News 20.01.22

BEHIND THE SCENES: UP CLOSE WITH ILM’S SENIOR TEXTURE ARTIST

Have you ever wondered who is responsible for those flawless textures and superb surfaces of the 3D models on the big screen? We sat down with Christina Ryan from Industrial Light & Magic’s Sydney studio. She was recently selected as one of the VFX industry’s rising talents by IF Magazine and here she gives us the inside scoop on her way into the industry and all things texture.

What is your role at ILM?

I am a Senior Texture Artist. A texture artist is responsible for creating the colours and material for 3D models, and refining the overall look so that models respond to 3D environments just as they would in real life. The types of assets I work on vary but have included everything from environments and props, to creatures and human digital doubles. We create textures by combining photos, seamless images and patterns, hand paint, and even procedurally generated materials using nodes and math! My role can be both creative and/or technical depending on the preferences/skillset of the individual.

What is the difference between a texture artist and a grooming artist?

At ILM the texture department is also responsible for grooming, which is really exciting for me as it’s something I’ve wanted to learn professionally for a while. Traditionally a groom artist is solely responsible for the creation and styling of hair and fur, whilst the texture/look dev department will develop the colours and final ‘look’. 

Christina and Chewbacca. Courtesy of LucasFilm/Disney

What inspired you to get into VFX?

I have always loved drawing, animated films and games – I would spend hours as a kid drawing my favourite characters. My passion only grew as I did, and it makes me smile thinking back to my evenings after school as a teen drawing and watching animated films with friends.

I lost my way a bit towards the end of high school. I swapped art and films for study and science. I didn’t think there was any work/money in art. I spent three years doing a veterinary medicine degree which left me exhausted and with no time for any creative outlets.

I soon realized I needed to take a step back, and so I took a gap year…and all I wanted to do was draw! A key moment in my life was when I attended an art exhibition for How to Train Your Dragon. I was mesmerized that people actually did this for a living, and I finally felt like I knew what I wanted to do. That night I decided I would drop out of university and pursue 3D animation.

How did you kickstart your career in VFX?

I enrolled in a 2-year Advanced Diploma in Screen and Media at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE). Six months out from its completion I applied for a job at a local studio called Monkeystack. I was not expecting much, perhaps some feedback at the very best. A couple of days later I was interviewed, and I got the job! Within a week or two I was working full time, and I completed the remainder of my studies online.

I truly believe that learning in a professional environment is what pushed me to learn so fast.  I developed my model and texture skills over the next six months, and when both my studies and contract ended (at the same time) I had a strong portfolio to then apply at Rising Sun Pictures after graduation.

Can you elaborate a bit on a texture artist’s place in the pipeline, how you work with the other VFX artists?

The texture department sits directly after model/groom, and before lookdev/light. It’s therefore really important that we have a working knowledge of these departments so that we can bounce ideas, provide feedback, and understand notes when we pass on our work to the next department. A texture artist will first work with the modeller to plan out UV’s, displacement maps, construction, and any future changes that could affect us. Then, we work with lookdev and lighting to adjust our texture maps based on feedback.

What excites you the most about being a texture artist?

Being a texture artist is really rewarding as it’s something you can tangibly see/explain to family and friends when they see it on the big screen.  I also love how rapidly the industry and tools are evolving – even in five years, the way I work has changed significantly. It’s a really exciting time to be involved.

Can you name one thing that might surprise people about being a texture artist?

My job can actually be quite technical, and I do not spend all of my time painting as one might think. The industry is heading towards the procedural generation of materials rather than the traditional use of photographs/hand-paint because you can change things on the fly! This is especially true for fabrics, props, and environments. Have a fabric pattern, but need to change the thickness, shape, or closeness of the weave?  If it’s built using nodes, you can simply adjust a parameter at the start of the chain and feed it back through in an instant! Substance Designer is a really popular tool for this sort of work.

Name a few key skills you need as a texture artist?

Most texture painters have a background in art, whether that be painting, photography, drawing, sculpting, or crafts. It is important to have a firm understanding of art fundamentals, including observation skills, an eye for form and detail, lighting, composition and colour theory. The technical side and the transition to 3D can be taught.

Good communication and troubleshooting skills are also just as important. This includes the ability to present your work with confidence, receive feedback and communicate your progress, take initiative, resolve problems, and manage your time effectively.

Best practical advice you can give to someone who wants to become a texture artist?

Be prepared to devote a couple of years to the craft before you get your first job. I recommend doing your research and finding a school/course that specializes in the field of asset creation. The end goal is to have a strong, texture focused showreel that demonstrates your abilities.

If your school does not have a strong texture painting module, find ways to incorporate it into your projects. Team up with like-minded individuals that specialize in other areas. For example, find a modeller and texture their assets instead of your own – You can both use the project on your reels without getting burnt out completing everything yourself.

What is your favourite part of your job?

I love the challenge of recreating textures from scratch, whilst trying to match the onset reference perfectly. Completing those finishing touches, especially when something is seen really close up, is so rewarding.

Your proudest career moment?

I’ve had a few moments, including my first lead role (The Boys season 2), speaking at Adobe Symposium, seeing my students land their first job, and making my first move away from my hometown to Sydney!

You joined Industrial Light & Magic’s Sydney studio back in June, how has it been so far?

I’m not going to lie, joining a week before the city and studio went into lockdown was challenging! I ended up onboarding remotely, away from my husband (who lives in Adelaide) and not being able to meet my team.

Regardless of that, I found ILM’s remote set-up to be very well managed, and the use of frequent video calls made things much easier. The work is also really exciting! There was a lot to learn and I was thrown in the deep end for sure, but that’s how I’ve always thrived in the past. My team were really welcoming and helpful from day one.

Christina with her husband

What, in your opinion, makes Industrial Light & Magic special?

People’s excitement and passion for their work here is really special. Everyone is a hard worker, genuine, and so friendly. I already feel like I’ve made lifelong friends. There is a kind of positive atmosphere in the office that makes things really enjoyable. I feel like everyone gets involved in both social and work activities, and there’s a sense of everyone working together to achieve a common goal regardless of your status, experience or background.

Your biggest passion(s) outside work?

Art is still one of my biggest hobbies, but outside of that, I am really passionate about animals. I spent some time fostering (and foster failing..) baby kittens which included bottle feeding every couple of hours and stabilizing their health after being found in awful conditions. I’m slowly making the transition towards a vegan lifestyle as best as I can.

Christina Ryan with her foster kittens

Any skills your co-workers might not know about?

I was a dancer for most of my life, and only quit when I moved to Sydney. I would compete in a team and as a soloist on stage each year!

Christina as a dancer

You are also a part of The Rookies community, can you tell us a bit more about that?

Sure! The Rookies is a platform for young artists to showcase their work, get involved in competitions, meet other artists, and hopefully kick-start their careers. I’m involved as a judge for the yearly Rookies Awards, but also regularly stream interviews, feedback sessions, and have donated assets for use in mini-competitions. I highly recommend any aspiring artist to make an account and enter their work. 

If you hadn’t become a texture artist you would have loved to work as..…?

I actually wanted to be a rigger…but then I realized I’d actually have to code and not spend my time making pretty controls!

If I had to pick another career outside of visual effects now though, it would probably be in interior design/styling. I am a sucker for home decor and creating spaces that make you want to spend time in them.

Any advice you want to give to other young (wo)men who are considering entering the world of VFX?

Go for it and don’t be intimidated! It’s not easy to land your first job, but I know a lot of young people that have made it and are living their dreams! Stay focused on your goals, be humble, prepare to work hard (which is easy if you love what you do), and network as much as you can.

How can we get even more women to join the VFX industry?

I think companies need to invest in younger talent pools, as there are now a lot of young women finding interest in visual effects. As a teacher, I really notice the discrepancy between the proportion of women enrolled in a degree (much higher) than in the industry itself.  I’ve seen a lot of young talent coming through ILM which is really exciting.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

It’s hard to say, but I want to be the best artist, and possibly leader, that I can be, knowing I’ve given it my all. I also want to see the world and meet people! Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to travel, attend conferences, and do more panels/talks in person.

Check out Christina Ryans work on Artstation


Head over to ILM’s YouTube channel to see their skills in action!

CONTACT

Luke Hetherington
Executive in Charge, Singapore & Sydney ILM Studios
www.ilm.com