Substance for VFX in Advertisement with The Mill New York
Adam Dewhirst is the Model and Texture Supervisor for The Mill in New York. He has 13 years’ experience in film, advertising, games and children's TV. Past credits include The Dark Knight, Guardians of the Galaxy and commercial spots for Legoland, Playstation, Budweiser, Cartier, and Audi.
Lauren Shields is a CG Generalist at The Mill in New York with a background in modeling and texture work. She is a graduate of Drexel University, Philadelphia and has been working with The Mill for the last 5 Years. Her credits include Cartier, Hennessy, Gillette, and the title sequence for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
How long have you been working at The Mill NY and what is your current role?
Lauren: I started at The Mill as a runner, moving into the 3D department about 4 years ago. In the last couple of years, I have expanded beyond asset building to a much more lighting and look dev-based role.
Adam: I’ve been at The Mill’s New York studio for the last couple of years overseeing the assets department and, before that, I was a modeler in our London office.
Could you tell us more about The Mill and the type of projects you work on?
Adam: The Mill is a leading Creative Technology and VFX studio specializing in content creation for the advertising, games, music, entertainment and film industries. We do everything from traditional linear film to interactive experiences, VR and AR. We do the lot!
Lauren: At The Mill, we are always working towards the common goal of putting out the best work possible. We really take great pride in making people feel something about what they’re seeing or experiencing.
What are the specifics of working on VFX for advertisement, and what you expect from a toolset?
Lauren: Time is everything when you're working with advertising. Often the turnaround times are short - a couple weeks, for example - and you need to be able to find your artistic direction and execute it fairly quickly. This is where I've found Substance Painter to be useful; if I need to put together a quick concept for a model or environment, I can bring it into Substance Painter and start laying out masks and base materials to get an idea of where I want to head with a project without spending time hand-painting textures for first passes.
Adam: I think any tool that is fast and efficient is something we want to be using. Much of our ethos at The Mill is about working smarter, and not just recycling the same old tried and tested techniques simply because it works - we want to be using new and innovative tech that is pushing boundaries. This is why we took to Substance Painter so quickly.
How did you discover Substance and how long have you been using it at The Mill?
Lauren: Some of the team from Allegorithmic came to The Mill in early 2017 to introduce the CG department to the program and show us a bit of what Substance Painter and Substance Designer were capable of in a production setting. After that I was hooked.
I experimented a bit on my own before diving in fully during the Monster.com project last June. The program was so user-friendly I was able to pick it up pretty quickly and start putting out textures for some large-scale scenes in a fraction of the time that I had previously been able to.
Adam: I was really impressed by the rate at which artists were able to pick up Substance Painter and produce industry standard work having never used it before - I think it's possibly one of the program’s best attributes. We went from 0 percent to about 80 percent of our texture work being done in Substance Painter in under a year. That's incredible.
The other thing worth mentioning here is how incredible the team at Allegorithmic are - we managed to get Wes McDermott to visit and provide two days of in-depth training. Since then we’ve had a direct line of feedback with Allegorithmic and it's been a fantastic partnership that we continue to develop.
Cartier Ramadan Ad
On what recent projects have you been working on using Substance?
Lauren: Substance Painter was instrumental in creating the CG environments and assets for the Monster.com spot, namely the fully CG alleyway. More recently, I used it in the 2018 Cartier Ramadan campaign to help paint the color map on the CG leopard; this was used to drive the color of the animal's fur and bring some life to the skin texture.
Additionally, we used it to texture the CG desert city shown in the ad, using one scene for all the buildings. This was an incredibly tight turnaround; as you can imagine, painting an entire city can’t be done overnight. But I think we managed it an about 4 days!
This asset was later used as a basis for the matte painting projection, allowing us to create a lively bustling city in a fraction of the time.
How did Substance integrate into your workflow? How did it help you achieve better results?
Lauren: For Monster, Substance was integral in allowing me to visualize the alleyway and create a consistent and cohesive set of textures without jumping between too many scenes. I was able to load all of the buildings into the program, bake their maps and hand-paint all of the details that you'd see in a real-world alleyway using a combination of high-resolution textures, masks, and particle brushes. The same method applied to the city in Cartier. All I needed to do was organize the buildings into ‘city blocks’ in UDIM space before bringing them into Substance Painter. That way I could see how the whole city would look in Maya before I exported any textures.
Being able to accurately see how my diffuse, specular and normal maps were working together in a live scene, with real-time feedback, was incredibly useful. In particular, it allowed me to expedite my look development time, as I already had a rough idea of how to visualize the shaders that I would eventually make.
Do you have any tips for artists who want to work in the VFX for advertisement industry?
Adam: Yes, I would recommend not boxing yourself into one software package. Particularly in advertising, we need people who are adaptable and capable of picking up new software and learning new techniques if it will aid in a project. We try not to have ‘modelers’ or ‘texturers’ but rather asset artists, who are able to model, sculpt, paint, groom, light and render their creations. This also allows each artist to have more ownership over their work, something I think most people here are very proud of.
What are the next projects you’re working on, and will you be using Substance?
Adam: I’m not sure we can share much about what we’re working on, but we always have new and exciting projects coming out at The Mill. The rate of turnover here is incredibly fast - I can say that we’re now working on training our artists in Substance Designer and are hoping to be authoring more of our own Substance textures.
We’re constantly striving to provide new and interesting training for our artists and are looking forward to getting Allegorithmic back in the house for more coaching!
All images courtesy of The Mill New York.