, by Amaru Zeas

UDIMs Galore: The Environment Art of Spanner

Amaru Zeas discusses his environment art on Spanner, an animated short film created on Amazon Nimble Studio.

  • Film
  • Interview

We continue our discussion with Amaru Zeas and Cris Fudge, two artists working within Amazon Nimble Studio, a service allowing creative studios to produce visual effects, animation, and interactive content in the cloud. Here, Amaru discusses his work on the short film Spanner, notably detailing his work on the environment art in the film.

If you haven’t seen it already, you can also take a look at the first part of our interview, with Cris.

My name is Amaru Zeas. I work for an internal creative team within Amazon Web Services called FuzzyPixel as Associate Art Director. I’ve worked in the animation industry for almost 13 years in many different areas: video games, commercials, visual ID, and recently film. I consider myself a curious digital artist. I love diving into new technology and pushing it to its limits. I love experimenting and trying new technology that allows me to make art faster and more easily. I usually work on 3D modeling, texturing, and look development for environments, props, vehicles, and structures. I have a strong background in lighting, compositing, and look development.

I started using Substance 3D Painter in 2017 while working in the video game industry and immediately loved it. Since then, I’ve used it on every project I have worked on.

Spanner: skip to 0:36 to get right into the film, or go from the start to get more context about the project from FuzzyPixel.

Creating Spanner

During the Spanner production, I helped the team in various areas. Before we even started production, I was already testing the latest and greatest production tools—including Substance 3D Painter—that would allow us to craft art faster. I then helped create a pipeline to procedurally place trees across the entire environment.

I also worked on the concept art, design, 3D modeling, texturing, and look development for most of the bigger assets such as the airship, rock pillars, and bridge. As Associate Art Director, I helped with the overall look of the film, including lighting, compositing, and general visuals.

I worked entirely in the cloud on Spanner; this was a totally new experience for me, and to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I was surprised how easy it was to login to a virtual machine and have all the tools I needed to start my day. To know that I only needed a laptop and decent internet speed to create art was an amazing experience.

At the beginning of production, even before the story was approved, we talked about pushing the visual quality bar. We wanted to create most of the environment assets as if they were going to be rendered very close to camera. Having said that, the most detailed environment assets are the airship and bridge.

Artistic render by Amaru Zeas.

Rock Pillars. Early render test.

Right from the beginning, I knew using UDIMs was the key to achieving the amount of detail we wanted. However, at the time of production UDIM technology in Painter was in beta and not in final release. I talked to the Substance team and requested early access knowing that it might be buggy, but I was surprised by how well the beta performed. UDIMs enhance the UV mapping and texturing workflow by allowing you to organize your UV shells. Using UDIMs means you don’t need to create as many materials. For a complex asset like the airship where we have about 470 UDIMs, it would have been very time consuming to create all 470 materials.

The rock pillars are the largest assets in the film. We knew that they were not going to be too close to the camera so we decided to only use 30 UDIMs per pillar at 8K resolution each.

This screenshot (above) is rendered inside Substance 3D Painter. The ability to paint and render inside the software before exporting the textures is extremely important for a faster workflow.

The bridge was also created using the UDIM workflow.

This render was created using Substance 3D Painter’s renderer, Iray

Up close render to show details.

Material Creation

The airship is definitely one of the most ambitious 3D assets I’ve ever created. In order to create more than 1,700 unique textures, we had to be very smart and plan it well. Substance 3D Painter is a very powerful tool and I knew it could handle heavy assets well. However, I decided to split the airship into five Substance 3D Painter files so it would be easier to paint. One of the most amazing features of Painter is the ability to switch resolutions while painting. For most of the assets, I painted at 1K resolution and then switched to 4K to see the full details. This can be done for each UDIM tile, which is very powerful.

Since I used UDIMs, I didn’t have to create too many materials. Each material was named properly. It’s useful that Substance Painter allows you to change the name of the material, although I had to make sure I also changed it in Maya to keep the workflow organized.

Organization is very important in my workflow. Most of the materials I create end up having several layers, and naming each layer is crucial. I love to use folders as it gives me the ability to create sublevels within a specific material. I color all my layers and folders to keep them much more organized, and this makes it much easier to visualize where to find the correct layer. This helps when another artist opens the file for the first time.

I was able to maintain a non-destructive workflow when texturing for most of the materials. I like to create my materials from the ground up and only use the Substance 3D Painter material presets when I’m trying to do something very specific. My materials are about 70-85% procedural and non-destructive, and the rest I leave for manual painting, usually in the top layers. I was able to create Smart Materials, share them across Painter files, and then make sure all the maps were baked correctly. Smart Materials were very important. As I mentioned before, we had five Painter files for the airship, and we wanted to share materials, so the metal would look the same across the entire airship. After all the textures were done, we exported them at 8K resolution. We ended up with more than 1,700 textures and 470 UDIMs for a total of more than 50GB of data for textures.

I used Marvelous Designer to create the balloon fabric. Marvelous Designer is great for simulating cloth and wrinkles, which gives you a nice base to work on. Painter was the perfect tool to add the rest of the textures, and create more detailed wrinkles and patches without having to rely on simulation every time.

Texturing the Airship

Regarding how I prepared the asset before texturing, in the Maya file, the airship was split into six different parts. I had to make sure every object had the UDIMs set up correctly. This process was time consuming. I knew Substance doesn’t like geometry with overlapping UVs; if you have overlapping UVs, Painter will let you know.

At times, I needed to find some workarounds. I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect because I was using a beta of the UDIM support version. Crashes were more frequent than usual, and because of that I made sure I used the auto-save feature. This made the process a bit slower since most of the files were about 12 GB. The biggest challenge, since this was a beta version, was that particles were still not working properly. This impacted my workflow when I had to paint the water stream throughout the rock pillars. My workaround was to create a new Substance 3D Painter file only for the leaks map, export that texture, and merge it into the final Painter file as a new “baked” map. I was very pleased to find out you could import 25 textures as a UDIM pack, which allowed me to create this workflow.

I usually bake the most important object maps like curvature and ambient occlusion at 4K and the rest at 2K. I also like to do my painting at 1K; that way, even with so many UDIMs and complex layers, Substance 3D Painter performs at its best and I know I can change the resolution at any time.

After all the textures were finished, I exported them as EXR 32bit to keep as much color data as possible and used them in the Arnold renderer in Maya. The process of connecting the textures is straightforward—I just added extra color nodes to have more control inside of Maya.

Artwork by Amaru Zeas.

This render (below) is a perfect example of how close we could zoom into the engine and still maintain all of the fine details.

Artistic render to test textures and lighting by Amaru Zeas.

Painter was key to helping me produced such an immense amount of data-rich art in record time.

Substance 3D Painter workflow in different sections of the airship:

Smart Materials allowed me to transfer and share the metal and rust across the ship to keep of the look of the metal across the entire engine consistent.

These (below) are some of the procedurally-generated materials using various baked maps from the pillars.

Particles in action in Substance 3D Painter to create realistic water leak effect on the rocks.

Tips for Artists

My biggest advice to anyone is to search for the art tools that allow you to create art faster. You would be surprised by how much time you can save by using the correct software. Planning is key, and you should prioritize the most important assets first.

Lighting is one of the most important aspects as it sets the tone of the film. With real-time rendering technology emerging in the film industry, I would recommend trying to use it as much as you can. A good place in the production pipeline to implement the technology is with Pre-Vis (Previsualization). It allows you to come up with an overall look and feel of the film much faster, regardless of which renderer you end up using.

Meet Amaru Zeas

Amaru Zeas is Associate Art Director at Amazon Web Services, and has over a decade of experience in 3D. Prior to joining AWS in 2017, Amaru worked on projects such as Forza Motorsport 5 and Forza Motorsport 6, by Microsoft Studios.

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