My first approach to 3D was very late, when I was almost 30 years old. Before that I had been acquiring experience in the world of the visuals, first as a student of fine arts (using traditional media) and then working as a graphic designer and art director in small studios and advertising agencies in Barcelona and Zaragoza (using 2D tools such as Illustrator, Photoshop, QuarkXPress or InDesign).
Between 1996 and 1997, when I was working as a freelance graphic designer, I started to get serious about 3D, learning everything I could in my spare time. I leave you with a selection of those first steps in this wonderful world, in which you never stop learning.
When I see these works now, they give me a mixture of shame and tenderness. I hope you can see them with understanding eyes. I will also leave you some curious or interesting data, so that it does not consist of a mere succession of images.
Before using real 3D tools, I used Illustrator a lot. And in those years Adobe had another little app called Dimensions that worked in combination with Illustrator and allowed to create very simple 3D models using Postscript (and more powerful than this other new app inside CC called also “Dimension”). It was a very curious thing, because the images it produced were vectorial (!), they were not formed by pixels, so the “render” could be scaled without limits! Here you have an example that I made around 1992 (the screen capture of Illustrator is newer)
My first 3D render (1994)
Next image, nothing fancy, is my very first 3D render, made with StrataVision 3D, one of the few 3D apps available for Mac in those years.
Many people have asked me why I create 3D using Macintosh, when it’s more common to use Windows PC. The main reason is that I originally started working with computers in the field of graphic design back in 1989, a time when Macs were the standard in the world of desktop publishing. Think that the first versions of Illustrator or Photoshop only existed for Mac. And from the first moment I got used to this platform and I have always found it comfortable. When years later I started my approaching to 3D I did it trying to use the same equipment I was already working with in 2D.
And on the other hand, in those distant years, the platform that was really used more to make serious 3D were not the WinPCs but Silicon Graphics, which cost something like a kidney.
My first 3D “project” (1994)
Once I understand how to place simple spheres, planes, lights and cameras, it was time to try to model something a little more elaborate. That’s how my first modeling “project” came about, also with Strata.
When I first saw those marvelous reflective and refracting spheres I saw it clearly: I had to learn that seriously. Although years before I had already seen some very cool things done in 3D, basically experimental shorts in TV programs (like “Metropolis” in the second channel of the Spanish Television), I never imagined that I could also start with that, basically because I imagined that it would be necessary to spend a lot of money on expensive equipment.
Just for reference, think also that in 1994 had not even premiered the first Toy Story ;-)
Megabass. Not really a “3D project” (1995)
A small clause to show you an image that has nothing to do with 3D, really: this is a completely 2D exercise done in Illustrator in which I tried to capture a certain three-dimensional realism through the use of gradients, shines, transparencies and different surface finishes. It was a very fun exercise. I would love to have done many more of these.
If you want to see extreme examples of the use of Illustrator to achieve ultra-realistic finishes I recommend the work of Japanese master Yukio Miyamoto, a good friend on Facebook, by the way ;-)
La Pirámide. Unfinished (1997-1999)
After the image with the red lamp and the crystal balls I dedicated myself to learn to the max, making multitude of small exercises, day by day, month after month. Very soon I stopped using StrataVision and started using a new program that would accompany me for many years: Electric Image Animation System (EIAS). That was a huge step forward, as in those years this tool allowed to create very large scenes and render animations very quickly on a simple desktop computer, making unnecessary to buy a Silicon Graphics.
This application never became massively used, it’s true, but there was a time when it was really much faster than any other. And it was quite used in some serious film productions, like Terminator 2, Star Trek or the second Star Wars trilogy.
And then came for me that moment when you really more forward, you think you already know a lot and you get into the “father and mother of all messes”: I couldn’t think of anything better than to start an overambitious animated short film, “La Pirámide”. A serious beginner’s mistake. Something that I started with a colleague, I was working something like a couple of years on it and we finally gave up. It was going to be a short between 10 and 15 minutes, if I remember correctly, with lots of grandiloquent scenarios… and a story that, seen today, seems to me something between ridiculous and absurd.
Luckily, although we didn’t finish it, it was a project in which I learned a lot of things.
I leave you here a few WIP shots. It’s very low resolution, 320 x 240, as they were simple tests, and in those years (still far from the arrival of HD) our goal was to render it in PAL size, 720 x 576.
Once I started to have something cool to show, one of my main clients saw what I was doing and immediately started to commission 3D projects. And a curious thing is that I started doing animations for him and not just still images. For this client, Kadus-Spain, I made about half a dozen animations at the end of the nineties. I will always have to thank my friend Fernando, who was in charge of marketing in that company, for giving me this opportunity.
I’ll leave you with one of these animations. As a curiosity: this was also rendered with ElectricImage, using only Phong. That means: without using raytracing, so all the reflections are pre-calculated and applied as 360º image environments. The only exception were reflections on flat surfaces (such as a floor) where a real mirror-like reflection could be used. Of course there are also no refractions on transparencies, which at that time was very “expensive” in time. And even less, global illumination, as you can imagine…
El Proyecto (2000)
As I had been left with the thorn in my side for not having finished that ambitious project, “The Pyramid”, I decided to embark on a new and more realistic personal animation. If I remember correctly, this short movie, “El Proyecto”, took me about six months. And I featured a building by one of my favorite architects, ever: Tadao Ando.
Same as the previous one: rendered with ElectricImage with Phong and not raytracing (and therefore without real reflections, refractions or GI). If you are surprised that I didn’t use raytracing in the year 2000, think that Pixar didn’t use it until his 2006 movie “Cars” · Source 1 and Source 2 (PDF)
Finally, this short was awarded the First Prize for the Best Infographics in Spain in ArtFutura 2000, which was great, for that time… But please don’t laugh too much at that little bee’s movements!
Berber Still Life (2000)
In the year 2000 a new version of ElectricImage appeared, the 2.9 if I remember correctly, which was a big step forward, technically speaking. The previous versions were very limited in the number of texturing channels they could use; release 2.9, on the other hand, didn’t have that limitation. It also incorporated the possibility of adding layers and more layers of textures, with different blending modes, as in Photoshop (Multiply, Screen, Overlay…), to create very complex materials. Even more if you mixed bitmap images with procedural shaders.
All this made me try to create more complex and elaborated images. I also focused for a while, for my personal projects, on creating still images rather than animations. Things that could be completed in just a few days, instead of months.
I was also very interested in the possibility of creating scenes that moved away from the dominant fashions (at that time almost everything were renders of robots and spaceships).
That’s why I came up with the idea of creating still lifes. Next I show you the first of them, featuring several objects brought during a recent trip to Morocco.
Note: the image you can see above is the original, created with ElectricImage in 2000. However, the image that appears featured at a bigger size (top of page) is a later version, an exercise I did when I was learning Modo in 2007.
I also wanted to make scenes inspired on nature. The next image was made very quickly (I only had to model an ant and that bent “tube”, since the background is a photograph). And although it is an extremely simple scene, it received an award from the developer of ElectricImage.
Spanish Breakfast (2000)
The following picture, another still life, was one of my first “hits”. I remember that the other colleagues (in the 3D-user forums) liked it very much, especially for the treatment of light.
Today, logically, it leaves a lot to be desired: there are a thousand things that could be improved, at all levels. But at the time, almost 20 years ago, it was a small boost for me.
And think that these scenes, although they already have more work of texturing and lighting than previous works, are still Phong renders: without true reflections (only environments) nor refractions, and of course without GI. All resorting to old tricks like using various light sources to simulate reflected illumination, color bleeding and such.
This is a very simple job, a basic exercise. And if I put it here is only because it is my first model in which I used subdivision surfaces, through ElectricModeler (a NURBS modeling program that for a few years was a companion for ElectricImage).
The curious thing about that modeler app is that, even working with NURBS, it also allowed you to create models based on subdivision surfaces. Of course, its capabilities as a SDS modeler were very far from what would come years later (with apps such as Modo), but for me, at that time, it was a useful novelty.
Think that the SDS modeling, completely standard for many years now, wasn’t there from the beginning of 3D: the first to use it was Pixar, in a short film from 1997 called “Geri’s Game”. And this exercise is just from three years later.
I’m not going to show you any pictures of the following year, 2001, sorry. Simply because nothing I did that year I now like, that is the truth… And it’s sad, because in 2001 I didn’t stop working, all year making big 3D commissioned projects.
I spent several months making an animation for a big logistic platform that was going to be built in my city. I was also commissioned to do an animation on paleontology and threatened flora. And an advertisement for a clothing store, for television. And more. That year I worked like a beast but the results of what I was doing didn’t excite me at all (it’s what it usually happens when you work in a hurry, with hardly any time to experiment or research)
In fact, there came a point when I realized that, working alone doing 3D, I had a big problem: most of projects were very time consuming and the only way to make them in less time would be to have more collaborators or employees. I remember that I spent almost 4 months creating the logistics platform. And in all that time I only rested on a single Sunday. Only one day of rest in 4 months!
Starting that year I got together with a couple of friends, experts in the field of marketing, and we thought about the idea of forming a small company (from this time comes the name “Etérea”). This plan would have involved training the new workers. Think that in those years there were hardly any places to study these things, at least in Spain. It’s not like nowadays, that 3D schools are emerging like mushrooms in a cave.
Initially we were all very excited about the project. But little by little, as the months went by, I began to have serious doubts. Pretty soon I realized that I don’t have the makings of a businessman. What I really enjoy is to stain my hands: to create things. So at the end of that year, 2001, I decided to abandon that “growing company” idea and make a new turn.
I went to an advertising agency where I had already worked, VOCA Comunicación, and I proposed to them to enter there, as a designer and art director, but only working part-time, in the mornings. That way I would have the afternoons, an abundant number of hours, to be able to develop my personal projects, which is what I really enjoyed and liked.
This is one of the first personal jobs I did, in my spare time, shortly after I started working in this new advertising agency.
Once again it’s a still life but here I wanted to capture the working atmosphere on the desk of a geographer or cartographer from the 18th or 19th centuries. And although I don’t consider it an important work, there is something that makes it special: it’s the first project I did with ElectricImage where I finally used raytracing, which can be seen in the reflections and refractions of the glass.
From 1984 to 1985, before going to Barcelona to study fine arts, I spent a year at the school of industrial engineering, in Zaragoza, my town.
One of the reasons why I had initially decided to study engineering, instead of an artistic career (even though I loved drawing so much) was because it seemed to me to be a much more serious career, with more future. Even more coming from a rather humble family (you know: “my son, you have to build a good future and study a good career…”).
And the other important reason I wrongly chose engineering was because in my imagination it was a good strategy to end up being a “super-car” designer. When I was a kid, I was passionate about seeing those cool car prototypes that appeared in specialist magazines or could be seen at the Geneva Motor Show…
Then came the harsh reality of physics, algebra and infinitesimal calculus and I realized that when I was happy was drawing and painting…
But years later, when I discovered this new tool that was 3D modeling, I thought it could be fun to create my own prototypes, for pure pleasure.
This kind of flying car, Sentinel, was the first of them. Modeled with ElectricModeler and rendered with ElectricImage.
This was a new model created only a few months after the previous one. And with the same tools. This time with its four wheels.
And a few years later, in what would be my last year of work at VOCA (the advertising agency I had joined part-time in 2001) I created a new prototype of a super car in my spare time, but this time animated. For this project I also worked with ElectricImage, but the modeling was done with Rhino.
Cristóbal Vila, September 2019, Zaragoza, Spain