You might recognize her otherworldly, translucent face filters on Instagram, or her gleaming, snakelike adornments on Charli XCX’s Charli. Paris-based artist Ines Alpha has spearheaded the realm of virtual makeup for years, crafting images and experiences that enhance and extend the limits of beauty and self-expression through 3D modeling and augmented reality software.
We’re grateful that Ines sat down with us to chat about how growing up in Paris has shaped her, how she uses 3D rendering software like paint brushes and canvases, and why self-love and self-care are crucial in the world of virtual makeup.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an artist?
I grew up in the suburbs of Paris. My parents were fashion designers, and took me out to exhibitions to build my education and artistic vision. My father wanted me to be an architect—so I didn’t want to be an architect… precisely because he wanted it. That’s basic teenager stuff [laughs]. I was scared of wanting to have a creative career because I was scared of not being able to earn a living.
I went to an applied arts school, but not somewhere like Beaux-Arts, where I’d learn how to make truly artistic work. I thought I could learn some web design and some more practical skills to still work a creative job. After, I went to a management school because I still wasn’t confident enough to find a job after the applied arts program. I did a management and design master’s at a fashion institute in Paris. There, I learned all the jobs around the fashion designer, except for being the designer. I learned everything that could help someone bring their project to life. Everything except being the creator itself, because I was scared of being that person.
I worked at an advertising company for seven years as an art director, specializing in luxury, beauty, and fashion. That was quite comfortable for me because I could be creative, but not involved personally and artistically. I could do fun work, but if it wasn’t any good, it would never be my fault.
What kinds of garments were your parents making? Were there other creators or artists that were inspirational to you growing up?
My parents had their women’s ready-to-wear fashion brands, with looks inspired by Lolita and Kawaii fashion in Japan, but with a Parisian, French twist. The style was cute, girly, and classic simultaneously—not too colorful, not too childish. It depended on the period of the year, on the trends. There was a woman called Eileen who worked for them, and she would make the catalog for every collection. She’d use paint for one collection, then another collection would be with paper collage. I was fascinated by this.
What did your background in advertising teach you in terms of your current creative practice?
I learned how to be patient with the people you work with. Also, how to sell my work, how to sell an idea. I started working with 3D while at the advertising company because I met Panteros666, who was just starting his career as a music producer. This trend of digital art and 3D software was just beginning to be more accessible to everyone. I started to make video clips with Panteros, as well as visuals for his EP.
Before having learned 3D software, I used to work only with Photoshop. Once I had some 3D rendering knowledge, I applied it to some of my advertising jobs. I worked on many cosmetic still-lifes. The downside to that was that I’d make mocaps, and then the clients say, “Yes, I love the concept.” Then I’d do the photography—and the problem that I got is that my 3D still-lifes looked way better than the final Photoshop collages I’d make! The client would always say, “Hm, but the 3D looks better. I want the same thing as the 3D work.” After lots of these back-and-forths, I realized one day that I was ready to do my own work.
Do you remember the moment where you first had the idea to work with 3D makeup or beauty?
I experimented with 3D, making videos and live performances with Panteros—but I was still looking for my vision and my way of expressing myself. I was looking for something to say. I would copy things from other artists I liked or was inspired by. I did this to experiment and technically train myself to work in 3D.
The Codex Seraphinianus is a great inspiration. It’s a book made by a 70s artist, Luigi Serafini. It’s a huge volume about a planet that some guy discovers, and he makes a list of all the creatures and plants living on this planet. Everything is in another language—one that no one on Earth can speak, and he draws all the plants and the creatures. This book fascinated me, so I tried to reproduce in 3D those plants that were illustrated. So that was my first experiment— I thought, My vision is to make this book come alive, to make those plants appear as though living in our world. I was just starting in 3D, so my knowledge and my skills were ‘beginner.’
My day job was to study beauty photography. All day long—beauty photographs, images from makeup artists, and doing Photoshop work with those visuals. I already had tons of beauty-centered visuals—images of skin, and the texture of physical makeup—and I was fascinated by that. I thought, Why couldn’t I take these pictures and add 3D elements on those faces? That would be makeup, but made using 3D software. So it was an accident through which I created this 3D Makeup concept I’m still working with. I’ve always liked to augment reality by making it fantastic. So I started with video clips, adding creatures into the landscape. Now, I add 3D elements onto faces to make them more fantastic, weird, or different.
Little by little, I’ve gained more experience with 3D. I began making videos using 3D makeup—which seem more real because it’s attached to the moving face. Then, AR software for the filters developed. So it felt very natural to do my creations in AR, so everyone could wear them. When you make and publish only one video—it’s out, but nobody can wear what you’ve designed.
From the perspective of someone who puts on 3D makeup, what do you think they gain from wearing it as opposed to wearing ‘real-life’ makeup?
3D software enables you to create stuff that you can’t do in the physical world. 3D and digital software and filters enable people to express more diverse definitions of beauty that we don’t have access to in the physical world. With 3D, you can create your reality—your own rules, the textures you like, and the shapes you like. You don’t have to use something you need to buy at a shop.
When I started 3D makeup, my initial goal was to do something in 3D, then to do the physical version—an exhibition, for instance. I thought, But I have so much more freedom in the digital world! So, I decided I would focus on the digital world; to focus on what is not doable in the physical world. That’s what’s interesting to me, and why people are very attracted to wear digital experiences. There are very different styles of digital makeup and filters—mine is very sci-fi-ish, more futuristic. Other creators focus on things like distortions, deformations, beautifying effects, or transforming you into other creatures or animals.
3D makeup enables you to transform yourself into whatever you want in a second. And that’s a kind of magic.
When you’re about to start work on a filter, how does the creative process begin? Are you sketching on paper or having conversations with people?
I collaborate with musicians, performers, drag queens, makeup artists; sometimes, they let me do whatever with their faces. Sometimes they already have makeup on, so I think, How can I construct something around this existing makeup? It’s inspiring to add 3D to something that isn’t just basic makeup, not just eyeshadow on the face.
For instance, there is a performer, Fabijan, who drew geometric shapes on her face. I added elements so those shapes would come out of the drawings she made on her face—so that was interesting to give life to what she’s already done. When I’m working on something more personal, like on myself or a more blank canvas… for example, I collaborated with a Korean actress Ah-sung Go, and she was super excited to do something with me. She said, Here’s my face. Do whatever. For those situations, I think, What do I want to learn? Maybe I want to learn a new technique in 3D.
I don’t sketch a lot. Sometimes I sketch for clients, but I like to start with my software. Like, I said, What do I want to learn? Or, Is there a plugin I haven’t tried in my software? Is there something new I could try that could help me bring another idea to life? Sometimes I want to work on something with a round look. So I start tweaking my software, drawing lines and adding volume. Then I tweak some parameters, and I’m like, That looks cool! So I keep working in that direction. I build something with experimentation and randomness, changing some software parameters. I change the colors, gradient, and then some transparency, and little by little I’m like, That looks good. Most of the time, I have no idea how personal projects are going to look. I often come up with shapes I hadn’t thought of from the beginning. I like working that way, sculpting with software.
You’ve previously said, “People think 3D design is primarily technical, but to me, 3D software is the new canvas and brushes.” It’s easy for creators who work with certain software to separate the technical from the artistic.
In my practice, I love to get ideas from playing with software. Sometimes, I change things I’m not supposed to change—it’s not made for that purpose, but it can create glitches that look great or are interesting. I like to use a tool meant to make something look realistic, but if you use it to do something different, then it can spark some ideas. I like working this way. I understand that some other people will stick to technique, and work the other way and say, I want to convey this idea—how am I going to do this exactly?
You’re talking about possibilities in glitching, and in using software in the “wrong way.” On the converse, do you see any limitations with with the softwares you work with?
I work mostly with Cinema 4D for 3D modeling and animation. When it comes to filters, I work with Spark AR and Lens Studio. Lens Studio is for Snapchat, and Spark AR is for Instagram. They both have their limitations. I cannot do AR with Cinema 4D, but I can do hyper-realistic renders. I cannot do hyper-realistic renders with AR—which is limited because it has to work on a phone. Also, the animations for each work differently, so some animations are very tricky to do in augmented reality, whereas some animations are possible to do in Lens Studio but not in Spark AR.
I myself have lots of technical limitations. With these softwares, I don’t know how to do so many things, especially in AR. I get a lot of help from other creators to help me code. At the same time, technology evolves fast, and software is getting easier and easier to use. Even Spark AR and Lens Studio have many tutorials—now anyone can make a filter! I see that as huge progress.
Future Gloss is the first AR lens filter you made for Snapchat. Can you tell me what it was like to work in AR for the first time?
Future Gloss was the first filter I adapted from the video I did with the Korean actress Ah-sung Go. I was playing with her features and created this cyborg-ish mask. Like you said, it was my first attempt at doing an AR filter. I did a lot of 3D makeup involving dynamics like cloth moving with the face’s movement. Things like this are quite difficult to reproduce in AR. Also, liquid-y things are super hard to produce in AR.
I started with 3D makeup because I thought it was quite easy to adapt to AR. I managed to do it, and I was super surprised that I could handle all of it. I kept postponing trying to learn the software, because I was scared of learning something new. I thought I couldn’t do it, but in the end, I could. I got some help from other creators, but I managed to learn and do this first filter myself.
I’m also curious about your collaboration with Charli XCX and what that process was like working with her to make her album designs for “Charli.”
The creative director of her album contacted me, and he told me, “We’re going to shoot some pictures of Charli and the musicians she’s going to collaborate with. I would love to collaborate with you to create the 3D makeup on her body.” Charli’s creative director wanted something super metallic. I would make the shape of the line, and, then I asked him whether he liked the design of the line to be twisted, round, or square. We started with one visual—then for a month, I had two visuals a week to make. I’d receive the picture and then a message saying, “Can you do it in two days?” It was at the beginning of my 3D Makeup career, so I had to handle everything, the management, the contracts, everything by myself. Every visual was made in two or three days maximum—it all happened super fast.
You’ve also worked on filters for Lil Miquela. Did you find that process different from working with the face of a ‘real’ human?
Lil Miquela interviewed me over text for Dazed. I proposed to the magazine, “If you send me a portrait of Lil Miquela, I can add 3D makeup on an image you can use for the article.” That was quite funny, to add 3D makeup onto someone that is already made digitally. They gave me her astrological sign. They told me, “It’s a sign inspired by nature, plants.” I had total freedom in creation. So I sent some variations of one design, a couple of different textures. And they said, “This one looks great!”
How has COVID-19 and mask culture affected how you think about filters?
During quarantine, I did a series of 3D makeup inspired by the anti-COVID masks. I was imagining a digital version of the anti-COVID masks. The only problem with the real-life mask is that you cannot wear a filter while wearing it. On Instagram, at least, it doesn’t work. If you wear a mask, the technology won’t recognize your face. But with Snapchat, it recognizes your face. It struggles a little bit, but you can wear a filter wearing a mask.
I know that Snapchat had already thought of that problem because they did some lenses with a country from the Emirates. A lot of girls there wear veils, so they did a filter that could work through tracking only eyes. Their technology is more advanced to work on and recognize eyes, thanks to that.
Filters are something that people use a lot in their intimate life. It’s something personal that you do with your phone at home. I haven’t seen any difference in people wearing my filters or my creations since COVID. Maybe brands are more attracted to make filters because it’s an easy way to do a campaign. After all, people are still using filters despite their wearing a mask, or the fact that there is pandemic.
Have you seen anyone use your filters in unexpected ways?
I’ve seen people plan how they dress with my filters. I love it when they do that. It was not always on purpose, but sometimes they wear the filter because they think it goes well with how they’re dressed. Once, I saw two girls, they were all painted in blue, and they were wearing my Future Gloss cyborg mask. So it was more or less the same color as their skin, which was painted in greenish-blue. So that’s so great when it complements, and the filter lives on their face and in all the garments around. It becomes almost like an accessory.
How do you see 3D makeup influencing the contemporary culture of beauty and real-life makeup?
Both physical and digital makeup will evolve together at some point. Now, you have digital makeup on one side, physical makeup on the other side. I hope to make work that shows a collaboration or complementing of both these sides. I do believe digital makeup will grow more important. Technology is growing, evolving fast, and people on their phone more.
You should only follow your own beauty standards and be whomever you want and however, you want. Filters can help people express themselves in a more diverse set of ways. You can’t avoid the beautifying filters that make you look like a Kim Kardashian-type person. It’s a shame because I can only see people mostly using those filters—and it’s sad because it’s that same model that is being shown to people. You have one model of beauty, which says you need contouring, blush, eyeliner, and you need your jaw like this. You begin to believe that that’s the only definition of beautiful in the world.
Filters are a symptom, and we need to focus on the cause, which are beauty standards. Those need to evolve, and we need to show more diversity in beauty, in both the physical and digital spaces. Digital makeup is another tool to transform yourself—it’s like physical makeup, in the sense that it can do you good, or it can do you bad, depending on how you use it. I hope that people will be able to wear digital makeup in the future, but still like themselves for the body they were born with.
I think of Years and Years, the BBC television series. There’s a teenager character who wears a filter on a plastic piece on top of her face, which means she wears a filter all the time. I hope that humanity will not evolve in that way, and that people will use filters for fun, or just to see themselves differently for some time, but still learn to appreciate the face that we’re born with. For that, physical makeup can be a good way of expression. But it’s important to mention that physical and digital makeup can live together.
Soon enough, we’ll see everyone wearing 3D makeup with our own eyes wearing holographic glasses, nanotechnology contact lenses. When that time comes, I hope people will be able to remove that screen from them and still love themself.