CGI fantasy takes leaps with Reallusion's Character Creator, iClone, and Cinema 4D

John Yim animation
(Image credit: John Yim)

John Yim is a Chartered Architect at Spink Partners based in London. He has worked on a wide range of projects across the UK, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, including property development and landscape design.

His growing passion for crafting unbuilt architecture with technology has gradually driven him to take on the role of a CGI artist, delivering visuals that not only serve as client presentations but also as means of communication among the design and construction team. Since the 2021 COVID lockdown, he challenged himself to take courses in CG disciplines beyond architecture and has since won more than a dozen CG competitions. His work has been featured on Maxon, Artstation, CG Record, and 80.LV.

Yim recently used Reallusion's tools (opens in new tab) to create two CGI fantasy projects: Ballerina and Kagura (see them below). In this interview, he explains he used Reallusion (opens in new tab) in his artistic process. 

Video: Ballet Ensemble in Grand Opéra Garnier with Cinema 4D, Character Creator & iClone (opens in new tab)

Interview with John Yim

Part 1: Artwork

West meets East: Artistry of ballet and kagura

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

Both projects 'Ballerina (opens in new tab)' and 'Kagura' are representations of myself; they are metaphors for the inner conflicts and struggles in my artistic pursuit. As both an architect and a CGI artist, I am constantly struggling between creating art for mass appeal as opposed to simply creating a well-composed image that I love. In 'Ballerina' I combined ballet with Baroque architecture, knowing full well that glamorous ballet poses and architectural style would draw the most attention.

Ballet, an art form widely known to have stringent standards of beauty and highly susceptible to public and self-criticism, is the metaphor of my artistic practice, particularly in gaining online traction through social media. No matter how proficient I become in my skills, the struggle never fades away as I feel like I am always competing against every other artist for attention.

'Kagura (opens in new tab)', on the other hand, embodied my enthusiasm for Japanese culture and aesthetics. The project concept is a fantasised version of a Shinto ritual ceremonial dance in Japan. Traditionally, the dancer herself turns into a god during the performance – here depicted as the dancer's ballerina tutu dress transforming into a hakama as she dances on the floating stage, purifying spirits of nature. The transformation sequence is a literal "reveal" of my inner conflict, as I have come to terms with it and accepted the fact that creating art could simply be an act of self-indulgence.

Finding one’s true north with art: Journey from ballerina to kagura dancer

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

The animation can be broken down into three parts: the character, the cloth simulation, and the transformation. The character animation was based on one mocap data found on Reallusion Marketplace, which I modified in iClone (opens in new tab) to get the specific gestures and slow-motion look that I envisioned.

For the cloth simulation, I used a combination of Marvelous Designer (MD) and iClone/Character Creator (opens in new tab) (CC). MD gave very realistic results but it was fiddly and time-consuming for simulating multi-layered clothing; iClone and CC cloth physics was essentially real-time but lacked realism for complex clothes. For these reasons I prepared two sets of garments in MD (tutu dress & hakama) and grouped them into two categories: skin-tight garments and loose garments. The skin-tight garments (tutu dress leotard & hakama inner layer) required less detail and were animated in iClone; the loose garments (tutu dress skirt & rest of the hakama) were simulated in MD for maximum detail. The transformation of the tutu dress into hakama was primarily driven by “PolyFX” within Cinema4D.

Even though the animation was fairly simple – technically speaking – it was extremely challenging to reach a rhythm and an aesthetic that flowed naturally with the character’s movement. I ended up spending over two months just iterating over the 10 seconds of animation.

Part 2: Character

To pick a style: realistic digital human, anime avatar, or Disney-esque character

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

I have considered creating Japanese anime-like characters – in fact, Final Fantasy XIII inspired me to learn 3D. However, as architecture has become an inseparable part of my life throughout the past decade, I came to appreciate the beauty in subtle proportions, lighting, materials, and details found in photorealistic CGI (opens in new tab), which ultimately led me to the path I have chosen.

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

Character Creator empowered architects like me to create CG characters without the professional knowledge of a character artist. As characters convey the scale and purpose of a space, Character Creator (opens in new tab) allows me to add narrative to my architectural renders, making them more relatable to the viewers.

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

Like many other artists, I am also inspired by Disney animations, particularly the lighting and the colour combinations, but to a lesser extent Disney-style characters. I find partially stylised characters (opens in new tab) in 3D – notably the combination of realistic materials and exaggerated proportions – not as immersive as fully stylised characters like those found in the recent Netflix series Arcane. The unique combination of painterly textures and 3D models in Arcane looks nothing like every other Disney or stylised character I have ever seen. I am sure it will be a lot of fun and a challenge to design a fully stylised character myself, but there is still so much to explore in the world of photorealism I have no plans on publishing any stylised artwork yet.

Composition

Instilling wabi-sabi philosophy into Western aesthetics with Character Creator and Cinema 4D

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

I was heavily exposed to Japanese culture growing up in Hong Kong, and although I appreciate wabi-sabi aesthetics, I see it more as a philosophy and a work ideal. In every artwork I create, I aim to bring out a sense of serene melancholy from the viewers, longing for more.

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

Take "Forfeited Souls: The Unfinished Chapels of Batalha" as an example, every element within the composition was doused with mystery – the giant cat appearing from the sky, the large standing statues, and the glowing flowers – everything was woven together into an incomplete narrative. Although I did have a story in mind while creating "Forfeited Souls", I never described it explicitly and left it to the viewers' imagination.

Maxon Redshift Reel features "Ark Muse"

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

"Ark Muse" was created under a very tight deadline for a Clint Jones' INFINITE JOURNEYS Challenge; the project concept is one's desire of going back in time ultimately manifested while asleep (note the clock on the table). Unlike a lot of my other works, "Ark Muse" depicts a fantasy land, where elements of different eras collide. The CG character (opens in new tab) is the essential ingredient in creating a "suspension of disbelief" – an important role that anchors the viewers in a chaotic dreamy world.

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

I used Character Creator in combination with Marvelous Designer to create the character and placed her in the foreground of the composition. Character Creator allowed me to iterate on various character poses very quickly, and thus allowed me to make design decisions a lot quicker. The skin texture maps created using Character Creator's Skingen (opens in new tab) plugin used in combination with Redshift added a lot of subtle detail and made the composition much more tangible.

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

Similar to "Forfeited Souls", nothing in "Ark Muse" was explicitly implied; it invites the viewers to ponder and question the fantasy land, leaving the viewers longing for more.

Architect, Archviz and CG Art

How a RIBA architect evolves with CG art

My personal projects have definitely helped me progress with my career as an architect, especially in upping my work efficiency and making design decisions, and I stand by the four tips that I give to all CG enthusiasts.

Four tips from Renderbus CG Webinar 24: 

  • Iterate objectively.
  • CG is not a lab experiment.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  • Meeting deadline.

The one piece of advice that I have been pondering a lot lately is "not reinventing the wheel". I have built up a library of 3D assets (opens in new tab) that I could reuse to realise ideas much more quickly. This spared me a lot of repetitive modeling time that I could then spend elsewhere, for instance, learning character animation.

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

Five-year outlook for ArchViz and the field of architecture

With the rapid advancement in real-time rendering and AI software, ArchViz has a much lower entry barrier than before. 

Real-time rendering software like Unreal Engine 5 (opens in new tab) and D5 Render are very promising in delivering Archviz of decent quality, their instant visual feedback means much quicker turnarounds. On the other hand, AI software like Midjourney and Disco Diffusion are capable of generating images with lighting and composition pleasing to the eye – both of which used to take a lot of time for ArchViz artists to iterate. Though the aforementioned programs are still lacking in features to be reliably used on a daily basis, I can definitely see architects, including myself, being able to produce decent renders much quicker and hence communicate with clients much more efficiently in the next five years.

Realistic 3D characters come alive in exquisite interiors

I think the majority of ArchViz always feel very distant from the general public due to the lack of convincing CG people (opens in new tab) and crowds. With realistic CG characters more readily available through software like Character Creator 4 and iClone, this will definitely help bridge the communication gap between architects and clients.

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

Pipeline

Standout features of Character Creator and iClone

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

Learning new software obviously takes time, but with software advancing so quickly in recent years, one is more likely to lose time, in the long run, fixating on outdated software and workflows.

Learning Houdini for instance, allowed me to look at 3D from a completely different perspective; I have since transitioned to a procedural workflow as opposed to a destructive workflow, which eliminated a lot of repetitive tasks that I used to do on a daily basis. I could not imagine completing projects 'Ballerina' or 'Kagura' without Houdini's procedural workflow, particularly in cleaning up cloth simulations.

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

The transition from CC3 to CC4 (opens in new tab) and iC7 to iC8 is relatively smooth; I appreciate the lack of GUI overhaul which makes transitioning much easier. My favorite features of CC4 are the timeline integration and the ability to mirror poses by body parts. The timeline integration eliminated the need to export CC Characters to iClone for previewing animations (opens in new tab), and the mirroring function gave me more flexibility while posing my characters.

My favorite feature of iClone 8 (opens in new tab) is the integration of 3DXChange, which streamlined my workflow of importing non-CC characters and mocap animations for use within iClone.

Advice

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

A lot of the time my inspiration outside of architecture comes from movies. "The Magician: Golden Gallery" was indirectly inspired by the Disney movie "Cruella". The elaborate costume designs really caught my eye and sparked my interest in fashion design. It motivated me to learn garment creation in Marvelous Designer, which I did so by studying sewing patterns and reading fashion magazines.

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

Similar to learning Marvelous Designer, I think the best way to learn modelling and rendering is just to work on personal projects one is interested in and search for solutions online when encountering a hurdle. 

I do not have a particular role model in CG, but I picked up advice from a mentor and a senior architect that I greatly respect, which is to work consistently as opposed to cramming for deadlines. I took the advice to heart and learned something new every day, consistently over the past two years.

I think official (software) documentation (opens in new tab) is the most underrated resource for learning any sort of 3D software; I personally learned to use Redshift render mostly from reading its official documentation.

CGI art fantasy

(Image credit: John Yim)

Apart from official learning resources, I always recommend Ian Hubert's Patreon and Hugo Guerra's Youtube channel for anyone interested in ArchViz or simply creating beautiful renders in general. Both of the aforementioned channels teach 3D and compositing in a software-agnostic manner that applies to any toolset.

To discover more of Yim’s pro tips, you can read the full version (opens in new tab) here. 

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