Netflix’s Next Gen: Substance Workflow for Feature Animation Film with Tangent Animation
Shane, Brenna and Rita give us a deep dive into the texturing of Next Gen, a feature animation movie which aired on Netflix. Learn how they used the Substance Software to give life to a futuristic world where robots are commonplace.
Shane: Hi, I'm Shane Jackson. Surfacing supervisor on Next Gen at Tangent Animation in Winnipeg. As Artist/Supervisor for our surfacing department, I manage a team of artists regarding our technical workflow and help guide the look and feel underneath our Art Director. I try to get my hands on assets when I can because I enjoy the work.
Rita: My name is Rita Danilov and I’m working at Tangent Animation. My main role was a surfacer. At the end of our production, I helped with lighting and stereo as well.
Brenna: Hi! I’m Brenna Blackman, surfacing artist on Next Gen at Tangent Animation.
About Tangent Animation
Shane: We’re still a fairly new company, with two animated feature-length films under our belt. Features are looking to be the norm, here.
Next Gen’s Art Direction
Shane: We always called it ‘Happy Blade Runner’. The idea was realistic cinematographic lighting, combined with gritty/grungy PBR. We aimed to add dirt and grime where it would build up in the real world, then push it a bit further. As we progressed we ended up with a very tactile/stop-motion look that was very unique, which we embraced and worked out quite well in the final product.
Rita: Our goal was to achieve as much realism as we could. I was using Substance Painter combined with realistic textures in order to achieve this goal.
Shane: We got to a base coverage very quickly. This helped quite a bit, especially on sets and environments. When we get a quick first pass in front of the Art Director, we get to the end goal more quickly, which is very important for keeping the production rolling as rapidly as possible.
Rita: Substance Painter helped me to achieve the realistic look I wanted, as it offers a variety of alphas, grunges, smart masks, smart materials. It helped me to speed up my work and achieve something that might have taken more time in other software. I found Substance Painter to be comfortable software to work with, in order to get any look I want. It was very helpful with achieving damaged and grunge looks.
Shane: We use Blender most of the time, a big part of our studio works on developing Blender and how we can incorporate the use of other software that is commonly used in the industry such Substance, ZBrush, and Houdini. As for our pipeline, it’s pretty standard stuff, I'd guess. Our Art department will paint targets initially, which are given to the Modeling and Surfacing departments, who will work hand-in-hand with rigging to finalize the assets.
Rita: In Substance Painter, I’ve been using alphas, brushes, grunges, smart masks and smart materials at times. Mostly I’ve been combining smart masks with realistic textures and fixing the looks if this was needed, using the brushes in Substance Painter.
Brenna: First, I’ll receive a callout from a concept artist or the art director. I do my UVing and material blockouts in Blender. Referencing the details in the callout, I look for what materials may have previously been produced that I might use. For the others I mentally note what I can do in Substance Painter, what I should/can source from our Poliigon database and what I will make in Substance Designer, given my time budget. I export the maps authored in Substance Painter or Substance Designer and import them into Blender to build the material using our proprietary PBR shaders.
How I discovered Substance
Shane: I actually started using Substance when we got the project for Next Gen. Our studio really grew for this production, so thankfully that brought some more experience of the software in-house, but we chose to use it because of the photorealistic/physically based look we needed for the project.
Rita: I discovered the Substance software in college when I was taking a 3D Computer Graphics course in 2016. I decided to use Substance Painter for this production since I saw how many different looks I could achieve with this software.
Brenna: I had the opportunity to learn Substance Designer in college a few years ago and taught myself Substance Painter at the same time. Shortly before starting with Tangent I was also able to take a Substance Painter masterclass during Substance Days in 2016 which really helped familiarize me with some best practices quickly. By the time I joined the Next Gen team the surfacing department was already using a combination of Substance Painter and Poliigon textures layered in Blender’s material editor.
Shane: I used the Substance software on a bit of everything actually; to move fast the artists on my team could use different methods/software to get to their end goals, as long as the results stayed consistent. This applied to all human characters and a portion of the robotic characters, as well as a certain percentage of props and environments (depending on what they were and what we felt was the best approach to each asset).
Rita: I was using Substance Painter on environments, sets and certain assets.
Brenna: I used Substance for a large percentage of my surfacing work. In this production, I predominantly used Substance Painter to surface characters or for individual objects as I worked on sets. For larger architectural surfaces like walls and floors, I would often jump into Substance Designer to author a quick stucco or a carpet and apply those in the material editor within Blender.
Substance Designer was also useful for modifying maps that we already had in our Poliigon library. For example, I could import the Poliigon texture maps into a new graph, modify the weave detail and color with a few nodes and create a new carpet material to reflect something closer to what was called out in the concept.
Rita: Here are some grunge and dirt masks that I created using Substance Painter and combined with realistic textures to achieve this look on the crater, that is seen after the last fight in Next Gen. I was using smart masks and brushes.
For this set, I used Substance Painter for the grunge/dirt look on the counter, walls, doors and floor. I was using the smart masks and brushes for that as well. It helped me to make it look more realistic than it would be if I were painting this manually.
Damaged looks that I created in Substance Painter using mostly smart masks and brushes. These were used as bump maps at some parts as well.
Brenna: RJ is one of the bully characters who shares the same outfit as 3 other characters in the film. I worked on two of them in the Winnipeg studio while the other two were worked on by artists on the Toronto side. Substance helped us easily share smart materials to make sure we were getting a consistent look across all 4 characters.
I start by UVing the character and assigning unique materials to the separate objects. Then I export the model as an .fbx to be used in Substance Painter. I need to be conscious of the modifiers that might be on the model, however. The .fbx file will apply modifiers such as the ‘subdivision surface’ modifier, and Substance Painter will read it at its ‘render’ subdivision value which might be set to hidden or a lower value in Blender’s viewport. Usually, this smoothing is actually ideal but can get hairy with ‘multi-res’ modifiers that have high amounts of subdivision.
For these jerseys, there was a specific height map that the Character Lead wanted us to use for the cloth texture and the colors were pulled from the character concept. I created alphas for the screen print decals on the jersey in Adobe Illustrator.
For certain details like the East Lake school patch, I found it easier to create a tool preset. The maps had already been created for me by another artist so I quickly formatted them in Photoshop to make sure they were all positioned in the same place and were the same size, then imported them into Substance Painter as textures. I created a tool with them in Substance Painter and saved it to my shelf. This way, I could stamp on all the detail for the patch at once in a paint layer. Later, if I received any revision notes for the patch to be smaller or higher up the sleeve adjustments were as easy as stamping it again in a new paint layer. More importantly, adding it to any of the other jerseys afterward would take seconds.
When I’m all done, I export the maps using a preset I created so that my images are named properly for our pipeline. I import them into Blender and hook them up to our PBR metal, dielectric or cloth shaders.
Above is a lineup we did to make sure the outfits for all the bullies looked consistent.
Favorite features in Substance
Shane: I love using anchor points to save time! Also the simple feature of being able to move my light around in the viewport, as well as switching through my passes instantly for tweaking; this gives me a better idea of how many shaders will work in Blender. And saving smart materials! Features that allow us to share workflow and save time are crucial in a feature film where we need to create an entire world.
Rita: In my opinion, the most powerful tool for me is smart masks. These helped me to get the detail I wanted on anything I was using them for. I use them for various things. I can use them as a mask, as a roughness map, as a bump map as well. It would take me twice as long to create something like that manually, and chances are I wouldn’t be completely satisfied anyway. If I need to fix the smart mask, then I use the brushes. But other than that I was very satisfied with the results, especially that it was taking me less time than if I did this manually.
Brenna: The non-destructive workflows and instant visualization in both Substance Painter and Substance Designer enable quick iteration of ideas and fast turnarounds on making adjustments, which is so important on a tight deadline. Need a color swap? Done. Roughness tweaks? No problem. Now pop in the fabric texture from a different character? Approved.
When you’re done, whether you’re using Substance Painter or Substance Designer you can pack it up and share it with the rest of the team so their next task goes much faster and is much more consistent. With our team divided between two different cities, maintaining a consistent look across assets is a definite concern. But the flexibility of sharing graphs and smart materials makes it nearly a non-issue.
I also love that using the tools easily lends itself to creating a database that the whole team can use. I wouldn’t say we took full advantage of this during the production of Next Gen as we were still integrating Substance into a more Photoshop-based pipeline, but it is definitely something I’m excited to integrate into our newer projects.
The Substance toolset for current and future projects
Shane: Blender integration would be great! Real-time updates for textures in Blender Cycles and Eevee.
Rita: I am planning to use Substance Painter for any project that I will be working on.
All images courtesy of Tangent Animation.