When you set out to make art for a living, the job comes with some tough questions: Where can you find inspiration? When is a piece is complete? How long should you keep iterating? And maybe the biggest mystery: How do you find people who find your work valuable?
Seven years ago, German digital artists Philipp Ries and Thomas Mayer—better known as LoopingLovers—met at school. At the time, they weren’t focused on cracking the code to success as a design business. They were more immersed in the mysteries of the creative process. Exploring new tools such as Cinema 4D, they began developing a distinctive aesthetic that blurs the lines between real and surreal, portraying humanoid bodies moving fluidly in a 3D environment without physical limitations.
But in 2020, there was a shift in the art world that helped LoopingLovers discover their niche. In the absence of in-person exhibitions, people turned their attention to virtual alternatives. With this shift came a community of artists and fans who recognized, appreciated, and valued their work. After a high-profile collaboration with Mattel and renowned fashion label Balmain was featured in Vogue, they attracted the attention of many new clients wanting to incorporate their work into their projects.
Here, the duo explains how NFTs (non-fungible tokens), Clubhouse, and other factors combined to bring them to the forefront of a revitalized digital art scene, and what other passion economy entrepreneurs can learn from their experience.
“The pandemic was an exponential change of how society perceived us as digital creators.”—Thomas Mayer
DBX: How did you meet and begin collaborating?
Thomas: Philipp and I met at university [Hochschule für Gestaltung Schwäbisch Gmünd] around 2014. We both studied design. Phillip was a major in industrial design and I was in interaction design. We were exposed to this clarity of design, followed by this powerhouse wave of user-centered design. We both are creative human beings and needed to try these tools, but also [wanted] to go a bit more wide, a bit more artsy.
Philipp: We spent days trying to understand how to make things move, how to bend things. It was the early stage of getting access to the structure of the programs. It was the beginning of sharing knowledge, searching the internet for tutorials, and exploring the first steps in this new medium together. We had different backgrounds and knowledge bases, which came together really well.
How would you describe your creative and collaborative process?
Thomas: From the beginning, we realized we can enhance each other's projects. The collaboration was basically a knowledge exchange, and building on top of each other's ideas. The Janus Head project is an example of Philipp coming from a more emotional background, laying out the idea and the vision of where to go, and me trying to support him from a technical perspective, trying to experiment and accelerate the process so we don't lose the spark in the moment. That's what I feel like, even when we’re working remotely. We have days where we have our earphones on for 12 hours and share screens as if we were in the same room.
The way your imagery blurs the real and surreal seems to reflect our collective experience over the past year as we try to make human connections virtually. How did lockdowns affect the way you connect and collaborate with each other?
Thomas: Philipp and I collaborated anyways in a remote workflow, but the pandemic somehow changed the whole perception of artists like us. Before, we were some people in front of computers. Then at one point, we became artists. We were people who could do remote productions for many clients. All the platforms gained so many users. Platforms like Zoom all of a sudden became super important. Within that, augmented reality filters became more important. In the same way, NFTs and the crypto space exploded and gave us a completely new platform to discover and to expose our work on. For us, the pandemic was an exponential change of how society perceived us as digital creators.
Philipp: The biggest change came from the outside—the view on our work through productions in the fashion industry, for example. Because people were not allowed to be together, this had to be outsourced and more digitalized. There was more of an eye on how this could work. That put what we do more on the map in the public eye.
“Clubhouse was the perfect accelerator for this idea of what an NFT could be—to be in close interaction and conversation with different people.”—Philipp Ries
What inspired you to focus on body shapes and humanoid elements?
Philipp: There is nothing more iconic than the human body. I have tons of sketchbooks, just trying to understand the human body, the proportion of hands, how they move. To try and understand the geometry behind things, the hidden lines, to actually get the proportions right. Even if you're not an expert on proportions, you can still tell that a head proportion or the eye proportion are off because you know how eyes should look, how an arm can and can't move. This is one of the biggest inspirations, having this contrast point with the expectation.
Thomas: We are all experts in recognizing what body language means to us and how to interpret the emotion behind it. For us, the interesting part is, how we can alienate this body language to trigger a different feeling, to play with the expectation? Whether this digital body is happy or not is somehow unclear. When you see it in a loop, you somehow put this feeling we create into a time capsule, because the loop is somehow infinite. What inspired us about loops is to find a loop that has unclarity of beginning, so it goes on and on and you don't know when it ends.
Philipp: The best thing we discovered around the human body is the non-verbal form of expressing thoughts or emotions in the body language. There are so many subconscious signals that come from deep inside of you. You don't have control of it. This is what makes this unique. It's comes from the inside. That's why the human body and the language around it is special for us.
How did you begin exploring NFTs?
Thomas: Philip approached me about NFTs mid last year. When some people in Hamburg were working on NFTs, we said, ‘Something new is going on. We should become part of this because it’s a chance to be exposed at different level.’ I think Germans are mostly not super early adopters. We’re a bit scared, like ‘Is that an online scam? Is someone going to steal our art?’ We were a bit hesitant, but at one point, we said, ‘That's big business.’ So we jumped on it and created our Janus piece. It was a great experience and one of the things I'm most proud of.
The process of creation and putting it out there was also a brave step for us as artists. It changed a lot in the mindset, and the level of trust in what we do. Because for the last five years, we were digital artists and creators, and now we’re NFT artists. We're now perceived a bit more serious about what we're doing. It all has some more weight somehow. Even if it's digital, it’s a bit more real to the entire world.
Does it feel like NFTs opened up a new audience for you?
Thomas: We had a big group of friends and artists from all over the world that were happy to support us on these new platforms. Clubhouse was super important. We engaged with a completely new group, and a big new audience. There are so many more layers to what we do already. We’re also connected with more artists that we’d been following for years. On Clubhouse, people I looked up to for five years were in the same room and we can chat. It’s wild.
Philipp: The interaction was way more direct. The great thing was the time stamp. This was in the mass media more and more. People get attracted to it and try to figure out how this works. Besides, with everyone on lockdown, Clubhouse was the perfect accelerator for this idea of what an NFT could be—to be in close interaction and conversation with different people. Not just the artists friends and creators we already knew on Instagram, but also people who are not in the NFT space, critics who are coming from a more traditional background in the art space. That was super exciting to meet different people with different opinions.
“If there’s something I could advise it would be: Do it for yourself. Find your own voice. And have fun.”—Thomas Mayer
A lot of passion economy creators work to establish personal relationships with their clients. How much time do you spend creating versus building those relationships?
Philipp: It's more a question of what we want to try to [convey] with the image and what is helpful to understand the process behind the creation. We get into different platforms to share different sides of the process. For Instagram, it's more like a gallery or an archive. On Twitter, we have more insights to share more about technology programs. We get questions about how a skin shader works, or how we did the lighting on a project. We get into techie, nerdy conversations with our followers. On Clubhouse, there's another layer. Each platform has another part of LoopingLovers which we are covering. It's time consuming, but it doesn’t feel time consuming because it doesn’t feel like work. This is our day. It's filled with it.
How you use Dropbox in your workflow?
Philipp: We switched recently to a shared workspace with several members. We have a file structure to be able to work on the same project at the same time. The best thing about having a shared library is that if you’re saving a file with different textures or referring to objects in the scene, if you open it on another computer, nothing gets lost. [Before this,] when we swapped files, there would be missing links or missing documents. We’d have to resend and re link, which took us a long time. Now, having all these files and libraries in one place makes it accessible and workable from anywhere.
Thomas: The versioning included in Dropbox—I don't know how many times it saved me. When I work, you do something in one version after another, but sometimes you will save them and pick something and you're back. I see when rendering was produced and I can just go back to this version, like ‘Okay, it's still there.’ It’s saved so many hours, so many times. It’s an insanely good tool, just for that.
Philipp: Also, the Transfer option for people outside of our team lets us ship huge files, like animaticals. For the early stage of a project from A to B, this is also very helpful to communicate to the outside.
How are you using new technology in your current projects?
Philipp: Most projects in the pipeline at the moment are mixing reality and virtual reality—Extended Reality or XR. Earlier this year, one project that definitely goes in this direction was for [the] fashion label Balmain. It was a collaboration with Mattel, the creator of Barbie. The conception was digital virtual Barbies wearing the new collection of Balmain. This also got featured in Vogue and spread over the fashion press. This project is currently going in the next round over the summer. So we're really excited about that.
In Extended Reality, there's a lot going on at the moment with real-time engines. So it's not pre-rendered or pre-programmed. It's all parametric, and it’s for displaying in virtual production studios. For example, the Mandalorian series was shot in this way, with big screens and cameras track so you always have a procedural landscape in the in the background. The camera always creates the right angle and gets rendered in real time.
What advice would you give to artists who want to enter the creator economy?
Thomas: I was happy that when we started, there were not so many different platforms back then. We focused on one platform in the beginning. That gave us a good head start for mental health. When I see nowadays Clubhouse, Twitter, and how many NFT spaces they are, it's overwhelming to try to be on all of these platforms in the beginning. I think that's not what matters in the beginning. For us, what mattered in the beginning was to express visual art and the way that we wanted to do and the chance of being independent. If there’s something I could advise it would be: do it for yourself and for no one else. Try to find your own voice. And have fun. Don't get stressed with numbers, likes, and shit like that.
Philipp: I would say get yourself surrounded by people that can be unconditionally honest. It's something which really helps us. We can speak completely open about everything, even if we disagree. It's the best thing that we have, this vibe of connecting where we can speak over everything in a really honest and direct way. This is something I would definitely advise: don't surround yourself with people who just say yes to everything.
Thomas: It’s also great when you reach out to people in this creative space, how many people are so helpful. Just ask. Most people are really willing to help you and give you advice. We have so many direct messages like, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ We always take five minutes like, ‘You know what—we use these tools?’ The spaces are normally like super friendly and supportive.