We sat down with Berlin-based SMS3D to discuss 3D design, AI and the future of animation.
So how did SMS3D come into being?
We (Frieda+Till) have been childhood friends since high school. After growing up in Berlin both of us left the city at some point and lived in different places for quite a while.
Four years ago we eventually met again in Cologne. At that time Till had started teaching himself working with Blender and Frieda was working as a Designer in an agency (Meiré & Meiré). We were both longing for change, most importantly we wanted more creative freedom in our work lives. So we started creating visualizers for our friends in the music industry on the side, while staying employed full-time in our previous jobs.
During that time Till still lived in Tokyo and Frieda in Cologne. With the time gap one of us was always caught waking up or falling asleep when the other facetimed.
A lot of agencies sacrifice creative independence for commercial viability (akzeptanz). One of the things I imagine is one of the best elements of being a specialist studio is that you don’t really ever have to trade off your creativity for commercial gain — clients come to you for a particular reason — is there a lesson there for other agencies?
We started SMS3D with the intention of creating our own creative playground. Both of us having the security of being employed at the time probably helped being consequent in that regard.
From the very start all of our works had been “collaborations” with musical artists. In a way this was work for clients but we enjoyed almost a 100% creative freedom. Working with musicians helped us gain visibilty and the trust that we are capable of creating compelling animations.
Melt Logo 2023
That said, you’ve worked with some of the biggest names out there. When did you first realise what you were doing was working?
It’s actually quite funny because we realised that “what we were doing was working” at time when nothing seemed to work at all. Frieda had been full time freelancing for two years and Till just quit his full-time job to fully focus on SMS3D.
We were ready to jump in head first but with no meaningful inquiries to start working we thought we’d have to change something. So we tried to acquire clients promoting ourselves also as a product visualisation studio. To our surprise the potential clients we contacted told us that they would rather hire us to create stuff in our own style and not for conventional product visualisers. That really motivated us and helped us forget all the doubts. Shortly after we had a new client project to work on.
3D is everywhere today, but this wasn’t always the case — why do you think it is gaining popularity?
There are a lot of new amazing artists out there and that’s because the technology used to create 3D visuals has gotten so affordable. Back in the day a PC, software and other equipment necessary for 3D animations cost up to €100,000. Nowadays €3,000k goes a long way.
Also there is a huge global community of artists connected through Twitch, Youtube, Instagram etc. There is a plethora of resources being shared and so many channels offer great support for aspiring artists. Just chatting up your 3D-artist-idols via DM on social media can also help.
Afterlife Ibiza — 2023
How do you approach a new project and what is your creative process like?
In case of client work we start with a deep dive into the existing visual identy of the client to make sure our suggestion is sound. We gather different ideas at this stage and often we find parallels to our own work which we then try to extrapolate to a concept for the client.
We constantly try to acquire new knowledge and learn new techniques which we then try to use for new projects. This would be a technology/tool driven explorative process. But there are also conceptual topics or discourses that we are interested in, e.g. art epochs, fashion trends, academic research or even just animal species that we like. Whatever we are interest in in our private lives. All of this kind of comes together in potential concepts.
What are some of the fundamentals when thinking about 3D?
3D is such a multi-faceted field, with so many sub-disciplines. First of all you have to come up with a concept — this is no different to video or photography — what kind of story would you like to tell visually?
Then to actually create the visuals there are many steps in the pipeline: there is modelling/sculpting (creating the shapes you want to show), animation (making those shapes move- timing is very important for compelling movements), texturing (colours, surfaces etc.), lighting, camera movement (you are the director!), rendering (all sorts of technical settings to make sure the stuff you made looks good) and finally compositing.
We learned that all of this is a lot of work and that sometimes we cannot do it all ourselves. So for us it is fundamental to specialize in some of the disciplines and hire experts for the others.
Playing Animal Farm — Theatre Play in Weimar
3D has always worked particularly well with audio-visuals, why do you think this is?
Moving images and music have always been a great combination. More senses are being stimulated at the same time which is entertaining. Especially for DJs who generally don’t have great stage shows, animated visuals are a great addition.
Monitors and LED displays have been getting bigger and better and its just mind-blowing to experience a detailed 3D rendered animation on such a large screen.
How do you see the future of 3D animations and video direction evolving in the next few years?
We think that the more people get access to the technology to create stuff, the more experimental it is going to get. As a video director you start tapping into the possibilities of 3D, 2D, VFX, AI, regular film etc. All of these medias will be and already are being combined, really expanding the creative possibilities.
MELT Festival 2023
What technologies are you currently experimenting in?
Definitely AI. It’s insane what has become possible in the last years. But we are also experimenting a lot with our convential tools, ie. 3D softwares. There are many fields and things to learn. Blender’s geometry nodes is something we use a lot recently.
Generative AI I take it?
We have already used AI to generate moods for presentations. It is also a source of inspiration to come up with shapes we couldn’t have imagined naturally. We even created final artworks and visuals for a theatre play. It’s a fun and helpful tool.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own design studio or creative consultancy?
We have had great experiences by collaborating with others. We learned from each other, pushed each other and built a network. Most of our creative partners from the past we still work with now.
It was also essential for us to have a business plan. What are our goals and how do we plan to achieve them? We asked industry veterans how much they charge and based our fees off of that. We also applied for government funds and had some money saved to put towards hardware and other expenses. Renting an office from day 1 with friends to not have to work from home was also a good decision in our opinion.
Many of our clients know us from Frieda’s work in a design agency. It probably helps having worked in the creative field.
How and when should people get into 3D design?
The good thing is that anybody can start any time. Till started when he was 29 watching Youtube tutorials and reading forums etc. Frieda stared during university 10 years ago. There are no rules, Blender is open source and lots of the hardware can be bought pre owned. It doesn’t need to be the most expensive graphics cards right from the beginning.
Youtube, Patreon, Twitch, Discord and direct messages with 3D-artists are perfect sources of information.