Image courtesy of the Ambitious Pictures team

How Substance Helped Finish an Ambitious Student Project

We talk with students from Haute École Albert Jacquard in Belgium as they recount their experience using Substance on their student project Resumption.

Hi guys, thank you for taking your time for this interview. Could you each present yourselves and your respective role on the project to the community?

Rémy: Hello and thank you for the interview! My name is Rémy Vu and I'm a VFX student from HEAJ. I'm passionate about the 3D world because it never ceases to amaze me every day! My role on this project was to take care of the modeling, texturing, lighting and rendering.

Nabil: I’m Nabil Jabour, also a VFX student from HEAJ. I jumped into the 3D world less than two years ago, and I want to pursue a career as an FX TD. My main role in this project was to realize the FX simulations and some procedural modeling.

Unfortunately, Antoine Jaspar couldn’t take part in this interview. His role was mainly to carry all the compositing work.

To sum up everything, I’d say that Rémy is the creative one, I’m the technical one, and Antoine is the aesthetic one. Our skills are definitely matching together.

Tell us more about Resumption. How did this project get started? What was the story you wanted to tell?

Rémy: Resumption is our most ambitious project (that explains our group’s name, the Ambitious Pictures team) and we decided to create it together with my teammates. It was an assignment for school and we had three months to realize it.

It's about climate change and how human civilization has been living underneath the earth because the surface was too warm. They have to find a solution to save this planet.

Nabil: While we were looking for references, we stumbled upon an image of an underground city. It inspired the three of us and we knew we wanted to do something similar. That’s how the idea of global warming came to our minds. Then we extrapolated a scenario from that.

Street large final render
Radio final render

Which tools did you use on the project?

Nabil: My main software is Houdini. It’s been used for all the FX shown in the short film. I needed it to make crowds simulations, clothes simulations for the crowds (using vellum), smokes, particles (holograms), and some procedural modeling.

3ds Max was the only software we all had in common, so everything ended up there. I just had to export what was made in Houdini to Max. Whether it was VDBs, alembic files or even tools using Houdini Engine.

Rémy: I mainly used 3ds Max for modeling, Substance Painter and Project Substance Alchemist for texturing, and Marvelous Designer for clothes creation and drapery simulation. I also used ZBrush for some extra props.

Before creating every asset, I always gather some references and then I start. Once I’m happy with it, I send it to Substance Painter and the fun can start! By means of reference again, I’m able to give it the desired look pretty easily.

How did Substance help you achieve the visual storytelling you were aiming for?

Rémy: It helped me a lot to give a specific aspect to my assets. Our story happens underneath the earth, and that makes it very unique. So the texturing had to follow along. The props had to match the overall mood of our city and that couldn’t be done without the Substance Suite.

Thanks to that, we were able to give the spectator a clue about the current situation of the story.

Street screen final render

Could you make a breakdown of your workflow?

Rémy: First, we needed to have a lot of objects in our street. This was the first challenge with which we were confronted, considering the short amount of time we had. Preparing everything smartly was the key. I modeled and textured all the main assets you could see in the foreground. With the secondary props, I tried to cheat with planes or some free 3D models (most of the time I redo the UV, topology, and texture).

So the main goal here was to work efficiently, and the Substance Suite came in pretty handy for this.

The first thing we usually did in our workflow was to create our desired model in 3ds Max. After some optimization and clean UV, I was taking care of the texturing by sending the object into Substance Painter.

Models made for the laboratory
Models made for the laboratory
Example scene where they were used

Rémy: It was also pretty nice to see that the texture result between Redshift (our main renderer) and Substance (Iray especially) remained quite good, thanks to their PBR compatibility.

I would like to add that Photoshop played a huge part in our pipeline. This one gave us infinite possibilities like creating masks, decals, fake ads, and more!

Below, a simple bitmap created with the software and then imported into Substance Painter.

Rémy: Texturing everything from scratch would have been painful. That’s where Smart Materials was pretty useful. I generally used these on an object that didn’t need too much attention or to save my layers for later uses. Once applied, I added some extra details, like tweaking the parameters, and the job was done! I really liked to play around with them and I would like to thank the people who shared their materials for free on Substance Share and Gumroad!

Simple box using the wonderful cardboard material by Luc Chamerlat
Combining Smart Materials and my own layers were the perfect combo!

Rémy: Now, I will speak a bit about the latest software from Substance. We needed to create some special textures like sand and sci-fi panels… but I didn’t have enough time to improve my skills in Substance Designer in order to do all of that. So I decided to give Project Substance Alchemist a try.

I have followed the beta version since its announcement, and I’m glad that the software came at the right time for us. Playing around with it gave me satisfying results and it was good enough for the project. My usual workflow was to import a bitmap when needed, adding some effect layers and mixing it with the material included.

Sand mixed with pebbles created in Substance Alchemist
We just had to apply it to our terrain and voilà!
Sci-fi panel/road created for our street
Damaged asphalt with puddles

Our teammate Antoine Jaspar was in charge of the compositing of the whole project. He used another software from Adobe After Effects. Thanks to that, he did marvelous work by enhancing our render.

City global final render

What did you learn from this project?

Nabil: Except for the knowledge we acquired in our preferred software, the most valuable thing we learned is to work in groups. Decision-making, work scheduling, results delivering —we’ve been under pressure for three months, but the fact that we’re all friends made it easier than it should be.

Another thing we learned is to adapt to the unexpected. A computer can just crash during the night while rendering, especially the day prior to a review from our teachers. You must find a solution as quickly as you can. We faced that kind of situation so often, but it’s probably for the best.

Rémy: I think that this project was a huge challenge for us as students. So, through it, we learned so much. For me, working with my teammates at the same location turned out to be very helpful. It looked like we were in a small studio and our productivity was really efficient.

I learned a lot by their side and I discovered new methods to improve my workflow. For instance, creating better models, textures, and lighting.

Lab.X topview final render

What are your plans for the future?

Rémy: I’m really proud of what we did for our last year in school. Even if I’m graduated now I will go further by entering at ArtFX, a well-known school based in Montpellier. There, I will learn the profession of a VFX artist in depth.

Nabil: Spending my first semester doing a scholarship in a 3D school in Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, made me unable to do my internship. So I’ll do it first and then I should graduate around December 2019. After that, I’ll probably go to work (hopefully doing Houdini work). Someday I’d love to work for a huge VFX company, whether it’s for films, ads, TV shows, etc.

How do you see your use of Substance evolve in the future?

Rémy: I will probably still use it for texturing and discover new tools/techniques inside to improve my way of working. I believe that gathering the shaders that I made for this project is already a good starting point!

Tower launch final render

Anything we forgot to ask or that you would like to add?

Nabil: Just want to dedicate this interview to Antoine Jaspar. He’s our comp. artist and he’s amazing at what he does.

Rémy: I just want to say that when you have an idea that doesn’t seem especially good at first, keep going! We had some pretty low expectations for some scenes (the bike scene for example), and we almost gave up on this one. But, I still worked on it and it turned out to be better than we thought.

And finally, I would like to thank you for this interview. It was an honor for us to share our experience. We are proud as students that you put some interest in us and it’s really encouraging! I’m glad to have worked with Substance Painter and Project Substance Alchemist, which were wonderful alongside this project.

The Ambitious Pictures Team:
Rémy Vu
Nabil Jabour
Antoine Jaspar
Lixing Bousmanne (artbook)
Arthur Tasquin (advice)

All images courtesy of the Ambitious Pictures team.

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