, by Roz Morris

Strange Searcher of the Unexplored World – Roz Morris Meets Olivier Caron

Olivier Caron discusses his influences, his approach, and his goals when creating 3D art.

  • Interview

This might be a photoshoot for a fashion magazine. Perhaps for a new season. The airy colour palette speaks of fresh starts. The model’s gaze is a fashion imperative from the future. Today this is a weird hat, but tomorrow you’ll want one.

Scroll on through this collection and you’re not in the territory of Vogue.

Welcome to the personal portfolio of Olivier Caron. He’s a director and motion designer in Paris for luxury brands like Dior and Chanel, but his personal work takes 3D characters into a new space.

Motion design, he says, is often about “making shiny cool things, bold things – a big spaceship or a cyborg. We want the viewer to be amazed and have fun. And that’s good because motion design is a commercial art. But in our personal work we can do something different, something that isn’t about spectacle, but maybe sets up an emotion, lets the viewer imagine the rest.”

His artistic vocation grew slowly. Unlike the other artists I’ve interviewed, he wasn’t drawing from an early age. In fact he wasn’t creating at all. But he was born with a desire to seek, a powerful sense of something out of reach, which he needed to find. “When I was a kid, I was a big reader and I watched a lot of movies, always searching for something, the thing I was missing. The more I grew up, the more I needed to find amazing things to see, to experience. I began to explore Paris. I discovered underground stores, little bookshops. I wandered the city and found little gems like an unusual building from the 1920s, in the middle of very modern buildings with steel and glass. I never really found what I was seeking, but I liked the ideas I got. I’m still searching.”

Olivier followed his underground instincts and studied film and photography at university, hoping to become an experimental cinematographer. But the course was purely theoretical, nothing practical. “I scribbled ideas in a notebook but never made anything.” The real breakthrough came when a professor gave him the keys to the photographic darkroom.

He found his element. “I started developing pictures. I had such pleasure working in the lab, much more than taking the pictures. I loved the smell, loved painting with light.”

After university he took an editing job in a production company, but it nearly finished him. “It was super-boring,” he says. “I was digitizing old tapes, seeing the same thing over and over.” A colleague saw him looking desperate at his computer and showed him After Effects. Six months later, he was working in motion design.

Today, his personal work is all about characters, but he didn’t find this signature for quite a while.

“I was playing with forms to make abstract things. I wanted to make personal work but couldn’t find the entry point. Then I started to use Daz, posing 3D models for a commercial.”

Daz brought his creativity alive. “I became obsessed with it. Once the project finished I knew I wasn’t done, that there were more stories to be told. Putting a human figure in my pictures completely changed the narrative. Suddenly, there was a whole new level of comprehension, an atmosphere I was connecting with.”

“It was an accident,” he says. “Before that, I didn’t think at all that I would be doing characters.”

Now, he uses Cinema 4D and After Effects, Redshift for rendering, Marvelous Designer for clothes, Daz for characters, and Substance for texturing. Everything begins with the models. “I make a figure or a face and I pose it without knowing what I will do with it. Then I ask what else could be in the picture, what is in the background, why the character is here, what they are doing.”

One of his first personal projects was Memories of the Snow People. A museum exhibit of a set of strange, feathered creatures, probably extinct, full of mystery.

Memories of the Snow People was inspired by anthropological museums of the 1920s and 30s. “They’d have a human skeleton from a lost African tribe. It was a horrible thing to do. So I made these creatures with fur and an antique grainy texture. I wanted them to be soft and faintly sinister too.”

I find this creature, sitting on a chair, is so unexpected and awkward, as if he’s in a studio photoshoot.

Memories of the Snow People tapped another of Olivier’s early loves, horror author HP Lovecraft. “I read all his books when I was a kid. He was such a strange scribe of the unexplored world.”

That description of Lovecraft seems a mission statement for Olivier himself. But Olivier’s unexplored world is in a quieter, more sensitive register.

Like his love of characters, this quality was also accidental, and surprising to him. “When I look at the things I like, they’re not what I bring out in my art. What I love is very dark stuff. I’m into techno and noise music.” He reaches to a bookshelf and shows me a graphic novel – Vovo by the Japanese Manga horror artist Daisuke Ichiba. “This is the kind of stuff I like and collect. But in my art, I make things with soft light. It’s a total contradiction to my taste. By making personal work I’ve discovered a lot of things about myself. I didn’t know this was me. The more I make, the more I discover things I didn’t know I really like, a part of me I didn’t know I have.”

Some artists I’ve interviewed plan their work carefully, with detailed notes and preparations. Olivier doesn’t.

“I used to make notes and Pinterest boards, then didn’t use them. Now I aim for a mood and the ideas come in the making.” The art is also the search.

And sometimes he finds the search has been longterm. “I look at notes from 10 years ago and discover they’re about a work I’m making now.”

In this series, Faces of Tomorrow, he rediscovered a long-forgotten love of science fiction novels.

“I made a character and it was sleek and futuristic, like space opera from the 1950s. I read so many science fiction novels when I was a kid. It must have come from that. I wasn’t intending to make something inspired by science fiction but it came out.”

I mention that one character, with its oriental flavour, makes me think of Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner. Olivier says “I’ve loved Blade Runner ever since I was a kid – but not for the reasons everyone seems to.”

It’s not the androids that caught his imagination, but a particular shot at the beginning. “When the female protagonist enters the room, there is a very orange light, and everything is like a recreation of the fashion of the 1940s, but with a futuristic flavour. Science fiction and the past at the same time. I was obsessed with this moment. There are a lot of things I’ve formed in my work because of it.”

Another transforming movie was David Lynch’s 1977 cult surrealist horror film Eraserhead, which Olivier saw at the age of 12. “I didn’t know what I was seeing. The acting was very false, the people talked in a strange way. It really opened a part of me. It was more than a movie. It was a whole hidden world to discover and explore. After that, I thought I have to find more things like that.”

His collections are frequently a hidden world. This series, Rooms, began because he wanted to make a project with masks. “Then I thought of a character trapped in a little room, in one pose, with just one thought, over and over. The more I worked on Rooms, the more it had significance. It could be hell. A singular moment repeating itself for all eternity. The mask is trapping you and it is you at the same time.”

He’s still finding ideas that resonate with his grand search. “Recently I learned the term ‘hauntology’ – a concept by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. He says you’re haunted by things in the past that might have made different futures. He was talking about communism, but it also applies to music and art. I like analogue and grainy things, antique things. I think it’s because of my background in film. I like to mix them with 3D, which is clean – a clean image with a twist.”

In Rooms, we see this fusion. The color palette is vintage greys, like early photographs. The only color is the flesh of the characters, trapped by the items around them. They look stripped and vulnerable.

“When I was at university my thesis was on found footage – when you take bits of old movies to make new ones… it’s something I love.” This image, also from Rooms, could be found footage of the famous 19th century Siamese twins Chang and Eng.

Another clear inspiration for Olivier is theater. “Especially when it’s minimal. For a house interior you have tables and a chair. For a forest you have a tree painting. It’s codified, symbolized and effective. It doesn’t try to be real. It puts the focus on the character. I like this very much.”

This series, Olympe, looks like a ballet or opera. “The background is only cubes. The colours are black and gold. So there’s a strong reaction between the character and the background. I kept the model very simple – the most minimal I could.”

Olympe is an ensemble piece, but that wasn’t planned. “I duplicated the character and began to think, I could have two. Why not three or four? And I then had this big composition. That’s the kind of thing I really like. Usually the magic is not in a big plan, it’s in the little things you discover that make a difference.”

He explains the narrative that evolved from the characters. “They are guards in a palace, with nothing to guard any more. They have arrows and they are for nothing. And the guard is wearing so many faces but they are all the same. It’s a loop. Like a ballet or a play where time doesn’t exist any more.”

The minimalist aesthetic also has practical advantages for Olivier. “A personal project is always a race against time. Often I have only a day or two. For 3D, that is less than ideal, especially when you want to work with characters. Parts of my work are easy to make – I’m fast at composition and lighting. But clothes and hair I find difficult. So with one project, I went back to basics. I asked what I could remove without losing realism. I took a cube to make a table and liked it, so I decided to use one cube for everything. The same cube, same texture, sometimes elongated, sometimes very small, and I used that to make a whole project. What emerged is a very strange world, very brutal and condensed.”

And now you know why many of Olivier’s characters are hairless.

But what’s this collection, Haircuts?

Haircuts was born of frustration. Olivier was making hair in Cinema 4D, and it was going badly wrong. “I was making a simple style; nothing fancy. It looked horrid. Like a wig. And I was spending too much time on it. I thought, I’m not going to do this. I’m going to make hair like a motion designer. So I made Haircuts, which is hair by a motion designer.”

It might also be hair for the fashion catwalk. That’s another of Olivier’s loves. “I love Alexander McQueen. I remember at the end of one of his shows, a woman lying on a sofa with moths in her mouth. Haute couture is the border of several things. Fabric, design, music, showmanship. It can be very ugly and very beautiful. Like modern art.”

This series of classical portraits breaks the mold – Vado Mori, a protest piece made in lockdown.

“Quarantine was a rollercoaster. I experienced various states: delight to have time for personal work and family, exhaustion when I was working at night and taking care of my daughter by day. Then anger – at the state of the hospitals, the nurses and doctors dying from the lack of protection, at the government urging us back to work to save the economy, at the sight of people forced to work without masks while the rich told us to appreciate this period. It was like being in a culture of death, a monster that was devouring its own children to keep its life going. I wanted to make a modern version of the religious altarpiece, centered on death and its companions. Vado Mori means ‘I prepare myself to die,’ and is a genre of Latin poems from the 13th century that was supposed to show death was inevitable for everyone, even a king or a pope. In my Vado Mori, however, death is a way to gain power or money. The only ones who will die are the anonymous, the ones who can’t complain and don’t have the choice.”

Ancient and modern mix in this figure of death. Jewels and robes; gowns and masks.

I also see The Handmaid’s Tale – a warning from the fictional future.

So how does he recharge? In the search. The search is not work; it’s a way of life.

“I recharge any time I’m not attached to a computer. Walking, looking at things and thinking. I like to discover.”

Books are as important as ever. Does he have a favourite section of the bookshop? “When I was a kid I was a big reader of fantasy, but now I don’t seek out a specific section. I like interesting worlds at the border of several genres. Lovecraft. China Mieville. I love oddities. There was a counter-culture bookshop in Paris called Un Regard Moderne, and it was full of oddities, piles of wonderful books, floor to ceiling, in no order. You had to hunt through it. I loved that. I want to find the thing I didn’t know I was looking for.”

“Here’s a question I ask myself a lot,” he says. “What is 3D good at? I work a lot with illustrations, a lot with photographs. Illustration is great because it has a dreamy effect. Photography has realness. 3D is a territory between the two like the darkroom, a lab where I can experiment. Like photography where I can have models and lights. But with 3D I can do more experiments – total creativity. So I try to make things with 3D that only 3D can make.”

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