Nathan Love: Simulating Claymation with Substance

  • Film
  • Interview

Liz (CG lead, lookdev artist): Nathan Love is a pretty tiny studio in Soho, New York City, in that we only have six staff artists! Three of the artists are 3D artists, and the other three are 2D, but also function as directors. The CG team therefore works on anything 3D for commercials or social/website posts. This includes 3D characters over simple colored backgrounds, 3D characters over live-action plates, or entire 3D commercials. We tend to favor cartoony styles, with a specific soft spot for miniature/stop motion aesthetic.

Here is some work from our studio over the years!

Our use of Substance

Liz: It wasn’t until we were awarded a Nickelodeon job that required us to create 20 different spots that Eric suggested we try it out. We’re extremely thankful that we did because, at the time, the 3D LookDev team was Eric, Jin Fang, and me. Eric and I went on vacation toward the beginning of the project after cranking out about eight-ish production-ready CG characters in two weeks. This left Jin Fang with all of the other assets. She was able to use a lot of the default materials as a starting base to crank through the sheer amount. It was an extremely efficient way to get through the workload under those resources and time constraints. I firmly believe we wouldn’t have been able to complete that job at the quality we did without Substance. After our experience with Nickelodeon went so smoothly, there was no looking back.

Jin Fang (CG artist, lighting lead): I’d heard about Substance from classmates when I attended The School of Visual Arts, but it was really at Nathan Love that I picked it up. It was introduced by our then CG lead, Eric Cunha. I fell in love with it after first trying it out. The ability to be able to view both 2D UV view and 3D model in real-time with the materials is one of the many reasons why I love using it for quick look development on assets. I was also surprised by how useful the default materials that came with Substance are; I was able to use many of them as a base and custom-build my own version of materials on top of them.

Eric (CG lead, CTO): Before we got the Nickelodeon job, there was actually a smaller project for Captain D’s with some fairly simple assets to shade that I decided to try Substance out on. I was able to get up and running in a day with Substance Painter and loved it immediately. Being used to the Mari workflow of scouring the internet for source images and slowly building a viewport shader that I knew would ultimately be trashed once I went back to Maya, Substance Painter was a breath of fresh air. I loved that I almost never needed to leave the software — the built-in generators and textures are enough to finish most assets, and that’s a huge time saver. The ability to see the subtleties of all of the different channels in real-time with the confidence that my result in Maya was generally very close was a huge game-changer.


Elizabeth: At Nathan Love, we work primarily in Maya and use Solid Angle’s Arnold to render. Once we have modeled any kind of asset (which includes exporting displacement and cavity maps if there is higher resolution detail) we will bring the OBJs into Substance. Once we’re ready to export our textures, we use a custom preset that Eric created to spit them out. Eric also wrote a tool that then uses his naming conventions to put together an Arnold shader. We’ve come to love this process because it has become so quick, easy, and consistent.

Eric: Knowing that there’s some automation and consistency to the way Substance outputs its textures made creating a pipeline around it very straightforward. All of our projects are being rendered in Arnold, so creating a tool to bring the textures in and hook them up automatically while handling all of the colorspace settings for the artists made the workflow even quicker. We could go from exporting maps out of Substance Painter to rendering the result in Arnold within minutes.

Sprite and Nickelodeon commercials

Eric: When we started pitching on Nickelodeon we had to make Lincoln Loud of the Loud House in a miniature CG style. We talked about making his head and other elements that needed the ability to organically deform a painted clay material. I knew that if we got the job, this clay material would definitely be getting a lot of use, so I tried to keep it all as procedural as possible. Sure enough, that material found its way into a whole lot of the Nickelodeon assets and eventually the Sprite assets. Having a solid and consistent starting point helped us get through the absurd mountain of work ahead of us.

Liz: When we started using Substance Painter, we were in the middle of an overly ambitious Nickelodeon pitch. We had the chance to make an entire campaign of some of our favorite characters (Spongebob!) in our favorite type of aesthetic (miniature). Eric right away jumped into making a clay shader in Substance for the Nickelodeon Logo because that was one of the most important elements to our pitch. We found that we could repurpose that shader for a handful of other elements in the other two style frames since a lot of the props would have been made out of clay. 

Right after we were awarded the spot, Eric and I jumped into character modeling, when a huge bomb was dropped on us: There was an even bigger job coming in, Sprite. It would consist of a miniature aesthetic as well, and they were taking Eric as their lead. The Sprite commercial consisted of 17 character models that we were created in-house and having that clay shader helped establish a consistent look across both spots. 

Here is a close up look at our clay shader in action! We had so much fun recreating the way a human hand would interact with the material from the finger prints to the nicks and divots.

This is a side-by-side comparison of the same clay shader that was developed for Nickelodeon and then repurposed for Sprite. As you can see, the same spirit lives in both of them but there is a different approach to the scale and color variation.

Spongebob and Patrick are up to their usual shenanigans in this finished frame!

Here is a shot from our Sprite Cranberry campaign, where all our characters’ skin textures used our clay shader.

Jin Fang: Nickelodeon Winter Refresh was a super fun job with a small team and so many assets to create. Within the 20 bumpers, School of Rock was one of them that needed quite a few assets made. I was lucky enough to be given the freedom and trust to develop all the instruments from the show, from the modeling to the final look. 

My goal was to make the assets feel as tangible and as close to actual hand-made miniature toys as possible. Substance was a great tool for this because it helped me focus solely on creating the textures and surface details on the assets, with live rendering feedback. The default material library was also really helpful with just getting a quick start on building materials. I could then add my miniature twist on them with the help of all the powerful features in Substance Painter. 

I also realized: Using the same way we repurposed the clay shader, I could repurpose a lot of the guitars’ materials across different assets. Some of the miniature materials included tin foil, plastic, painted wood, metal wire, tape, and clay.

The painted wood material was developed on one of the three guitars first, then it was customized per asset. It was also used on the lemonade stand from another bumper.

Chobani ad: Mixing 2D and 3D

Liz: Chobani was an amazing collaboration between ourselves and the illustrator Aitch. Aitch specializes in a really unique watercolor illustrations that we wanted to translate into a full commercial. We chose to use 3D elements for more of the dynamic camera movements and complicated transformations (the tree). Part of recreating Aitch’s illustrations was creating small sequences of illustrations across all the assets (including 2D) to get the live drawing feeling. For 3D, that means we treated our assets in two different ways. When we were dealing with flatter leaves, we created 3 sequences of textures per asset. Then we would repaint the linework to achieve the live drawing feeling. For actual 3D assets that had real volume, like the tree, branches, and fruits, we assigned flat shaders within Maya and then used a custom Gizmo that Eric created within nuke to get the same live drawing and watercolor look.

Substance was extremely useful in this case as we used it to paint out 3D textures for the flat 2D assets. We did not have to look far as we used one of the brush presets, Watercolor Spots, as our main brush. After a pass of that to build up color variation, I’d build up the illusion of a watercolor painting by using the Artistic Brush to paint where the paint would pool up around the edges.

This Chobani still is comprised of fully 3D fruits and branches, along with rigs made of flat 3D leaves and flower petals.

Vitamin Water cinematic

Liz: After becoming very familiar with how to construct materials that looked miniature, we know that scale is the most important factor in making something look small. However, tangibility comes from the imperfections. Eric taught Jin Fang and me a lot of what we know when it comes to shading, and one of the most important principles he taught me was to break things up constantly. However, it was tricky going from super cartoony to not just realistic, but old. Using the skin preset in Substance Painter as a starting point, I just started stacking on details. Whenever I paint skin details, I always start with reds, blues, and yellows, as a way to subtly differentiate places in the skin that are close to bone, hair, or muscley chunks.

After sculpting wrinkle and pore details in ZBrush, I exported displacement and cavity maps to drive information for the granny’s skin. I broke up the skin color even further by making it a lot more blotchy and stacking on sunspots to push the idea of aged skin. Something that Eric once taught me was to add a subtle layer of veins both to the color and height of the skin. I took that a step further by building the veins up in places that I’d imagine could pop, specifically around the eyes and nostrils.

Jin Fang: For the VitaminWater job, we understood from our storyboards that we would need to create a nice, realistic street material that could hold up in two shots: A close-up of the ground and a revealing shot of grandma standing on the crosswalk. After Nickelodeon, I knew I could take advantage of saving smart materials. This meant I could develop a material in Substance Painter without the actual model and apply it later. I would just need to keep everything as procedural as possible until I had the actual model come to paint specific masks.

When I am creating materials in Substance Painter, I like to keep things as simple as possible. In this case, I broke the crosswalk material into two basic structures by taking advantage of the folder feature. The first was the concrete/asphalt part of the street and the second was the painted crosswalk stripes. I separated these materials by painting a mask that drove the entire stripe folder. This made it easier for me to make adjustments where the painted stripes started and ended. That way, I didn’t have to worry about adjusting each individual aspect of the painted stripe material like height, bump, thickness, noise, or color of the paint.

Procedural material developed on a cube

Finished material applied to final street model. 

Here is the street material in its final rendered form!

Favorite features with Substance

Liz: I love the way Substance functions on a fundamental level: that you are painting materials. I had always questioned myself as an artist when it came to shading because I often became overwhelmed with having to juggle what one material looked like between all of its maps. I didn’t want to be concerned about the relationship between the specular weight and the specular color. On top of that, I felt like I could never find the right maps! Substance has allowed me to think intuitively as an artist. I may have given up shading a long time ago if I had to shade without substance. 

Jin Fang: I love the real-time render view. Not only does it show a nice quality rendering of the material, but you can also change the HDR to see how the material reacts under different lighting situations.

Eric: I love that Substance comes with everything you need to make a material look believable. The first time I browsed the built-in generators and procedurals, my jaw slowly dropped. It feels like a tool that was made by an artist who was frustrated with all of the other solutions. The things I find myself doing frequently are just a few button-clicks, and I think that attention to the artist’s needs is what I love the most.

Tips & tricks

Liz: Drive everything with maps and keep your individual groups clean.

Jin Fang: Try to clearly label and group as many things as you can. This can save you a lot of time if you need to go back into an old project and don’t want to scroll through endless fill layers.

Eric: Incorporate the built-in custom user channels to your workflow! Edit your go-to export configuration to include all of them so adding one to your project when needed is painless. When you need a custom map to drive some part of a bigger shading network outside of Substance, leverage those user channels! I also use them heavily for hair and fur work. Have a fill layer contribute to the base color and the user channel, and only worry about painting the mask. This way you can keep the user channel solid black and white, but visualize it with a unique base color. This lets you look at several hair regions together in a useful way, but still have their output be the black and white maps you need in the hair\fur tool. 

Future use of Substance

Liz: Luckily for us, we had two Substance representatives, Pierre and Quentin, come to our studio to chat with us about how we’ve been using the software and what it is capable of. We were all blown away by how little of the program we have been using. It seems like we dance around 5% of Substance Painter, which isn’t including Substance Alchemist or Substance Designer. This is thrilling news because it has already helped us so much. We cannot imagine what else is possible with some more exploring!

About the Team

Hello! We are CG artists from Nathan Love, which is a New York-based animation production studio. Elizabeth Ku-Herrero is our former CG Lead, recently gone Freelance. She is a LookDev artist and Character Modeler. Jin Fang Jiang is CG artist and our lighting lead who focuses on shading and lighting, but also dabbles in compositing and modeling. Eric Cunha is our CG Lead, prior to Liz, and CTO at Nathan Love. He is currently a freelance artist but occasionally comes back as a CG LookDev Artist, Technical Director, and Pipeline Guru.

All images courtesy of Nathan Love.

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