Peter Zoppi

The Substance Art of Peter Zoppi

Pierre Bosset on June 9 2016 | News, Stories, Game, Film/VFX

Who are you?

My name is Peter Zoppi. I’m a Senior Character Artist at Treyarch where I’ve most recently worked on Call of Duty: Black Ops 3.


Where do you come from, and where are you based now?

I’m living in Los Angeles. I’m originally from Connecticut where I grew up and went to college there at Trinity College in Hartford, CT.

What do you do in your professional life?
I’m a Senior Character artist. I’ve been working at Treyarch for close to 10 years. I’m responsible for high poly modeling, low poly modeling, normal mapping and texture painting.

Where can we find your work?


Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

I grew up in Connecticut and found an interest in computer graphics while I was in high school. I was introduced to DataCAD which was used for designing houses. At that time I wanted to pursue a career as an Architect. The Dot Com boom hit in the late 90s as I was going to attend college and I decided to major in Computer Science. My first semester into the Computer Science program was a major failure for me. I hated programming and realized that what I wanted was something far more visual. I decided to change my major to Studio Art where I focused on drawing and photography. I really enjoyed the new path that I had chosen, but at the same time I had an interest in games, movies and entertainment. 


During this period I started to experiment with painting in Photoshop and trying to learn some 3D programs. Trying to learn on my own was fairly difficult because there wasn’t nearly the same amount of educational content around as there is now. I made the decision to move to Los Angeles to attend Gnomon to learn computer graphics.

How did you discover the Allegorithmic tools?

I recall first seeing Substance Painter when it was initially revealed. I was extremely impressed with the reveal of the particle brushes. I immediately purchased the beta on Steam and started playing around with it. While the particle brushes are very cool, I quickly saw the real power of the program with being able to paint and preview full materials in real time.

DEVGRU by Peter Zoppi

Tell us more about your latest project, DEVGRU. Where does the name come from?

I put this project together as part of the instructional content I’ve been making for CG Master Academy. Having worked on the Call of Duty franchise for the past 8 years, I have a large amount of reference and experience with creating military characters. DEVGRU is the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group...essentially a Navy Seal team. While the project is named DEVGRU it isn’t an entirely, 100% accurate portrayal of a DEVGRU operator. There are elements mixed in from a variety of other military units. I enjoy working in the entertainment industry because it allows the opportunity to play with a variety of ideas and styles. More often than not, the end goal is to have something that looks interesting and cool. I always strive for plausibility and believability, but it is also fun to play with a variety of ideas to create something unique and interesting.

"The great thing now is that inspiration can be found just about anywhere. The community of CG artists has grown immensely and we’re all exposed to so much great art on a daily basis."

What are your sources of inspiration?


I generally find inspiration from the same sources as most people. I play a variety of games as well as watching movies and TV shows. Very often I’ll get inspired by something I see in a movie or a show. The great thing now is that inspiration can be found just about anywhere. The community of CG artists has grown immensely and we’re all exposed to so much great art on a daily basis. I find no shortage of sources of inspiration and I often have more of a problem narrowing things down and picking one direction to go in. 



Tell us more about the CG Master Academy's 3d character arts program course.


I teach several courses with CG Master Academy. I have a course on sculpting heads which covers everything from realistic portraits to stylized heads. I also have a course on texture painting, as well as this most recent course which is about creating high quality characters for film and cinematic purposes. The courses cover how to create great-looking work while also keeping in mind the needs of a production. There is discussion on the technical aspects, which is imperative to know and understand if your goal is to work in any sort of production environment. The really interesting aspect of the program is that the students not only get the instructional content, but I also provide video feedback on their work as well as holding an hourlong Q&A session each week.

What is important in making high quality characters for cinematic and film purposes?

Making high quality characters is about finding the right balance between the art and the technical aspects. The art obviously needs to be good, and many times this can only be achieved by having a solid understanding of the technical limits and restraints of working in a production environment. It requires clean modeling, efficient UV layout and good scene management.


The first step I take is to surround myself with appropriate reference material so I have a very clear understanding of what it is I’m trying to build. The reference isn’t purely for visual reference but it also allows me to understand the functionality of what I’m building. I try to learn and understand the purposes and uses of various pieces of gear, clothing and accessories. With solid reference and this level of understanding, the artwork can be approached and executed properly. I don’t usually dive straight into a project, I try to mentally figure out what has to be built, which order it should be built in and how best to approach various pieces of the character. Spending a little bit of time up front, thinking about these things, can be a real time-saver later in the process.


Equally important are observation skills and research skills. I spend a significant amount of time researching and surrounding myself with appropriate reference. I also think the ability to observe and translate what you see is extremely important. This is certainly something that can be taught, but also requires a significant amount of time repeating the processes over and over.

"I’ve typically used Painter for game assets and was curious to see how it would function with more of a film / cinematic pipeline. It ended up working out extremely well."

How did Substance integrate into your workflow in this project?

I used Substance Painter to texture paint just about everything on this character except for the skin. Going back to what I had mentioned earlier with regards to planning and having clean organized meshes, I was able to do the bulk of the modeling in Maya. I did UV layout on all of the pieces and I was able to bring all of these pieces into Substance Painter. This character doesn’t rely heavily on displacement mapping and therefore the polygon mesh of the character has everything accounted for. Displacements are added detail on top which help to make things look better.


This workflow allowed me to easily bring meshes into Substance Painter, including meshes that weren’t extremely high resolution. Once I get the meshes into Painter, the first step is bake some textures. In order to get the most out of Painter I baked curvature, ambient occlusion, world space normal and position maps. I’ve typically used Painter for game assets and was curious to see how it would function with more of a film / cinematic pipeline. It ended up working out extremely well. Having the baked maps in Painter allowed me to add edge wear, dirt, dust, grime and a variety of other details very quickly. The real power here is being able to not only preview the textures in real time, but to also be able to work on a variety of texture channels at the same time. There was a slight difference in what I was seeing the viewport compared to how it rendered in VRay, but the difference was quite small. This workflow allowed me to work through a large amount of meshes and textures very quickly.


Using the mask-based workflow that Painter offers also allowed me to easily output these masks and use them in VRay Blend materials to blend a variety of shader types. For example, I was able to output masks from Painter to control the blending of a bare metal shader in VRay with a paint shader on top. All of my custom scratches and edge wear came across perfectly.

"I don’t think Substance Painter has changed the way I texture paint, it allows me to texture paint the way I always thought it should be done."

How did your use of Substance change your approach to texturing?

I don’t think Substance Painter has changed the way I texture paint, it allows me to texture paint the way I always thought it should be done. Having the ability to paint multiple channels at the same time while seeing it all in real time is an amazing advancement in the 3D painting workflow. 


There was a certain level of unpredictability in the ways that I had previously texture painted. I would address the bump map first, then move to the diffuse map and then work my way through the gloss and specular maps. Working on these in isolation without really seeing how they were coming together always felt strange to me. Sure, you could see how it was coming together by doing a test render, but it was difficult to get accurate feedback on your gloss map with regards to how light rolls off the surface and how the gloss map breaks up the surface. These types of effects can only really be seen in real time, or with a pre-rendered turntable, where you have the ability to move the light around and really see how all of your maps are contributing to the look of the surface. 


Substance Painter has solved this for me and allows me to get better results in a much shorter amount of time. Second to that, though, is how enjoyable the program is to use. Some software can yield extremely great results; however, if it isn’t fun to use than it can be a struggle to use. This comes down to UI, the intuitive nature of the program and overall ease of use and functionality. For me, Painter yields great results while being fun to use

What was your biggest challenge and how did you address it?

The biggest challenge was finding the correlation between Painter and VRay. VRay has many shader parameters that can be adjusted to create metals, plastics, glass, cloth etc. I had to find a way to translate to VRay what I was seeing and doing in Painter. There wasn’t a quick or easy way to address this, so it was more about playing with the VRay shader and really understanding the ins and outs of the shader and what parts of the shader I wanted to have control over. With this knowledge, I was able to work in Painter and output the textures that I knew I would need in VRay.

For the most part, what I was seeing in the Painter viewport translated very well into VRay. There were a few discrepancies between the two, mostly with regards to how the gloss reacts. I found I had to darken my gloss maps just a little bit for VRay in order to get things to feel similar. VRay also has a variety of BRDF models that can be used which can have an effect on the feel of the gloss (GGX, Blinn, Phong, Ward). With some experimentation and test rendering I was able to get a good feel for the translation between Painter and VRay and I was able to work smoothly.  

This same type of workflow is the same thing that happens in games as well. Each game engine is coded a little differently and there is always work to be done to figure out how things are translating between any authoring software and where it will output.

Do you have any tips or tricks to share with the community or just some things you particularly like doing with Substance?

Before getting into adding any sort of custom detail, I first establish some basic parameters for my surface. I first decide if it is metal or non-metal and work from there. I’ll generally start with a fill layer and pick my base color and associate a gloss map with it just to get some surface break up. The gloss map is usually mapped with one of the procedurals so I can easily play with some of the parameters to get the right balance of gloss values. My next step is to add another fill layer on top which is just affecting the diffuse channel. Here I’ll make a value that is slightly darker than the base diffuse texture. I’ll apply a black mask to it and then use another procedural as the mask. The end result is a very basic color on the surface with some slight value variation in the diffuse channel and some gloss information. At this point I’m really just trying to establish base color and reflectance on the surface so that it mimics the type of material I’m trying to create. I’ll usually add one more fill layer that is quite dark in the diffuse and has a low gloss value. I’ll use one of the smart masks that replicates edge damages to reveal this dark color. At this point, I have a basic color with some value variation for the surface and some slight, subtle edge wear.


Most of my texture work will start this way. It gives me a solid but subtle base to begin working from. Most of my workflow heavily leverages grouping and masking to build up the quality of the texture. Once I’m happy with the basic surface, I’ll go in and begin adding custom, hand painted effects where necessary.

What are your next projects?

I’m unsure of what my next project will be both personally and professionally.  I’m currently working on additional content for Black Ops 3.  With each new project that I work on, I like to find an idea that will push me to learn new tools or experiment with a new workflow or art style.  When I’m in between larger personal projects, I’ll spend time doing smaller sculpting projects which are usually quick studies of heads.



You can find an interesting article on detailing the use of realistic skin for DEVGRU: Peter Zoppi / DEVGRU head breakdown.

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