Texturing KIDDO - How a Sci-Fi Proof of Concept Becomes a Hollywood Feature Film
We talk with a small crew who worked on an ambitious project: KIDDO. They used Substance Painter for the VFX of the trailer, and the mind-blowing visuals and narrative convinced Hollywood to make a feature film out of it. Watch the trailer:
Hey guys, thanks for taking the time for this interview. Could you introduce yourselves to the community?
Tito: I’m Tito Fernandes - Writer, Producer, Director and VFX Supervisor of KIDDO. I have over 15 years’ experience in filmmaking, and around 10 years’ in high-end VFX. The latter naturally became a passion and a discipline I side-tracked into as a way of earning a living, with the ultimate objective of jumping back to where it all started for me - film and the love I have for this stellar art form.
Pawel: My name is Paweł Urbański and I'm from Poland. I'm a hard surface artist at Flying Wild Hog. I’ve worked in the game dev industry for almost 6 years now and I have to say, I love my job and I wouldn't change it for any other. I like creating mechanical things like firearms, vehicles, and so on. While I like 3D modeling, texturing is what I always enjoy the most - making the history of an object. I work in Maya, ZBrush and Substance Painter.
Raphael: I’m Raphael Beyaert, CG Supervisor and Lead Compositor of KIDDO. I’ve been passionate about visual effects for 10 years.
Victor: I’m Victor Kirsch. I’m a student in my 5th year at Artfx, a VFX school based in Montpellier. I’m currently working on my student short film. I really like all the steps and all the aspects of filmmaking. I try to be a generalist in post-production; I appreciate working on different levels of the image or assets.
Craig: I’m Craig Healy, I’m currently a 3D generalist at Unit in London.
Tell us more about KIDDO. How was the project born? How long have you been working on it?
Tito: KIDDO was born from the need my brother and I had to create a compelling female-driven protagonist within the genre we adore the most, sci-fi. It came to life 6 years ago as a feature film concept which, after many iterations, naturally distilled itself into a trailer-type narrative that can only be best described as a proof-of-concept.
What was the aim of this teaser? Tell us more about the art direction.
Tito: Initially I just felt the need to create something. KIDDO happened to be the one project that kept poking at me incessantly, so I went with it, even though I was perfectly conscious that I’d be shooting myself in the foot given the nature of such a VFX-heavy project and the lack of budget to sustain it. Luckily, everything turned out well with everyone on the team feeling a good sense of achievement to have taken part in it. Stylistically, the teaser/trailer became a sum of its pieces, a natural result of every discipline that, stage by stage, progressed the film-making forward. It was so organic that it’s hard to quantify or describe it, apart from the natural influences with which each artist imbued their contribution. The vision was very clear, but the outcome was far from predictable. This was precisely what made the journey so scary and frustrating, but also so utterly exhilarating.
Why did you decide to use Substance? How did it help you in the visual quality and atmosphere you wanted to achieve? How did it help you in terms of production speed and iteration?
Tito: Substance came to my attention when, 4 years ago, I was directing some cinematic for an AAA video game. The artists were turning around outstanding-looking assets at a speed and quality I couldn't believe, given my experience in commercials, broadcast, and film. Even though it wasn’t used in those ‘high-end media’ I saw its potential then, and kept my eye on its development, which naturally permeated into the VFX establishment. Given the non-existent budget for KIDDO and the tight availability of artists, who generously contributed their spare time for the cause, Substance became our logical and only option when it came to painting our 3D world. And we’re all very glad that was the case! By then, the tool was up to the task; it tackled the high resolutions we were trying to hit as well as the quality and efficiency in productivity. We definitely wouldn’t have reached the look and quality we ultimately achieved without this extraordinary tool.
Raphael: For creatures, compared to the hard-surface assets, Substance wasn’t our first option and we actually started the texturing with other tools. We ended up using Substance to add the majority of the details. It was way more efficient to use procedural maps combined with maps painted by hand. By mixing some presets, and with just a few parameter adjustments, we were able to quickly get close to what we wanted and achieve our goals on time.
Craig: Substance has been a tool I’ve used for a few years now and it’s a real asset for me in both film and commercials. I textured both the drone and the exterior of the bunker with Substance Painter. It helped massively, especially in initial look development when Tito and I sat down to block out all the different base materials and colors. I worked with around 15 UDIMs for the drone, and around 5 for the bunker; at 4K the resolution was more than enough. I think the drone took around 4 solid days to finish, and the procedural workflow of Substance allowed me to get something that was around 90% finished in a short space of time. The rest of the time was spent adding the custom elements and decals. I had to change my UV layout about halfway through texturing the drone, but keeping things mostly procedural meant that I didn’t lose any work. These benefits meant that Substance was the obvious choice for us, and at the time we were just starting to adopt Substance into our workflow at Unit. I find it really handy for these reasons, especially in the fast-paced environment of commercials.
Pawel: My task on this project was to distribute UVs into even tiles and then texture KIDDO, both the exterior and interior (including cockpit closeup and chair). For the texturing, Substance Painter proved to be invaluable as I had a very limited amount of time to finish the task. The model was mid-poly, without any maps whatsoever. The brief was pretty simple - I was to make every part look different to hint that each has its own history. Then beat the crap out of that thing and add dirt. A lot of dirt.
I divided UVs into even UDIMs in Maya. The exterior had 17 UDIMs; the interior and chair 7, and the cockpit closeup had 3. Then I brought it all into Substance Painter, hoping my PC wouldn't blow up... It didn't :) In Substance Painter I first had to generate the necessary maps, ambient occlusion and curvature being the most important. I sometimes had to blur the curvature in Photoshop because it was a bit too sharp straight out of Substance Painter.
The whole process for all the parts is very similar. I started texturing by masking parts and assigning base materials, and I grouped everything in order to not get lost later on. I used a lot of pre-made materials and Smart Materials. This is a great way to visualize the whole picture fast. Then I stamped lots of different decals all over to add more history to different parts of the armor and cockpit. After that I started working on material edges, wearing them off with generators and tweaking by hand where needed.
The next was rust. I used the ‘MatFX Rust Weathering’ filter quite a lot, and then some combinations of fill layers and smart masks. Very little hand-tweaking here.
On the cockpit closeup, I went a little further and added some hand-placed details, like paint stains or fingerprints on the screens.
Then there was a layer of dust and dirt; these were generated by Substance Painter's generators in around 90% of cases. The rest had to be tweaked by hand. Lastly, I added oil leaks (mainly exterior) - most of these I created with particle effects, others with stamps sourced from photos.
I worked on 2K res all the time. I exported final maps at 8K without any loss at all, which is pretty neat.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to texture this beast. I only wish I’d had a little more time on this one.
Raphael: The lizard was a challenging creature. He was only visible in one shot, for a few seconds, but because of his proximity to the camera, we needed a good amount of detail.
Creating color patterns on his scales was the longest part. These patterns can be present for multiple reasons, such as allowing the lizard to camouflage itself, or even to assist in body temperature regulation. After studying patterns of desert lizards, that are obviously reminiscent of sand, I created multiple layers - layers for the spots, the blotches, and another for the speckles (small flecks of color on the scales). To have easy control of their look, I used these layers as masks on a layer of ‘pigmentation’ that defined the color of the patterns. Also, keeping them as a separated layer allowed creation of an ID to take control in composition if needed.
On top of this, I masked some patterns with a smart mask of dirt to add a bit more complexity.
Gizmo is a side character with 2 stages, one in which he’s perfectly clean, and a very dirty stage. For the clean stage, Substance was used to add thin details using occlusion, thickness and a normal map. For some reason, we didn’t want him to look like a real monkey, but we still needed some fine details to make him feel like he was part of the scene.
For the dirty version, the goal was to have a big contrast with the clean version. We procedurally created multiple dirt map setups that were then applied on specific areas using isolation maps painted by hand. This allowed us to get a lot of details really quickly, while still keeping control of the different areas of the body.
Victor: I worked on the interior of the bunker at first. That was pretty challenging because of the mood of the sequence in the bunker. It was in darkness, but with big light spots, and all in a wet environment. I had to take special care of the specular aspect of the assets and play with different sorts of materials side by side to get an interesting result with enough variation. I played with Substance Painter’s renderer to get previews and to match the kind of mood we had in the sequence.
There was a second challenging aspect of this bunker, which was the number of different assets. Substance Painter has been helpful in getting a great result in a short amount of time. For this I used some presets, and I also built my own shaders to be as efficient as possible and to get the right aspect on the entire set.
Cabin in the Woods
For the cabin in the woods, I had almost the same challenges as for the bunker. It was gloomy and the light source was a spotlight. Again, I had to push the contrast between materials because the darkness flattens everything. The cabin was in a jumble so there were all kinds of objects inside. I had to texture old plastic, a bunch of metallic things and planks. I did the global texturing at first and then I added dust on all the objects in a second time with the help of the maps I’d previously baked in Substance Painter. The smart masks helped me to easily deteriorate the assets and freeze them in the past.
The third part I worked on in texturing was the end of the teaser. The set was rooftops of a futuristic building in the middle of the desert. The mood of the sequence was completely different; it was sunny and dry with sand and dust everywhere because of the desert. The main assets were big chunks of concrete, antennas, and aircons. I started by creating some shaders that I’d reuse in different places to add homogeneity to the set. I created white painted metal that was kind of the main shader for the corporate look of the building. I also created different metals for the aircons and antennas. I worked on all the set dress at the same time so as to be able to procedurally add sand in the corners using ambient occlusion maps. Seeing the set in its entirety was helpful in integrating the texturing of each asset with the others.
Overall, on this project, I think that without Substance Painter I would not have been able to finish the texturing in time. With the software, I was able to apply an idea or a reference quickly and easily do iterations when needed. The Maya/Substance workflow was really fast and updating the texturing of an asset wasn’t a constraint at all.
What are the next steps for KIDDO?
The day I committed to making this project, my mission was solely focused on completing it. For myself, yes, but mainly for the team, as my way of thanking them for their belief, time and extraordinary talent. Once KIDDO hit the web, the hope was to be seen by as many people as possible and to begin to wonder at the unlikely event that it could perhaps open further discussions about the future of the project. Against all odds, KIDDO has achieved that, and more. We have officially been optioned by Hollywood and we are happy to confirm the feature film is currently being developed. Watch this space.
Here’s the official news on Variety.
All images courtesy of Kinosys Films / AGBO.