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Interview: Solene Chan-Lam, Lead Texture Artist – Weta Digital

After attending the French school Supinfocom (2008), lead texture artist Solene Chan-Lam has gone on to a successful career. She spent 5 years and a half at MPC, where she worked on shows such as The Lion King (lead character), Alien Covenant (lead creature/hardsurface), The Jungle Book (texture artist). She joined Weta Digital a year ago.
Due to non-disclosure agreements, she can’t give us too much detail about the projects she worked on. However, we asked Solene Chan-Lam about her views on texturing, the CG industry and her job as a lead  texture artist. She also told us about teaching and using traditional art techniques. You will find her personal works within this article.

Solène Chan-Lam

3DVF: First of all, could you tell us about your background ?

Solene Chan-Lam : Hi, my name’s Solene Chan-Lam. I’m currently lead texture artist at Weta digital in New Zealand.
Before moving to the other side of the globe, I’ve worked for 9 years in London. Nearly 6 years at MPC London, last as a lead texture artist on Lion King and Alien Covenant. As an artist, I performed on numerous shows such as Guardians of the Galaxy, The Jungle Book, Godzilla, Independance Day, Pirates of the Carribean, Alpha, Cinderella, Maleficient

Cinesite London gave me my first artist role in film as a texture artist. I loved working there, and I enjoyed learning from friendly co-workers in a joyful work atmostphere. I’m very grateful.
Prior to working in films, I’ve had commercial experience in smaller companies such as Passion Pictures as a Texture/Modeling artist and at the Mill as a Lighter/Compositor in London, working on various TV spots.
In France, I had the chance to work at Ubisoft Montpellier. The game industry is filled with highly motivated level, game designers and artists. Very enriching adventure.
I attended Supinfocom 3D school in Valenciennes – France and graduated in 2008 with a digital director diploma.
Since young age, I was fascinated by art.
Looking at it now, my career path from beginning to now makes perfect sense.

Solène Chan-Lam

3DVF : Why did you choose texturing (and more specifically the texturing of characters & creatures) as your field of specialization ?

I specialised in characters and creatures texturing over the years, becoming an expert in organic texturing. It is not something I intentionnally aimed for. I like any kind of texturing and like variety. As many people, I first got to do various kind of assets. My goal was and still is to achieve any tasks I am given with perfection, including props. For me, every single experience has to be a learning experience.
When starting in the industry, years ago, I didn’t have specific interest in texturing and knew little about it. I first started working as a 3D modeler. My introduction to texturing came on occasional tasks both in games at Ubisoft in France and in commercial like at Passion Pictures, London.
I litterally fell in love with texturing and wanted to dig more into it. Later, MPC Film offered me a 3D modeler position. So I initially did some modeling again, facial shapes too, some lookdev and I even got the chance to try myself in the 3D dmp (matte painting) departement during my time there. But mainly, I’ve focused on texturing 85% of the time because this is what I enjoy the most and like to develop workflows for.
I always had an interest in materials and traditional painting. Science is one big inspiration for me, being raised in an engineer family. For me, texturing is the blend of art and science. Details and perfection.
The learning curve, working with inspiring people, developing techniques is what drives me. And… perfection.

Solène Chan-Lam

3DVF : For those who might not know this job very well, could you walk us through the typical day/week of a Lead Texture Artist ?

A lead texture artist is reponsible for the quality of assets the texture team is assigned to, in given delivery time.
Depending on studios, projects type and size, the texture team can cover from envrionment, hardsurface to characters or be split in sub-categories if required – meaning some projects could have one unique or several lead texture artist by specialities. For example, on past shows, I both led solely covering all texture aspects and led specialised character teams while an other lead was in charge of hardsurface or environment teams.
An important part of a lead’s job is to gather with VFX Supervisors and CG Supervisors on a regular basis to get the directions from clients and the notes on the team’s work. It’s also relevant to figure as challenges arise whether a task should be re-adressed by a departement or an other.
A typical day/week of a Texture Lead would be first to brief artists on references and guidelines. The bigger the team is, the more relevant workflow consistency is. It is the lead’s job to insure the assets workflows are efficient and smart and that they are homogeneic throughout the team especially for similar assets. Making sure the quality resolution of the output work is made according to the camera distance. A lead can set up templates if needed to contribute to the asset/workflow consistency. And if necessary, give the artists some training on specific approaches or tools and write documentation.
Daily catch up with the lookdev lead and team are essential to make sure we are on the same page and that the texture sets and maps splitting are matching the lookdev requirements. The lead texture artist passes the notes to address onto the texture team with the production support. It is crucial to make sure a texture artist and a lookdev artist are working closely together and with the same references directions.
The texture lead is the bridge communicator with other departements, such as modeling, groom, etc. And same goes within the team especially if several texture artists share a same asset as it happens often if not always.
Production coordinators are also checking with the lead regarding tasks assignements, priorities, milestones and crew.
And last but not least, a Lead texture artist makes good jokes ;P

Solène Chan-Lam

3DVF : During your career, did you notice any striking evolution in texturing workflows and tools ?

I started in the industry when tools development were early on, using Photoshop, Bodypaint Cinema 4D and generating utility maps from Maya. I am glad to see the progress the industry has made along the years and how much easier it got for us artists.
Since, with the development of texturing software products, Photoshop is hardly being used if not at all, despite what some may think. Mari from Foundry is the main software product I use for 2D textures. Nuke is great to process whole image sequences and conform to color profiles. Zbrush and Mudbox for sculpting displacement and Katana for lookdev. There are many various other ones that I use when it’s needed.
We now have so much more choice than we did in the past. As compared to other 3D specialities, texturing requires juggling between software products a lot more. Many tools means more care needed in workflows. It is very positive to have such a panel of tools and there’s always something new, interesting and useful to learn.
Not only today, machines and software products are more powerful to allow artists to create beautiful textures with high resolution standards but texture libraries are more furnished too. For example, ‘texturing xyz’ for creature/human organic texturing and megascans for environment. There are now polarised textures avalaible which means less clean up work and more accuracy on albedos.
Regarding workflows, each new asset holds new challenges with possibly a new workflow to develop. The future is the development of the non-destructive workflow and the standardisation of the nodal workflows. There is a trend with procedural texturing and it’s great to get a very basic filling quickly, particularly for environment. I won’t speak much about it though as I think it’s one of the biggest mistake of artists to be contented by it as the reality of materials requires a lot of manual custom work still, specifically for creature work.
Texturing softwares now have more shaders and lookdev features, even though they are simple. I’d say it’s good for checking textures at the end of the texture process to see if some maps relates others as a set. But artists can also get lost in this. I see many artists texturing with shaders on straight which can lead to basic mistakes.
I can’t wait to see what the future holds, many more exciting tools and software upgrades 🙂

Solène Chan-Lam

3DVF : As a texturing artist, are there many differences from one industry to another, one studio to another ?

Of course, the priorities, constraints, budgets, staffing, are not the same.
From studios to studios, the smaller a studio is, the more generalist artists are. The bigger, the more specialised.
I’d say studios are first of all different from country to country, laws differ. Some pay overtime, other don’t. Communication modes are culturally distinct. Some have more senior artists, other more juniors.
And for me the most noticeable general difference between studios is the ‘entreprise culture’ whether they see long term, short term on all aspects, employees well-being, wages, entreprise structure and organisation consistency.
The film industry has generally high texture standards. It is specialised in terms of staff roles. It is nice to learn as the workplaces often have extreme specialists artists in their sub-fields. Depending projects and companies, deadline can be tight doubled with high quality expectations and accuracy.
In general, video games as well as in VR, optimisation is key to run smoothly. The textures and models resolution are designed accordingly, sometimes built directly in game engines and rendered in real time. It often means smart artistic desicions for optimisation constraints. Not all consoles (or PC games) have the same optimisation constraints though and some are pretty powerful. Real time renders are more and more impressive.
Commercial and Cinematic art is versatile in terms of style and requirements. Clients are various and it can go from low budget TV commercial to bigger budget commercial spot, music video, movie clip. Artists are more generalists than in films as the expectations are usually set for TV format rather than cinema screen. Contracts are shorter than in films, but there are many more commercial companies than film companies as a comparison to try out. Deadlines can be tight.
Animation feature will have specialised staff roles, but not as broken down than in VFX. For example, a texture artist will often be responsible for lookdev too. It is more generalist this way.

Solène Chan-Lam

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