Cornelius Dämmrich shared his thoughts and personal experience regarding sci-fi art and 3D tools, inspiration, complex projects, and eye-catching angles.
Introduction & Career
My name is Cornelius Dämmrich, I am a 3D Artist from Germany. I’m mainly known for my personal artwork, and there isn’t much commissioned work I did over the years. I did a project with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory a few years ago and besides that, there were Atlantic Records UK, Nordic Games and recently NVIDIA.
I never “chose” any industry and the thought to work in 3D for a living came very late. I guess I’m good enough at it to get jobs and get hired, and that was the natural motivation to work in that field. But it’s not super special compared to other jobs. You have a tool, you learn to use it and that’s pretty much it.
I think the real fun starts when I do things for myself and not for others… that’s the “special” thing.
Since I only do one image per year, or even less, there’s some creative buildup happening that shares its half-life period with imposter syndrome, depressed mood swings, and procrastination. I usually roam through random Tumblr blogs, like for example death junkie or otaku gangsta. I collect pictures that I like, store them away and look at them every now and then until they spark some initial motivation. That whole process takes a lot of time, changes constantly and evolves with every image. Sometimes it’s a word, a gif, a collection, a sound in a song, a sentence or nothing at all. It’s super mixed. When I have that “spark”, it can take up to half a year or longer until I start. I make plans, write things down, do technical tests and at some point, I can’t hold it back any longer and grind away.
My favorite book is… uhm.. Harry Potter? I don’t read a lot of books - to be honest, I lost the ability when social media corrupted my span of attention. I read a lot of Wikipedia articles though, mostly about morbid things like torture methods from the 14th century or random weird people and things or how an ICBM works or how the first mouse trap looked like. It’s super random and I absorb a lot of weird, random things that don’t help me in any way.
As for games, I really love Monkey Island, GTA, Red Dead, The Witcher. I used to love FPS games but I am too old and slow these days, so I tend to focus more on single-player games.
About Sci-Fi Art
I don’t know if my images are any different or stand out from other science fiction work. Personally, I think that great science fiction is a thought experiment about designing things that either could or could’ve happened. It’s extending your mind to the world of tomorrow. Things that make the art stand out are the thoughts that went into it, how they are executed and how different they are from the current norm. That’s a “rule” that goes for every kind of image and you can’t usually hit all checkboxes, but sometimes you do and then you end up with something great.
I think you’re on the right way when you’re hitting your head on a wall because you can’t decide how a switch in your version of the future looks and how it works.
I haven’t mastered any of the tools to a great extent, I’m just good enough to get the things done in time. I learn more and more with every project.
3D tools often share a very similar vocabulary, that makes things easier to start with and adapt. I’m not a fan of “tricks”, because there usually isn’t any - things that look like much work tend to be just that. The only “trick” I know of is that you should learn each software in a problem-orientated way. That means that you learn it during a real project to solve a task. It’s often way harder to open new software not knowing what you want to have at the end of the day. If you know you need a jacket and you just got your hands on Marvelous Designer for the first time, things get a lot easier.
The top tool for me is Cinema 4D since everything comes together in it - it’s like the main hub for all the things that need to be done. And then there’s a lot of specialized software. Octane for rendering, RizomUV for UVWs, Marvelous Designer for clothing, Substance Painter for textures, X-Particles for anything floating around… and so on.
Catching Perfect Angles
I have no rules for angles to pick. It just needs to look great. If you ever thought “wow, that movie looks good, I could print that frame and put it on my wall”, try to figure out why. It’s super complex, it’s about lights and darkness, color, the size of shapes - everything. I am way too lazy to figure out a set of rules for that - I might have one, internally, but nothing I can check like a manual.
I usually block out my 3D scene with primitive objects, place a camera, activate some visual lines so I can level things out easier and then just place it. This can take ages. I need to check the light, I don’t want to have too many bright spots in the image, there should be some kind of contrast, and nothing should be super centered, but also not too much off-center… I don’t know why, but I feel it looks better if it’s like that.
If I could give any advice for that, you should really figure out whose work you like and then just copy how these guys frame their work. It’s very often a matter of what I want you to see at first glance. If I make an image about an astronaut, it might be wise to put him in focus.
I really hate much lighting. I rarely use more than 2-3 main light sources. GI/Energy transportation from light sources onto objects (or through them) makes everything easier.
Let's look at a few examples:
Blitz had one light per shot (not counting the LEDs and displays) and an invisible poly disc to bounce it around. In earlier versions, it had 3 or 4 light sources so you could see more of the details and the textures. But it felt like someone just traced it from a magazine and put it into darkness, super displaced and not honest enough. It’s so much better if you can’t see everything. It lets you use darkness like a separate object, a volume that you can use and put around your artwork, like a blanket.
52HZ was actually super hard to light. We have a sky that emits a greyish/purple color to fill the volume of the scene and then we have many smaller lights to create some sort of contrast. The image relies heavily on complementary colors and it was quite hard to figure out that I shouldn’t focus on the sky, which I first did by using super detailed high-res HDRIs.
Haze is very simple. Again, complementary colors and contrast. Two light sources.
Complex Work Progression
It’s super exhausting to work on large and complex projects, that’s why I need so much time afterward to get back on track. I keep myself going with breaks and telling myself that it’s okay if I sometimes just don’t want to work or work just one hour per day. There will always be days where I work 8-12 hours, which is fine, but when I don’t feel like doing that, that’s fine too. Small steps will always add up.
There’s a point in every project where I hate the image and don’t want to continue, but there’s also always an equal amount of times at which I think that it can become really special and that it might be worth it to spend the extra time to make it shine. When you make an image of that size, there’s a lot of stuff on your mind and you got huge to-do lists that you can work off. If you think “It would be better if I add this and that or try XYZ”, you’re not done. That doesn’t mean that the image is bad if you don’t go that extra mile, but I like to discover how big and high I can get.