Clara Bacou on producing 3D and AR art for Snapchat and Honor – and why she’s a creator rather than an artist

Despite only having graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2017, Clara Bacou has found success over the past year working on projects for major brands. We caught up with her off the back of her latest project, for up-and-coming Chinese phone brand Honor, where we discussed her approach to creativity and her unique work, and the opportunities for artists in creating Snapchat lens-style AR and content to be remixed by consumers.

We’re always incredibly pleased when an artist or designer that we’ve picked out at their grad show has gone on to find success in their chosen area of creativity. This isn’t because it feeds our egos as some kind of tastemaker, but it’s that it’s wonderful to see all the hard work and talent that that person has put into their grad show being rewarded with a career in something they clearly passionately care about.

We first saw Clara Bacou’s work as part of the Central Saint Martins 2017 grad show, where her CG artworks really stood out as different among the work you association with the institution: conceptual design, hand-drawn illustration and gracefully traditional typography.

Now, following work for Snapchat, she’s just completed a campaign for Honor, a sub-brand of the mobile phone company Huawei. Honor has created an online gallery of Clara's work on its site split into four categories. Three bring together previous works of hers across 3D animated gifs, 3D illustration and 2D illustration – while the final section includes pieces inspired by Honor.

Alongside that she’s created ten spirit animals that people receive after doing an Honor-branded personality test (below).

The first thing that grabs you about Clara’s work is the intense, hyper-saturated use of colour, which she tells me over the phone happens in her work spontaneously.

“The whole thing with my approach to colour is I do not think about it when I use them,” she says. "I use whatever I feel like and I don't think about colours schemes.

"I don't think that there really needs to be so many rules to colour. The one thing that did really frustrate me on my design course was when [the tutors] spoke about colour, they spoke about controlling it, and creating colour schemes. I don't do that with colour. I don't really know why, but it just comes intuitively to me. I love to look at [other people’s] images that use a million different colours – so it's just something that I do myself as well. I like everything to be very bright and I genuinely believe it elevates people's moods. It also makes them very shareable online.”

“I was introduced to 3D by a classmate during my final year. Getting into doing it revolutionised everything for me,” says Clara. "It changed the kind of work I could get [after graduating]."

Asked about her influences. Clara cites Jamie Hewlett and Tim Burton. To me, her 3D work has aesthetic parallels to Jesse Kanda’s work with Björk, and Clara says she really likes James Merry, who designed jewellery and masks for her artwork and recent music videos including The Gate.

"Each time you see them, you think they're augmented, but they're actually physical sculptures – which is amazing,” she enthuses.

“In terms of 3D, I really like Beeple [aka Mike Winkelmann]. But what I also love about artists like Beeple and those kind of CG artists, is that they have set themselves the challenge of creating and uploading a new piece of work every day. I think that's really in alignment with the whole idea of being a content creator and about constantly outputting something.”

There's just something about the loops of Mike Winkelmann and Michael Marczewski that keeps you entranced, whether it’s just a single loop as you scroll through your Instagram feed or rolling through their profile watching each in turn.

Art remixed

Many of those artists collaborate on projects and remix each other’s work, as we recently featured with Michael Marczewski's Co-exist project with Jack Sachs, Peter Tarka and others. They are building new visual languages through one artist reinterpreting another, like a CG version of early 90s remix culture from when I was a teenager.

Clara first produced art that's designed to be used by others in the summer of 2017, following graduation, when she worked for Snapchat.

"During that summer I started to do work on promotional materials for a launch for Snapchat’s new software,” she says. "As part of this, I was learning AR – and to use their software [to create Lenses] – and that brought me to other ways to work with 3D.

“3D is the visual language for a lot of new tech and the new ways in which people are going to communicate. We're going to use digital avatars more online – and the more we communicate online using avatars, we're going to need how we present ourselves designed by artists."

I asked Clara how she sees herself as an artist, as alongside 3D and AR work she also creates murals (below) and has produced 2D illustration work too.

"I would call myself a 3D and graphic artist – but I also think that the word 'artist' is a little bit redundant,” she says. "I think now it's more about being a creator? And I think when you're a creator it's multidisciplinary and you work across different platforms, and you have different skillsets and I think more and more now it's about cross-pollinating between different things you know how to do and having a wide skill set.

"If I was to specialise in one thing, that would make me more of an artist in the traditional sense – but at the moment I would refer to myself more as a creator.”

Clara also sees herself as a creator has she's contributing to tools that other people use to be creative themselves – charting a path between art and design to produce things that are inherently artistic but have a practical use in helping people communicate and express themselves from behind the glass of their friends and family’s smartphone screens.

Some artists are against the idea of the general public using their work in this way, fearing the loss of artistic control, but in many ways control of any work is lost as soon as its sold. Authorial control ends as soon as you put a print up in a room next to another, or a T-shirt with an artwork is paired with another piece of clothing. But if you’re specifically creating art as a tool for others, perhaps creator is a better term than artist.

“When you call yourself a creator, you are making things for other people to use, and which have some functionality and practical use to it,” she says. "Because you're servicing people, it's a bit more design than [art]."

Clara currently sculpts in ZBrush, using Cinema 4D as her main 3D application – though she’s learning Maya to enable her to create more complex scenes.

In Clara’s grad show, her supporting material said that she was interested in how avatars – whether fully digital characters such as Apple’s Animoji or versions of our real selves augmented with the likes of Snapchat lenses – can reveal people's inner personalities (and let therm hide behind personas). It's something she’s clearly still interested in.

"I think that the more and more we communicate online and the more connected we become globally, we're going to need things which go past language," she says. "Visuals and image sharing are the primary tool for that currently, and then past that we have emoticons, emojis, gifs, memes, and other things like that.

"Visual avatars are the next step beyond that because when we don't have face-to-face, we're not able to read each others body language. We need better ways to visualise emotions and I think we're going to move into using avatars. I know we also have video chat and things like that but just for practical, every day use in writing because we write a lot online to each other I think there's going to be a huge use for avatars in the future and there's going to be a lot of things moving with that, if that makes sense."

Imagery is the true language of the Internet

Perhaps because she’s a native French speaker, Clara is looking at using her art to help people communicate beyond written language because, while the primary written language of the Internet is English – more people use imagery to communicate than any one language.

“In a way, the primary language of the Internet is imagery. Because of the way we use our cameras today, we use visuals to talk with each other. Part of that language is going to be the creation of visuals specifically to represent how we're feeling without needing to speak, without needing to write."

It's also much quicker to give a more accurate, deeper interpretation of how you're feeling with a facial expression – or an avatar expression – than with words. That old cliche of a picture being worth a thousand words comes up here – but if a thoughtful picture is worth 1,000 then a quickly snapped selfie or posed avatar is worth at least 100.

There are some limits to how complex an avatar or lens can be though.

"In Snapchat, we have a limit to the number of polygons we can use in characters or lenses – up to 4,000 at the moment,” she says. “But as the technology evolves, we're going to be able to do more high definition forms of communication.”

In the future, says Clara, people are going to expect to edit and configure their own 3D avatars and will have the skills to do it.

"In the same way that coding is becoming mainstream and eventually the majority of people will know how to code, 3D won't be something that just animators at Pixar know how to do,” she says. "I think it's going to be more and more possible for people to create what they want in virtual worlds.”

Someone just needs to design the models, the avatar templates that people will use as a starting point and the elements that people will use to ‘accessorise’ their avatars. And that’s where creators like Clara come in.

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