Christophe Tritz told us about The Lost Pillars of Cassiopeia project, described the workflow in MagicaVoxel, and explained why lighting and composition are two of the most time-consuming parts.
My name is Christophe, a French artist living in France. I have always drawn a lot but it's through my studies of Arts that I could open myself to all the artistic fields and open my mind. There were many practices but in the middle of all of them, I discovered 3D computer graphics, which at the time was quite new. I worked a lot and explored this medium alone, without any professional framework, simply by putting the ideas that came to me into images or animation. That's how I progressed, especially technically, which is – alas perhaps – a necessary condition for digital work. And then I started to work in 3D rendering as a freelancer. Well, it's rather life that told me, "Come on, now you work to fill your fridge", but I admit that free creation is what I like the most.
I have specialized a lot in architectural rendering: from houses and apartment buildings to large shopping malls; it's a demanding school but it allows you to integrate all the routines of 3D creations. I’ve also done some advertising work with Ubisoft, for their spring sales, in voxel. And I had a lot of fun working on advertising VoxMax too! It's an awesome voxel app for iPad.
I started voxel art after a depression, I'm not even kidding. I spent several weeks on very demanding work files (sometimes doing 97 hours of work per week), and when it was over, I collapsed a bit, needing to question everything. And, like any self-respecting male in depression, between chips and TV series, I took out an old PlayStation 1. And finally, I didn't play but fell in love with the textures used in these games. They are awful and great at the same time! Big ugly squares are seen from up close and whole universes from far away! (I didn’t know it was voxel definition then.) So I started to look for this kind of textures on the net and I naturally came across pixel art and, without wanting to, I saw these funny images of "3D pixel art", voxel art. Some of the renderings were really, really good. And the software that all these artists were using was free and very simple to use (one hour of YouTube videos to do the trick). So I tried it. And I fell in love.
So voxel art was not at all planned in my artistic path, it was really spontaneous. I even think that I adapted to it more than the other way around! Coming from a classic 3D universe, everything is a bit different, but above all terribly playful, that's what I like in voxel art. Of course, it comes with a lot of limitations, but the limitations are what forces us to be creative as well.
The maximum space of a scene in voxel art – at least in MagicaVoxel – is limited to 2000x2000x1000 voxels. That's already huge, but if you get to that limit, the question "well, how do I still get the image I want?" comes up, and that's where we find the solutions. The first time this jumped out at me was when I made a reproduction of a Joseph Farquhenson painting: you can see that the scene had to be prepared according to the size limit of MagicaVoxel: the trees in the background, for example, could not be in volume, but flat! It is also important to reduce the number of voxels on very large scenes as much as possible – at the risk of seeing them disappear from the rendering – hence a foreground that is limited in size to just fit in the camera's field.
MagicaVoxel is a small application with many levels. That is, you can respect a classic size format, make scenes of limited size – which is in some ways the essence of voxel art: the ability to stylize anything and everything with a limited number of cubes – or you can go to the size limits of the software, and then it's up to you to find ways to create. This is the way I personally work.
However, at first, it is better to start with small scenes just to get familiar with the software tools. I started by taking a screenshot of an old 2D RPG that I reproduced in voxel. Something very simple, and then a YouTube video that goes through the tools... really, I think that one afternoon is enough to assimilate the global functioning. Compared to big 3D software, it's a piece of cake! Then, once you are familiar with the tools, and if that’s your goal, of course, you can try and build really large scenes too!
The Lost Pillars of Cassiopeia
The Cassiopeia series is the little sister of another series, "CryptoPlanet", in some ways, both taking place in a science fiction universe. For Cassiopeia, the idea is to focus on an imaginary planet of the same name, which is abandoned for a long time, but where there are ancient and mysterious pillars, still emitting signals that were lost in space. The series represents these pillars, seen from the sky, in their environment, emitting their signal.
As for the image, a friend of mine made me want to explore the TikTok format, so it's vertical, working in 1080x1920. It also lends itself well to the subject, since the pillars are naturally vertical. As for CryptoPlanet, I always start by creating a terrain with a 3D terrain editor, depending on the atmosphere I want to have, desert, ice, swamp, etc., which I then convert into voxel to be able to work. I always start with only a very vague idea of what I want, and it's during the creation process that things become clearer, I discover them as I go along.
For the pillars, I start by creating a big white block to have the general composition of the final animation and then sculpt and texturize it manually, according to the inspiration.
As far as the lighting is concerned, it came about after a friend of mine posted the latest David Bowie video on Facebook! One of the shots is in a field, and the studio lighting used is a contrast of orange and blue on each side of the image, which shaves the ground. There you go, I found a new style! It's really a pleasure to explore this and to discover new ways to work on this series, I thought I had pretty much done the trick with MagicaVoxel... well, no.
Beyond this particular lighting, I also try to use fog to unify the scene. I admit that it's a bit restrictive, especially in terms of rendering time, but I really like the results that can be obtained. So I do a lot of back and forth between the workspace and the render. Moving light sources, changing colors, etc. I think this is one of the most time-consuming aspects of the job. Once I'm happy with the overall lighting and composition, I start the details and the material work, which is also, when working with MagicaVoxel on complex transparent materials, a very time-consuming step.
The rendering is also particular because the pillars have to light up, which means that I have to render the "off" animation once and the "on" animation a second time to be able to compose them in After Effects. In all, 1,200 images must be rendered to complete the animation at 25 FPS, which, depending on the scene, requires between 10 and 40 hours of calculation. (Magica Voxel being mono-GPU and having a 3080TI, it's a step I can't speed up too much, even if I'm tempted to take an RTX 4090). So in total working time, I would say it was about 40 hours, not counting the rendering time.
I change very little in rendering in After Effects, except for the levels. In fact, I haven't done any other retouching for the moment. I do render alpha layers as well so I can work on the pillars differently from the environment. On the other hand, I spend time on the music and sounds. I use royalty-free music, but it has to be synchronized with the pulsation rhythm of the pillars and their sound environment.
As far as the talents to be developed are concerned, they are the same as for all the creative mediums, the technique must be secondary, and it must be at the service of an idea. I think that the most important thing is to develop and enrich one's inner world before anything else. And then to try and find a technique that I like to use every day. I wouldn't be able to work if I didn't have fun at the same time! So yes, focus on keeping being a child your whole life, that way you won’t have any creativity problems!