Artist Spotlight: KHAN, Cédric Magne

Pushing 3D in new directions with LightWave, this Paris-based artist embodies the art of creativity and philanthropy.

Posted: Fri 09 Jan 2015

Known as KHAN, Cédric Magne is a 3D animator who pushes creativity to new limits. Since becoming a 3D animator 14 years ago, he’s been dedicated to learning new 3D techniques, perfecting his skills and expanding the way he visualizes the physical world—with its objects, lighting and textures—in a virtual environment.

Through his digital creative studio—555Lab in Paris—he’s created 3D animations for many high-profile brands including: Audi, Van Cleef & Arpels, Dior, Nespresso, Champagnes Bollinger, Armani, Deutz and Masterdisk to name but a few.

He’s also done character animations, 3D animated visual effects for music videos, and 3D product design and printing for consumer electronics for Samsung, JVC, Motorola and Logitech, as well as 3D architectural visualizations for Jihua Park, China’s new luxury fashion villages and the One Nation commercial complex in Paris.

While his studio’s work encompasses all types of 3D animation, two recent 3D animated videos for UNICEF really capture his passion for storytelling. Frimousse de Créateurs (2013) and Frimousses 3.0 (2012) both tell magical stories featuring unique dolls created by famous designers like Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani, Louis Vuitton and other haute couture brands.

These animations were designed to promote UNICEF’s annual auction of these designer dolls to raise money for vaccines for the children of Darfur and other needy communities.

“Today, four out of five children are able to get vaccines because of UNICEF’s fundraising efforts,” said KHAN, CEO and digital creative strategist for 555Lab. “When we ask ourselves if what we do has a special meaning or purpose, for us the answer is yes when we’re involved with a project for UNICEF.”

555Lab has provided its services to UNICEF on a pro-bono basis since 2009, including Frimousse de Créateurs (2013) and Frimousses 3.0 (2012). KHAN served as the lead designer and 3D animator, while his brother, Spider (after Spiderman), served as director.

Designed with a futuristic look and feel, Frimousses 3.0 is a 30-second tour through a digital doll factory. It begins by rising up a stairway through a contemporary sky lit lobby—inspired by the work of Zaha Hadid—and several security doors. The doors open onto a factory floor where manufacturing robots are assembling dolls that are moving along on a conveyer belt.

While it seems that the dolls are being mass-produced, we soon see that each one is actually a unique designer doll. At the end, after robots encase the dolls in clear globes to send off to the auction, we see shots of 3D animated syringes for the vaccines and video keys of children to be immunized.

The following year, 555Lab kicked it up a notch with Frimousse de Créateurs (French for designer dolls) an enchanted, magical journey through sunlit blue skies over Paris. In the 30-second clip, a steampunk-style prop plane flies through puffy clouds and navigates between and around famous Parisian landmarks. These landmarks, such as the Arc de Triumph, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre, are situated on chunks of earth floating in mid-air.

While some designer dolls can be seen standing inside the plane, others are encased in clear capsules that are attached to either hot air balloons or spinning propellers as they glide along and gently fall to earth.

Midway through the animation, a pink satin ribbon weaves itself around everything in the scene—the plane, the balloons and the Parisian landmarks—as it heads for the Eiffel Tower.

In the final shot, the dolls arrive at the Eiffel Tower, which is adorned with a doll’s head wearing a pink beret, a big pink satin bow and pink ribbons, which is the key visual for UNICEF’s Frimousse de Créateurs 2013 fundraising campaign.

LightWave in Motion

The work for Frimousse de Créateurs was primarily done using LightWave 3D, including its new spline control feature, which was at that time in a beta release. 555Lab also used Pixologic’s ZBrush—digital art and sculpting software—and Go-Z, which provides a seamless bridge between ZBrush and LightWave.

“We couldn’t have accomplished some of the more complex elements without key LightWave features, such as spline control and instancing,” KHAN said. “Without these features, it would’ve taken much longer to create certain scenes or we might not have attempted them at all.”

While LightWave’s instancing feature is typically used to quickly replicate objects, such as trees or birds, in this case it was used to replicate the flat polygon that provided the 3D surface onto which photos of the designer dolls could be applied.

“We weren’t creating a greater number of dolls as you might think with instancing. We were in fact stamping out multiple copies of the single flat polygon that the doll photos could be placed on, and texture nodes enabled the different textures” KHAN said. “Once we created this pipeline, it was easier to put the dolls wherever we needed them with the help of particles or flocking and use them in different ways throughout both Frimousse movies, making certain that none of them was used twice.”

For the 2013 UNICEF animation, KHAN asked Salif Eric N’diaye, a Paris-based freelance LightWave 3D animator, to create the prominently featured steampunk propeller plane.

“Steampunk is a very exciting, distinctive 19th Century artistic style we don’t hear about very often. It mixes mechanical and old school elements like copper, steam and rivets, making it perfect to picture this unique look we were after,” KHAN said.

The plane, which has the word UNICEF on its body, is seen from many angles, including close-ups of the wings and propellers. Its cargo hold is an open space with a shiny floor that is covered by a glass dome, allowing viewers to see the dolls standing inside.

As the plane flies through the luminous blue skies and puffy clouds, the Parisian landmarks come into view. These landmarks are on plots of grassy, rocky ground that appear to have been plucked up out of the earth and suspended in mid-air where the plane is flying around.

To create this magical suspension of reality, KHAN turned to Pixologic’s ZBrush software and the Go Z exchange feature in LightWave. “I modeled the rocks in LightWave and used instancing to put some grass and plants underneath them. To give the ground and rocky surface a more distinctive quality, I brought the rocks into ZBrush. This software let me essentially paint-on the rocky detail and texture I wanted much faster than I could have done using procedural 3D animation techniques. Using displacement, normal mapping, bump [mapping] and instances made it easy to get what we wanted.”

Frimousse de Créateurs (2013) gave KHAN the opportunity to use LightWave’s spline control, which allows nulls and other objects to act as nodes in a spline to control or deform objects like tentacles, whips, belts, snakes, or even elevators.

KHAN received Spline slightly ahead of its official release because he participates in LightWave’s beta testers program, but it’s now part of LightWave as of version 11.6. It arrived just in time to help him to create the pink satin ribbon that threads and weaves its way around all the airborne elements.

“Objects that need to move in a linear or serpentine manner are some of the most complex, time consuming animations to do,” KHAN said. “Since this was the first time I had ever used Spline, I needed to experiment with the way it would animate the ribbon and I found it was very easy to use and worked very well.”

He started by drawing a motion path with a few nodes, then moved the ribbon along that axis with the help of bones. Whenever he wanted it to change directions, it was just a matter of adjusting a few points or nodes along that path and the ribbon would change course interactively.

“Before spline, this ribbon would have required hours and hours of painstaking animation. There are other tools I could’ve used but since they’re not purpose-built for this effect, the resulting motion might not have been as smooth as I would’ve liked. The ribbon proved to be a distinctive and special visual element in the movie, but I might have avoided doing it at all were it not for spline.”

While the UNICEF projects were both very whimsical and magical, much of the work in 555Lab’s portfolio is edgy and photo-realistic. In fact, some of the 3D product work looks like the products were skillfully photographed.

“Being able to achieve the right texturing, shading, lighting and rendering is where the strength of this medium lies,” KHAN said. “Our team is inspired by reality and photographs and other ways that show us how light works and how objects respond to light. Once we understand the nature of the physical world, we can go back to our 3D software and make our images believable.”

Keeping it almost real 

The more photo-realistic a product looks, the better it will sell, KHAN explained. Entrepreneurs, developers, Kickstarter campaigns and other start-ups need to show something that looks real in order to attract the capital, business or sales they need to launch their products.

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“There are times when the product or packaging doesn’t exist yet, like a new Samsung smart phone or Viktor & Rolf perfume. In the past, product marketing teams would sometimes resort to building prototypes or mock-ups but this approach can be expensive, time-consuming and difficult to modify, with 3D we can save them weeks and let them try whatever their imagination is telling them,” he said.

Using LightWave tools like the VPR (Viewport Preview Renderer), the animator gets immediate feedback about what’s working or not in a scene before undertaking the time-consuming 3D rendering process. It’s also easy to finesse various aspects of the imagery; such as the way light is reflecting off an object’s surface with the VPR and the powerful nodal texturing system, realism can be pushed further in a more subtle and precise way.

Once these creative decisions are made, KHAN exports PLY or STL files from LightWave and sends them to his 3D printer for printing. The result is a physical object that marketers can take around as they try to generate excitement or business for it. “To create a 3D object in LightWave, and then have that product in your hands—just the way you envisioned it—is very exciting,” KHAN said.

Combining LightWave with his 3D printer also opened the door to a mixed media campaign for Wadé Comics, in Paris. Wadé [pronounced Wah-Day] has long been a beloved comic book character in France that may soon move to feature films.

As the story goes, Wadé was abducted as a child and then wakes up years later as an adult. But he doesn’t know where he comes from, only that he has this strong relationship with monsters that live underground. Since he’s part human and part monster, this leaves him struggling with good versus evil.

The Wadé Comics work encompassed creation of a 3D character, a movie poster and a kit to make a 3D paper toy of Wadé. This kit—that lets people cut a printed 2D image of Wadé out along dotted lines, fold and glue it together—was distributed with select issues of the comic book.

Also, the poster is comprised of a matte painting of the Parisian cityscape at dusk and a full moon that was treated with ZBrush sculpting. The poster also features Wadé himself, a tough, dark-skinned hulkish man with glaring yellow eyes, who stands menacingly with the skyline behind him. KHAN said this work is a lot of fun, especially for Spider, whose desk is covered with Spiderman paraphernalia and comics of every kind.

“In everything we do, we put ideas and concepts ahead of any specific artistic style,” KHAN said. “We identify the underlying objectives or story each project needs to convey and let that determine our style.”

“We’re very lucky,” he added, “not only because our clients give us a huge amount of creative freedom but also because of our talented LightWave artists. Our team—including Christophe Ganou, and freelancers Eric Salif N’Diaye and Olivier Michon—collaborates to make beautiful projects happen.”