Raphael Lacoste
From Prince of Persia to Assassin’s Creed, Raphael Lacoste has created some of the most amazing game scenes ever. Now he’s about to tackle the big screen…

Even if you’re one of the few people who don’t immediately recognise the name, Raphael Lacoste, his work will be familiar to you – stunning 3D renders, meticulously planned images with a mastery of light and shadow, as well as pin-sharp detail. Raphael has been art director for games developer Ubisoft for more than seven years – but is about to embark on a completely new phase of his career as he’s leaving to join visual effects company, RodeoFX.

Growing up in Bordeaux, Raphael always showed a talent for art: “I drew too much during my studies and this is probably why I wasn’t the best typical student!” he laughs. On leaving school he went on to study fine art, photography and video at college.

At the same time he was exploring the commercial side of art as the official photographer and art director for a theatre company called Les Pygmalions. This gave him a chance to showcase some of his first 3D renderings, which were projected as backdrops on giant screens for various productions. Creating these images on his father’s Atari TT computer, using the primitive 3D scripting language Renderay, taught Raphael the art of patience.

In 1998 he attended CNBDI (Centre National de la Bande Dessinee et de l’image) in Angoulême, where he graduated with a European Master of Art in 3D animation. Then in 2000 his short film Nîumb was shown at ACM SIGGRAPH. It was obvious that a job in the art world beckoned, and with Raphael’s love and mastery of 3D images, the games industry seemed particularly suited to him.

“After my studies, I was searching for a job that could both allow me to create and give me stability,” he explains. “Video games are good for that – the industry is working well and there are a lot of original projects. But I have always dreamed of working in cinema at the same time; that’s why I have been involved in high resolution cinematics for various games.” Even back in 2000 – which is several epochs ago in terms of game and hardware development – Raphael was one of those brilliant rare finds: an accomplished technician who also understood and appreciated the subtleties of fine art, composition and shading – a very valuable asset, in other words.

“Video games are cool because you are given great freedom on projects and make very personal decisions at the early stage of creation,” he adds. “A lot of things are still possible and it’s very exciting to contribute to the creation of a virtual universe.”

His career at Ubisoft gave Raphael a chance to enhance both his artistic and technical knowledge, with projects such as Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, which earned him a VES (Visual Effects Society) award for cinematics. Ironically, the man who embraced 3D technology in its early years found himself becoming less and less reliant on software as time went by.

“I used the tools a lot during the first years of my studies and in my job as environment artist,” he says. “It was great because I learned a lot about depth and how light reacts on surfaces. Now 3D is, for me, just a tool for perspective and rendering, but not an essential process in my creation.” He adds that he used to use traditional materials such as charcoal and pencil too, but these days “it’s a Nintendo DS and a Wacom!”

Inspiration Many of Raphael’s images, both commercial and personal, echo the great masters of the 19th century and earlier; he cites Vermeer, Jean-Léon Gerôme, David Roberts, Bierstadt and Gaspard David Friedrich as particular inspirations. It’s the feeling as much as the look that’s important to him. “I love to concentrate on a mood, atmosphere, a picture that will create a feeling of immersion and an emotion. I’m a virtual set designer; I love environments and lighting.”

Nevertheless, as a game artist he was always aware that the end result had to be practical as well as fun – and the familiar accusation that many modern games favour style over substance doesn’t pass him by. “Most artists have a good traditional background and schools for artists have existed for centuries,” he says. “Game design is a bit different. The history of game design is still young and it’s hard to find an exceptional, experienced designer. If you are doing a game, not a movie, then you should concentrate on the fun.”

Having completed his work on the recent huge hit, Assassin’s Creed, which looks a lot like one of his own renderings brought spectacularly to life, Raphael felt it was time to move on. In October last year he joined RodeoFX, which is also based in his adopted home of Montreal. His role there, he explains, is a totally different challenge to that at Ubisoft, and one of his aims is to develop his matte painting skills.

“I have the time to draw!” he says excitedly. “No more never-ending meetings to reinvent the wheel… no more 60-people teams to manage (even though I loved my team), no more constraints in my image composition. I made the move because of that, and now I can focus on what makes me really happy.”

With RodeoFX specialising in high-end environments for film and television, he also hopes it will be an environment in which his skills are appreciated rather than taken for granted. “I know it can be hard sometimes to deal with artists and divas, but artists in many video game companies should be given more consideration,” Raphael believes. “After all, with the developments of next-generation graphics, artists’ jobs are going to become more and more essential, and they need to be given greater respect.”

He says he’s also looking forward to a more ‘hands off’ approach in his new job. “Working as art director on a game, I might have to wait a few months to be able to use an omnidirectional light, for instance, because we reinvent, we create new tools all the time. In cinema, things are more stable and we can concentrate on a frame – creating a finished 2D picture.”

Ultimately the image is always king, and it may not be long before we see some of Raphael’s stunning compositions on the big screen. So far it’s been an incredible ride for him, so does he have any sound advice for someone who wants to follow suit? “The most important thing is to draw,” he believes. “Feed the eyes with travels, exhibitions, culture, classical paintings and so on. An accomplished artist needs to see a lot of different things and I’m not sure it that will happen if you just stay in your home town.

“It’s also important to look: be curious, draw after life, look at the work of classical painters. There are so many interesting pieces of art out there!”