Spend just a short amount of time in the online 3D art community and you are bound to stumble across the world of generative or procedural animation. This particular corner of the community embraces abstract imagery and often applies coded, randomised or handmade animation to it, creating eye-catching pieces that convey a theme, sell a product, demonstrate technological capabilities, or simply look cool. Many of the techniques used to create such imagery exist at the crossroads between art and computer science.
Just what is it about this mind-boggling imagery that proves so compelling to 3D artists and so oddly mesmerising to the viewer? 3D World has gathered a host of experts in the field to answer that question, as well as discussing the style’s practical use in VFX and how the budding artist can create their own complex and appealing visualisations.
WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA?
Mark Hodgkins, global head of FX at Framestore, has been embracing the stranger side of 3D art in high-end VFX throughout his 20-year career. “We’re hardwired to find natural structures pleasing and fractals or computer generative art often mimics forms or patterns found in nature,” he says, discussing the appeal of such complex visualisations. “Fractals and generative animation allow us to create something very abstract and highly detailed that would be difficult to produce by hand,” he continues. “The nature of the tools means it can still have a natural feeling, and the points of similarity and difference create something that people haven’t seen before, that gets them thinking.”
Generative design is a huge component of processes such as product design, engineering and architecture, where computers are used to find the most optimal design, shape and structure within provided parameters. “It is often used to create custom structures for everyday objects such as aerials, brackets and fans. The objects look organic as if formed by nature, but often perform better, use less material and are stronger,” adds Hodgkins.
For Stockholm-based motion graphics artist and art director Andreas Wannerstedt, it’s all about the near-limitless possibilities that come with 3D art. “Most of my work is based on the idea of flawless synchronisations between different objects and shapes, which wouldn’t be possible to recreate in the real world,” he explains. “I always try to anchor my work in reality and take inspiration from nature. However, thanks to the digital medium, I’m able to break all kinds of boundaries. Going against the laws of physics, defying gravity and reality, the possibilities are potentially endless.”
Shy.Studio is an independent motion graphics studio focusing on the intersection of artistic exploration and bespoke design. Misha Shyukin, a visual artist at the studio, is drawn to the ability to replicate natural phenomena in CGI, taking things like photorealistic lighting, textures, or physically accurate simulations and placing them into a completely new context. “It is very satisfying seeing something that looks real but is not behaving in a way you would expect it to,” he tells 3D World.
Manuel Casasola Merkle and Moritz Schwind are the founders of advanced CG tutorial hub Entagma. The two Munich-based art and technical directors create tutorials on procedural and generative design largely using, although not exclusively, Houdini, Blender and Unreal Engine. The pair believe that a crucial element in the appeal of a design lies in its visual interest to the viewer. “One surefire way to add visual interest to projects is to add complexity,” the pair explain, “it’s an old trick that has been employed long before the advent of CGI.” They use ILM’s ‘greebles’ as a perfect example, a name given to the tiny details that made miniatures used for Star Wars and its sequels feel like real, functioning elements of their world.
Most of the ‘greebles’ were simply random model kit pieces repurposed to bolster Star Wars’ lived-in aesthetic.
“Procedural and generative design offers a way to add intricate detail without having to manually create it,” they continue, “thus procedural design is very effective in a team of any size when it comes to increasing the level of detail of your project – be it a commercial, a movie or a computer game. Especially in world creation, we’re seeing a fast adoption of generative techniques.”
Andreas Wannerstedt began experimenting with 3D art around 2007, after becoming frustrated with the limitations of 2D animation, which he’d been working with since 1999. After seeing Alex Roman’s impressive CG short film The Third & The Seventh, Wannerstedt became hooked on the possibilities of 3D and started experimenting with lighting, materials, architectural visualisations and photorealistic renders. “That has affected my style for sure, even though I tend to go towards a slightly more abstract look nowadays with a focus on colour palettes and materials,” he reflects.
Wannerstedt learned how to create 3D art by working on a lot of personal projects and constantly trying to build on his skills. “Like for many digital artists, this started out as a hobby and turned into a full-time job,” he adds. “All my practical skills are self-taught and it’s really my passion for digital art, in combination with a lot of practice and patience, that has taken me to where I am now.”
‘Oddly satisfying’ is the term most commonly attributed to Wannerstedt’s looped 3D animations, which explore the relationship between shape and space. “It’s a sophisticated and whimsical portal into the perfect world of physics, movement, and predictability. Inspired by ASMR, as well as real-world mechanics and motion patterns from our everyday lives,” he says. “I want to transport my viewers into a meditative state, and to trigger that inexplicable feeling of odd satisfaction we all know.”
When inspiration strikes, Wannerstedt is quick to put it down on paper, making rough sketches in his notebook. Once he has something he thinks can work he jumps into Cinema 4D, usually starting with basic composition and simple shapes so that he can focus on whether or not the animation works. He adds: “I prefer to animate things by hand using keyframes, instead of using simulations where the computer calculates the movements. That makes everything much easier to art direct since I’m in full control of the motion. Control is a must since all of my animations require perfect timings in order to work.”
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