Learning 3D: Recommendations from Christophe Desse
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Learning 3D: Recommendations from Christophe Desse
15 August, 2018
Character Art
Interview
Materials

3d artist Christophe Desse talked about game art education and ways you can improve as an artist in video games. Christophe did a lot of work in production (helping to build some amazing games at Naughty Dog) and education (creating one of the best Substance Painter courses for Gnomon Workshop). A very inspiring and interesting talk.

Christophe, can you tell us a little about your career? How did you end up in Naughty Dog? Didn’t you feel like leaving after 12 years?

I started doing 3D back in 1990 with a software known as 3D Studio on PC. I did explore a bit of computer graphic before that on Atari ST with NEOchrome and Degas Elite on Amiga. It was just for fun at first, as I did have different aspirations in life at that time.

At the time I was 17 years old and was already working toward a career as a firefighter, spending most of my free time at the rescue center, training, learning all about fire, trauma and being a first responder. Then my civic duty called me and I did spend two years in the French army in Berlin in a small special unit, whose job would have been to patrol the Berlin Wall, protecting democracy from the big bad Russians from the other side.

Thanks to David Hasselhoff, the Berlin Wall went down 3 years before my arrival, and as we all know by now, those Russians were not as mean and unfriendly as our politicians made them look after all. After the army, I decided to stay in Berlin, surviving on menial jobs, while doing 3D for fun. After a couple of years I did manage to get a full time position as a lightwave artist, working my way through the industry ever since.

I guess that the saying about ‘doing what you love and the money would come’ might be true.

I have been working at Naughty Dog for 12 years and when I go home from the office I still feel the need to work on my own stuff. There’s that need of creating my own little worlds.

I’ve been approached a couple of times by non-game tech companies looking to poach me, and while it is very flattering to be courted, Naughty Dog has such an incredible and rewarding work environment for me that it’s difficult to imagine going anywhere else. I work with a small team of Naughty Dog veterans, where the newest member has been here for almost 8 years and the most seasoned professional has been with the company for 22 years. While the job can be challenging and stressful at times, I have a lot of freedom to tackle issues the way I see fit. Without a doubt, the job is extremely rewarding.

For me personally, it’s not about the game anymore, but about deep and meaningful storytelling as much as being part of something that touches human hearts.

Apart from development, you are also teaching? How do you approach this task? How do you motivate your students?

I always approach my online training as if the people were in the classroom with me. This is very important to me, as I hate following a rigid structure, and I really want the student to see how I solve problems as they arise and not have canned solutions. I believe that one important skill in 3d is problem-solving. Not much the solution, but rather how do we reach that solution.

Having students see me struggling with an impromptu, and unexpected issues allow them to get a better idea about my thinking and problem-solving process. In the classroom or live presentation or in video form, I try to keep everything organic, and I bounce around the software and tech quite a lot before converging toward the targeted result. People who have already taken my class at the gnomon school can probably attest.  I am demonstrating that there is a method to my madness, all why being entertaining because I tend to curse a lot.

It can be challenging handling students. I think some people do not have the patience to go through a 7 or 10 hours online training anymore. I often encounter a desire to have everything condensed. Sometimes they do not want to really learn the technical skill but just how to use the software: ‘If I press this button, this happens’. They want to follow the tutorial to get the source file and have the same result, instead of looking into how I do stuff and implementing that knowledge into their own work.

As for motivating my students. After showing them my portfolio, and using my worst snippy French accent, I tell them that I will show them the way but that they would have to walk it themselves and that they better be ready as it’s a very long and strenuous way. Then I give them my brightest smile and tell them that it would be ok. And then after showing them the work from former students, I promise to them that by the end of the class, if they did pay a little attention, they would be able to do the same quality output.

Do you think instructors in game arts should be practicing developers? Isn’t it something that’s pushing the success of schools like Gnomon?

I totally agree with you, I think that the success of Gnomon, relies in a big part on the fact that the instructors are industry people. If I were to leave Naughty Dog today to be a full-time teacher, I would be teaching the wonders and marvels of our current pipeline. Then the year after that I would be telling you something that might not be accurate anymore and then after that I would just be full of crap, because pipeline and workflows evolve all the time and we do not work the same way that we did on our last game. New tools and new people get added to our pipeline and it helps to stay at the forefront of the industry. Being a full-time teacher, I would stop being exposed to that and I feel I would suffer as a result.

Is there some specific order you should learn the software if you go to 3D? Some step by step approach?

I am very bad at maintaining a specific workflow over the years. I know that I am suffering from a mild form of ADHD, and constantly jump between application and render engines. Sometimes I feel like a dog on a leash in a park that just saw a squirrel. While it does stunt my potential growth as an artist, it allows me to have a vast knowledge of tools capabilities and pitfalls, and to assess how these applications can be of advantage to a production pipeline.

As for learning the basic, starting with modeling and UV before moving to texture, then lighting and texturing, should put you on a solid path to success.

How do you fight with that feeling of not being good enough? You know, when you go on Artstation and see those new amazing textures done by an 18-year old.

Ha, the plight and eternal pain of the artist, the fear of never be good enough. Especially when looking at online galleries, I think that we need to accept certain things that would help us to be at peace with ourselves. Here are a couple of “truths’’ that I accepted:

  • There would always be someone better than me. Live with it.
  • I do not know the circumstance of the artist behind that pieces or the amount of time he spent on it. Accept it.
  • I do 3D art at home for myself in the first place anyway. Enjoy it.

Furthermore, I really think that we never stop progressing. I look at some of my pieces from last years and think “my god why did I post this”. We need to be our harshest critic and not forget that online likes are just not as important as a roof over our family’s head and money in the bank.

Are free education and free software any good? What’s your take on it?

Being self-taught myself, since I started doing 3D way before the Internet was available, I think that we are fortunate to have reached a state where information about a lot of subjects is freely available online. I am a big proponent of free material and try to strike the right balance between my need for income and the stuff I put online for free. As a matter of fact, I have a lot of free materials online, either in the form of 3d models that did make available over the last decade or tutorials on my YouTube channel.

As for free software, I am genuinely amazed by what Blender has become. More and more industry insiders are using it, and as a matter of fact, I took the plunge myself and started to learn it in my scarce free time. Yes, I do not see why it could not be part of a studio pipeline, especially when it comes to modeling. Even if I am still a bloody noob in Blender, this is still the software that i recommend along Zbrush for people who want to make their first steps into 3d.

So, if the current online abundance of free tutorials, do you even need to fight and pay for that art degree?

This one is a tricky one. First, if you want to move to another country, you would need a degree.

I can tell you from my personal experience, that not having a degree is going to make your life very difficult when you are going to apply for a work visa. In my case, I was fortunate to qualify for a O-1 visa in the US based on my work in Dubai and Singapore and that somehow my work was “internationally recognized’.

Now when it comes to proper education, a lot of schools have teachers that have never been in any kind of 3D-related real world job. Sometimes these teachers are just former student that graduated and started teaching. How is that supposed to prepare the student for the real world when the teacher lacks real world, applied experience? However, it’s easy to recognise a good school. Just look at the students outputs and graduations.

You can learn 3D on your own. It is 100% doable. Buy a decent machine, lock yourself in your room and learn, learn, learn. But make sure to be active on forums and engage with other artists, as it would be a great way to get contacts, get motivated, and also to get feedback.

But on the other hand, being in a classroom with other students that are passionate about the same stuff as you are, and having access to a teacher that knows his craft and is able to help you along the way can be really rewarding and push you to results that you might not have achieved on your own.

My final take on this Is that we all have different circumstances in life. Some of us have access to schools and others don’t. At the end of the day, however, you decide to go about learning 3D, in a classroom, or on your own, you only get out as much as you are willing to put in.

And in this case, it means hours upon hours of work!

So what about the tools? How did the workflow change? Where is it all going? Do we all need to become programmers to stay in this profession?

I am already working very differently today than I was 2 or 3 years ago. The tools allow me to work faster but it does not mean that I go home earlier, instead, I get much more time to refine and polish the result. And since the production paths are much shorter, I am less inclined to be happy with something that only satisfies me to 95%. I can use the saved production time to push it to 110%.

I really believe that Substance Painter and Substance Designer did revolutionize the way we texture in the same way that Zbrush revolutionized the way we model. I can only speak for myself, but when it comes to coding and scripting I prefer to not go there. I use my time to be a better artist and to explore tools that can make the production easier. I can build a production pipeline from the ground up because I have a strong overview of tools and workflow. Not just in theory but also in practice. Not something I could really do, if I started to look into coding and scripting area, that I don’t really care about for myself (even if they are a very important part of a strong and effective pipeline).

As for giving advice about what you should be prepared to do to be a 3d artist. Well maybe it sounds ‘cliche’ and ‘cheesy’, but do what you enjoy doing, if you are good at it, opportunities would arise.

Finally, what do you think are the good resources to start studying 3D? Where should you start?

Christophe Desse, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.
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Kerem
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Kerem

Most interesting and inspiring artist on the business.

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