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Ayi Sanchez
February 13, 2023

Texturing for Believable Storytelling

Cairo Goodbrand
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Hey Ayi, welcome to Beyond Extent and thank you for agreeing to this article! Could you introduce yourself and let us know a little bit more about you and your work?

Thanks for having me, pleasure is mine!

My name is Ayagaure Sanchez but everybody calls me Ayi since I was a kid.

I currently work as Lead Artist at Machinegames (Sweden).

My family is originally from the Canary Islands (Spain) although I was born in Asturias, up in the north. When I was young I moved cities with my family every 2-3 years, getting to know quite a few places in Spain and Portugal.

By the time I was 18, I went to university in Madrid, where I studied journalism for 6 years but didn't manage to finish it. I lost my interest to be honest. I started doing internships and working in small magazines (one was actually about video games 😀), tv production companies and even the news. Always loved writing but I knew journalism wasn't the kind of writing I wanted to do since my passion was more on the fiction/visual/storytelling side of things. I spent most of my teenage years watching and collecting movies. Anything that was related to video editing or graphics, I was into it. So I teached myself to use Photoshop, Final Cut and Aftereffects, almost as a hobby while still studying. It turned out to be quite useful knowledge.

While working in a hunting tv channel, I had the opportunity to build all the motion graphics for the channel. Was refreshing, but I remember one specific struggle with it, I had to do a small crate rotation. I animated 6 planes individually to make that effect. That's the moment I knew I had to learn 3D.

Few months later, the channel laid off half of the team since it wasn't doing very well. I was among the ones who were let go. Timing was perfect. I took my unemployment money and enrolled into a 6 months 3D+animation course.

You’ve worked on many well-known titles, from Wolfenstein to Gears of War. Can you tell us a little bit more about your career progression and how you got started in games?

I think career progression is definitely a mix between intentionality and luck. How much of each, really depends on the circumstances and your own will. But usually people only look at where you end, not where you begin. I started doing 3D far away from AAA, actually something a bit different, Archviz.  

A colleague from the animation school had a small studio at home, where he did renders for different construction companies. It was mostly façades and interiors. When he saw my early works for the school, he asked me if I was interested in working with him. It wasn't a lot of money, but definitely more than I ever earned.

I love a quote by Stephen King talking about being a professional at something. The moment you pay your first electricity bill or groceries with earned money, you are indeed a professional. And that's how I felt to be honest. It wasn't the job of my dreams, but I could spend hours modeling, texturing and rendering while getting paid. I learned quite a lot.

After a year working there, it got to a point where I knew it was about time to try something else. So I took some time off and started building a small portfolio. While working on it, I used to invite friends at home to play games they bought. One of them brought Castlevania Lords of Shadow. Game looked so good. And to my surprise it was made in Madrid. Till that point I didn't even consider games as a job possibility. But that one encouraged me to try to at least apply. So I did.

My portfolio wasn't stellar, but I think it showed some passion especially for texturing. They called me 3 days later. I was shocked it went so fast. Did an interview with them and they sent me an art test. I spent the whole day working on it, I really wanted that job. I lost track of time, and suddenly it was 4 in the morning. I was so tired, put it all together, sent it by email and went to bed.

But the next morning I looked at it in detail. And I wasn't quite happy with the overall. So I decided to start again, and give it a completely different direction. I ended up working till very late. Sent it and went to bed. Was definitely happier this time around.

Next morning, they called me. They were impressed by the quality and they wanted to make me an offer. Things couldn't go any better, I was really happy about it. It was my first step working in games.

I spent 3 years working there, learned a lot about art, modeling and texturing, made some really good friends and shipped 2 games (Mirror of fate and Lords of shadow 2. But when the project was over, I got laid off since my contract ended. Wasn't great, but it couldn't do much but react to it.

Did some interviews, but nothing too interesting. By that time, AAA in Spain was in quite low times. So I decided to start freelancing for a Canadian studio while thinking what to do next.

I wanted to move abroad, and it seemed like the perfect timing for it. I ended up applying to Splash Damage, since I was always impressed by their artists. Also to my surprise they were re doing Gears of War, a game that I loved to play with my brother when we bought our 360. All went smoothly and I ended up moving to the UK, an interesting and refreshing experience.

I shared a flat there with 2 other artists while waiting for my partner to move to the UK. I was surprised how welcoming everyone was and made some really good friends in a very short time. The development of Gears of War Ultimate was like an archeology trip, opening all the levels made by Epic and learning from them. I think we managed to do a great job with the new version of the game, it looked fresh and nice. I was mostly doing textures and assets. That was the first time I got involved with an editor doing word building. I soon realized I could do more than one thing, and I was really interested.

After that, Gears 4 came, and we spent some time doing multiplayer maps for it. I learned about the harsh realities of production, from a technical and development point of view. And that made me think it was time to move somewhere else and try something new. Friend of mine moved to MG while I was at Splash. We came to visit and mentioned they were looking for people. I was a huge fan of New Order and Chronicles of Riddick, plus Sweden always had my interest.

Again, it all happened smoothly and fast, and I was once again relocating for new adventures. With much difference, Machine games is the best studio I have worked for. There is a certain love for crafting and doing visually and narratively interesting stuff. And that was present from the very first day. Met a lot of extremely talented people here, but also a lot of newbies to the industry that impregnated with that essence of doing things right.

My role pivoted from specialist to start doing a wider range of things. My first task was to level design a part of the Ausmerzer, a nazi flying fortress that BJ infiltrates. When you do things you have never done before, there is a "full throttle" feeling about it. A force that makes you try harder guided mostly by your intuition. And that whole game was like that for me, doing things I was new to, but that I could definitely do on a professional level. My perspective completely changed, and since then I have been mostly interested in becoming an all rounded game developer.

At MG, I have worked on both Wolf 2 and Youngblood, plus some more soon to be announced. I have been trying to refine my craft over the years, but to be honest, every project is completely different and every time I start something new I feel I have no idea of what I am doing. And I think it's a healthy feeling to have. I try to guide myself by my gut feeling and experience.

Your Texturing Essentials packs for Substance Painter are widely used throughout the industry and a must-have for anyone looking to further their texturing. Could you elaborate on how these came about, what you look for in a good alpha pack, and perhaps the importance of creating community resources?

I love to travel, and I always had a camera since I was 18. While working on Castlevania, I went on a trip to Greece. By that time I was doing a lot of marble floors and props for the game. And turned out Greece was about super interesting broken and aged marble. Took a lot of pictures and started to work with those when back.

By then, there was no Painter or PBR, so everything was done photo sourcing in Photoshop. Might sound like a pain, but it was a great experience to learn the basics of layering.

Since then, every trip I took a lot of pictures to use them in my textures. During Wolfenstein 2, my workflow fully moved to Painter, and I wanted to be comfortable enough to establish my own way of working with it. I know manual painting is the only way to do interesting textures, and in that process, an alpha library is key. So I built up a small but flexible collection of them. I tested it in production, and soon it became my thing to go.

From there I decided to expand it, and some colleagues asked me if I could share it. They found it useful too, and I saw them use it in ways I would never have thought.

Collection got big enough, the marketplace was a thing on Artstation so I decided to put it up there. I wasn't very convinced at first, but then feedback started coming and was great.

Secretly I use the excuse of releasing a new pack to do small focused pieces. I think people appreciate seeing something made with it as a showcase.

Community resources are great, it just saves you time. And also puts in your mind alternative ways to approach the craft. It is not only about what you are using but about the process behind it.

Let’s talk a little bit about your personal projects. They range from props, to sculpts, to stylized materials. As a Lead Artist, do you believe it is important to diversify your skillset in this way?

Personal projects should be fun, and should show your interest in other things that are not what you do everyday. Working in my opinion is the best way to get better at your craft, but it can also mean it can make your everyday life less appealing as an escape method. What is the point of doing the same again and again after so many years? It might be fun or enjoyable, but it's not helping you to develop your skills. It's a comfort zone where it is easy to stay.

Working with other departments also opens your eyes about other interesting subjects. Hearing their perspectives and workflows you understand there are other dimensions you never thought of.

Take for example animation and rigging, there is an absolutely new aspect of character creation in it. It is giving birth to something that moves and behaves, not just a static mesh.

I think anything that adds a new skill or interest to your repertoire is a good thing. Because there is definitely going to be an occasion to use those in your near future. Especially if you work in studios that are open to people trying new things or switching roles.

Again, personal work is about interest and curiosity. Do it because you enjoy it. Trying new things is another way of enjoyment.

Speaking of personal work, “Mr Noodles” is a particular favourite! Could you walk us through the general process for ‘him’, and any tips and tricks for using custom-made alphas to maximum effect?

Mr Noodles was a demo for one of the alpha packs. It was a fun project, done relatively fast. I find it easier to do projects that have a purpose, because there is a need for finishing them. And also a need for scheduling the process. Same with professional work. While small side projects, I usually abandon them and leave them as sketches.

I wanted to do a Hong Kong sort of style sign. It has stuff that I am quite efficient at, cartoonish modeling, hard surface elements and heavily weathered texturing.

I started doing a small sketch in Photoshop to figure out the elements. Modeled it and sculpted some parts between Modo and Zbrush. The geometry is fairly simple, because I want to add most of the details through the materials.

Texturing wise I use Painter as the main tool. I usually start with the base materials and then layer it up to connect them with some sort of weathering or visual excuse. The interaction between the materials is key and that is where the alphas have an interesting role. It is important to be smart and take advantage of masks and generators, and then break them a bit with your own alphas, so the result doesn't feel generic.  I like to work with camera projection mode, so my alphas stay in place and I just have to be careful about where to paint. Sometimes I paint directly in UV mode, so I try to unwrap in an ordered and logical way.

Presentation (and also baking) was done in Marmoset, the best tool if you ask me for rendering stuff, especially with their RTX mode. Makes everything look so good!

Lighting was fairly simple, directional light, hdr and few animated lights. The key here was mostly the emissive, specially adding a bit of animation to it.

A common thread seen throughout your work is attention to fine, small detail. Working in games, where texture budgets can be limited, what are some methods you utilize for keeping up the overall detail and resolution of environments without unique textures?

Attention to detail is as important as big picture composition. They both come in different parts of the process.

There is always a reasonable way of keeping your texture density, but as a general response I would say the best way is to combine methods. I am not a fan of tileables for everything, it misses bespoke shapes and can involve sometimes more manual work.

I usually use the height of the object as a reference. If its over 4 meters, I look into how can I break it up in different but logical divisions to keep the visual interest while maintaining texture at a good resolution. The advantages of this method is that I can later create different variations of the same object with almost no effort just by preparing a good set. The key is always to think in a lego mentality, create parts that work together, but can be reshuffled to create something new.

Silhouettes are also important while deciding what to use. I have this in mind when dividing my sets into bespoke parts, tileables and trims. Flat areas go toward textures, anything with volume, bespoke geo.

Lately I have been experimenting with combinations of sets and also bending and deformations of bespoke pieces, it can save you a lot of time.

When looking at details in textures, it is important always to have a scale reference, and try to use textures around the same ratio. If not, there will be discrepancies between different elements of the same piece, and that is always weird to see. Nailing the scale of the details is as important as the rest of the execution.

I honestly think that we will see more and more use of full geometry and less flat tricks, as engines nowadays are capable of rendering more geometry on screen. But good crafting can easily fool your eye.

Also remember to complement your materials with vertex paint to break repetition, wetness to connect parts and also a good decal collection that helps adding additional details that catches the player's eye.

What are some tips that you could give to artists who are looking to improve their texturing, and avoiding the procedural look that can often come with using software like Painter or Designer?

There are many things to keep in mind for achieving good texturing results.

The most important in my opinion are:

- Good and rich references, don't go for boring stuff. Think always about variation and enriching details.

- Macro texturing, elements need to work from far away and still be readable.

- Micro texturing, surface must be still interesting while getting closer to it.

- Visual hierarchy, as in providing our eyes an interest map when looking at it.

- Material and normal definition. We should know what we are looking at. There should be no ambiguities when it comes to smoothness/roughness or details of the normals. It should be recognizable.

- Use of gradients, the best resource to do transitions between layers. Try also to understand how different materials have different patterns for that transition. Soft vs hard

- Hue and lightness albedo variation, avoiding boring monochromatic stuff.

- Good use of color distribution. This applies to ratios, I usually use 75% primary, 20% secondary and 5% as detail. But also having in mind complementary color rules, helps to maximize the visual contrast.

- Grounded and justified weathering, the texture needs to provide enough information about what it has been through.

- Material break ups, combining reflective materials or parts with more matte ones.

- Good layering. The art of building up a material step by step.

- Mix methods.Use photogrammetry, photo sourced material and procedurals, don't be a purist.

- Automate when possible, use masks and then manually break them, so it doesn't feel generic. Reuse your smart materials to keep consistency.

- Manual input. It is going to make a huge difference to be able to jump into painter and manually author details.

What are some new workflows that make your work quicker or easier to do than, say, when you worked on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, nearly 10 years ago? Also, are there any that have faded out over time that you wish would make a return?

Well it will sound pretty obvious, but being able to paint in 3D is amazing. Also the possibility of working with all the maps at the same time. And of course generators and the implementation of Designer as a source for feeding Painter. Procedurals can have great use. Tech has come a long way since I started and I am sure it will change even more during the next few years. It is important to have an open mentality to new workflows while keeping the artistic vision. Any time saver should be welcome.

To mention a few things I miss from working with previous tools:

- Being able to click on a pixel and see what layers are affecting it, super useful in Photoshop. In Painter, this option does not exist, so guessing which layer does what can be sometimes a bit tedious

- Puppet warp is a pretty neat tool that allows you to put one layer as a mesh and deform it to adapt it to your texture. I know there is something similar now.

- More complex masks. There was a pack of scripts I used from Neil Blevins, Soulburn scripts for Max. It had a few interesting and tweakable mask bakers that really made my life easier. It is always great to have as many options as possible.

- General performance, guess it is not fair since it's a 3d model with 4ks textures and materials, but Photoshop didn't have performance issues :)

In general I feel texturing has more options than ever, and it is more about your personal choice than a limitation of the tools.

As a Lead Artist, are there any specific qualities you are looking for in a portfolio when hiring for artists in your team?

A good candidate is all about portfolio and personality. The first thing studios see is obviously your work, the foot in the door. So, it is important to have it well presented and hierarchized. Content is important but 2-3 well done projects are enough. I usually recommend showing general shots of a scene to demonstrate your composition skills, breakdown of assets and modules and specifics about the materials. A critical eye is probably the most important ability to determine what is good and what is not. Just compare your work with other artists in the studio.

But the portfolio is only 40% in my opinion, the rest is all about you as a person, your ability to communicate, express yourself and being able to work in a team. Good portfolio doesn't mean you will get instantly hired. Interview is probably the most important part of the whole process. I appreciate the natural drive of individuals, knowing when to talk and when to listen, not being afraid of asking questions and people who give a good vibe overall.

During the interview, most questions have the intention of understanding the candidate and breakdown their capabilities. Some of these skills are in my opinion:

-Ideation and problem resolution

-Presentation and expression

-Critical thinking

-Ability to take feedback in a nice and efficient way

-Self evaluation of your own work

When thinking about the perfect candidate for an environment art position, and of course this being very subjective, I would say it should be a generalist. Someone who is excellent at constructing scenes and composition but also has a love for modeling and texturing. I think specialists are not as attractive as a well rounded candidate, even though some studios do prefer that kind of profile. But it feels less flexible. Plus not every project has the same needs even inside the same studio. Mastering many disciplines is not an easy job, (quite a never ending task if you ask me) but that is the beauty of it, always something new to learn and practice.

Are you currently working on developing any new skills or looking into new software that make you excited for the future of game art and the industry in general?

Yeah, always looking at things I haven't done yet but grab my interest. Characters, especially cartoon ones, have been a bit of a side quest for me for years. So I try here and there to keep working on small projects, half for fun, half for learning. Same with rigging, animation and UI, pretty interesting disciplines that I explore in my free time.

Tools wise, the one I really want to get into is Houdini, a couple of colleagues at work use it, and I am always surprised by how much of a time saver it can be. For variations, scattering or automating boring and tedious processes. I think the future of environment art is about combining good quality assets and procedural modeling. But there are no secret formulas, you have to find yours!

Cheers, Ayi


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