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Meet The People: 3D Designer Joe Mortell on Surrealism + Video Games

By Alyssa Shapiro

Joe Mortell, a 3D designer based in London, is a repeat creative collaborator with Youth To The People. Remember the dreamscapes that featured mini jars of the Dream Eye Cream floating about in ethereal worlds? That was Joe Mortell. His surrealist—and dreamy—work is largely inspired by the immersive worlds of none other than video games. In the future, Mortell plans to work in VR so that you, too, can step into his world.

Alyssa Shapiro: So you're based in the UK and you've been working remotely with us since the Dream Eye campaign, and now on the Youth Stacks. What's been your favorite part of these projects? 

Joe Mortell: I think the creative freedom was absolutely amazing in both of the projects.

For the Dream Eye Cream, it was amazing to come up with these six different scenes with the team. We had kind of like a basis at the start, like kind of a key word or a rough idea of what we wanted, but having that freedom to kind of come up with these imaginary worlds and then sort of like tying them up together and working with the team to kind of like discover where they could go is a really nice collaborative process in doing this. 

AS: Your work is really surrealist and you create these situations that are really enticing, and especially now I think, as we’re all looking for an escape, really dreamy. What experiences or what other art has inspired your style of work?

JM: Growing up, I did play a lot of Nintendo as a kid, which definitely has inspired me. I had a GameBoy when I was super young. I started playing games when I was probably about three years old. It got to the point where my parents actually had to stop me from playing because I was so involved with them. I loved them so much. It was kind of like controlling my life, but those have definitely been a really huge inspiration for me. I stopped playing when I was a teenager, really. Those laid the groundwork. 

And apart from that, I think animation movies like from Studio Ghibli have been really good inspiration. Anything that already has like a surreal edge to it, almost like dreamlike things. And also architectural projects always have a really big inspiration on me. Um, I did at one point want to become an architect so I think that's sort of inspired me to create these sort of worlds, these spaces inside. 

AS: I was going to ask that, if you thought about becoming an architect or even a video game designer or an animator or anything like that, like, are those things that you're still interested in exploring one day?

JM:  I always liked the idea of becoming an architect, because I think you could see your work at such a huge scale. But I think that time needed—I think it's seven years still—is just so intense for me. So I think that one is out of the window. I would really like to get into animation more. I do specialize in that at the moment, but because of the time taken to kind of process these scenes and render them out, it's still quite time-consuming at the moment. But as the technology progresses, that's something that I'm definitely looking towards getting into more. Also trying to see how you can almost step inside the scenes like using VR and experiment with that. 

AS: So are you inspired by this like sense of creating a different world that you can step into? Like where does that come from? 

JM: I think that just comes back to my sort of love of movies and video games where it has this whole kind of sense where when you kind of watch a particular director's work or like an animation studio, they always have like these certain things that they use. And you always feel like it's part of the same world. And I think also it comes from a bit of frustration when you make a still image, there's so much that you can do with it, so many angles that you could look at it. When you're designing, it's almost a little bit frustrating just to have to settle on one angle, you know, you can’t see, what does it look like from here, from here? You could spend hours and hours just tweaking things. So I think being able to work with video a bit more, so you can show people how you can actually walk around it. Yeah. 

AS: Does your aesthetic and your work influence the home space that you create for yourself at all? Do you bring any of those visual elements into the space that you create to live in?

JM: I do. Yes, definitely. Um, my girlfriend's actually very good—she's more talented than I am at designing interior space. So I actually take a lot of inspiration from her. She's inspired a lot of my work, um, the way she kind of lays out the rooms that we have. We have one big room, this sort of kitchen/studio/living room, which kind of inspires me a lot. Um, it's nice to have this sort of big open space to work in. 

AS: Do you live with a general awareness of energy, like the energy that you're putting out, other people's energy, how you interact with that? 

JM: I think it's been really good to see, especially over the last year, I feel like there's been a kind of a boom in the creativity, especially in the field that I'm working in. I feel like everyone's working and getting inspired so much from posting things on the internet. Personally, I've been creating so much more over the last few months because of that. Originally it was just from being stuck inside, but now it's kind of overflowing from seeing everyone else's work during that period. It kind of inspires me to go a bit further.

AS: If there were no limits, if you really could dream beyond to create this future that you want, what does that look like for you?

JM: Yeah. Okay. So for me personally, I think being able to just have the freedom to have to put my ideas down, as soon as I have them. I feel like the one frustrating thing with 3D work is that it does take a little bit of time. So I feel like I have so many ideas that I want to get down, and sort of refining the process of trying to do that in some sort of way. I try to produce maybe one or two pieces of personal work a week, just to get all my ideas out and try things out and try and be a bit experimental with things, with animation, maybe try some like modeling ideas, things like that. I think that really helps me.

AS: What's your process? Like, do you ever work like pen to paper? Since I imagine it takes a lot of time to really create something in a program. Because I'm a writer, so I get that like, “Oh, I have this thing and I have to get it out of my head or else.” So I make crazy notes that don't make any sense to anyone. Do you ever just find yourself like sketching to get it out of your head and onto something visual? 

JM: Yeah. Yeah, I do do that. I think I kind of, I tend to get a bit frustrated sometimes. Like if I'm kind of like out and about, I'll use the notes, draw anything on my phone and I'll look at them maybe even just like a week later from that, like, “What the hell was I thinking? I don't even know what that was. That's like so abstract.” I do tend to sketch sometimes, but I would say most of the time, I find it a lot easier just to go straight into 3D and just work that way, because I feel you can iterate so quickly and change things and you kind of, you find out what's working and what's not. There's so many other things involved in, like, if I sketch down on the paper, like I wonder if that light will hit off this object and cast the thing onto the floor. I just personally find it a lot easier to work straight in the program. 

AS: Yeah. That makes sense. You aim to get at least a couple personal projects out each week? Tell me about that balance and what does that personal work look like for you? 

JM: I think it's kind of all the ideas that I want to get out.

It’s almost a way of showing people the kind of work that I want to do, and the ideas sometimes people might not be able to kind of visualize a certain animation working with that product or in like a space. So it's also a way for me to kind of like try out animation ideas, things like that.

Mostly it's just getting out ideas I've had and I haven't had the chance to put them into a project yet. I really enjoy it. I really enjoy spending time and working on images, doing animations, like trying things out and maybe something will come out of it and then that will spur onto another idea. Sometimes I can sit and work for like hours on end and then realize on a Saturday evening [that] I've just spent the whole weekend doing that, but it's good. I do enjoy it. 

AS: How do you find balance then? Like do you make sure you're getting out? Are there other things that you enjoy doing that you make sure that you build into your routine? 

JM: I'm not very strict on routine, but, um, the first lockdown that we had in the UK at the start of the year, I was so focused on doing my personal projects that I took it a little bit too far, so I kind of stopped exercising.

That's one thing that I personally really usually take time out to do. And I kind of stopped doing that. And I noticed that, like, I got a bit more tired. My energy went really low. The ideas weren't coming as quickly and things like that. So we just had another lockdown during November and I made sure at least one hour a day I would exercise. Even if I was really enjoying what I was doing, I would just stop there and come back in an hour. And it's always helped. Definitely.