Principal VFX artist for Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, Francisco Garcia-Obledo Ordoñez reveals his working methods, inspirations and future plans...
3dtotal: Tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you, what do you do, and where are you located?
Francisco Garcia-Obledo Ordoñez: Hi, my name is Francisco Garcia-Obledo Ordoñez and I'm a Principal VFX Artist working at Splash Damage, based in Bromley (London). I'm from Barcelona and I've worked on games such as Wanted: Weapons of Fate (Grin), Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (Mercury Steam) and, recently, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition.
Francisco Garcia-Obledo Ordoñez - Demo Reel
3dt: What made you want to become a Game FX artist?
FGOO: That's a really good question. When I started working in the videogames industry there wasn't a specific position for VFX artists. In my first game, Fallen Lords: Condemnation (Novarama, Barcelona) I was the environment artist for the whole project, but when the development was almost finished, I remember seeing on the programmers screens sparks, glows, magic… and I went to ask them what was that. That was the "cool stuff”, I mean, all the characters' powers, and you know, as much as I respect the programmers' work, I wouldn't say they make the best art. So, when I understood how to tweak those effects, I was told to change them from shiny pink colours to something nicer. I really enjoyed those weeks because it was something different that involved both art and code. My first project as an official VFX Artist was Castlevania LOS2 at Mercury Steam, where I finally found my spot in this industry. I feel there is too much to improve and doing VFX still involves fighting with constraints, budgets, optimisation… and I love that! That's why I work in videogames.
VFX Breakdown – Teleport
3dt: Tell us about your role in the industry, and some of the projects you are most proud to have worked on?
FGOO: VFX art is something I expect to gain more importance from over these years. I say that because, in my humble opinion, other disciplines are getting closer to reach cinema standards. I've noticed from the last year a lot of new VFX artist job openings in the best companies out there and, at the moment, there are few experienced artists in this specialty.
I can say I've been really proud of all the projects I've worked on; since Fallen Lords which was rarely known by anyone to Castlevania LOS2. In all of them I had to tackle new challenges and with different teams. Nonetheless, Castlevania gave me the opportunity of doing my best looking work and, thanks to that, I'm working now on a big IP and really well positioned within the industry.
3dt: What are the common problems you come across working in the industry? Which software helps you overcome them and why?
FGOO: I'd say the biggest problem I find in the industry is, precisely, that people don't take any attention to the VFX. It's really easy to find an answer to: "what's the game with the best looking characters?”, "what's the game with the most stunning environments?” but who, besides a VFX artist, is going to say what are the most beautiful effects in a game?
It's in our hands now to make the VFX art more recognisable, and we can benefit from the really powerful software we have available: Fume FX, Maya fluids, Houdini, Blender, RealFlow, and so on. This is software to make fluid simulations that require powerful hardware to do all the calculations so we can render it into textures, what we call flipbooks, to simulate blood, fire, water, and so on.
VFX Breakdown – Explosion
3dt: Please describe your workflow and essential toolkit.
FGOO: In my actual company, Splash Damage, we have two specialties within the VFX team:
Gameplay effects and environment effects. This last one is kind of a support for the environment team and involves creating smoke, dust, fires, and so on.
In Gears of War: Ultimate Edition I was in charge of the gameplay effects. It involves those effects played when the game receives an input from the player (press a button usually) or the IA of the enemies. I created blood, explosions and weapons effects.
My workflow is not always the same. I would say it can have two variations. For the most iconic/important effects, I tend to start working from a concept art. From this moment I start gathering references through the internet and talk with the art director to give my technical point of view in case we have to rethink the concept. Sometimes the concept art can be too optimistic and I prefer to involve everyone so we can decide the look of it if there are some technical limitations. I love to have the "crazy” ideas from the concept art team because most of the time they are not thinking if we can achieve what they have in mind. In my experience, as long as the communication is good, I can benefit a lot from them and, at the same time, they can learn why/how the effects are done the way they are. So, whenever I can, I go to the concept art team to ask them for even a quick sketch or share reference pictures.
Then I have the other way of working that is totally isolated. I had a lot of it in Castlevania because most of the effects were based on magic and I had the freedom to implement my ideas starting from plain text descriptions from the design team.
To create my effects I mostly use 3ds Max (to create geometries or to create textures using plug-ins like Fume FX) and Photoshop to create content. Then, the VFX artists have to integrate the effects into the game using the Particle Editor. There is no standard for this because not every company uses the same engine. Right now I'm using Cascade particle editor (Unreal Engine 4) but when I was working at Mercury Steam I was using proprietary engine and so was the Particle Editor.
VFX - Breakdown - Blood appearing
3dt: What do you enjoy most about working in this industry?
FGOO: What I enjoy the most is the constant growth. Every 5-7 years a new generation of consoles comes up and we have to adapt to new techniques and, usually, we are able to implement what we couldn't do previously.
What I also love is that making a videogame is based essentially on teamwork. You can be really good but, if you don't work well within a team, this is not your place.
3dt: How do improvements in technology impact on your work? Is it hard keeping up to date with the latest developments?
FGOO: It's depending on the project you are working on. If you are working on a game with stylised art style the technology is not that important, the quality of the art is. I always give the example of Nintendo: they focus on making the funniest experiences regardless the technology they are using. Don't get me wrong, in my opinion Nintendo games are the most beautiful games out there, but they are not using the latest techniques in graphic shaders, IA and so on.
Example of particles, meshes and trails to compose an effect
The projects I've worked on so far have been on the opposite side, trying to match the high standards of the industry. So, in that case, technology is really important. Right now, for example, with the new consoles we have to rethink our way of doing textures for effects because we have the ability, although really expensive in cost, to lit the particles with the same lights as the environment.
The good thing about all this is that now more than ever we have VFX talks from people working at Naughty Dog, Epic, Sucker Punch,etc. in GDC, E3 and Siggraph among others. These talks are really useful and define more or less the industry standards.
But, in my opinion, one of the best resources is the Real Time VFX group in Facebook. There you can find the best professionals of the industry sharing their work and giving feedback/suggestions to others.
3dt: What advice would you give someone looking to become a VFX artist for videogames?
FGOO: The answer is pretty obvious: "start from the beginning”. Try to teleport 10 years backwards and see how graphics were done in videogames. Exactly, low poly. It's really important to understand what tricks you can do just with the UVs and simple textures and basic geometries. I'd say 80% of our work is based on quads with a shader doing all the work. Try to search these words: uv distortion, erosion, soft particles, translucency, alpha masked, and camera depth fade.
When you feel confident with that, go to our bible: ImbueFX. Sadly this amazing website is going to close down but I'm sure you can find the videos on YouTube. That's a really good site to understand the basics of VFX art for videogames and keep learning until you do more advanced effects. Don't worry about the engine you'll use, the principles are the same, you can learn the tool later.
Real Time VFX compilation
3dt: How do you like to unwind?
FGOO: I love spending time with my wife and my 8 months old son. I'm a huge fan of Nintendo since I was a kid (my first console was a Super Nintendo after many afternoons playing NES with my cousin's console) and I spend most of my "game time” playing with Mario and Zelda. The older I get, the more I realise I don't want to play "complicated” games in my spare time, I just want to have fun. And I think in this regard, no one beats Nintendo.