We came across animation studio TAT Productions and after seeing the dazzling visuals of their feature Astro Kid, we just had to sit down and ask them how they did it.
Romain: Hello, I’m Romain Teyssonneyre. I’m Technical Director at TAT Studio so I’m mainly in charge of the pipeline and everything technical around it.
David: Hi, my name is David Aucourt, and I’m Lead Character Artist at TAT Studio. Basically, the character team is responsible for every aspect of the 3D character creation process (modeling, texturing/shading, and grooming).
Youssef: Hi. My name is Youssef Lakssir, and I’m Lead Environment Surfacing. My task is to manage the team, and I’m also responsible for everything that concerns environment shading, pipeline, materials, formations, and communications with other teams.
Romain: I started my studies in programming, but I quickly needed a more artistic environment so I turned to a 3D animation school. After two or three years of freelance, I was given the opportunity to work at TAT Studio… and it will soon be 10 years.
David: I come from a programming education followed by a 3D animation bachelor’s degree. I’ve been working at TAT for seven years now.
Youssef: After school, I worked in the architectural industry for several years as a generalist, after that I became a freelancer. I worked for architecture, commercials, entertainment. At the end of 2012, I had the opportunity to work as lighter/renderer at TAT studio, it’s been more than six years now.
Romain: TAT Productions was founded in 2000 by two brothers and a friend, and we are based in Toulouse, France. The studio employs 120 CGI artists. Its productions are aired in more than 200 countries and are translated in more than 40 languages.
Our first feature, The Jungle Bunch, released in 2017, has been a worldwide success. The second, Astro Kid, has been released in April 2019 in France and is now making its way into more and more countries (editor’s note: Original French release title is Terra Willy).
We are actually working on the third season of The Jungle Bunch and we have entered preproduction of our third feature, Young Thief Pil. It’s the story of a little girl in a medieval city. Unfortunately, we cannot show anything at the moment.
All our productions are written and developed internally by the founders. With The Jungle Bunch, we had a huge amount of characters and a good dose of action. After that, the idea was to focus on a more narrative story, with fewer characters (who came over as more human!) and more contemplative shots. We wanted to make a real sci-fi movie for kids!
Youssef: At TAT studio, we produce semi-realistic rendering. In Astro Kid, we spend most of the time on an unknown planet. The director wanted something really colorful and different from what we’d have on Earth. Also, the biggest challenge was the scale of the environments; since the characters travel a lot in different biomes, we’d had a lot of responsibility in the movie.
Substance was really useful for the creation of a big library of base materials, most of the materials being created from scratch, with Substance Designer. We could create a lot of different shaders and iterate quickly, then export them to Substance Painter or 3ds Max.
David: Speaking about the characters, the basic recipe at TAT Studio is cartoon shapes for silhouette and realistic texturing for microdetails. For this particular movie, we had a few challenges: human characters with cloth, a robot and sci-fi accessories, and alien creatures that are kind of chimeras of existing species.
David: We were used to procedural texturing with Quixel suite at TAT. Some of us had tested Substance Painter on our own, and we decided to go for it for Astro Kid.
Youssef: Yes, We began using Substance with this project. In preproduction, we had the opportunity to test it and immediately knew that it was the software that we needed. What convinced me was the fact that you can create complex materials procedurally and that it was non-destructive. You have the bridge between Substance Designer and Substance Painter through .sbsar files, and all the parameters you could want to expose!
Romain: We have a 3ds Max pipeline mainly based on the most common plugins on the market like Vray, Ornatrix, Forest, and so on. Additionally, we have a little team of two to three developers for internal tools, mainly for plugging any holes in our usage of 3ds Max or communicating between departments.
Youssef: Between The Jungle Bunch and Astro Kid, a lot of things changed. For example, we decided to use UDIMs for the first time, so we needed to adapt to a new way of working. Substance Painter was really useful to load all the UDIMs and be able to bake all the maps in one place, even though we can’t paint through UDIMs.
Character Art Breakdown
David: The main steps in our character art workflow are modeling, UVs, surfacing in ZBrush, texturing in Substance Painter, and, finally, shading in VRay. For all organic characters, we rely a lot on the surfacing generated in ZBrush to create detail in the textures.
Prior to the last updates with displacement tessellation in the viewport, we sent a normal map from ZBrush to Substance Painter and baked all the curvature, AO, etc. to use all the sculpted surface details with smart materials.
We also added some height information in Substance Painter, which we compiled later in the shader with the displacement from ZBrush.
Now things are a bit easier with displacement tessellation. We just import the displacement maps from ZBrush and use them with Anchor Point and the Micro Details feature. This way we are also able to compile the ZBrush displacement map with height directly in Substance Painter and export it to VRay.
Once the standard character is done, we create variations using the power of the layering system in Substance Painter. It allows us to quickly add and mix different materials, like dirt, wet or wear and tear, following the story of the character in the movie.
Surfacing and Environment Art Breakdown
Youssef: We used Substance Designer and Substance Painter for almost everything that you see in the movie, around 95 percent of it.
In preproduction, we identify the needs. Even though it’s an alien planet, we have rocks, trees, and plants. So, we created a large library of base materials based on the concepts for the team to use, modify, or create other materials with, if needed. For everything concerning the hard surfacing, we do the same in Substance Painter for metals, paints, plastics, rubbers.
For the process, we receive the props from the modeling department, we send it to Substance Painter, bake all maps, create our materials, and export them to 3ds Max. For the grounds, we export maps directly from Substance Designer and mix everything in 3ds Max with several materials and masks.
The capsule was a very heavy prop to deal with. We had a lot of UDIMs since we had close-ups. We see it from all angles, inside and outside. We had to divide it into small pieces, make all shaders in Substance Painter and then bring them together in 3ds Max. Substance Painter was a big help. The outside and inside were made with the help of Alexandre Arpentinier.
Vegetation: We tried to use shaders from our base materials that we created during preproduction. Substance Designer and Substance Painter were very helpful because we can very quickly modify the aspect of shaders and give them the aspect that we want. Most of our base shaders were very different from the final result.
The desert environment was a very large and empty landscape, so it was a huge challenge for me. Moreover, we had to match the texture with the “Rock Monsters” that were created by David’s team. I created several materials and masks in Substance Designer. Since I had to prevent tiling, it was more flexible for me to blend everything in 3ds Max.
Tips & Tricks
David: Painting in 3D allows you to change your topology and UVs while preserving your brush strokes (the volume of the mesh has to be the same though). This is incredibly useful in production, as it makes Substance Painter a non-destructive and iterative tool.
Youssef: Don’t be afraid to try things in your materials. Sometimes happy accidents can happen. There are a lot of them in our movie. Substance Designer and Substance Painter have no limits. I’ve seen people create things that my mind couldn’t even imagine. Your imagination is the only limit.
Substance for Future Projects
David: As mentioned earlier, we have heavily relied on the displacement tessellation in Substance Painter for a few months now. It allows us to do some of the sculpting details in Substance Painter. The best examples are the stitches, wear and tear, scratches, and memory folds.
One of our artists even did a character without any ZBrush surfacing pass, doing big cloth folds with painted heights in Substance Painter! I’m also thinking about implementing it into our early prototyping steps.
Youssef: For our current movie, we will use Substance thoroughly and continue to improve our skills in material creation. Now that our team is familiar with Substance, we would like to be more efficient and dive into expressions; this is something I would like to know more about.
Youssef: I just want to say thank you to the Substance team for developing their software, it’s a really powerful toolset. It’s a pleasure to be able to create nice materials from scratch. Also thanks to the Substance community for providing great tutorials and materials, it has been really helpful!
Romain: Go Auvergne! (Editor’s note: the central region in France where it all started for the Substance team.)
David: Thank you and keep inspiring us!
All images © TAT productions, Bac Films Production, France 3 Cinéma, Logical Pictures, Master Films / 2019