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Christophe Desse: XTRM3D
 
 
Posted: Feb 06, 2011
Published by: the area
Homepage: Visit the page
Software: Autodesk Maya, Autodesk Mudbox
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Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA 1280x720

Image Description: Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA

The Area:
Today we are thrilled to have 3D game artist Christophe Desse from Naughty Dog, a developer whose name is synonymous with quality visuals, hilarious scripting, awesome gameplay… yes we are talking about the maker of the Uncharted series(!!) -- Bandicoot and Jak as well.
Welcome to the AREA, Christophe! :)

So Christophe, how long have you been at ND and what do you do there as a 3D game artist?
Christophe:
I am working at Naughty Dog since July 2006, my contribution to "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" and "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" were in the Background department, as an Environment Artist.
Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA 1280x720

Image Description: Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA

My duty was to be in charge of the modeling and layout of a couple of single and multiplayer levels, together with a Texture Artist and a Game Designer.

Since the beginning of the production of Uncharted 3, I moved forward to join the Foreground team, as a Technical Artist, where my day-to-day business involves the modeling, texturing and rigging of weapons, vehicles and so-called ‘hero assets’, as well as the simulation of flowing cloth and different types of collapse and destruction.

Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA 1280x720

Image Description: Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA

The Area:
Can you talk briefly about the steps involved in production?
Christophe:
Let’s take for example, a car or a gun.
We would first create a high res model in Maya, do the UVs and import it into Mudbox to sculpt any kind of required little details or weathering effect, then after baking to game resolution meshes, we would texture it in Mudbox.
Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA 1280x720

Image Description: Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA

The Area:
What version of Maya are you guys on?
Christophe:
We are currently using Maya 2011.
Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA 1280x720

Image Description: Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA

The Area:
What other CG apps are used at ND?
Christophe:
Besides Maya, we also make extensive use of Zbrush and Mudbox and some of our Character Artists dabble from time to time in 3ds Max to take advantage of certain specific features.
The Area:
For your modeling needs in Maya, are you using any custom scripts or plugins?
Christophe:
Yes there are two plugins that are now a constant in my personal workflow.
The first one is the NEX plugin from digitalRaster, which allows me to have a selection and modeling workflow close to the one I had in Softimage.
And the other one, is another gem I would not want to be without, I am talking about the "Tools 3D Diamant UV“. Written by friend and former co-worker Rich Diamant.
His set of tools, allow us artists to create and manage UVs very quickly, so that we can unwrap an asset in minutes instead of hours. Furthermore, his tools also introduce a bunch of features that are very useful for retopologizing.
And the best of all is that this is a free tool that you can download from:

I can only invite you to try it and to decide for yourself.

Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA 1280x720

Image Description: Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA

The Area:
After much anticipation, a trailer and gameplay videos of "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception" have finally been made public! Set in the Arabian Peninsula, it’s going to be in stereo and there will be a co-op online option :-) The release date is 11/11/11. Is there anything you can comment on U3 -- any new technologies used, new standards set, etc?
Christophe:
Wow, there's a lot of stuff and definitely not enough time to go over it all. Just setting a portion of the game in the desert provided us with a set of technical challenges and opportunity for interesting gameplay by using the properties of sand -- flowing, pouring and piling -- along with heat exhaustion and mirages, to create a new and dynamic environment for Drake to play in. You can see a sample of this in all the fire and smoke we've shown off in the first gameplay footage that we've revealed. We've revisited all our existing technologies and effects, looking at ways at how to do more with them -- water, amongst others, which you may have gotten a sneak peek at in our announcement trailer. As you've mentioned, multiplayer is a big focus for us as well. We will reveal a lot more in time, but we've specifically set our objective to make the Uncharted 3 multiplayer modes hold up to the big players in that area. This all goes hand in hand with our goal to try to raise the bar to a new level for ourselves -- and in turn for the industry -- in these areas, as we've done with all the prior games in the Uncharted franchise.

We've only just started revealing what aspects and features will define the Uncharted 3 experience -- there's plenty to learn about over the next 10 months!

The Area:
Out of curiosity, a while ago some of us watched a Naughty Dog 'recruitment' video, where the 'hierarchy' of the company was discussed… there is no hierarchy! At least not like the conventional hierarchy some of us are familiar with. So is it true that there are no project managers or routine Monday morning meetings?
Christophe:
Yes this is true, we do not have any project manager and no daily, weekly or monthly meeting...
Generally there is a Lead meeting on Monday... and they trickle the information down to us. As for what needs to be done, we all know how to do our stuff and are responsible enough to manage our time in the best manner. For the Foreground team as an example, the Game Designer, Art Director or Cinematic people would directly put a request with my Lead and he would assign to a member of the team, or they would just search around for the person that still have some capacity and ask them if they can take care of their need.
Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA 1280x720

Image Description: Image Courtesy of Naughty Dog/SCEA

The Area:
Now about yourself, we've seen your fair share of work on the AREA, and they are highly recognizable images: ‘mini ironman’, ‘red pyro’, ‘metalgurika’…but of course technology has grown and what we have today was not even possible to imagine only a decade or two ago. Let’s do a bit of time-travel and talk about the early days of CG and sweet nostalgia. Remember SyQuest drives, zip disks or when CD-ROMs first came out? What was it that got you started in playing with 3D back in 1991?
Christophe:
Haa those old days of emerging technology...where your only alternative was to be autodidact...
I remember buying my first single speed CD-ROM in the early 90’s… that big ugly thing where you had to put the CD in a cartridge-like device.
At that time, I had the chance to use 3D Studio 1, and even if it did run less than optimal on my 286 with the puny amount of RAM ...it was still enough to get me hooked. After that, I was lucky enough to have a friend whose father was a Science Teacher at a university in Paris and it gave me access to the subsequent version that came later. At some point, I started to work for a startup game company and I got introduced to 3ds Max on Windows… and some time after, I switched to another software from another company :-)
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The Area:
How did you end up switching from Max to other apps?
Christophe:
Well, to be frank, after using Max... I spent a long time in Lightwave... but in 2004, as I got my first job in the US at DNA Productions, I was given the choice to model in Maya or Softimage. After a couple of days playing with both, I decided to go with Softimage, as my perception of the workflow made it seem to be more artist-friendly.
Asides from modeling in Softimage, I still had to do rigging in Maya as it was the main animation tool in our pipeline.
When I moved to Naughty Dog, I was not really given any choice and I had to bite the bullet and jump deeper into Maya...which I did with some success... I guess :-)
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The Area:
Why do you still choose to work with Maya these days?
Christophe:
Even if I still root deeply for Softimage, nowadays I am kind of old and lazy and I do not feel like switching my brain to adapt to a new navigation scheme in every application, and even if the implementation of mental ray in Maya is one of the weakest one in my opinion, I still manage to get decent results out of it :-)
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As for Mudbox, this is a really great tool, especially for texturing game assets. And for a very quick turnaround when creating new textures and testing shader ideas. As an example, I was able to create the full texture and shader on the mini iron man in a couple of hours on a lazy Saturday afternoon with Mudbox.
Besides Maya and Mudbox, I also use Modo and Shot Pro from Bunkspeed, as both software play very well with Maya and Mudbox.

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The Area:
Prior to ND, where did you work and what did you do?
Christophe:
Before joining the team at Naughty Dog, I spent some time in Irving, Texas, close to Dallas, working at DNA Production as a Feature Film Modeler on the movie "The Ant Bully".
The Area:
What do you enjoy more, working on games or film – and why?
Christophe:
Both are challenging and rewarding in their own way.
I guess I would prefer working in game as it seems that the quality bar gets raised with each passing year.
Model by Augusto Venturi 2200x1237

Image Description: Model by Augusto Venturi

Model by Augusto Venturi 2200x1237

Image Description: Model by Augusto Venturi

The Area:
In addition to making killer video games, you are also active in the community with your personal work. Let’s look at ‘mini iron man’, a cool tribute to Iron Man himself. This image created in Max, Maya and Mudbox (rendered in Octane) was a collaboration between you and Olivier Couston. How did this tag-teaming happen?
Christophe:
I know Olivier since a couple of years ago, we met on a 3D art forum, and the fact that we have a similar art style, it helped us to connect and share ideas and assets.
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The Area:
You mentioned earlier that you were able to create full textures for ‘mini iron man’ in a matter of hours – were you using photographed images or painting straightup with stencils/stamps for those nice scratched-up, worn-out details?
Christophe:
I know that it sounds like bragging and is almost too good to be true, but yes I did texture it in a very short amount of time in Mudbox.
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The worn-edge effect has been done with a standard brush, no stamp and no falloff, and then I quickly went over the full object with a stencil that I downloaded from the Mudbox community webpage.

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The Area:
And in ‘red pyro’ – another collaboration with Olivier, what can you share with us about this image?
Christophe:
Yes the pyro was another collaboration, Olivier modeled and textured it in Mudbox … he did some nice rendering in 3ds Max. But somehow after talking to him, I was able to convince him to lend me that model for me to run some GPU rendering test. Actually I spent even less time on the pyro, as Olivier already did some nice texture that I used as a basis for my texturing process.
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The Area:
Do you do all of your texturing work exclusively in Mudbox these days?
Christophe:
Yes nowadays, Mudbox is taking the lion’s share of my texture work, though I am still using Photoshop for certain features and to tighten everything toward the end of the texture process.
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The Area:
Generally what resolution do you work with for your textures, in Mudbox?
Christophe:
I tend to do all my textures at 2048x2048, as this is a versatile enough size to be used in production or on my own work, as I seldom render anything at a higher resolution than 1800x1600.
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The Area:
What was the reason to choose Octane for rendering, vs other rendering solutions?
Christophe:
The price was obviously the main reason at first, then the speed and use of ease.
Although I do not really care much about the final render time when I render an image, as I generally do not really have any time constraint.
I really enjoy the real-time tweaking of materials and lighting.
Nowadays, for GPU rendering, I am using Bunkspeed Shot.
Even if the price is somehow heavier than Octane, the ease of use, the fact that this software is built around the iray render engine and the tremendous quality of support that Bunkspeed provides, makes it a no-brainer.
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But to get back on track, let me mention that I did test iray in 3ds Max and that I am really looking forward to see the day when Maya users would also come into the pleasure of using it.
I understand that most Maya users may not be into the architectural side of thing, but as a rendering artist, we cannot deny the speed and ease of use of iray.

The Area:
In contrast to these realistic renders, you also play with toon shaders. What did you use to generate these non-photorealistic renders?
Christophe:
I spent a good amount of time exploring the Maya toon outline and the mental ray side of things when it came to NPR and cell-shader style rendering.
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For a very loose and artsy effect, I go with the built-in Maya outline, but when I come to a cell-shader type of rendering, I prefer to use mental ray outline with a combination of multipass rendering for compositing later.

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The Area:
That’s quite the retro car collection you’ve got :-) These 14 lovely ladies, what were you modeling with – curves+NURBS surfaces, polys? How long do you spend per car?
Christophe:
Those cars are all modeled in polygons, I model a low poly cage that I subdivide at render time. Now you can imagine how happy I was when Autodesk finally gave us the Subdivide feature on a hotkey in Maya after coming from Softimage for modeling :-)
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The fact that these are all side-projects, make it very difficult to give you a time estimation as I generally spend a little bit of time in the evening here and there.
On top of that, I tend to work on 3 or 4 projects at the same time and I am getting more and more into the sad habit of not finishing them as not only do I get exited with new and fresher ideas, but also the fact that we are heavily pushing forward with the production of Uncharted 3.

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Let’s say that for every project that I put into my portfolio, there are 3 more that are resting in peace on my hard drive.

The Area:
As most of these cars are from a time before, is it difficult to find decent reference images and blueprints for them?
Christophe:
Yes this is very difficult, to get blue prints. But the fact that I am stylizing these cars gives me an excuse not to have to search for them :-) I generally gather a bunch of photos from the web and try to match the proportion by eyes ... sometimes with more and sometimes with a lot less success.
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The Area:
It's obvious with your huge portfolio, that you are very driven to refine your craft and skills as a CG artist. Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
Christophe:
Myself in a few years?
Sitting in front of 3ds Max, using it with a Maya user-friendly navigation or better, sitting in front of Maya using some of the cool features from 3ds Max!!!
Asides from that, I generally tend to not make too many projections in advance. 20 years ago, as I was living in France, I would never have seen myself living in Germany. 7 years ago, as I was living in Berlin, Germany, I would never have expected to live in Texas ... and almost 5 years ago, as I was living in Texas I would never have dreamed to live in sunny southern California…
Qui vivra, verra :-)
I guess as long as my wife and my son are healthy, happy and that I still have the time to do some 3D art on the side, I do not worry too much about where I would be in a couple of years down the road.
The Area:
Maybe it's an ironic question but… do you play video games (or even have time for it)?
Christophe:
Naahhh... not much time these days, I prefer to watch my son play… that leaves me some time to scrutinize and analyze the art and technique.
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The Area:
Who would you name as your major influences for character designs and artistic style?
Christophe:
Mostly French graphic novel artists I guess, too many to name.
At this point in time my biggest inspiration are artists that also have a strong technical background, like Damon Shelton or Judd Simantov to name a few.
The Area:
So what is it that attracts you to super-charged muscle cars…result of living in California? ;-D
Christophe:
Noooon!!! …asides from WW2 airplanes, I was always attracted to big American cars from the 30's through to the 70's. Since a little kid, I was drawing them and reading magazines and books about them.
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Maybe in the end, me moving to California, was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

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The Area:
That would be very cool indeed :-)
Now we’ll probably see it in the forums in due time, but do you have anything cooking at the moment?
Christophe:
Yes, I always have a couple of side projects running at the same time,
Some would be finished at some point, and others will vanish into oblivion, depending of my mood and inspiration.
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Currently I am working on a stylized space marine in Maya and Mudbox, exploring the creation of believable multi-layered paint shader that go into rust.
And I am also working on a character in Mudbox, for which I got heavily inspired by the art direction of the upcoming game “Brink”, by Splash Damage.
I guess that I will have something to show very soon.

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The Area:
And can you offer a few words of advice for guys who are building their portfolio and aiming for AAA game studios?
Christophe:
My best advice, would be to never stop working on your portfolio, and make sure to keep expanding your knowledge about the different areas of 3D production like 3D sculpting, rigging, lighting and rendering.
As for the content of the portfolio itself, I guess that whatever floats your boat is the way to go, as long that it looks top notch.
And my last advice would be … good luck!!
The Area:
Well Christophe, thanks for all of this. You and the guys at Naughty Dog, keep bringing the game for all of us!
Christophe:
Nonnn !! I thank you :-)

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Newest users comments View All 13 Comments
Posted by obiwandk on Aug 02, 2012 at 07:07 PM
very nice interview :) loved reading it
Posted by Ian Patricks on Sep 05, 2011 at 04:21 PM
U are toooooooooooo good sir.
Posted by Ian Patricks on Sep 05, 2011 at 04:21 PM
U are toooooooooooo good sir.
Posted by vickyramdurg on Aug 30, 2011 at 12:27 AM
wa.... wa..
good work
keep it up sir,
Posted by Johnchen on Feb 19, 2011 at 09:27 PM
amazing work