Alita: Battle Angel – Texturing a Cyberpunk Future with DNEG Vancouver and Mumbai

In this joint interview with both the Vancouver and Mumbai teams at DNEG, learn how Substance was used in the best scenes in Alita: Battle Angel.

  • Film
  • Interview

We’re pleased to interview the Vancouver and Mumbai teams at DNEG, as they both break down their beautiful texturing work on their respective scenes for Alita: Battle Angel.

The DNEG Vancouver Team – Introductions

Jesse: Hello, my name’s Jesse Balodis. I’ve worked in visual effects for around 14 years. I’m originally from Australia and I studied Industrial Design and gained a passion for CG during my studies. I’ve been at DNEG for approximately 18 months as a texture artist.

David: Hey, I’m David Crabtree. I’ve worked in the industry since 2010 starting as a runner at DNEG in London and working my way through matchmove, generalist, lighting and build. I’ve been at DNEG in Vancouver for the last three years and worked on 14 feature films throughout my time as an artist. I studied Film & 3D Animation and continued to learn while at DNEG, often by attending internal training courses and at home through self-study.

Jesse: We worked on two sequences, the bar fight and the flashback with Amok. The work involved building the bodies and mechanical parts for four of the main characters as well as replacing the limbs of some of the patrons in the bar.

Our use of Substance

David: We’ve been following Allegorithmic since 2016, so we decided to use Substance Painter and Substance Designer within production to help with material authoring, sharing PBR-based materials around the department and to allow for quicker turnaround of design changes. It allowed our Build Supervisor Marc Austin to create tools and pass them out easily. It also gave texture artists a great representation of how the assets would look when rendered.

Art direction

Jesse: We were mainly trying to match the art style set out by the client and Weta Digital. Substance enabled us to tweak the metals to help match the material responses of Weta’s style, as well as make changes to ingested textures.

Assets textured with Substance

Gangsta – Substance Designer for tattoo patterns, masks, and material creations. Substance Painter to bake secondary maps (i.e. occlusion and curvature) and to apply materials and export.

Amok – Substance Painter for the main texturing and material application. We also used Substance Designer to create some of the materials and flaked paint.

Michael Wilde (another Texture Artist at DNEG) used Substance Painter to texture the character Screwhead.


Jesse: Gangsta was completed in eight separate Substance Painter scenes: Torso, Torso internal, Legs, Legs internal, Right arm (tattooed), Left arm (robotic), Head, Shoes + hood.

UVs were arranged per material/UDIM, so masking could be kept to a minimum. The base metals were based on physically correct values (aluminium, titanium, tungsten etc.).

The base metals were quite simple and most of the time was spent on the complex layering of dirt, dust, grit, oil, rust, damage, imperfections and many more environmental effects. Smart materials were used to propagate these across scenes.

There was a lot of hand painting to break up surfaces and create a cohesive visual history across the characters that would fit into the world of Alita.

The tattoos were created fully procedurally in Substance Designer.

By having a flexible, re-creatable and expandable workflow, model changes were in most cases dealt with efficiently and quickly.

Skin was done in external applications and integrated by Look Development (lookdev).


David: Amok had a lot of UDIMs, so each material that was created was only instanced to the required texture set when needed. Starting with the arm, we tested different materials and how they responded with each piece of geometry under different lighting conditions to get a feel of how it was going to look. The masks for the different pieces of geometry were created using the ID Bake in Substance (set to Mesh ID) and using the color selection to specify where we wanted that particular material to be.

After a few iterations of testing different materials, and getting a result we were happy with, we then added on the flaked paint, dirt, rust, oil and dust as a global weathering, to help tie each piece together and make them feel as if they were part of the same world. The result of this was that very minimal lookdev work needed to be carried out on the metals, and this allowed for a quicker turnaround from texture to lookdev of the model and material changes.


David: Screwhead was approached by initially applying a different material to each piece of geometry based on material tags in Maya, and then baking this as IDs within Painter using the baker. Michael Wilde then created his different materials on a texture set 1001 in Substance Painter and, using the ‘mask with color selection’ option, selected the color from the baked ID map that corresponded to that material. Once he had set this up, he instanced these across all texture sets. This approach meant that when he edited one material it updated everywhere else. If he had to change a material tag, remodel a piece or add new pieces, he only had to re-export and update the ID bake, because everything else updated automatically for him.

Having everything instanced slowed down the scene somewhat, so Mike would set all of his texture sets to 1K resolution and switch the current texture set he was working on to 4K so he could see what the end result would look like. This kept his scene fast and efficient to work on while enabling him to see the final output. When he exported his maps, he configured each texture set to export at 4K.

Why we use Substance

Essential qualities: Stability, Speed, Flexibility, Collaboration/Sharing, Reusing elements.

Substance improved our texturing workflow by allowing us to see a ‘closer to final’ result in the viewport and to help eliminate any values that were incorrect through a PBR workflow. This allowed us to spend more time on the final 5%, which consisted of hand painting and other general time-consuming work. This also saved time in lookdev because it meant our textures were much closer to the desired result, without having to re-balance the values.

Advice for VFX students and beginners

Jesse: Learn how to problem solve, be flexible and be prepared for massive changes and new directions. Spend time visually exploring the world around you and go outside; nature is the best teacher of color and patterns. Explore disciplines that have a long history because CG is a new art form. Learn the basic fundamentals of traditional art theories and apply them to your CG work, such as color theory, photography, fine arts, and sculpture, etc.

Learn Substance Designer because it’s very powerful and can replace many 2D paint tasks. Spend time getting to know all the basic nodes really well. Work on Height first, then Roughness, followed by RGB values. Spend time setting up your library and shelves. When you have time, always build new materials to add to the library and save all your materials and constructions for further refinement and for future projects.

Practice and find an efficient workflow that works for you, and for the others around you. Don’t be afraid to make a massive change in the model, if it will help you further down the line. Learn to use material IDs from Maya and set up your Substance Painter templates to save time.

Familiarise yourself with the anchor point system and with creating masks for separating things like paint on metal. Sometimes, exporting out all the materials baked together is not optimal for lookdev. Instance only where needed. Finally, work at a lower resolution that allows speed and feedback, and then export at a higher resolution for the final export.

Future use of Substance

David: We plan to use Substance to go straight from modeling to a render pass for material approval before texturing even begins. Also, to use it for more organic purposes as opposed to just hard surfaces. We’ll delight images with Project Substance Alchemist, and increase the use of material scanning with Substance Designer, to better match on-set references.

The DNEG Mumbai Team – Introductions

Peter: Hi, I’m Peter Lasrado, CG/Build supervisor at DNEG Mumbai. I was Lead Look Development on Alita: Battle Angel.

Paresh: And I’m Paresh Dodia, Build Supervisor at DNEG (Mumbai)

Our use of Substance

Peter: All the assets created in Alita were concept-based. That said, there were multiple iterations required with a quick turnaround time. Substance enabled us to make the creative changes with multiple options, which worked in our favour with the approval process.

Paresh: We’ve been familiar with the tool for quite some time now. Previously we didn’t use it much on a day-to-day basis until we actually got to explore its full potential with Alita. With new updates, Substance has upgraded its UDIM workflow coupled with a better GPU strength, so we’re also now using it more efficiently.

Art direction

Peter: In terms of art direction, the style involved for Alita required a dystopian look from a different technological age. Distributing the texture information across various shots was simple. What really helped in achieving the weathered look were the presets. They enabled us to visualize what we could expect as an end result.

Paresh: Regarding the art direction, as you might know, there are many materials that need to be finalized during the conceptual phase and the final render. To avoid going through multiple consecutive processes like texturing and then shading etc. we opted for Substance Painter. That enabled us to conduct both processes in real time, ultimately helping us to meet deadlines more easily. As the show required shading based on a metallic workflow, we were able to get the desired result in a much shorter time period.

Assets textured with Substance

Peter: As we worked mostly on the skating/basketball sequences of the movie, Substance Painter was used for the skates as well as some other props like the hoop which throws/holds the motorball when Alita learns to play the game for the very first time. Substance Painter was also used for the texturing of the surrounding buildings.

Why we use Substance

Peter: Handling texture resolutions and being able to visualize the end result on the spot are the key requirements of any texturing software. Substance Painter addresses both of these and delivers results in real time which can be tested in different lighting conditions with numerous HDR options loaded in the package.

With a series of tools and presets along with real-time visualization, texturing is made easier as it helps to know what a character’s texture will look like once surfaced. This helped us with delivery turnaround time, as well as the approval processes with the clients and supervisors. The time invested in Substance was well spent, allowing the artists the freedom to quickly visualize outputs and achieve the best results.

Paresh: From a VFX point of view, texturing software should handle a large amount of geometry and texture resolutions, must be flexible with third party rendering tools and also have a procedural shading workflow. All of these requirements are met with Substance Designer.

Besides what Peter already said regarding the real-time results and different HDR options preloaded in the package, what’s amazing about Substance Painter is that it has many great generators which are helpful for making metal assets. It is also helpful in building weathered and realistic assets.

Advice for students

Peter: I’d definitely recommend having the Substance tool among their preferred packages, as it helps to visualize and create great assets with ease. It’s also great for presenting ideas as it’s quite easy to use.

Paresh: From my experience, I’d suggest trying to optimize the workflow to the maximum limit and having a good UV layout, which helps you visualize the outcome.

Future use of Substance

Peter: The package has been super-promising and has already offered a lot to several industries. Substance seems to be evolving by introducing more improvements with the needs of the artist in mind, which will help the community create amazing work.

The world is full of amazing artists with great visualization and creativity, and tools like these can certainly help them transform their ideas into outstanding works seen across various platforms. Substance has helped immensely with making the assets look amazing in Alita, and the Substance team is doing a fabulous job in supporting artists’ potential with this tool, which in turn helps the industry as a whole.

All images courtesy of DNEG © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Read more