The Mill: Creating Kia’s Super Bowl Ad with Substance
Visual effects studio The Mill creates visual narratives for some of the biggest names in industry and media, including carmaker Kia, whose Super Bowl LI ad “Hero’s Journey” featuring actress Melissa McCarthy was crowned most popular by USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter. The commercial was produced in collaboration with creative agency David&Goliath and directed by Matthijs Van Heijningen of MJZ. We had the privilege of interviewing The Mill’s Sharlene Lin, who used Substance in the asset creation for the spot.
Hi Sharlene, could you present yourself to the community?
My name is Sharlene Lin. I’m a VFX Artist at The Mill in Los Angeles.
What’s your background?
I grew up in China where I studied at a Top 5 fine art school, and later I moved to New Jersey. When I immigrated to the U.S. I went to college and graduated from the School of Visual Arts in NYC. It was there that I was able to intern and work with several amazing artists and studios before moving to California.
I began my career in visual effects and film production around 2009. I was able to contribute to several movies, including Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel, The Huntsman: Winter’s War; The Avengers; Jack Reacher; Looper and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. At The Mill, I’ve worked on many commercials for brands including Hay Day, Game of War, Halo, Honda, and Kia’s 2017 Super Bowl spot, ‘Hero’s Journey’. I also worked on HELP, the VR short film for Google Spotlight Stories.
Tell us about your role at The Mill.
Working for a VFX company like The Mill means I get to work on a variety of projects from week to week. As an artist here, it’s important to be equipped with a diverse skill set. For example, one day I could be creating a photo-real car, the next day I could be building a robot for a science fiction piece, and another day I could be making cute creatures for a mobile game.
Why did you choose to use Substance Designer/Substance Painter for the Kia ad?
As VFX artists, we end up using different tools all the time to achieve the highest quality look. The unique and attractive offering that Substance Painter provides is the ability to see a good material representation of what I’m working on in real time – especially when calibrating proper roughness values that involved more back-and-forth tweaking before using Substance Painter. Some of my look-dev artists who focus on the final shader and render have said that this has made the process a lot easier for them. I started to really see the value of the Substance toolset – especially Substance Painter – through the Allegorithmic tutorials.
Our Modeling and Texturing Supervisor at The Mill, Felix E. Urquiza, was fortunately very open to looking into this new tool, which gave me proper time to work with it. I started using Substance Painter and Substance Designer in my spare time which also helped me provide more examples of how we could use it. Kia ‘Hero’s Journey’ was one of the main projects at The Mill that saw a lot of use with Substance Painter.
Can you walk us through the texturing pipeline you developed for the boat?
With the Kia project, which was shot mostly on green screen, our responsibility was to create believable environments and creatures that would hold up the realism. Once we had previsualization, we started to model all of our assets provided by reference. The boat model took one week and it took three days to get the main texture in Substance Painter.
Due to some changes, the entire boat project took around two weeks. The important part with Substance Painter is that due to the ability to work quickly, I had a rough material pass in one day which later went out for approval by the director, Matthijs Van Heijningen. We assigned base materials to all the geometry to decide the look. After approval by Matthijs, we worked on the details of the material, such as dirt, rust, grime, and water. After that, it was really just quick iterations that ended up changing the body color a few times before landing on a final version. The iterations and process would have taken longer in other programs. The boat also had multiple texture udims, around 40 of them.
After all maps were exported using the Arnold Udim preset, it went back to look-dev artists who connected them with the Arnold shaders.
Next, compositing artists got our scenes from the Arnold renderer and made them look nicer! They composited the acting scene, CG environment, and particles.
Was this the first time you used the Substance toolset? If so, what were the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
I used Substance Painter and Substance Designer on some other projects, but this asset was one of the more complicated ones. Using the toolset for the Kia project has helped in developing our company workflow. It had 40 texture udims and required high quality, photo-realistic texturing in a short period of time.
One of the main challenges for me was changing the model as I textured; the main scene became really large and heavy for our systems. I decided to split the scene into two sections to speed up the process. When I presented the finished texture of the ship, I could not render all of it together in Iray. The solution was to connect all the texture maps into a look dev scene to render a turntable to present the final look.
Given what you learned, and that updates have been released since then (making the tools more suited for VFX), what would you look forward to doing next with the Substance toolset?
I would like to use it more within our jobs, of course. We are working on building a workflow around Substance Painter when it comes to texturing, and I plan to help in that process. I would also like to use it more in my spare time and make some new projects.
There is obviously a long list of feature requests coming from the VFX world, and users can be reassured that we are working on them. What would be your top 3?
Able to paint across multiple udims (so we could develop Substance Painter character workflow and use on organic assets.)
Allow non-square images in stencil (many reference photos that we took were not square, and it takes time to edit all of them.)
Master Layer- A layer in which I could add a material or effect on all udims at once would be very helpful, especially when dealing with an object that is mostly made of the same type of material.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I would love an auto UV or a UV-less workflow for Substance Painter. So we could use this like Zbrush with Keyshot for concepting and maybe later baking out.