Charlottesville, Virginia-based 3D generalist David Ariew has been working in the industry for years, but Walk Away, a new 4-minute music video he recently worked on with filmmaker Derrick Borte (The Joneses, London Town), just might be his favorite project to date.

In a “very 2001 composition,” Ariew shows how tiny the astronaut is compared to the space station he’s fleeing. 

Borte and Ariew have worked together before, but this project, a video for musician/producer Michael Marquart and his Virginia Beach band, A Bad Think, allowed a level of creative freedom artists rarely get to enjoy. Using Cinema 4D, After Effects and Octane Render, Ariew spent four months working on Walk Away, which chronicles an astronaut’s surreal experience of stepping out into vast, open space as the space station he is on disintegrates around him.

With his live-action camera angles locked off, Ariew found ways to fake a 3D perspective. A 100-percent reflective material was used on the astronaut’s visor as a cheat to make it look like glass once his face was added on top in screen and overlay blend modes.

“The beauty of Octane is that, other than his face, I did very little compositing to achieve a near-final look,” Ariew says. “It goes to show how much solo artists making films can do at home using C4D and Octane.”

“Derrick asked me if I wanted to work on a 4-minute CG video of an astronaut drifting through a derelict space environment and seeing Tree of Life-esque visions,” Ariew recalls. “Of course I said ‘Yes. That sounds like my dream job!’ and it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a project.” (Watch his process tutorial here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaZWAM4MXqQ.)

Screwed and Going to Die

Laughing as he admits it, Ariew knows he has a habit of “getting in over my head”. Working on Walk Away on his own month after month, there were times when he thought he would never get through it, especially all of the rendering, which he was doing at home on several PCs. “I thrive in environments where I’m thinking, I am totally screwed and I’m going to die. I’m kind of addicted to that feeling and finding out how far a solo artist can push their own imagery,” he says, explaining how he and a friend once spent 500 hours on a Dave Matthews Band video that they shot all on green screen and then had to use their imaginations to flesh out.

Ariew used Greyscalegorilla’s Signal plugin (https://greyscalegorilla.com/downloads/signal/) to create the flickering light effects that make clear the space station is breaking down and coming apart.

The son of academically minded parents, Ariew studied neuroscience and philosophy as an undergrad, which meant giving up what he really enjoyed doing—making “dorky” films with his friends. He was a Ph.D. student in the University of Virginia’s neuroscience program when he finally decided he had to make a change, first by downgrading to earn only a master’s degree, and then leaving school to intern with a documentary filmmaker before being hired by Filament Productions in Charlottesville as a motion graphics artist. “They did touring visuals for Dave Matthews Band, so that’s how I ended up doing those. It was a really small team and once I got hired, I was able to experiment with a lot of different types of software, including C4D,” he says.

Ariew made interior scenes more lively by using cloners to add floating debris.

Three years later Ariew went freelance, reassuring his terrified parents that he was sure he could support himself. It wasn’t long before he was making twice as much as he had been working full time. “My parents have always been supportive, but they were really worried. After a while I was able to prove that you can make a lot of money being an artist, especially if you are passionate about your work and make it a career.”

It’s Lonely Out in Space

Why the station is blowing up and has to be abandoned is never explained. But by the time the astronaut, played by Michael Marquart, steps out into space, it’s clear he didn’t have any other choice because the station is clearly blowing up and breaking into pieces all around him. While he made much of the music video from scratch, Ariew bought several models, including the astronaut, which he textured and relit in Octane, on TurboSquid.

The C4D plugin, Nitroblast, was used to create the space station’s breakup sequence. To bring order to the chaos, Ariew intentionally made one cube object collide with station per beat.

Because the astronaut only needed to float around doing things like slowly moving his arms and legs and clenching and unclenching his hands, Ariew was able to use vibrate tags in C4D for about 90 percent of the character animation. “It was an easy way to animate those movements because I could just play around with the amplitude and frequency of those tags until it looked realistic,” he says. To get the hand movements right, he opened and closed his own fists, observing how his pinky contracted further than his index finger when his hand clenched. Then, he was able to set all of the fingers to the same random seed so they would clench and unclench in unison.

Motion blur, backlighting, rim lighting and backing the camera way out and then zooming in helped to make the video look big and epic.

Inspired by the opening titles Raoul Marks created for the Semi-Permanent Sydney 2015, ), as well as Erik Wernquist’s short film Wanderersand Beeple’s Zero DayAriew started out making style frames and environments while also playing with lighting, composition and digital lenses. The director drew up some rough storyboards too, mostly sketches of the astronaut drifting down the spaceship’s hallway toward the camera. And together they came up with ideas about which shots would work back to back to ensure continuity of motion.  

Ariew used Brograph’s Octane plugin, Luminous, to create the hard spotlight that casts light into the clouds.

Once they had the first 30 seconds finished to completion, they ran it by Marquart and got the green light to proceed. After that Ariew and Borte met a couple of times in a public library conference room to bang out the previs together using Cinema 4D’s hardware renderer. Each time they met, they were able to create about a full minute of previs since Ariew had already laid out the set pieces during the style frame process. “So it was just a matter of creating interesting compositions and camera moves,” he recalls.

He Dies at the End

After tumbling for some time through an asteroid belt, fog and toward the sun, it’s clear that the astronaut doesn’t make it. Ariew used World Machine, a procedural terrain generator, to design the alien canyon the astronaut floats through. “World Machine calculates erosion and other natural processes, so the terrain looks more believable, as well as a flow map, which shows where water would have flowed to create the erosion,” he explains.

Octane Scatter was used to create millions of instances to populate the asteroid belt.

Ariew used the World Machine app to create the planet that the astronaut comes from. “Once you generate the terrain, you can zoom in and out indefinitely,” he explains.

Working on this and other projects has inspired Ariew to experiment with using Octane and C4D in many different ways. And he is currently working with motion designer EJ Hassenfratz on several tutorials on the subject. Check them out here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhuhkssBjYqdFI4ovbakpm8Z_XJMm9S8_

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.