Joe Mortell

“When working on a new scene, I always aim to have at least one unique element in it”

Joe Mortell is a 3D designer based in London, whose work combines the efforts of creative direction, animation and illustration to construct elegantly rendered interiors and landscapes. Often merging into one another, Mortell’s interiors and exteriors integrate to form a unique and surreal aesthetic, crafted with a high level of detail.

Mortell’s 3D rendered environments have a comfortingly familiar, dreamlike quality to them. With their carefully stylised compositions and polished imagery, it is as though we’ve been given a glimpse into a digital utopia. With ambient lighting, inventive furnishings and alluring textures, Mortell’s work transfigures the digital realm into something almost tangible.

Initially moving to London to study graphic design before specialising in 3D work, Mortell has built a vibrant and impressive career, working internationally with the likes of The New York Times, Wallpaper*, Selfridges, Louis Vuitton, Moët Hennessy, Youth to the People and more. NR Magazine speaks with Joe to learn more about the details of his 3D designs, pop culture influences and creative process.

What attracted you to start working with 3D design?

I love the amount of freedom 3D can give you as a designer! There are so many different areas within it to explore, learn and experiment with. When I first started, I was trying out almost anything that came to mind. Animating things like wind moving through plants, light beams passing through windows and light refracting through rippling glass. You never know what new effect might come out when you experiment within 3D. Even today, around 5 years after I started, I have a huge list of things I want to learn and experiment with.

What do you enjoy most about working with digital and surreal landscapes?

I really enjoy merging the outside world with interior spaces. They have a really nice mix of feeling unusual and surreal but also inviting. You can imagine yourself walking into them, relaxing and even exploring past the edges of the frame.

I feel that up until now it’s been very difficult and expensive to imagine spaces like these without a large movie budget. Within 3D it’s not only really quick to create things like this but it also gives you the freedom to experiment quickly and stumble across happy accidents.

The past year has been such a struggle for the arts and for creatives – how have you managed to stay motivated?

As with a lot of other people, this past year gave me a lot of free time that I wasn’t expecting to have. Personally, this enabled me to spend a lot of time experimenting and refining my 3D work. I enjoy doing it so much that it feels like a hobby when I’m learning something new or trying out a new idea for a scene. I feel as if the last year has allowed me to see what I want to achieve in my work a lot more clearly. I realise this really isn’t the case for everyone. My advice to anyone that is struggling is to try and find a completely new creative area that interests them and experiment with it. If you can find a creative area that you really love, the motivation will come on its own.

When do you feel like a work is ‘complete’?

I tend to focus on the composition of a scene first so I can settle on a direction and will then have a good base to work from. After that’s in a good place I start to add natural elements and furniture until the pairings feel right together.

The last 50% of the work that I put into a scene will be all about the smaller details and that’s where I feel the scene starts to really feel complete. These will be details in the materials and textures to make them feel natural along with small objects to make the scene feel lived in. An ideal scene will have small areas that catch the eye and really hold your interest.

What are the most important things you consider when designing your 3D landscapes?

When working on a new scene, I always aim to have at least one unique element in it. This could be the shape of the architecture, the natural landscape, the lighting, the colour palette or maybe even something simple like a unique piece of furniture. Using this method has helped me to find entirely new approaches to making scenes. Some things that I’ve tried out as an experiment before have become the core foundations in what I create today.

What spaces and landscapes inspire you and your practice?

The spaces that inspire me the most are almost anything retro and futuristic. I love the unique shapes in the architecture and the super bold and stylish furniture within them. I’m always aiming to find the right balance between vintage and futurism in my work.

I’ve also started to become very inspired by renaissance landscape paintings. They manage to achieve a feeling of amazing depth within them by using clever areas of shadowing and lighting to break down the scenery into something more readable. The lighting and scenery in these paintings always have a brilliant powerful feeling to them that would be amazing to try and capture in a 3D scene.

What aspects of your own life influence your creative vision?

I’m a huge movie fan so this has played a big part in how I imagine new scenes. I especially enjoy anything surreal, or anything dream based. Studio Ghibli movies stand out as some of my favourites along with movies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with its incredible surreal scenes. I’m also a fan of Nintendo, so the worlds in Zelda and Super Mario have always really inspired me.

What have been your favourite projects to work on?

I have so many favourites it’s difficult to pick! I find that working in 3D allows you to work on such a wide variety of different projects. I find that I either particularly like working on something I haven’t tried before that allows me to experiment a bit, or on the other end, a project that allows me to really focus on refining the realistic details.

A few projects that do come to mind are modelling and animating birds for AllBirds shoes and NYT that allowed me to try something new. I also recently worked on a project for Wallpaper* with Charlotte Taylor where we mixed furniture with outdoor spaces. Another would be creating six unique surreal animations for Youth to the People.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

Right now I’m working on some really exciting projects. Some of which are collaborations with other 3D artists where we will be creating spaces together. Combining different skill areas that we have to make some really unique ideas. Also, as I’ve been solely focusing on still images the past few months, I’m working on bringing motion back into my work and creating a series of surreal animations.

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