In imagining tomorrow's artificially intelligent robots, we tend to think of them apart from nature. In the work of digital artist Marcus Conge, however, the AI beings of the future seem to exist in harmony with the natural world. Conceptually and aesthetically, Conge's incredible CGI work recalls author Richard Brautigan's poem "All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace," in which he pictured a "cybernetic meadow where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony like pure water touching clear sky." Conge's artificial subjects, some of which seem to have coalesced from the Earth's soil itself, stand in gorgeous vistas and seem to be lost in thought.
Conge originally took up 3D art using Swivel 3D as a hobby while at university, but his current style grew out of his work with Cinema 4D and OctaneRender. The nature-meets-cybernetics output that he has been sharing on his Instagram page rocking the pixel is the result of what he sees happening in the world, and how he interprets it. The nature theme is very much influenced by current topics in science, technology, politics, and conversations amongst Conge's circle of friends and family.
The piece Cragswoman (below) is a great example of Conge's aesthetic, and illustrative of his typical artistic process. In this work, a humanoid female made of alternating layers of glass and tree trunks stands on the summit of a sunlit cliff staring out at some sight unseen.
"This piece in particular was influenced by a hiking friend who also happens to be on Instagram," says Conge. "She set up a local hiking group that meets one or two times a week to do short and long hikes. Her love of being among the trees set the inspiration for the piece."
"Lighting setup is first and foremost for any scene," he adds. "Primitive object(s) are then added to the scene to get a sense of scale and placement of elements for a particular composition. In Cragswoman a primitive cylinder is used to represent the figure. This keeps things fast and efficient for the setup. The Octane live preview window is kept open to fine tune light placement, camera settings, depth of field, and variety of other elements."
After locking down these elements, Conge typically makes little tweaks depending on material types; that is, unless inspiration strikes to look at the finished set from another perspective. He says it is not uncommon to dislike a composition and trash the entire setup to start anew.
Once the lighting is set, Conge begins modeling and sculpting. In Cragswoman, the female model had originally been created for commercial work. Conge rigged it so that she can be posed and placed in any scene quickly.
"I wanted to convey the idea of the figure being a part of nature, as well as having nature within," Conge explains. "In other words, a figure so taken with being in nature that the figure blended with its environment. The plan was to use a transparent material to drive that visual narrative. As with any journey or story, it unfolds, or is told in stages. With that in mind, cutting the figure up unto vertical sections made sense."
Conge says that the layering of the figure was partly inspired by an early piece titled Terrarium, which he created earlier this year, and which explores a similar theme. The materials in it are either procedural or bitmapped, and he used a glass shader. To create an accurate representation of a tree, Conge hunted down a photograph of bark from a locust tree at his brother's house, shot it on an iPhone 6, then digitally manipulated it with Substance Bitmap2Material to create a photorealistic look. Tree rings were added to each slab to enhance the effect.
"It needed to convey the emotion of the journey of hiking," says Conge. "The first thought was bubbles, but that would be another thing that was transparent and didn't carry the weight of the feeling that need to be captured. So the bubbles were given a slightly cloudy look to convey the feeling of satisfaction or elation as one might have after completing a journey."
"I love to create images that carry meaning, a statement or symbology that can be interpreted in a few ways," he adds. "We are all directly influenced and affected by what has happened to us in our daily lives, and that usually coincides with how we receive something. Therefore we're not seeing the same thing, from same point of view."
This, Conge says, helps him understand just how psychologically messy and interesting of a species humans are.
"When I came to that understanding, I no longer ask the question of how something appears," Conge says. "Instead, I ask how something appears from where they are sitting."
Conge recently finished a sculpt and pose rigging of a demon head for an upcoming movie, and is currently engaging with virtual reality on a daily basis. He will likely soon make the jump to that paradigm in the near future to sculpt and create, saying, "it is certainly the next step in the evolution of the medium."