September 10th, 2020

Artist Focus - David Ratajczak

When you'll see "The Shadow over Innsmouth", you'll wonder the same thing as everyone: what's the black magic trick behind this project? How come a single artist is able to create such a beautiful and incredibly detailed life-like environment! David may have worked for high-end VFX studios in the past, but does talent, work, perseverance and Clarisse really explain everything? You may really wonder if he didn't receive help from the Great Old Ones instead... The answer to this legitimate question might lie somewhere in his interview...


Hi David, congratulations on finishing your project! We’ve been able to follow its progress closely as you are an active member of our community (discord and the forum), but how did you first learn about Clarisse? 

The first time I heard about Clarisse was during my very first job interview back in 2015. Christophe "Tchook" Courgeau (Mikros Image) was reviewing my student reel, and at a certain point, he said to me “Do you know Clarisse ?”. At this time, he was probably the only one in France who was working with Clarisse, along with Arthur Bayard. This question came up because he was giving me feedback on a really bad shot in my reel at that time, which was lacking details and a more professional look. Despite the fact I didn't know much about Clarisse, he gave me the opportunity to work with him and I started my career as a DMP/Environment Artist in the movie industry. Throughout the years, I continued to hear about Clarisse, even if I didn't have the opportunity to use it in production.

How would you describe Clarisse to someone who doesn’t know about it?

Should I stay neutral ? Well, Clarisse for me is an amazing way to develop and enhance creative minds. It is a complete 3D software giving artists a lot of flexibility inside their workflows but also in terms of client interactions. Clarisse is also obviously able to handle billions of billions of polygons inside of the 3D Viewport which is especially interesting when you are an environment artist. Everything is interactive, the user experience is mindblowing and the functionality is pretty straightforward.

 The Shadow over Innsmouth top view - Greyscale render of layout 

Tackling an ambitious project like this on a software that was relatively new to you is a daring move, how did you find the learning curve of Clarisse?

Yes absolutely, this project was pretty ambitious. And I had to learn a lot of stuff from scratch. I didn’t know that much about Clarisse because I never had the opportunity (and the time) to play with it in my career. Honestly, combining online resources from Youtube, and also the Discord community, I would say that the learning curve was exponential. I started to layout Innsmouth in January (I built all my assets a couple of months ago already), then came the Covid-19 crisis. So I was working around 16-18 hours a day, with an insane daily routine, but I didn’t care, because I finally had some time to work on this project. When you have some questions to ask at 11:00 AM, 8:00 PM or 4:00 AM haha, there is always someone to answer to you ! (It was actually pretty funny to find other insomniacs in the community) I was talking every day about Clarisse features and it was pretty amazing to check my progress in real time thanks to these key artists!

 The Shadow over Innsmouth - Greyscale render 

What resources did you use to learn Clarisse?

I watched a couple of videos on Youtube first, because everything is pretty straightforward on the Isotropix channel. To me, this is also a part of the great user experience I was talking about. Compared to most 3D software, Clarisse tutorials cover a whole range of features. Overall skills, workflow organization, specific features, the way all the videos are made is really interesting because, for the most part of my process, I got answers on Youtube each time I was typing a key word related to one of my numerous questions. And, as I said, let’s call them resources but, the Clarisse community helped me a lot for more specific issues related to my first heavy environment project!

Statue of HP Lovecraft, clay render - David Ratajczak

Let’s talk about the subject here: The Shadow over Innsmouth. We love it when a 3D artist takes a cultural reference and re-creates that world in 3D. What is your personal link to HP Lovecraft’s books? 

Well, I always had an interest in reading horror books and also watching horror movies. I have a collection of books from H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and also Edgar Allan Poe since a couple of years and, when I moved to Canada in 2016, I decided to grab some of them first of all to kill time in the plane... The cool thing in Lovecraft's work is the fact that you don't need to read hundreds of pages to finish a book entirely. There are a lot of short novels, like The Shadow over Innsmouth (about 80 pages) which is really interesting when you want to be immersed quickly in a story. The way the town is described in this novel is fascinating. And I was like "oh man, if only someone could turn it into a short movie, with a full CG environment of Innsmouth, it could be amazing!"

The Shadow over Innsmouth - Breakdown

Fans of the books world wide will recognize a lot of elements of course, can you quickly sketch the story's context?

In the beginning of the novel, the main character is travelling through New England, in order to learn more about his own origins. He is supposed to take a train to go to his next destination, but, he discovers in the train station that a bus line is going in the same city, but with a stop to the gloomy Innsmouth. Because he doesn’t have a lot of money, this is his only option. When he arrives in Innsmouth, he is stunned by the fishy smell of the town, and also by the inhabitants' appearances, which reminds him of amphibians or fishes. He finally discovers a cult, called the Esoteric Order of Dagon, which offers human sacrifices and venerates an ancient god. In a nutshell, this is the story of an ancient prosperous town, living from fishing and also gold refineries, which became sinister because of this cult and Civil War. Innsmouth is a fictional town, but really close to Newburyport, Ipswich, which are real New England (MA) locations. The colonial architecture is really interesting and inspiring. It is something we can instantly identify in horror movies. (King adaptations, The Conjuring universe, Salem, Amityville...) 

The Shadow over Innsmouth, clay render - David Ratajczak

Do you see this work as a tribute of some sort? You did take the concept of fan art pretty far, it could be the whole opening shot for a movie!

It is indeed a tribute! The author was born on August, 20th 1890, so the Shadow over Innsmouth release is actually commemorating the 130th Birthday of H.P. Lovecraft. It would be awesome to work on a movie based on this novel! I got the opportunity to work with Thanos Zampoukas, who is the amazing composer who made this OST, and he has definitely created an atmosphere helping us to imagine this project as a movie opening shot! Things are moving since a couple of years concerning his universe, and to me, there is so much to do ! I hope HBO’s Lovecraft Country will help to build a massive interest in his work. And obviously, if there is a second season, please call us!

 The Shadow over Innsmouth - Greyscale render 

How exactly did Clarisse allow you to go through with this project? What was the most helpful feature?

Well, Clarisse allowed me to do this project in its very essence. I started to work in Paris in 2015, then I moved to Montreal to work at MPC. I met a lot of amazing artists, working in the most important environment department at this time. But MPC also had its own pipeline (Maya / Katana based) and I still didn’t have the opportunity to play with Clarisse. MPC was a really good experience for me, in terms of projects, knowledge, and also human beings. I met Thierry Hamel, my ENV TD lead, and we were talking about the power of Clarisse every single day. So once again, I was looking forward to using it on a show some day. Then I came back to Europe, and Isotropix came to present Clarisse in the company I was working as Head of DMP. Once again! So many signs, right? That's why Clarisse came to me in its very essence. I was exhausted of doing monotonous things, wasting time because of a lack of essential tools, and being confronted to huge concrete walls when I was trying to find solutions to modernise an old-fashioned DMP workflow. This project represents the fact of overcoming your frustration and your pain into something really different. A project which increases your knowledge, your skills, and which helps you to move forward. And a way to show that everything is doable as long as you are driven by your creativity. I was finally able to do everything I wanted to do these past years.

How much fun did you have using the scattering tools?

Oh it was a really fun part to build everything in real time:

  • Dead fishes, crabs, lobsters, limulus, shells in the sand.
  • Lobster traps, ropes, rocks, seaweeds in the harbour.
  • Trees, grass, bushes, water lilies.
  • Lampposts, electric poles..

It was really amazing to work with scatterers, and also to understand the best way to optimize my own workflow !

The Shadow over Innsmouth - Breakdown

What other software do you use and how easy is it to integrate them with Clarisse, bringing in assets etc.?

For now I am mainly working with free softwares and non-commercial versions while I’m working on personal projects in order to launch the studio by the end of the year. But the thing is that even in free softwares like Blender, you are able to export .ABC files, which is the most powerful file format today in the industry. So, it was pretty straightforward to bring my assets into Clarisse. Referencing alembics, then combining them, and finally building the town step by step. Also, the studio is supported by SpeedTree, which was really amazing because I managed to animate my scattered trees through the SpeedTree engine for Clarisse! It is helping a lot in giving life to the shot.

You have a studio specializing in environment work, how important is Clarisse in your workflow now? 

Clarisse is essential! First of all, as long as I am launching Providence VFX, I cannot allow myself to spend huge amounts of money to buy softwares and softwares. I just needed to figure out the best way to start this amazing journey. Obviously, Clarisse is to me a reference in terms of large-scale environments creation. When I saw VFX breakdowns from ILM or DNEG, it was mind blowing. But Clarisse is also really interesting for still or 2.5 D shots, because it can easily help you to layout, to refine, and to enhance a traditional DMP. 

The Shadow over Innsmouth - Breakdown

What project, personal or professional, is up next?

Well, Providence VFX is currently working on a few projects which two are other novels adaptations, At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft, Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein and finally an environment work based on the Norse Mythology.

What would you consider a dream project?

A project driven by imagination only which allows you to express yourself without any restrictions and to help you to become a better artist.

Any advice you would give to artists out there who are thinking of creating such an ambitious personal work?

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Use a lot of references. I have a huge database of references, concerning the architecture, the plot, and the mood of this project. I wanted to avoid anachronisms and make it as efficient as possible. But, most of all, be patient and don’t give up. It was a long project (I started to think about it in 2017), and when you don’t have a whole team to help you to wrap all the modeling and texturing parts, you better organize your schedule without forgetting to breathe!


Get to know David: LinkedIn, ArtStationProvidenceVFXInstagram