Virtually Reality
08.12.19 Words by Laura Snoad

Virtually Reality

Faster processing power and more accessible software is spawning a new wave of hyper-real 3D illustration. We find out more about its appeal for both creators and clients.
08.12.19 Words by Laura Snoad

“Mind-tickling is the feeling you get when you see a common, everyday object, but something’s a bit off or the object reacts in an unusual way,” says Anny Wang, when we chat about the term she and partner Tim Söderström came up with to describe how their reality-defying 3D renders stimulate the senses. “It tickles the brain in a way that starts to awaken you,” she continues. “You think, ‘What just happened, or what is that? Is something wrong with it?’ That’s what we always strive for in our work, to provoke a questioning response.”

Wang & Söderström are not alone in using hyper-real renders that blur the boundary between the digital and the tangible to ensnare roving eyes. This past year has seen a surge of illustrators venturing into 3D, fuelled by a “perfect storm” (as artist Alexis Christodoulou puts it) of more accessible software, faster render times and a deluge of clients keen to capture our embattled attentions. In fact, according to statistics released early this year, an adult spends on average 135 minutes of their day absorbed in social media. In all that scrolling, it’s the images that tickle the mind – that force us to pause and think, “What?” – which really stand out.

Like many practitioners working in the field, Wang & Söderström (both Swedish, but based in Copenhagen) found their way to 3D illustration indirectly. Anny, a product designer, and Tim, an architect, were using modelling software to build digital sketches of their products and spaces, before realising it was this beginning stage that was the most exciting. Today the pair specialise in creating illustrations (using software programmes Modo and 3D Studio Max) that hinge around collections of digital objects so tactile in appearance that they truly baffle the brain. Cubes of marble look cold to the touch, a wave of resin has just the right translucency, and you can almost feel the soft bristles on their hairy pompoms. But then there will be a wayward form, with an alien luminescence or unfamiliar texture, which quickly challenges your belief in its authenticity.

One of the appealing aspects of 3D renders for clients is their ability to visualise unusual, complex, or even hidden concepts. In their digital campaign last year for cult Swedish retailer Sneakersnstuff, Wang & Söderström playfully explored Adidas Originals’ EQT Materials shoes with mesmerising, magnified shapes to suggest the materials – swaying tubes and columns inspired by the knitted fabrics, and white popcorn-like pieces representing the bouncy soles. Especially when animated, all their elements brilliantly conveyed a sense of the shoes’ character and construction. “Everything comes back to materiality and space,” says Tim. “How you as a physical being, a human with a body, react and feel when looking at these digital things.” For a recent project for Finnish glassware brand Iitala, they created a poster featuring the unseen metal compounds found in different coloured glass. The poster for blue, for example, includes iron, copper, cobalt, nickel, chromium and neodymium, spurting like growths from a central column, so lifelike that you can almost feel the abrasiveness on the skin. Interestingly the pair have started 3D-printing some of their CGI objects, further confusing the boundaries between the physical and digital.

Illustrator David McLeod is a stalwart of the scene, who recently worked on new visuals for the BBC Two rebrand – its first in 20 years. One animation in particular is a true mind-tickler: crystal-like formations grow in the shape of a ‘2’, but it’s hard for the brain to decipher whether the motion is fireworks exploding, a mould spreading or plants blossoming. It’s engrossing. Much of David’s work uses a generative approach, where he’ll build a framework, but then leave part of the process – like the composition or the forces in a simulation – open to chance. “I find this approach enjoyable as the results can be unpredictable and surprising,” he says. “I’m often led down paths that I wouldn’t have necessarily taken with a purely manual approach.”

David Mcleod
It’s hard for the brain to decipher whether the motion is fireworks exploding, a mould spreading or plants blossoming

Like Wang & Söderström, David – who lives and works in New York – has also used his digital universe to make sense of complex ideas for clients. His work for the sound technology company Dolby used CGI to show sound waves running through different substances, in order to demonstrate the scientific principles behind the speakers. He also showed how soles can put a spring in your step through his bubble-inspired project for Nike. Nailing texture, says David, is integral to making work believable. If your brain can convincingly imagine touching it, as you can with his personal project Amfursands (an ongoing series of ampersands rendered in thick, luxurious fur) then you’re almost there. “The process almost always involves the layering of different qualities in a material,” says David, when we discuss how he achieves such believable textures. “When a material becomes more complex in this way, it becomes imperfect and less visually predictable. This tricks us into reading the image as more tactile and realistic.”

The work of London-based digital artist Rose Pilkington also uses multiple layers to develop tangible haptics [communication via touch] in her digital images, especially important given that a lot of her work focuses on skin and organic surfaces. But while other artists try to make their digital worlds look real, Rose’s work often shows us how the real world can look digital. Her project Chromatophores, for example, is an investigation of reptiles and fish that have light-reflecting cells in their skin, which enable them to change colour in order to camouflage themselves or stun others. They look completely unreal. “My process begins with a lot of reference material, studying the subject from many angles, gathering an impression of how it would look in a certain light or how it would feel,” says Rose. “I try to make everything feel as tangible as possible.”

But it’s not just animals that pique Rose’s interest. When NASA released images of the surface of Mars, where the agency had discovered water particles, she came across shapes in the surface caused by natural erosion. It led to her series Aeolian Landscapes, where areas of pastel-coloured Martian terrain look like sand dunes and stretch marks. “There is certainly a juxtaposition in the work that I do, combining the natural world with a very unnatural process,” Rose says about fabricating in 3D software. “I am fascinated and hugely inspired by organic colour and patterns that exist in the natural world, and I essentially use 3D software to facilitate the way I visually express these ideas. But there’s definitely a feeling that working in a 3D world has infinite possibilities and that the line between what’s real, and what’s been created digitally, is becoming less distinguishable.”

This fine line between the real and the illusory is a tightrope that Cape Town-based digital artist Alexis Christodoulou treads constantly. While Rose’s work is close and tactile, Alexis’ architecturally-inspired 3D renders are expansive and spatial – like mythic palaces or the lairs of Bond villains. “I try to make the kid in me excited – that’s how I know whether a piece is working or not,” says Alexis, who cites a youth spent lapping up video games and their alternative realities as a formative experience. There’s still the pull of a first-person action game in his work, albeit with a luxury tinge, enticing the viewer to dive into swimming pools and peek around corners. When we discuss his impressive Instagram stats (50,000 followers with just 150 posts) he adds, “Maybe some of my followers get that same feeling of excitement. Or maybe my images look like somewhere they want to escape to for a while.”

A lot of Alexis’ work is process-driven. He’ll spend a week mastering a new technique in Cinema 4D – creating the pumice-like texture of lava stone, for example, or refracting light through water on to terrazzo – then he’ll incorporate it into a new piece, which can take between two hours and a day to complete. Details from modernist architects like Aldo Rossi, Alvar Aalto and David Chipperfield frequently feature in his scenes, something that makes him popular with design-orientated clients such as Architectural Digest and Wallpaper*, and even architects themselves. “Modernism really appeals to me because you can distill what’s happening very quickly, as opposed to other architectural styles like Victorian Neo-gothic or Baroque,” explains Alexis. “That’s not to say it’s not complex. When you really start to explore it, you realise you’re missing details you never realised you needed.”

Alexis is a copywriter by trade and taught himself to create his immaculate renders using online YouTube tutorials, first as a hobby and now as a full-time practice. “Sometimes it would be tricky because you wouldn’t know the technical term for what you were trying to do, so it’s hard to search for,” Alexis says. “But it’s surprising how much information people are willing to put up online with no benefit to themselves. I don’t think I would have been able to do this 15 years ago.”

British illustrator Jack Sachs, who specialises in hilarious CGI characters with googly eyes and elastic limbs, also learnt how to work in 3D through watching YouTube tutorials – something he still does almost daily. But for Jack, this was more than just curiosity, it was necessity. Just before he began his final year at university and having only worked on paper up until that point, he seriously injured his drawing hand and was faced with a decision: to defer for a year or find another way to make work. “I never had a particular interest in moving image or CGI before, but I downloaded some trial versions of 3D software and in a painkiller-induced haze I began to make some 3D shapes move around,” he says.

Jack Sachs
I’m now able to render in real-time as opposed to waiting to check each small change I've made

Now Jack primarily works with CGI, creating illustrations and animations for the likes of The New Yorker, Uniqlo, Nickelodeon, MTV and German newspaper Die Zeit. Both he and Alexis agree that the accessibility of 3D software – from the simplification of Cinema 4D’s interface, to the emergence of totally free programs like Blender – is no doubt driving the growth in CGI illustration. The technology too has evolved. “I’m now able to render in real-time as opposed to waiting to check each small change I've made,” explains Jack. “It’s had a really big impact on my workflow, I can make creative decisions in a much more fluid way.” It’s also allowed him to experiment with new textures, to create super-reflective marbles, translucent jellies, and a digital version of plasticine complete with finger prints. Jack also feels the growth has been driven by client demand. “From an art director's perspective, 3D has so many potential applications,” he explains. “It’s not a huge stretch to make CGI illustrations move and at the moment the line between illustration (especially editorial illustration online) and animation is really blurring.”

Stockholm-based artist and art director Andreas Wannerstedt works in this interim space, creating looping animations that are completely hypnotising. In his jewellery-like environments, marbles perfectly drop through hoops, pegs slot into holes exactly and motion is perpetuated by incredible synchronicity. Changes in technology have also allowed Andreas’ practice to blossom. When he first started out he could render a frame of animation every couple of hours, but now it takes just a matter of minutes. In addition, almost of all of the animations he makes are optimised for Instagram, and the platform has helped grow his audience and win new clients. “I can reach a lot of people very quickly with smaller projects, instead of spending a year or several months on a short film that no-one sees.”

Andreas calls his version of mind-tickling oddly satisfying – your attention being gripped through the pleasure of repetitive motion, or something working out ‘just so'. “You should be able to stare at [my work] for a long time and get lost in emotion,” he says. “There's something relaxing about watching objects avoid each other or entwine.” Perhaps the success of this growing field, and the appeal of CGI illustration to viewers and clients alike, is this opportunity to pause – in a time of information overload, mind-tickling moments allow us to stop and wonder, and just for a second forget real-world logic.