June 22nd, 2022

Artist Focus - Petter Steen

Petter Steen’s art stands out in the Clarisse community for its cultural inspiration and brutalistic style, which when combined creates the gloomy environments that we can easily identify as his own. Let’s check out how he creates his entrancing projects. 

EAST BERLIN 2083 PART #3 - Petter Steen




Hi Petter! Thank you for sharing your experience with Clarisse and talking us through its place in the workflow of your stunning projects. Let’s get started. 

Can you tell us a bit more about your background in VFX? 

I started in the realm of CGI in the early 2000’s, just in my spare time after school. I was really  fascinated by how you could create an image from nothing and make it look photo-real. So, I  wanted to learn how to do it, too. It was before YouTube and similar websites were invented, so there weren't a great deal of tutorials to learn from. I used 3ds Max back then and there was a small but great community on IRC who helped each other. Eventually, I started getting the hang of it and could create some decent images.  

After posting a few images on forums online, I started getting some freelance job offers and I realized I might be able to turn this hobby into a profession. A year or so later, I got my first full time job, back in Sweden, doing Arch Viz. After a couple of years of doing that, I moved to London, UK, where I started working on commercials for print and video at a company called Taylor James in Shoreditch. Then another 2 years later, I got my first job in the VFX industry at DNEG, which was the goal. Currently, I’m working as a senior generalist at ILM in London, where I’ve been for the last 6 years. 

Can you describe the type of work you do? And is there a difference between what you work on professionally vs. personally?

There isn’t that much difference between what I do professionally compared to my personal projects, really. Professionally, I create a lot of environments, whether it be cities or a natural landscape such as a desert or forest. I tend to create the same sort of work personally also. The big difference is that I have complete freedom when it comes to the design and the look of things for my personal projects. At work, it’s usually much more limited to the vision of the director. Also, if I need a hero asset, then I would have to build that myself. At work, it would probably be built by a different department. 

EAST BERLIN 2083 PART #5 - Petter Steen

How were you first introduced to Clarisse?

The first time I saw Clarisse in action was back at DNEG during a demo there, probably around 2014 or so. I think there was a big city in the demo, like New York or similar. I was quite impressed by how well it handled that massive scene. We certainly couldn’t pull that off with what DNEG used back then. But, I didn’t use it myself until a couple of years later at ILM.  

How would you describe Clarisse to someone who hasn’t used it?

It’s different to the likes of Maya or 3ds Max, in that you don’t really do any modeling or rigging in it. It is instead more focused on scene management, lighting and rendering. As a result, you can quite easily have 100 shots with different passes and settings in the same scene and render them all in one go. And not to mention having a quadrillion polys in the scene without any problems! 

2083 - Petter Steen

How did you find the learning curve of Clarisse after integrating it into your workflow?

It was a little bit steep the first few days, just getting my head around things like context, groups and combiners, etc. Once you get the idea and the basics, it’s pretty straight forward from there on. But, initially it’s a bit strange as it’s quite different from Maya or 3ds Max. 

What resources did you use to help you learn Clarisse?

Well, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by Clarisse experts at work, so they helped me a lot in the early days. Shoutout to Guy, Clement and German. Just to see how they would structure a big scene helped a lot in the beginning. So they were pretty much my learning resource. Nowadays I tend to check the forum a lot if I have any technical questions. There’s a lot of knowledge going on there! 


We noticed that a lot of your projects feature futuristic or dystopian worlds, such as Berlin 2083, Soviet Off World Facilities, and Soviet Recon Mission. What draws you to these themes for your personal projects? 

I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi, and anything in space really, from my childhood playing with space Legos, and then later on to discovering these amazing sci-fi films like Alien and Blade  Runner, to name a few. I think it's a lot more interesting exploring a dystopian future rather than a utopian one. Fog and smog automatically makes anything look more interesting! :)

And what are your inspirations when creating these kinds of projects? Is there something significant about the settings, environments or atmospheres of these areas (Soviet Russia, Germany) that speaks to you?

I find the Cold War era very interesting for many reasons really. So, I guess the sort of East vs. West, Soviet vs. USA, and communism vs capitalism narrative. It is something that I base many of my projects on, and probably also from growing up in Sweden in the ‘80s and even ‘90s. You could really feel the tension going on between these super powers. I’d frequently see Swedish fighter jets or Chinooks flying around, not to mention the never ending hunt for Soviet submarines along the Swedish coast on the news. So, I think many of my projects take place in some sort of alternate future where the Cold War never ended, it just expanded off-world into space. 

The brutalist architecture wasn’t really something I had around me growing up. That’s something I fell in love with after I came to London, just by randomly walking around and discovering the many brutalist buildings that exist there. It’s of course even more common in the former Soviet states, but that cold, utilitarian and frankly often depressing style of brutalism just fits so perfectly in a dystopian world.  

In general, I take inspiration from various places like music, literature and, of course, movies like Blade Runner and Alien, and artists like Ron Cobb, John Harris or Sad Mead, for example. And I have to mention fellow Swedish ‘80’s kid Simon Stalenhag, who I think is amazing! 



How does Clarisse help you bring your visions to life while working on these types of projects?

Clarisse really helps me a lot. It’s just the fact that I can have billions of polygons on my very modest machine at home. It simply wouldn’t work in Maya, for example.  

I use displacement to some degree in pretty much every project I do, especially for the natural environments. So, being able to see the displaced geo straight in the viewport and also being able to scatter stuff on top of that displaced-geo in real-time helps me a great deal. Further, I think the way the volumes work in Clarisse suits me a lot better compared to how it is in other packages and renderers. It makes it quite straightforward to achieve the look I’m going for. 

EAST BERLIN 2083 PART #2 - Petter Steen

EAST BERLIN 2083 PART #2 - Petter Steen

One of our favorite scenes that you’ve made with Clarisse is East Berlin 2083, especially your Part 2 renders. We love how the moody lighting and fog effects make it appear otherworldly. Can you break down your workflow for creating this project for us?

I started blocking out the general layout and composition first. I had already modeled and textured the buildings for a previous project, so now it was just a matter of copying and pasting them into this scene. The only new asset I did was that aircraft flying, which was really quick and simple since you wouldn’t see much of it. When all the assets and camera animation was in place, then I started on the lighting and fog which is really the main asset for the scene.  

How did you perfect the fog work? Was it created in Clarisse? If so, can you tell us how? 

It was all done in Clarisse! The whole shot is pretty much straight from the render. Only a bit of a grade is done in Nuke and that’s it. Just one big pass with everything in it. 

Normally, I’d just use one big volume box that would cover the whole scene. But in this one, I used 3-4 boxes inside of each other with a various amount of density fall off. It’s more  expensive to render for sure, but it was needed to get the specific look. Lightingwise, I used an environment light as the main source. The rest mostly comes from the signs and logos. I try to keep the lighting as “real” as possible, as it would’ve been in real life. 



In your Soviet Off World Facilities projects, the composition is stunning. The rocky terrain, combined with the sharp brutalist buildings and eerie lighting make each image packed with detail. What was your process for creating the ground work, buildings and final composition for these pieces? 

For the environment, I downloaded some lidar/satellite data that I found on some US government page after having scouted for a suitable location on Google Earth. I then processed that data in a program called QGis, that would essentially give me a displacement map of the area along with a diffuse map from the corresponding satellite images. I tweaked the maps slightly (sharpening and some grading/color correction) before bringing them into Clarisse. Again, it’s very useful to be able to see the displacement in the viewport. The next step was to create the buildings and vehicles. I modeled them all in Maya and then used Substance Painter for texture and look development.  

Once the assets were done I imported them into Clarisse where I did the layout. I animated the camera in Clarisse for these scenes, as I can’t easily see the displaced geo in Maya so it made more sense to just do it straight in Clarisse. Once that was done, I started on the fog, haze and lighting. I don’t really spend a huge amount of time at this stage. I get feedback straight away, so it’s just tweaking a few parameters to get the look and color I want, and done.  


What particular features in Clarisse did you find most helpful in finalizing your Soviet Off World projects?

As I’ve touched on earlier, the fact that I can see the displaced-geo and being able to scatter on it in real-time is really helpful. Also, the ability to tweak and change the volumes and atmosphere in pretty much real-time is really helpful, too. The instant feedback really speeds things up!



One of your more futuristic projects Soviet Off World Recon Mission, specifically #4 and #5, reminds us of the beginning of an epic space movie. Can you tell us the storyline you were imaging when creating this scene? Where did you get the idea from? 

Yeah, I think it is inspired a lot by Alien. But, the idea being more of a “A Day in the Life” of these Soviet scientists investigating an old crashed American terraforming machine, and eventually using it to hack into its computer which would then unfold a series of events. I haven’t made it that far yet! :) 

Can you tell us what your process was to create the various parts of Soviet Off World Recon Mission #5, including the broken rocket/launcher, the environment and the space buggies? 

For the environment, I started with basic geo in Maya. Then, I pretty much sculpted all of the details in Substance Painter and used it as displacement in Clarisse, along with some extra bits scattered on top. The other assets I had used previously, but they’re all modeled in Maya and textured/look developed in Substance Painter, as I tend to do with all my hero assets.

EAST BERLIN 2083 PART #4 - Petter Steen

After using Clarisse in your workflow for the past few years, how do you feel the software has evolved over time?

I haven’t used Clarisse 5 a whole lot yet, so I’m sure that’s even better. I imagine it has become a lot more stable in the last few years. I hardly ever experience any crashes these days. I also think it’s been keeping up with the times as well, like a dedicated PBR shader and better USD support have been added, for example. 

Do you have any particular features that you would like to see implemented in Clarisse in the future?

I think a proper and fast GPU renderer would be great. But sounds like Angie is the answer to that, which I haven’t tried yet. It looks very promising! 


What project, personal or professional, is up next?

My next project will again be sci-fi, but probably not so dark or moody as many of my other projects. This time, it’ll be more daylight and dusty desert! It’ll feature a pretty detailed dune buggy that I modeled and textured a while ago that I still haven’t really made much use of. So I’ve been wanting to put that in a scene. I haven’t had much time lately!

What advice can you give to aspiring VFX artists who want to take their personal and professional work to the next level?

I think it’s just to practice and have fun while doing it really. One thing would be to not rely too much on premade assets or scans. Instead, learn how to model and look develop your own assets and environments. You will be kind of limited in your creations if you only use third party assets.


Thank you Petter! It’s been a blast learning more about your work and how you create it with the help of Clarisse. We can’t wait to see the other stunning pieces you will surprise us with in the future. Keep the Clarisse projects coming!

Check Out Petter’s Work: ArtStation, Instagram