Adventures in 3d

For the past ten years, every January was the same. I compiled a year of data and designed an Annual Report. In January 2016 the cycle ended and I decided to apply my free time to learning something new. Inspired by artists like Ash Thorp / Beeple / GMunk / Yasly, I downloaded a trial version of Cinema 4d and started tinkering, thinking this could lead to new techniques for dataviz… or a way to replace product photography in my portfolio… or perhaps nowhere, but I was ready to try something new.

I didn’t know much about my choices in 3d apps when I started, simply that work I loved was being created in C4d. As I began researching my options, the teaching resources I discovered (primarily at Greyscale Gorilla) assured me that I would not run out of learning resources any time soon. Watching videos and following tutorials, I started to make interesting things immediately. Over the past year I’ve continued to explore this space, chasing ideas, techniques and appearances that have intrigued me. This post is a summary of my output and discoveries from this adventure.

January–March: Shiny things.
My first renders were an exploration of effects that are easy and appealing in 3d, and advanced in other mediums. I played with motion, lighting, materials, cel-shading and lo-poly treatments. In C4d, you discover quickly where so many hypnotic looping gifs come from.

Initial explorations of sub-surface scattering, cel-shading and lo-poly techniques.

May: Introducing information.
As I found my legs in 3d, I started looking for ways to integrate this world into my design practice. This lead to tests with geometry, built in Processing, and work with 3d libraries from Nervous System and HE_Mesh by Frederik Vanhoutte. After some generous assistance from Frederik I had a humble geometry pipeline from CSV > Processing > OBJ. I also found success using heightmaps for displacement, began dabbling with the Python API within C4d and was donated a script by Mike Senften to build primitives from a CSV. Finding these routes to programmatically create shapes in 3d provided the assurance I needed to keep exploring.

Experiments with map displacement and geometry generated from CSV files using Python & Processing.

May–August: Directed vs undirected exploration.
The more time I spent in 3d, the more I developed an appreciation for how light works, how materials behave and how objects are constructed. As I noticed inspiring forms or images, I collected them in a “Build Me” folder on my desktop. The summer was quiet and I divided my experiments between undirected exploration and the pursuit of particular results.

Geometric explorations with materials, particles and plug-ins.

June: 123d Catch remixes.
In June I started downloading and modifying models from the photogrammetry app 123d Catch. My own scans with the app varied widely, so I wound up downloading and manipulating some of the better models I found on the site. I found it fascinating to render near-photorealistic images with a range of interventions from subtle depth of field alterations to surreal manipulations of reality.

Remixes of models from 123d Catch.

July–August: X-Particles.
Metaballs (or blobs in 3d) remind me of rounded corners and smoothing in 2d. X-particles is a particle simulation plug-in with a “skinner” that provides a level of control over the creation of rounded geometry unavailable in C4d. The power to build particle systems with attractors and collider bodies was also appealing and I wound up spending a few months playing with these dynamics.

Output using the X-particles plug-in to create blobs and trails from particle, attractor and rigid-body interactions.

September–November: Cities
Inspired by the work of Owen Powell and Craig Taylor, I began looking for ways to work with landscape and urban geometry in C4d. Of the techniques I tried, I had the most success with Mapzen Vectiler. Next, I hope to rectify these landscapes with coordinate data and incorporate markers or paths.

Cities built with geometry from DEM Earth and Mapzen Vectiler.

September–December: Elements
In the Fall I settled on a new goal: to recreate the periodic table. Repeatedly designing towards a fixed reference has forced me to learn new techniques for each element, and several elements have taken me hundreds of iterations to complete. To date, I’ve made it to Silicon [14]. I’m still a long way from Ununoctium [118]. Though I’m not experienced enough to turn this into a daily project, I’m compelled to continue by the ongoing technical and conceptual challenges imposed by this framework.

Elemental project renderings.

Reflections.
While I haven’t answered all of the questions I had in January, I have started to incorporate these techniques into my design practice and have collected a few insights from this process:

1. I always thought of 3d work as being much closer to photography and pixels than to vector graphics. In this exploration, I’ve discovered how much of a hybrid it is given that you can generate pixel output at any resolution with enough time and processing power.

2. When I started working in Processing, my sketches were driven either by random or time-based functions. It was only as I gained fluency in the language that I was able to move towards using data to drive my compositions. The same pattern emerges in my 3d work, as I try to use random effectors less and structured information more.

3. This journey was also an experiment in anonymous creation. Through a pair of unattributed Instagram accounts (anewplacetohide and an older account nf3d), I shared these images to test their appeal. In a way it reminded me of the early days of Feltron.com, when I hadn’t found my voice and any acknowledgement was thrilling. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t managed to build a large following on Instagram, but have found a community of talented artists all trying to improve their work and support one another’s creations.

4. All year I adoringly followed Zach Lieberman’s daily sketches on Instagram, and this post is directly inspired by his write-up about his process. 2016 was a difficult year with many challenges and fears, but I’m optimistic about the new year and hope to be more public about my experiments going forward.

Happy 2017, Nicholas.

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