Plugging in to Arnold via Maxon Cinema 4D to Sculpt Photoreal 3D

What do you do when an assignment comes along that’s like no other you’ve received? You find the tools necessary, buckle up and get to work. That was the task at hand recently for Donnie Bauer of Chicago-based Optimus Design when the company was approached by FITC (Future Innovation Technology Creativity).

Toronto-based FITC, which produces design- and technology-focused events, needed an introductory main titles video for FORM Fest, a gathering of digital creators and technologists last fall. The aim of the two-day event was to explore creativity, technology and innovation in sessions led by groundbreaking creatives, including Stefan Sagmeister, GMUNK, Nicholas Felton, Rama Allen (The Mill) and Jason White (Leviathan). 

Each unique shape in this hallway, which was loosely based on the architecture of Chicago’s Aqua Tower, was created from parametric objects that were collapsed and hand-sculpted in C4D.

FITC didn’t have specific instructions for Bauer other than to create a piece that would energize those in attendance and set the tone for the two-day creative convention, along with subtly plugging the creative strengths of the host city. FITC looked at four different studios in Chicago before settling on Optimus in late June, giving Bauer and his team just three months to craft the video. 

That was the first challenge. The second was that it was to be entirely computer-generated and the third was that it was to run two and a half minutes, considerably longer than the pieces Optimus customarily produces.

The mesh is in this image is a primitive plane, subdivided enough to give Donnie Bauer enough resolution to sculpt with. Multiple correction objects allowed him to add layers of organic growth. 

“It’s not every day that we have the opportunity to flex these muscles and go for some top-shelf CGI work,” says Bauer. “When I found out that it was all CGI, I wondered if it would be out of the reach of our capabilities. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to collaborate with Trevor Kerr.”

C4D’s Loft Object was used to create this shot from a series of splines. Pulses and quivers in the animation are keyframed values inside of each spline's pose morph tag. The mesh was never collapsed—everything was always kept editable.

Kerr, an Orlando, Fla.-based freelance CGI and VFX artist, joined Bauer’s Optimus team in August, bringing his vast 3D skill set to the table. He also brought a secret weapon: a production-class third-party render engine called Arnold. Developed by Spain-based Solid Angle, Arnold is used widely by film and video effects studios and was recently made available to users of Maxon Cinema 4D via the Arnold for Cinema 4D plugin, C4DtoA.

Arnold Light example
Arnold’s IPR can be displayed directly in the Cinema 4D viewer for an extrememly interactive lighting experience. 

Kerr believes the Arnold renderer gives C4D users more control over shading optimization, as well as flexibility in compositing with AOVs (Arnold’s multi-pass system). “It comes from a point of simplicity where you have just a handful of sliders and dials to turn, and they’re all well-defined,” says Kerr. “You don’t have to guess at what the parameters mean or which bias render-engine term you have to figure out. Other render engines are a little unclear on that.”

Arnold shader example
Kerr likes the way Arnold’s shader network lets users of all experience levels dive deeply into advanced shading techniques. 

From Abstract to Concrete
Bauer and Kerr outlined a workflow and figured out how to integrate Arnold, and Kerr joined Bauer and two other members of Optimus’ CGI team, Luis Mayorga and Brad Cannady. Given the loosely defined thematic parameters of the project, Bauer decided to go with an abstract look depicting morphing landscapes that shift from organic, amorphous forms into recognizable shapes.

The mesh pictured above was created completely from parametric objects and stacked displacer and correction deformers. 

The resulting video showed the FITC FORM audience how the germ of an idea can grow into something architectural, rigid and tangible. “We wanted the beginning to be very abstract and loose and liquidy,” Bauer recalls. “And then we wanted a transition point to where things become a little more solid and recognizable. The reveal was that this whole world was evolving and growing toward a resolution inside FITC’s logo mark.”

To capture that transformation, Bauer’s team started with a primitive object, such as a plane or a cube, and layer on stages of animation with Cinema 4D’s Correction or Displace Deformers in tandem with the Pose Morph tag. For the soft, abstract shapes they used the software’s sculpting brushes and sculpted right on top of the Correction Deformer. After the strengths of those deformers had been keyframed, the team then added the Jiggle Deformer to create secondary motion.  

Bauer used the Correction Deformer to flatten out the final mesh for this shot. With the falloff parameters dialed in, he revealed the final mesh with just some simple keyframing of the deformer's strength and position.

“I loved this process because it was non-destructive,” recalls Bauer. “We could always turn off a deformer if we didn't like the effect and I'd retain the integrity of my base mesh. Of course, we got creative and stacked in other effectors and deformers as needed for some added randomness.”

Positive Reactions All Around
Bauer and Kerr agree that most of the hurdles in the FITC FORM project were technical and not creative. Optimus is largely a Mograph-focused group that does a lot of After Effects-driven work that’s either 2D or 3D and rendered to look 2D — and, again, mostly in the form of 15- or 30-second spots. 

“Because this was a two-and-a-half-minute piece, the bulk of the renders in the pipeline were pretty intense,” says Bauer. “We learned a lot about what it takes to produce something like this. There were a lot of late nights and early mornings, splitting up frame ranges and getting friends to help.”

Above, soft, morphing landscapes have turned to hard, geometric surfaces. The simplicity of the architecture is enhanced by light and shadow. 

The reaction to the finished product was immediate and gratifying. The title video was shown at 10:30 a.m. on FITC FORM’s opening morning, and by 10:35 Bauer was receiving congratulatory texts from the event’s organizers. Admiring fellow artists asked which live-action cameras the team used, and Bauer proudly told them that the piece was 100 percent CGI.

The combination of C4D and Arnold made what could have been a daunting project rewarding, Bauer said. “The ease of the workflow in C4D is very powerful, so you can really use it as a hub,” says Bauer. "We can bounce into the correction deformer and just brush over some new shapes and forms onto our geo. I’m not sure you can do that as easy in other programs.”

Dan Heilman is a St. Paul-based writer and editor.