We had the pleasure of interviewing Christophe Desse on his experiences being a Technical Lead at Naughty Dog. Check out what he had to say and, for those looking to work in AAA games one day, pay special attention to his advice! Also, be sure to check out Christophe's gumroad for some awesome goodies!

Hi Christophe! Can you tell us a little bit about how your path to working in games began? Was this something you knew that you wanted to do from a young age?

I started playing video games on an old Atari system back in the early 80's. Truth be told, I never really envisioned myself working as an artist or in video games someday. I started working as a firefighter at 16, and after a two year stint in the French army, I wanted to have career fighting fires and saving lives. However, after leaving the French army, I decided for some odd reason to stay in Berlin, Germany. After working some odd and unpleasant jobs to survive, I decided to use my passion for 3D graphics to make a living. Video games did seem to be a good idea at the time as it did allow me to put my experience with gaming and 3D art to good use.

So once you knew that you wanted to work in the games industry, how did you land your first project? And what was it?

I was lucky to get hired to work at a small game company working on bargain bin PC games in Germany back in '99. You have to keep in mind that, at the time, the concept of 3D school or learning through the internet was not really something yet, and people with 3D skills were few and sparse. I just walked in to the front desk lady, introduced myself and mentioned that I knew how to create stuff in 3D. I got an interview on the spot, and an offer a couple of days later.

Modelling and world building by Christophe Desse / texturing and shading by Malcom Hee and khanh Nguyen

Wow.. imagine if it were that simple today! And how did you get your foot in the door at Naughty Dog? What position were you hired into and what assets did you work on initially?

At the time, back in 2006, I was working on finishing the movie "The Ant Bully" as a set modeller at DNA Productions in the Dallas, Texas area. As the company was laying everybody off despite promises of long-term employment, I was in dire need of a job, especially after having uprooted my family from Europe to the US.

I got put in contact with a recruiter through a friend and coworker who was unable to take the offer. I did a long phone interview, a quick test, and the week after that I was on my way to sunny California for an in-person interview.

I got hired as an Environment Modeler on Uncharted, and my first level was the eerie German U-boat that you discover in the jungle.

From modeler to technical artist. And what does the latter entail? Can you tell our users a bit about what your day-to-day work life looks like?

We have a small team of 8 people, and we are all Generalists with each of us putting an emphasis on certain disciplines like dynamics, scripting, modeling, texturing and rigging. While not all of us are able to code to write tools, we all have enough knowledge and skills to cover the other aspects of production.

Our department is in charge of creating weapons, vehicles, real-time and pre-simulated destruction events such as the ones you can see in the big set pieces, plant dynamics, cloth, and rigging of props and animals.

By the diversity of the projects that land on our desk, we have to be good overall generalists.

On a day-to-day basis, we end up working on a broad range of tasks, and thus we need to keep our skills up to date in many different areas of production.

Modelling and world building by Christophe Desse / texturing and shading by Malcom Hee and khanh Nguyen

It definitely seems like your team has a lot on their plate. What software are you using on a regular basis? And can you let us in on one of your favorite hot keys or techniques?

Our software of predilection are currently Maya, ZBrush, Substance Painter and Designer. In addition to the myriad of our in-house custom tools, we also use plugins like Fracture FX and Pulldownit for the purpose of breaking geometry and pre-simulation of destruction events. In the past, we did try to implement more tools in our pipeline to help us with modeling and UV Layout, but with the progress in the latest version of Maya, it removed this need.

I do not have any preferred hotkeys or techniques, as I love to explore new tools and workflow all the time. When I find something that i like, then I get all excited about it until I find the next best thing that allows me to get the same or better result in less time.

We understand you recently became lead of your department. Congratulations! What changed along with the job title, if anything?

Not much, since we tend to not have people that become lead over one day, or getting hired in as a lead. I slowly eased into that position while taking on more and more responsibilities and initiatives over the production cycle of Uncharted 4. As we were developing two projects at the same time (Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us), the amount of work requested of our department lead could become overwhelming at times, so I started to assist him more and more with production, pipeline issues and decision making. Getting the title is just a formality as I am still doing the exact same work that I was doing before.  

What has been your proudest moment since being employed with Naughty Dog?

The proudest moment is not one, but many.. and it is always the moment where we reveal a new trailer or game play video and get to see the real-time reaction of our fans. Every time, it gets me as we seem to outdo ourselves with every new game we release.

Modelling and world building by Christophe Desse / texturing and shading by Malcom Hee and khanh Nguyen

You certainly do. Do you think there are any misconceptions of being an artist in the games industry? If so, what are they? And what's the reality?

Yes. When I talk to people aspiring to be working games or movies, a lot of them seem to idealize it a bit too much thinking that they would be able to art direct themselves with the look of a particular asset of weapons or vehicles, ignoring that the position of Art Director is there for a good reason.

Now, on the other end, smaller projects probably allow for more individual creative freedom.

What piece of advice can you give those in our audience who are hoping to work in AAA games one day?

It might sound cliche, but this is the advice I generally give my students:
  • Do not dream about it, just do it.
  • Find something that you like to do, and get very good at it.
  • Make a plan, stick to it until you realize that you have to adapt.
  • And finally, work hard, and when you are done working hard, go home and work even harder because tools and techniques evolve, and the one you are learning today could be obsolete in the next few years.  
We want to thank Christophe for taking the time to share this valuable insight!