Image Courtesy of DNEG © 2018 Universal Studios

The Texturing of DNEG’s 2019 VFX Oscar-winning First Man

Pierre Bosset on June 1 2019 | Stories, Substance Painter, Film/VFX

Today we have the awesome opportunity to discuss the texturing of Damien Chazelle’s First Man. The challenge of this movie was to make it feel true to historical footage, and the team at DNEG nailed it just right, receiving the 91st Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects for the movie.

Hi guys, thanks for taking the time for this interview. Could you introduce yourselves to the community?

Anthony Grant: Hey! First off, thanks for taking the time to talk to Tim and me! We love Substance. I've been at DNEG about a year and a half, and I've been an asset artist since 2007. I started as a model and texture artist in Los Angeles, moved into Look Development (LDev), became a lead artist, then moved to DNEG in Vancouver as Build Supervisor. The team here is crazy talented and really fun to work with.

Tim Russell: I've been at DNEG since 2009, starting in Matchmove and advancing up through Generalist Technical Director and lead positions to my current role as Build Supervisor.

First of all, congrats on winning the Oscar for best VFX on First Man! How are you feeling?

Anthony: So excited! This is my first Oscar-winning project personally after 12 years in the industry, and the fifth for DNEG; talk about being in the right place at the right time. I was actually unable to watch the Academy Awards Ceremony, so I was caught off guard when my phone exploded with congratulatory messages from friends and family.

Tim: It's a great feeling to have our combined hard work recognized on a global stage like the Oscars and, for me, it was the third Oscar-winning show that I've worked on, so it’s an incredibly fortunate and humbling experience.

Tell us more about your experience. How was it to work on a movie that retraces such an iconic moment in history?

Anthony: I'm a proud space nerd, like really… I have a tattoo with a symbol from the Voyager 1 golden record on my wrist. So, calmly and internally, I freaked out when I found out I was assigned to this show. It was so exciting working on a story you personally feel people need to see. It's been 50 years since this happened; it's incredible that some people still have trouble believing the Moon landing was real, but it has obviously had a huge effect on the world.

Tim: It was such an exciting opportunity to work on a project that has such important historical ties and, artistically and aesthetically speaking, was grounded in reality. It was a more refreshing experience, compared to working on a typical blockbuster VFX film.

What were your respective roles on the VFX production for First Man?

Anthony: I was Build Supervisor on the show, supervising all the asset creation - that is, model, texture, look development (LDev) and groom.

Tim: I was officially Lead LDev artist, but also involved in texture.

Could you give us more details about the visual style and art direction for the movie? How was it to recreate assets close to half a century old? How did you get your references?

Anthony: Authenticity was our goal above all else; we had our shoot team visit the Kennedy Space Center where they took hundreds of shots and video references of the Saturn V and the Command and Service Module (CSM). I ended up doing a deep-dive into NASA’s online archives to obtain operations manuals and schematics for the Lunar Module and the Agena Target Vehicle. At one point we were downloading so much data from NASA that I think we got locked out of their website. Thankfully a couple of phone calls later and our clearance was restored.

Our assets had to seamlessly integrate into actual 16mm footage from the Apollo missions. It wasn't an option to eyeball this stuff, when there are potentially millions of space race enthusiasts (me included) watching for inaccuracies. The crew who built the miniatures created most of the vehicles and spacecraft at varying scales for shots. This meant we were able to consult those builds for any gaps, or questionable discrepancies in our archival references, which happened a lot. Another difficult situation with the reference was the fact that although we were able to find hundreds of pictures of the Saturn V, for instance, there were actually thirteen Saturn V's built between 1967 to 1973, each with tiny, but important differences. It was hard, therefore, to confirm that ‘our’ Saturn V had the appropriate details for the Apollo 11 mission we were portraying. NASA also built six Agena Target Vehicles for Project Gemini, and, again, each was slightly different.

Image Courtesy of NASA Image and Video Library

Tim: We obtained a lot of schematics, model replicas and actual photographs of the real assets in space, but as many photos from the '60s don't have the fidelity of today’s photographic standards, identifying textural qualities, shapes, and material types proved to be challenging. This was especially true for one-of-a-kind vehicles, where reference material was scant. As accuracy to the real-life counterparts was paramount on this project, a lot of time was invested replicating these to be as true to life as possible.

Tell us more about your pipeline. Why did you decide to use Substance? How did it help you achieve the visual style you were aiming for?

Anthony: Early on in the production we realized we needed to see a lot of these assets quickly and in a good-looking state; our team had to output assets while the project was still filming on location. They had a giant 60 x 35-foot LED screen on set that projected our work behind Ryan Gosling (who plays Neil Armstrong) as he acted the scenes. We needed the Moon’s surface and some of the vehicles set up fairly quickly and I knew Substance could get us good results quickly. Once the models were finished, we could whip up something detailed fast. This set our path for the rest of the show.

Tim: Working with Substance Painter was instrumental in achieving the fidelity. It enabled a quick turnaround, which we aimed for in these assets, with its accurate, and extremely powerful workflow, and snappy visual feedback. I’ve used Substance Painter and Substance Designer in a number of different ways: to generate masks, add extra touches using our rendering software Clarisse; for micro detailing; to weather layers in surfaces and materials; to complement textures from other artists; and to fully texture assets within Substance Painter. The program’s quick set-up time, out-of-the-box results and its ease of use were a huge help in aiding our workflow.

Could you give us a breakdown of some of the hero assets you used Substance for?

Tim: We didn't necessarily do anything exceedingly complex; rather, we worked to either texture from scratch on the whole asset, layering effects, and materials, or using Substance Painter as a support tool to generate masks for grime, weathering and light damage, which would then be fed into our LDev and rendering package, Clarisse. It’s a testament to the versatility and ease of use.

The Agena Target Vehicle was almost entirely textured in Substance Painter, using one of our internal space image based lighting (IBL) as an environment. I segmented the vehicle’s geometry lengthwise a few times, to make it easier to manage, almost treating each piece as its own asset. Next, I generated mesh data from each segment. I was then able to gradually create different materials in broad strokes, and then work into finer and micro detailing and surface effects layer by layer. Common effects layers or materials were instanced and masked off where appropriate across the asset. Weathering and subtle specular blemishes were worked on top and finished off with dust and dirt. Considering the uniqueness and sterile look of this asset, these layers had to be controlled very carefully so as not to look too battered and arbitrary in its implementation; subtlety was key. These maps were exported out of Painter and then tweaked further, with more layering of effects worked on and adjusted in LDev.

Agena Target Vehicle

For the other assets of the show, the Lunar Module and the Lunar Launch Training Vehicle, our texture artist Katreena Bowell took the brunt of the work in our other texturing software. As LDev artist, I used Substance Painter to generate three-channel RGB masks; roughness and normal maps for different procedural mesh derived effects, such as galvanized and brushed metal; Y axis biased weathering effects; and concave/convex chipping, to name a few. These were then exported out and integrated into the LDev network in Clarisse to add to or modify the pre-existing textures for subtle material qualities, like iridescence and Fresnel-dependent effects.

Lunar Module
Lunar Launch Training Vehicle

Was this the first time you used Substance to this extent in your team? How did the adoption of Substance into your pipeline go?

Anthony: This was my first time as Build Supervisor where I've had texture artists on my team use Substance. But I think it was extremely useful, especially for these types of vehicles. Some of these spacecraft looked a little rough around the edges; they were manufactured to get the job done, not to look shiny and pretty. I think with Substance we got logical results that looked great and accurate and were achieved very quickly, without too much painting by hand. It was useful for edge wear, curvature, even employing a particle system for leaking.

Tim: I've dabbled in the Substance suite a few times for past projects, but for First Man, I definitely leaned on it more. Its relatively easy learning curve and open functionality for different use cases meant it worked well with our other asset creation tools.

What advice would you give to texture artists wanting to work in VFX for blockbuster movies?

Anthony: We always want to see an ability to recreate references perfectly. Texture artists should show this on their reels. They must also have a good understanding of how the LDev will be put together and what control masks will make sense for the LDev artists.

I’d encourage them to continuously observe objects in the world around them and consider how they could recreate these in Substance. Also, they should play and experiment with techniques. It's helpful to look up how a lot of practical prop artists paint and distress real objects. A lot of the same methods and principles apply to the process of texturing CG objects. If you're working on character texturing, study some of the techniques makeup artists use in real life.

Tim: Reference, reference, reference: always seek out references from the internet or just from the world for the elements you're working on. No matter how much you think you know what something looks like from memory, chances are you're missing a lot of qualities and subtleties in what you are trying to recreate. It’s that lack of fine detail that stands out for audiences. It’s important to understand what you're seeing in the references and how these aspects translate to albedo and control maps, to determine different relief and specular appearances. Having at least a baseline understanding of LDev principles will go a long way, specifically the technical implications, limits and pixel values you're using in your maps. Lastly, love what you do - if you truly love the work you do, the quality will almost always follow.

How do you see future usage of Substance? Will you use it for future projects?

Anthony: Definitely! It's a really valuable tool to have in any texture pipeline. It has a lot of strengths that set it apart from the competition and it can be a real time-saver when establishing a look extremely quickly. I'm looking forward to seeing what new features we'll get in the future.

Tim: The product has evolved a staggering amount over the years I’ve been working with it. Every new feature announced gives me a reason to want to use it for longer and more often. With the ability in real time to visually create and reuse complex layered materials, and have each layer and effect communicating with other layers and each brush stroke, Substance is a potent tool in any artist’s skill set.

Any final words to add?

Anthony: Thanks for meeting and chatting with us. We're really happy about how First Man looked. I can't wait to see what the future of Substance looks like.

Tim: Thanks for the opportunity to share our work methods on this incredibly important and creatively rewarding movie.

All images courtesy of DNEG © 2018 Universal Studios.

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