An Interview with 3D Motion Designer, David Ariew

David Ari

David Ariew (left)

I am super excited to introduce the blog this week. It is hard to emphasize how integral David was in my professional development. After years of hanging out and teaching me swing dancing (you read that right), I asked David about film because I had caught the bug in my last year of college. He sat down with me, walked me through what indie filmmaking looked like in 2011-2012, and pushed me to give it a shot. A few weeks later, he sent me a link to a Canon Rebel t3i on sale. I bought it, fumbled my way through the basics, and I imagine I will always have that camera sitting on my shelf. Thank you David.

So without further ado, get ready to have your senses blown away by the way the extremely talented and accomplished David Ariew!

1. Please introduce yourself. Who you are, where you’re from, and what you do. 

My name’s David Ariew, and I’m a 3D motion designer based in San Diego, CA. I started as an ubergeneralist and cut my teeth doing concert visuals for Dave Matthews Band in Charlottesville, VA, where I trained up on DIT work, editing, color grading, VFX, motion design, and even dabbled in being a (clumsy) DP. I’ve since honed in on 3D design as my passion, gravitating towards surrealistic imagery, often space themed or celestial, and I enjoy being a one man band that can take a project from concept to completion solo, using my three beefy PCs stuffed with nine total graphics cards in them to render my work, and heat the house as a biproduct, which is awesome in the winter and terrible in the summer.

2. Tell us a bit about “Ariev Visuals” [Ariewisuals? I’m assuming it’s Ariev Visuals haha please correct me if wrong]. Where you’re based, how long you’ve been around, what your mission is, etc. 

I’ve been working as a freelancer for about four years now (and three before that at the DMB-related company I mentioned), and it’s great because all my work is remote at this point, so moving across the country from Virginia where I spent all my life until I was 31 to San Diego was a surprisingly easy transition. My company name is Arievvisuals, but that’s mostly just for fun to help people pronounce my name, which ends in a W, but is pronounced like a V, so then with Arievvisuals, the two Vs make a W… it’s not that clever.

Anyway, I’ve had a few big moments in my career so far that have helped me gain visibility in my community, the first of which was an opportunity to create a four minute long, full-CG, space-themed music video by myself: https://vimeo.com/201978693The budget was surprisingly decent, and I had a full four months to do it! That was extremely lucky because those three factors almost never line up, where you’ve got full creative control, an extended timeline, and a budget that will sustain you. I took the opportunity to make it as cool as possible, and it paid off in an ambitious portfolio piece that I could really point to with a very high level of polish, as well as getting my name out there as “that guy who makes cool space stuff.”

Then, my friend who’s widely known for his Cinema 4D tutorials and has a huge following online, EJ Hassenfratz (eyedesyn.com), asked me to create a tutorial for his channel on Octane Render, which is the GPU rendering engine I use religiously to make my work happen, and that made a big splash too. Since then, I’ve made another twelve Octane tutorials for his channel, each doing really well, and that has resulted in tons of jobs as well as an official sponsorship from Otoy, the company that makes Octane. I’ve also recently created the intro to Katy Perry’s show, as well as worked with Deadmau5 in person at his house in Toronto a couple times, and created the opening titles to the iHeartRadio Music Awards, so things are getting really exciting and I’m pumped for all the potential projects and collaborations coming through the door!

Ship graphic

3. Digital VFX, CGI, graphic works, animation, that entire world is such a mystery for many filmmakers no matter their background. Can you give us a primer in what you do, how you wound up doing it, and your background? In particular, I’d love to hear how you wound up migrating from doing neuroscience work to becoming a graphic artist! 

In undergrad at William and Mary, I was on the science track, and that seemed to be the rational thing to do at the time. I was great at jumping through the hoops to get the grades. I was genuinely interested in science, and at some point I found that Neuroscience was the field that interested me the most, because you know, brains are cool and stuff. In my free time though, I was swing dancing, goofing around with my friends, and for whatever reason, making Zelda parodies and Pokemon 300 mashups in iMovie ’06, which I thought was the most fun piece of software known to man. You got transitions and those preset credit sequences with the reflective floors, and when you posted things to YouTube, which was new at the time, everyone was like “HOW DID YOU DO THE REFLECTIVE FLOOR THING!?” so that was gratifying. But then I got whisked away to grad school at UVA to do the thing that was gonna make the money and not the art, because I believed that to be unsafe and unrealistic, and that was basically three years of pulling teeth and almost quitting, then switching from the Ph.D. program down into the Masters, to get the Masters in Neuroscience and finally free myself. After that, it was just a matter of taking myself seriously, interning with people in Charlottesville, and sponging as much knowledge as possible from my peers and the internet. I found that immersing myself in filmmaking, I could learn things really quickly because it was actually fun, and I already had a knack for software.

Because of that knack, I quickly got hired at Filament Productions, the company I did concert visuals for, and I obsessively watched tutorials on the job when things were slow, which interestingly rubbed many people at the company the wrong way, but paid off in the long run in ways they didn’t understand. For my first several years, I also never said no to opportunities like 48 hour film contests (I did like nine of those), and I reinvested in myself by dropping all my savings one day on a 7D and a bunch of lenses. That continued into an obsessive buying spree of a slider, steadicam, car rig, jib, and more, and while it never paid me back financially, it allowed me to learn how to compose an image, the photographic properties of lenses, and what good camera movement looks like. That knowledge has been invaluable in my career as a 3D artist, to the point where I’m now acting as a digital DP and have plans to release an in-depth course on lighting and camera movement in Cinema 4D and Octane.

4. How does one get started? Say I have little to no experience, but I want to try my hand at 3D graphics, CGI, animations, really just diving into the work of digital-rendering (if you’ll excuse the most likely inaccurate parlance). What are some programs people should start learning? What are good “foundations” people should start working on? 

I began with After Effects, and it’s a great place to start, especially with videocopilot.net. I’m sure lots of people know of Andrew Kramer and his tutorials and plugins, but he was basically my first tutorial hero because you’d end up with a very cool result by the end of the video, with room to experiment on your own. Not to mention he’s extremely entertaining, so that’s just the best entry to the world of VFX I can think of. Though recently, I’ve been seeing a lot more people jumping straight into Cinema 4D, just skipping the 2D or VFX realm entirely because 3D is becoming so easy to learn. Cinema 4D is a 3D package that appeals to solo motion designers and small teams because it’s flexible and user friendly, whereas other apps like Maya and Max are bloated pipeline tools that work great for the VFX industry when you’re a specialist, but less so when you’re a generalist looking to make something fast. Also, if you look at instagram, the community of people rendering amazing images is blowing up, and that’s largely due to Cinema 4D and Octane’s ease of use. That pairing is especially popular because of the similar mindsets and just how easy it is to jump in.

For beginner C4D stuff, greyscalegorilla.com has a vast array of content, and that’s where most of us started to learn, but my buddy EJ has some insanely fun and accessible tutorials on his site eyedesyn.com. His vibe has a more handcrafted, cel-shaded look, and that works very well with people coming over from After Effects who want to continue with flat shaded or vector designs, or just incorporate some 3D scenes into their 2D designs without people realizing it’s actually 3D. If you’re interested in learning how to create 3D environments that are a bit more photorealistic or sci-fi though, definitely check out the tutorials I’ve put out there on arievvisuals.com/tutorials, or if you want a gigantic master list of how to learn Octane, then check out arievvisuals.com/resources because I’ve collected every Octane tutorial I’ve ever seen on the internets and placed it there with helpful descriptions. It used to be hard to find that info, and one day I realized I had this encyclopedic list in my head of these, so I took the effort to drop it into my site.

As for foundations, like I said, the more filmmaking knowledge you can cram into your brain, the better you’re gonna be at animation and 3D. It’s all the same storytelling stuff — camera movement, editing, color theory, lighting, and tons of problem solving, except you get to sit behind your computer and stare at a screen till your eyes bleed. It’s great for us lazy folks, but you have to also battle that by moving your self about once in a while.

Deadmau5

5. What is one of your favorite projects you’ve worked on and why? What is one of the more challenging aspects of your work? 

My favorite project in recent memory is one where I collaborated with Spanish composer Ivan Torrent. He emailed me out of the blue and asked if I could create a full CG trailer to intro his latest album. His music is epic and the track was amazing to animate to. He also brought tons of beautiful album art to the table that gave me a great starting point of ethereal whales and cities floating above the clouds. It was also awesome because we completed the project in three weeks, which normally sounds like a nightmare deadline for a couple minutes of 3D animation, but it was also an excuse to reel him in on certain things that would derail my process, and he was extremely respectful of that, and when I really nailed something he’d get insanely excited and tell me how he’d just showed his family and how the room ended up in tears. It’s really weird and awesome when you get to the point in your work when you can elicit an emotion from someone, especially with 3D because it’s so technical and it’s easy to get caught up and feel like it’s great if you’ve just made something that’s pretty, but to really get someone to react with laughter, awe, sadness, etc, you’re going above and beyond the call. I’m not saying I did that, because I don’t really think I did yet, but I feel like I’m getting closer, and I’m proud of the piece: http://arievvisuals.com/work#/immortalys/

The most challenging thing about 3D work is just how much there is to learn. You could go down the rabbit hole on any task and do that for the rest of your life, such as modeling, rigging, lighting, texturing, layout, camera animation, character animation, simulation, rendering, compositing… the list goes on. By that same token though, it’s also exciting because you can build these entire beautiful worlds in your computer at home from scratch. Personally, I have a habit of getting myself way in over my head on a project and gradually unburying myself, and those projects that seem overwhelming at first but I conquer anyway through persistence are ultimately the ones that take my career a giant step forward. Something that used to be more difficult is rendering, and with CPU-based renderers like the Standard and Physical render engines that come default in Cinema 4D, you could easily find yourself waiting an hour to see a finished frame, and the art direction process was so slow that tasks like lighting felt less like creativity and more like watching paint dry. That’s why I use Octane, because as a GPU renderer it’s orders of magnitude faster, and there’s a live view into the final quality image that you’re seeing in real time, so the process becomes much more playful and spontaneous. Even so, rendering is still the biggest bottleneck, which is why I’ve custom built my three machines, each better than the last and packed with more 1080tis, but with the latest upcoming release of Octane 4, which includes an AI-denoiser (literally an AI that’s trained on people’s scenes to denoise renders), it looks like we’ll get another game-changing speed increase.

Star Wars

6. Are there any tips or any pieces of advices you’d like to give newcomers? 

This is kind of specific to the motion design industry, but if you find yourself stuck at a company and stagnating, or feeling like you want to do work that’s more fun and make the jump to freelance but don’t know how, then read this book: https://www.amazon.com/Freelance-Manifesto-Modern-Motion-Designer-ebook/dp/B071JRYMSG. It’s brimming with better advice than I could ever give you on running a business and being a freelancer and will absolutely help you earn jobs and make more money. On a more general note to all filmmakers, work with people you love and do passion projects. If you don’t feel like you have the time to do passion projects, then prioritize fun projects or ones that will push you to learn something new over ones that will make you slightly more money. Now, if a job is gonna make you crazy money, take that job and use it to fund a passion project afterwards, or use it to go on a work retreat and learn something you’ve had kicking around in the back of your head for a long time. Recently, I’ve been getting more “high end” jobs, but each time I take one on it ends up being more stressful and less fun, and often my indie clients are willing to pay high rates, and in those cases it’s an easy decision because the job will be more relaxed and I’ll get more creative control

I used to think I was unfortunate getting my start in Charlottesville, VA, which let’s be honest, is not anywhere big for filmmaking or 3D work, but actually it was a great training ground, and because you can teach yourself almost anything via the internet, your surroundings don’t matter as much as you think. In my case, it was a blessing in disguise, because I got used to a blank slate, or bumbling clients telling me they had no clue what I should do, but to “make it cool… like in your style” and so that actually helped me find my taste and my style. Those indie projects allowed me to get comfortable bringing my own direction and vision to a project, and while yes it’s important to learn how to work in a team and best practices and all that for “real production scenarios,” you end up using less of your creative brain in those times because your role is so limited. I’m quickly finding that my happy place is to work solo or in small teams with other artists I look up to, vs having a smaller part in a bigger production, which may actually look more impressive because of the sheer number of people who contributed, but that I feel doesn’t represent me or my work.

Want to see/learn more? Got a project that needs David’s expertise? Check out his site!

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