Architect by day, Digital Artist by night – CGI fantasy leaps off with Character Creator, iClone, and Cinema 4D
Kay 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 work has been featured on Maxon, Artstation, CG Record and 80.LV.
Yim’s growing passion for crafting unbuilt architecture with technology has gradually driven himself to taking 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.
Part I. ARTWORK
Q : Hi John, welcome to our Feature Story series. First of all, congratulations on all the art and architectural visualization awards you’ve won and on being elected into the Hall of Fame on CG Boost and VWArtclub in 2022!
Could you share with us the art concepts behind ‘Kagura’ and ‘Ballerina’ ? What are their similarities and what kind of message would you like to convey with ‘Kagura’?
Thank you so much for having me, it is such an honor to be featured again in Reallusion Magazine!
Both projects ‘Ballerina’ 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‘, on the other hand, embodied my enthusiasm for Japanese culture and aesthetics. The project concept is a fantasized 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.
Q : Thank you for sharing such an uneasy yet beautiful struggle with us. The transformational moment really caught my eye—such a magic moment as the ballerina finally meets her true self!
Can you share more about the process of creating such a moment? Did you confront any difficulties during the process?
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 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. MD gave very realistic results but it was very 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 ten seconds of animation.
Q : Is the final result close to what you envisaged? What could be done better next time?
The final result is quite close to what I envisaged, although I initially planned to include a zoom-in shot very early on but ultimately had to give up due to PC spec constraints. The model got extremely heavy early on and I spent a lot of time simply waiting for viewport feedback—in retrospect, I could have optimized the model a lot more and kept the model as simple as possible until the final render.
Part II. CHARACTER CREATION
Q : As mentioned in many interviews, you’re heavily influenced by Japanese culture, like the scene of ‘Kagura’ is set at a Japanese ryokan that inspired the high-grossing anime film “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” in 2020. Interestingly enough, the characters you have designed are more leaning toward realistic digital humans.
I wonder if you’ve ever considered creating more Japanese anime-like characters, or game characters such as “Final Fantasy XIII”, which also are hyper-realistic yet in anime style.
What are the pros and cons of using Character Creator to produce your characters ?
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, which ultimately led me to the path I have chosen.
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 allows me to add narrative to my architectural renders, making them more relatable to the viewers.
Q : In terms of stylized characters, I’m quite curious about your thoughts on Disney-style characters such as the Toy Story tetralogy. Has this type of cartoon-style aesthetics ever influenced your character creations?
Like many other artists, I am also inspired by Disney animations, particularly the lighting and the color combinations, but to a lesser extent Disney-style characters. I find partially stylized characters in 3D—notably the combination of realistic materials and exaggerated proportions—not as immersive as fully stylized 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 stylized character I have ever seen. I am sure it will be a lot of fun and a challenge to design a fully stylized character myself, but there is still so much to explore in the world of photorealism I have no plans on publishing any stylized artwork yet.
Part III. COMPOSITION
Q : Wabi-sabi aesthetics is the core philosophy permeating Japanese art and lifestyle, which emphasizes asymmetry, simplicity, and modesty. However, John’s pieces always reveal a glamorous world where the exquisite characters situate in splendid surroundings.
I can’t help but wonder how this worldview influences you when you start creating something new.
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.
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.
Q : Since you’re familiar with Cinema4D and Redshift to build up environments, could you elaborate on the artistic concept behind the winning entry ‘Ark Muse’ which eventually got featured in Maxon Redshift’s new 2022 official demo reel ?
How do you create such a convincing fantasy by combining C4D with Redshift and Character Creator? Did Wabi-sabi aesthetics inspire you in any way?
‘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 is the essential ingredient in creating a “suspension of disbelief”—an important role that anchors the viewers in a chaotic dreamy world.
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 plugin used in combination with Redshift added a lot of subtle detail and made the composition much more tangible.
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.
Part IV. ARCHITECT, ARCHVIZ & CG ART
Q : In the Renderbus CG Webinar, you shared four tips to CG enthusiasts from your industry background as a RIBA chartered architect.
I wonder how these personal CG arts projects have influenced your architectural career in the past two-plus years, whether positively or negatively?
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 that I could reuse to realize ideas much more quickly. This spared me a lot of repetitive modeling time that I could then spend elsewhere, for instance, learning character animation.
Q : ArchViz is a relatively new field in the AEC industry. As an “Architect by day, CGI Artist by night”, how do you see the development of ArchViz and Architecture industries for indie artists and pro studios in the next five years?
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 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.
Q : So far, instead of using 3D characters, architecture firms tend to use 2D characters to decorate their architecture mocap.
In your opinion, how will 3D character animation be applied to the ArchViz and architectural industries in the near future ?
I think the majority of ArchViz always feel very distant from the general public due to the lack of convincing CG people 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.
Part V. PIPELINE
Q : Being a self-taught and diligent artist, John has been learning more than thirty-plus software to create CG artwork.
Can you elaborate on your experiences of not fixating on one or two software? Instead, you seem to be trying new ones all the time. Isn’t that time-consuming or has it opened up new possibilities in your CG art?
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.
Q : ‘Kagura’ is probably your first work using Character Creator 4 (CC4) and iClone 8 (iC8). How did the transition between the software upgrades impact your work?
Did you confront any hindrances? If so, how did you solve them? Finally, what are your favorite features of CC4 and iC8?
The transition from CC3 to CC4 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, and the mirroring function gave me more flexibility while posing my characters.
My favorite feature of iClone 8 is the integration of 3DXChange, which streamlined my workflow of importing non-CC characters and mocap animations for use within iClone.
Part VI. ADVICE
Q : Architecture is a demanding profession, how do you gather new ideas beyond the daily routine, especially something not related to architecture?
For example, your piece ‘The Magician: Golden Gallery’ recently was highlighted in the ArtStation Fashion week.
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.
Q : As you addressed in the webinar, the best way to learn is to pick up one subject that interests you most and then dive in.
Could you describe your experiences of learning 3D modeling, rendering, and creating clothes in Marvelous Designer? Who are your role models for learning each topic?
Similar to learning Marvelous Designer, I think the best way to learn modeling 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.
Q : For people who are interested in the ArchViz industry, from your point of view, what are the best three learning resources to start with ?
I think official (software) documentation 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.
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.
Q : Please share with us one quote that influenced you a lot to this today.
‘Kagura’ is by far the most challenging personal project I have ever done since I had little to no experience in motion graphics or character animation half a year ago. I learned along the way as I worked on projects ‘Kagura’ and ‘Ballerina’ all through trial and error, rendering out iteration after iteration throughout the past 6 months.
With Reallusion and Fox Renderfarm’s support, I eventually brought ‘Kagura’ to life, and this has been the most rewarding project since I began my CGI journey. For any self-taught CG artist out there like myself, who is constantly struggling to up their quality and skill set, I would like to share a quote by American novelist Anne Lamott—the quote originally refers to writing but it deeply resonated with me as an artist:
Creating art is like driving a car at night. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.
Learn more :
• Kay John Yim’s personal site https://johnyim.com/
• Kay John Yim’s ArtStation https://www.artstation.com/johnyim
• Character Creator https://www.reallusion.com/character-creator/download.html