Ida Lissner takes us behind the scenes of her otherwordly digital creations

Sprawling plants, unfamiliar insects and creatures from another planet: here, the digital artist tells us how she goes about making her ethereal snapshots.

2 May 2023

Ever wondered what life could look like on another planet? Scratch that, another dimension? While you and I will probably never find out, we can get pretty close with Copenhagen-based artist Ida Lissner’s immersive 3D worlds. Using a combination of Cinema 4D and Octane, the artist creates ethereal habitats previously only accessible through speculative fiction and Hollywood blockbusters.

The work often revolves around otherworldly botany. Sometimes showing plants with crystalline stems prodding and probing out of moss-speckled rocks or surfaces teeming with unthinkable insects. But Ida’s focus is always on storytelling, oftentimes trying to negotiate the contradictions of our relationship with nature. Mysterious, beautiful and ominously inviting, Ida paints her scenes of lush biodiversity in eyebrow-raising detail. Just how does Ida take her idea from sapling to full-grown orchard? Read on to find out.


The digital ecosystem before the alien creature is added

Finding the story to tell

I like to describe my work as storytelling through world building. So, naturally, my process almost always begins with a story I want to tell. I work mainly with contrasts and binaries in our relationship with the natural world. For example, the familiar and the foreign, harmony and destruction, and hope and despair. In this specific work, I was inspired by a sentence I heard Donna Haraway say in a podcast: “The sky hasn’t fallen yet.” I think it conveys this paradox of feeling hope and despair at the same time – feelings I think a lot of us can relate to living in times of environmental crisis and climate change.


The beginning of the process, starting with the rock


Tendrils of the alien creature made in Cinema 4D


Tendrils of the alien creature made in Cinema 4D

Imagining the ecosystem

I start by imagining a natural world that could participate in telling this story: which plants would grow, how they would feel and look together, what their living conditions are etc. I wanted to give the feeling of a place that is both thriving and declining. Using Cinema 4D and 3D scans of plants and rocks, I created a dark and humid cave with lush plants in surreal and poisonous colours. l think these feel both very alive and artificial at the same time. Making the right plant combinations feels like doing digital gardening and I can spend days choosing and trying different variations. In this part of the process, I also create the basic light and camera setup using the Octane render engine.


Sculpting the creature in Zbrush

Sculpting and texturing the creature

When I am satisfied with the digital ecosystem, I start to imagine what kind of creature, being or supernatural element can be the symbol or embodiment of the story. The visual language of my creatures is inspired by folklore, fantasy and the Surrealism movement.

In this particular case, I was imagining a structure that was both holding something up and weighing something down. I wanted something that could be interpreted as both a custodian and a disease. I imported the rock setup to Zbrush to use as a base and sculpted it in “freehand” from there. Most of the time I sketch the shapes by hand before I start sculpting in 3D, but in this case, it kind of came to me like a vision.


Animating the camera movement and light

Bringing the scene to life with animation

This scene has three levels of animation, light, camera movement and the movement of the creature, which are all timed together. I created the camera movement and connected it to the main light to give the viewer the feeling of exploring with a flashlight. I animated the light to flash and light up the entire scene when it hits the main part of the structure which reveals the massive root network in the background. The structure is animated to slowly pulse until the light flashes which causes it to freeze and contract in the darkness.


Rendering the image

Rendering and finalising the details in post-production

Rendering is of course a big part of 3D animation, and I almost always have to do several attempts when I work with so many levels of animations. When I am happy with the render, I colour grade the video and sometimes add a few visual effects. In this scene, I decided to add a 3D sculpted frame to add to the layers of storytelling and give it more of a folklore and fairytale feeling.


Adding a frame to the final scene

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Ida Lissner: The sky has not fallen yet (Copyright © Ida Lissner, 2022)

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About the Author

Roz Jones

Roz (he/him) joined It’s Nice That for three months as an editorial assistant in October 2022 after graduating from Magazine Journalism and Publishing at London College of Communication. He’s particularly interested in publications, archives and multi-media design.

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