The Temperamental Creation of ‘Gamma’, a Mechanical Ode to Nature

Cornelius Dämmrich tells how he follows his instincts to build 3D statement pieces.

At some point between meeting number one and two with the Substance team, I was tasked to come up with something that shows how to incorporate Substance Source into a 3D artwork. No bottom line, no subtext, just that one question and a blank page.

I was born in 1989, grew up with the old, yellowish computers of my stepfather’s and hit puberty in the early 2000s. It’s only natural when you grow up and along with tech-savvy people, that you build a strong relationship towards CRT monitors at some point during your youth. 

So, given the choice, I will of course make something about CRT monitors: they are the creative byproduct of a romanticized version of the early to mid-nineties.

I was a kid at that time. Everything felt good, work was of no concern yet and the big, well formed sticks I found in my backyard still yielded tons of options for “offline play”. I still vividly remember my introduction to what would later be my first computer. It was a yellowish, slow PC with 28 Mhz that housed all the magic and excitement there was in this world. I was just 6 years old but immediately knew that I would become a computer person.

Courtesy of Cornelius Dämmrich

In a way, Gamma is an homage to these formative years, but also a look into the past. Nowadays, technology can be very fast-paced and I like to look back a decade or two to see what “state of the art” would get you then.

Atmospheric stress-testing concepts

When I think about starting a new project, the whole concept has to ‘endure’ an emotional, atmospheric stress test. 

The other day I was watching the movie Fight Club and in a scene in the second half of the movie, Tyler Durden describes the world he sees the narrator in. In the background you hear the faint yelling of people and it sounds like they are standing in a giant train station, where echoes of the train announcements, coming from dozens of low-fi speakers, cancel each other out. And I just can barely hear that it’s yelling, but not the information that they want to transport. 

Then Tyler talks about tiny figures, pounding corn on a carpool lane of an abandoned superhighway. He doesn’t go further, it’s just his words but I can immediately see, smell and year everything he’s describing. These words, the sounds… my thoughts on how I am 6 years old, standing at the Cologne central station and in front of the big cathedral. 

I am lost, in awe, and I’m in the 90s. Everything around me gets twisted and transformed in little scraps of information that form a weird creative remix. If a scrap is big enough or the information triggers something in me, the inspiration can last for years. Sometimes it’s the mundane existence of pure labor, like being in a void, an echo chamber of hard work that does that. And sometimes, nothing happens. It’s like holding a dead bird or a broken walkman. The magic left. 

I usually don’t really know what I am doing, it’s all intuition. I only know when things need more time or when I have to accept that a concept failed the emotional stress test. 

Everything is delivered through feelings and atmosphere. I try to design things so they can trigger that response in a human. And I don’t have a list of emotions that I place into an image like a puzzle… It never works like that. I just know when I spend enough time on something, I will become a part of it and therefore it’s good. If I’d worked 4 months longer on this piece, it would be more “me” – but I didn’t, and now it’s not bad, but it’s younger and fresher. It’s done, and in the state it has to be.

Getting ideas into 3D

The software I’m using and all the tools and gimmicks I have at my disposal are an extension of artistic language. When you are fluent in German, English, Czech, Russian, Chinese or whatever, it will never feel like you have to actually ‘speak’, like… choosing the words in your head and bringing them in the right order. You think about the information you want to bring across and your brain does the rest: it’s just an extension of your thoughts. It’s the same thing when I use that software – I know what elements I have, and what order they have to be in and I hope that the software does the rest for me. And I learned all that by just doing it for a very long time. 

Step 01

Thinking about an image and figuring out what aspect ratio would work. The idea of a tree-like structure was already present and since most trees are taller than wide, I decided on an A4 aspect ratio.

Kind of a hot take here, but even if you break down CRTs into their most basic components you will end up with something you find in nature, be it oil for plastics, quartz for glass, rare metals, etc. It’s also perfect to just show how widely complex Substance Source can be.

Step 02

Blocking the image. I use the A4 format and block essential parts of the structure with primitive shapes and objects to get a feeling how I need to place the camera, which focal length works best and how big each element has to be. I also work on a first draft for the lighting.

I used to avoid blocking for so many years. When you are young and eager to work, it feels best to go straight to the details. Details are cool and you can show off with them while blocking looks boring and easy from a technical standpoint. I would try to come up with an image while I was knee deep in other problems, like… modelling, shading and my tax report. Looking at the works of others that were better than me, I realized that they usually first start by building and planning their pieces with an uglier version of it to get the composition and feel right.

Step 03

I use reference images to figure out how the arms / branches of the tree could look. I decide that I don’t need to build them in pose and that it would work best if I just build them stiff, but in such a way that I can move them later.

Step 04

I start modelling the robot arms and their base in Fusion 360. I make sure the joints are movable and won’t intersect with each other so I can apply a simple rig later and move them as I want. I also built an old school CRT Monitor in Fusion 360.

I use Fusion because for me it’s the simplest way to model something. The proper way of modelling is by using Subdivision Surface Modelling, which can take a long time and be confusing and mundane for many people. I usually enjoy mundane things but even the most boring person needs some fast-paced action at some point and I can reach that point fairly quick when I have to poly model things for weeks.

Step 05

I bring all the assets into Cinema 4D and do a first draft of poses for the arms. 

The antenna and tree stump are still missing. I refine the lighting a bit.

Step 06

I do a retopo of one arm and create a UV layout by unwrapping it in RizomUV – this is the prep work for the texturing process.

After that I replace all the other arms with that one unwrapped arm model so I can easily apply the same set of texture maps to each of them, if I want. After that I do the same to the monitor.

Step 07

I load the model of the arm into Substance Painter, bake the base maps and use a procedural metal material from Substance Source as the base layer for all the texture sets.

Based on that, I build several sets of textures for that arm. One with very worn metal, one with polished metal, one with blue paint, one with orange paint and one entirely made out of rubbery plastic.

Step 08

After exporting the textures from Substance Painter, I use them to build PBR Materials from the OctaneRenderer Universal Material, and apply them in random fashion to the arms.

I do that so it looks like the arms were constantly rebuilt from used parts and were never ‘from the same mold’. It gives the whole construct a Cyberpunk, used feel.

Step 09

I do the same thing with the monitors and try to make them look like they were used in an office environment, way past their usual lifecycle and with the occasional smoker using them. The final state of their life, after serving an eternity in a very random and boring company that does insurance or something equally ‘lame’, is spent in a dusty void of darkness, displaying the pillars of creation on a beacon that does… something.

Step 10

I start doing some work on the cables. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to add cables, because cables are fun and make everything look cooler.

At the same time I do some more work on the lighting and try to figure out if a visible reflection in one of the monitor screens is looking good or not.

With Without

Step 12

After doing overall fixes to textures, materials and adding some more cables and lights here and there, I texture the mechanical column of the tree.

Here I used a combination of two materials I already built for the arms. The rubbery plastic is the base layer and the paint that was used to cover the metal in the model for the arms is layed on top of it. Substance Painter makes it quite easy to just play around with these things.

Step 13

I build the antenna in Fusion 360, do a retopo of the bad CAD mesh and unwrap everything. Then I load them up in Substance Painter and use the materials from the arm on them. I change the tone of the blue and orange a bit so it looks like they are from the same production, but come from a faulty batch.

Step 14

I’m not happy with the random order of the materials I put on the arms so I switch them around until they look better in the light they receive. I put metal in the spots where it can create beautiful and messed up highlights or reflections and try to put everything that’s more dull and soft into the shadow areas.

Step 15

I start building the concrete base and the wood planks below it. There was no concept for that during the blocking part because I thought it would just randomly start to look good once I put some texture magic on it. Surprise, surprise – it didn’t! I had to figure that one out without any pre-thought. 

The wooden planks are made with relatively high poly boxes that make use of a displacer that only displaces polygons on both directions of the X axis. This creates the splintered look. In addition to that I created a vertex map that only affects these splintered areas and then used Octane Scatter to clone a couple thousand little splinters on that vertex map.

The material for the wood and the concrete is a Substance Source preset I didn’t even have to tweak. And although I unwrapped both the wood and concrete, I discovered that I can also just use the Substance Player, export tileable 4k maps from that and apply them in Cinema 4D directly and use some transform nodes in the Octane material to give them the correct scale and orientation. It didn’t even need tons of tweaking.

Step 16

Started working on that tree stump. I was very afraid of that part, because I pitched it without thinking about how to build it. I thought it wouldn’t be that hard, but as it turns out, you can’t just throw out a perfectly modelled tree stump in a few hours. I tested it with some royalty-free 3D scans but that didn’t work either. Then I just started to build the rough shape of the stump and the roots and used a volume mesher to make one model out of it – and, surprise, after looking up some very rough bark in the Substance Source library, it started to look decent enough to give me the confidence to move on!

Step 17

I added fog and blue light. I also add grass and moss that I spread with Octane scatter, using a falloff vertex map to clone it just on top of everything.

After Before

Step 19

Even after finishing all the cables, adjusting the lighting for the fifth time and fine tuning everything into its final state I felt something was missing. What gave everything the final touch was a cloth simulation for some strings of barrier tape that is loosely hanging down the arms and branches. In addition to that, I scattered little specks of dust on each surface and in the air around it.

For the simulation I used a software tool called Marvelous Designer. Marvelous Designer is actually made for cloth simulations but I often use it to simulate garbage bags or plastic foils. I made a cloth pattern for longer plastic stripes and some closed, plastic rings. Then I used gravity and wind turbulence to make them fall on the geometry of the mechanical tree. Since they are set up with a sewing pattern in mind, it’s pretty easy to texture them because the UV layout aligns perfectly with how the sewing patterns are aligned in the 2D window.

Artwork by Cornelius Dämmrich

And finally, after spontaneously deciding that this whole project could also be a cool one minute animation, I asked my good friend Lukas Guziel to compose some music for it. Lukas is responsible for almost every tune you can hear in my work for the last 5 years. We have known each other for much longer than that, and found out by accident that our musical tastes match. This, and the fact that he is a brilliant composer, makes it very easy and fun to work with him, and gives all of my creative shenanigans that final atmospheric touch.

Cornelius will be live on YouTube with Wes McDermott next week, don’t miss it!

Artwork by Cornelius Dämmrich