
Here is a hierarchy that I use often:
Also, adding a good description to UDIMs is useful.
How was your experience with Substance on this production and how do you see your use of Substance evolving on future projects?
It was really intuitive and effective once the process to obtain the desired result had been found.I think the two main issues were:
- We required good management of UVs and UDIMs for large sets, as we were not able to paint on multiple UDIMs at the same time.
- It’s impossible to quickly update baked maps in Substance Painter coming from new versions from Substance Designer or SAT when we had mesh updates.
But what was really nice and useful was to have a result close enough to the rendered version in the viewport; this allowed us to validate most of the assets with the director before rendering them.
For future projects, I would like to help our friends from Guerilla Render to add more links with the Substance toolset. It would be good to further Increase details and quality with features like the interactive displacement, and to continue to explore new ways of using the many possibilities that Substance offers, like using Substance Designer as an image post-processor to get more illustrative results.
Is there anything you would like to add or that we forgot to ask?
Just a little teaser of a render for one of our next short movies, Pachyderme, directed by Stéphanie Clément. This image was also made with Substance:
And thanks to the Substance team for continuing to develop new tools and ways to create in texturing software that makes this job even more pleasant!
All images courtesy of Tu Nous ZA Pas Vus Productions.