I’m thrilled to interview Topher, who was the winner of our 2020 VDB Contest with his entry titled Astronauts’ Day Off (Orcas Sighting)

Topher Cinema 4D VDB Volume Contest


Introduce yourself to us: where do you come from, what’s your specialty and where do you work?

Hey hey, thx for having me. I go online by Topher.exe, but everyone calls me Chris IRL. I grew up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest of Canada – moved to Alberta when I was a teenager, and now I’m putting down roots in Minneapolis since July 2020.

I’m a filmmaker / 3D generalist who specializes in VFX, motion graphics, & marketing for professional sports teams across North America. I work for a creative agency here in Minne called Triglass Production. We’re a small team of like-minded individuals who create cinematic short films & motion graphic packages for teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL, & MLS.


How did you get into 3D work? What software do you use and which one do you enjoy most?

So way back when I was a young lad my parents purchased a kid’s computer game called 3D Movie Maker for our family’s Windows 95 PC. That was my first taste of manipulating 3D objects to tell a story. Flash forward to around 2006 and I got my hands on Cinema 4D. Unfortunately the only time I ever used C4D was to create title sequences for live-action short films I made in high school and university. But it was that little bit of C4D experience that helped me land my first motion graphics gig for a company called Fullscreen where I was tasked to create title sequences for up-and-coming Youtube channels (my most notable Youtuber being Wren from Corridor Digital. Totally random, but I love that random fact ha).

Long story short, I’ve been a Cinema 4D guy from the beginning. Right now, my essentials are – Cinema 4D, Octane Render, X-particles, Quixel, Pixellab, Kitbash3D, After Effects, and Magic Bullet Looks. Been using World Creator, & Speedtree lately too.

Topher Cinema 4D VDB Volume Contest

How did you approach your VDB contest entry? What did you wanted to achieve? Tell us how it came about.

At the time I created the piece I was recovering from an illness that knocked me out for a couple of weeks, but every time I gained a bit of energy, rather than sitting around and watching more Netflix, I did what I’m sure a lot of artists do – I filled that time with creativity.

The goal wasn’t necessarily to create something good, but to help me feel good along the way. In retrospect, it was my own form of medicine. Sounds cheesy, but honestly, that’s how the project started. I wanted to create something that I knew would help me relax, so I chose a nature scene. And being stuck inside, it was a way for me to bring the outdoors indoors. It wasn’t long until I came across the VDB contest which inspired me to keep pushing, change up my direction, and find a captivating story.

Topher Cinema 4D VDB Volume Contest

Was there a story line you found first, or did you just kitbash around until you found something cool? Did you have concerns going in and how did you solve them?

Yeah, for sure. As mentioned, it all started with me messing around in Cinema to escape from my not-so-fun reality at the time. I was playing around with the concept of a lake in the Rocky Mountains, testing out new C4D and Octane techniques, you know how it goes.

When I heard about the VDB contest, I downloaded the assets and threw them in the scene. At first I wasn’t sure how I was going to use em. Perhaps storm clouds near the mountain tops? Or a forest fire off in the distance? As I lowered one of the volumes near the base of the mountain, it clicked. This wasn’t a Rocky Mountain scene, it was a misty coastal scene from the Pacific Northwest. Clouds stuck in the trees, mist floating above the water’s surface. It was coming together, but it was still missing a story.

I’m a huge fan of sci-fi, so I dug into my asset library and started modifying some structures from Vitaly Bulgarov’s collection. Not sure why, but I was feeling it needed an abandoned laboratory sort of thing. A building that represented science amongst a setting that is asking for it. Or maybe I watched too much of the show LOST as a kid, ha. With the kitbashed lab and misty mountains in place, I started to compose the image. I went with a long lens to make the mountains and VDB volumes look massive and imposing. The environment was shaping up nicely, but the story was still a little weak. It needed something more inspiring. That’s where the astronaut kayakers and orcas came in.

I remember laying in bed at night pondering what I could add to the image that would create a sense of awe and wonder, but at the same time, wouldn’t compete with the picturesque landscape I’ve already constructed. I figured the new assets would have to be placed in the foreground, which meant it had to be some sort of boat or sea creature. I went through my boat assets and came across a kayak. Perfect. A kayaker. But who’s the kayaker? Well, at the time I recently purchased 2 astronaut models that I haven’t had the chance to use yet, so why not use em here? Wouldn’t have to deal with skin or hair, ha. And with 2 models, let’s do 2 kayaks.

Then of course you have to ask yourself, why are they out kayaking? Perhaps they’re whale watching. It was already decided that the setting was in the Pacific Northwest, so orcas are more than appropriate. Plus, they’re just magical animals. The visual story began to write itself based on the assets I owned and the scene I created. It started to feel like the image had that awe and wonder I was aiming for.

Topher Cinema 4D VDB Volume Contest

How do you experiment with elements which are part of the scene and how do you integrate them all together for the final results?

For me, because I started in film, the camera plays a massive role in the construction of my scene. As I’m modelling and texturing the environment, I’m constantly playing around with the camera position, what focal length looks best, where should the sun be in the sky so it hits all the objects in that perfect way. It’s a lot of tweaking, ha. Moving objects around, adapting textures, shifting the sun over just slightly, check the camera, repeat.

The goal is always to make it look as good as possible natively in Cinema / Octane and to approach the final image as if that’s how it would have looked in real life. I find that giving yourself real-life constraints to camera placement and lighting really helps sell the photo-realism of CGI shots.

As far as post work is concerned, I’ll render out all the classic passes for compositing (reflection, shadow, diffuse, volume, etc.) and take em in After Effects. I try not to rely on passes to complete the final image, but to use them as a bonus option for tweaking the final color if needed. To isolate certain parts of the image, essentially. I guess that’s how most people use em anyways.

Topher Cinema 4D VDB Volume Contest

Lighting and rendering are a huge part of any project. What were the challenges here? Also, can you tell us more about the render settings and what workstation is needed for your art?

I try to give myself real-life constraints when it comes to lighting. Because this is a landscape shot, the only source of light we’d have in the real world would be the sun/sky, right? Since this is a foggy coastal scene, I started with a cloudy HDRI. It helped sell the environment, for sure, but it was almost too moody & flat for the awe-inspiring tone I wanted to achieve, that magic moment in time. So I added a sunlight object as if the sun was peeking through the fog and clouds. Then it was a bunch of tweaking to find that perfect sun position that made each object in the scene pop.

I don’t usually front-light my image with harsh direct lighting, but in this case, it worked for the laboratory. It reminded me of that short, special moment in time when the sun breaks through the dark clouds of a storm and everything that’s dripping wet in the environment shines with a glow that can only be experienced in that fraction of a moment, and you’re the only one who gets to see those intimate reflections from the position you’re in.

My render settings were pretty standard. EXR beauty with EXR passes (diffuse, reflection, SSS, post, shadow, volume, ambient light, sunlight, z-depth). For this piece, I was using my 5-year old workstation that has had its fair share of upgrades: Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-6700K CPU @ 4.00GHz. 64 GB of RAM. Nvidia GTX 1080 & a GTX 2080ti.

Topher Cinema 4D VDB Volume Contest

Which assets did you use from The Pixel Lab, and how did they help you during the creation process?

I used the VDB volumes that were shared for the contest. 2 clouds were used in the mountains, and a smoke volume was used as mist lingering above the water.

Excited to start using those animated clouds you just released! They look rad. And fun fact, been using the crap out your animated flag pack for a project that’s coming out in a couple weeks here. Looking forward to sharing that!

Topher Cinema 4D VDB Volume Contest

Finally, any last words for other artists on what is most important to achieve such a gorgeous final render?

Practice photography and film! I know I’m biased, but I doubt I could be making these sorts of images if it wasn’t for a decade of being behind a real camera, capturing the real-world. I feel like the experience I gained from making films has given me an insight into how light should look through a lens, how to compose an image through cinematography, and how to tell a story within a frame.

And if you’re thinking, I don’t have a good camera to practice with – don’t worry! Any camera will help improve your eye for virtual cinematography. My main camera for the last few years has been my phone and good ol’ VSCO app for a quick color grade. It’s not about the specs of your camera or computer, but it’s how you use your tools that matter. The next time you’re walking around your neighborhood and the sun is hitting the world around you in a cool way, pull out your phone and challenge yourself to capture that moment from a new perspective. It may not be as easy as the virtual world, but those skills translate to CGI production almost 1 to 1.

Also, never stop learning and creating!!

Topher Cinema 4D VDB Volume Contest

Where can we follow you and keep up with your work? Anything you want to promote?

I’m always sharing work and behind-the-scenes content on my IG: instagram.com/topher.exe

My website is a little dated, but for the curious: topherschultz.com

And for the truly curious, my most recent work can be found here: triglassproductions.com


To find all of our VDB assets you can head here: thepixellab.net/vdb-bundle