Posted 22 June 2022
Interview by N'Tanya Clarke
Mention Balraj Bains

AR designer and developer Balraj Bains on life after creating the first 3D neck tattoo effect

With their passion for inclusion and the grassroots tech community, Balraj Bains is redefining what it means to be an AR designer and developer in the fast-evolving sector. A creator of social media filters and effects, they are driven by the human condition – with their early projects spurred on by their desire to create something that “felt more genuine than posting a perfect selfie.” The result was the first ever neck tattoo effect – a bittersweet feat that resulted in technical and creative praise, but also online bullying and bot attacks. Here, Balraj talks software, finances, their one-of-a-kind projects and life as a BIPOC creator casting off others’ preconceptions.

Balraj Bains

Balraj Bains


Job Title

AR Designer and Developer

Based

London

Selected Clients

Nexus Studios, Maybelline, Identity 2.0

Previous Employment

Creative Project Manager, Taraki X EBE (2019-present)
Production and Set Design Assistant, freelance including Adidas Originals (2018-2019)
Illustration, freelance including Bricks Magazine (2018-2019)
Arts and Culture Writer, Village PR, Azeema, Noa Vee (2017)

Place of Study

BArch Architecture, The University of Nottingham (2012-2015)

Website

blraj.com

Social Media

Instagram
TikTok
Twitter
LinkedIn

What I do

How would you describe what you do as an AR designer?
I would describe what I do as an amalgamation of design, logic, technology and experimentation (that’s still very much evolving quickly). The first skill that is important is the desire to learn. It’s great for bringing together your creative design mind with your logical mind, since it starts with an idea – even an intangible concept – and taking it through the process of what is technically possible, then testing and refining until the AR effect is ready to publish. Sometimes you are also helping the marketing of the effect for when it is published.

There are times when you’ll work alone through every process, but you can also work in a small team, maybe alongside one producer or one other creator with a complementary technical skill. Other times, it can be a bigger team of AR creators, project managers, graphic designers and 3D artists.

You can also work directly with a client and be heavily involved in directing the creative aspect. It can also entail being given a set brief, where you never communicate directly with the client and only focus on working within the AR programme itself. I do see the latter becoming more common as visions for AR become more ambitious and inventive.

Metal nail effect created by Balraj for Snapchat

What are the main influences and inspiration behind your work and, specifically, the filters you create?
A lot of the ideas come from experiences, reflecting on life and getting lost in theory and imagination regarding who we are. Sometimes these come across... not particularly glaring, as such, but that’s also the fun of effects and art – that they can take on whichever shape a user who opens and plays with them chooses. Sometimes it is also for the sake of fun and in response to requests in the comments, especially on TikTok, as I find people can be more vocal there.

@blahblahbalraj Purple hearts everywhereeee, what else should i make? #fyp #bts @blahblahblraj ♬ Joons breakup era - :)

Can you tell us about some of your favourite projects to date?
My favourite project to date is probably Machine Learning, which is an Instagram effect made with Identity 2.0 for their exhibition about technology and race, called This Machine is Black. I absolutely loved the process of working with them, our discussions about tech and futuristic ideas in fiction, developing sketches and prototyping our embodiment of these. I also got to use a wide variety of capabilities through making a 3D decaying hole in the face, using JavaScript to set positions and display the date and shader language to make animated noise.

Infinite Reach is another project I love. It was a team hackathon entry and it was fun to work alongside creators that are amazing in both intellect and technical skills. We did not want to take on a traditional commercial route and made a new style of effect, letting the user be in control of how they move through the metaverse. It uses body tracking so that, when you reach out to the sides of the screen, you hold the scene you were in between your hands and reveal a new scene behind it. Clapping your hands makes the held scene disappear, so you can exist fully in the new scene and continue your journey by reaching and clapping to move between worlds.

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I don’t think you need any specific training, especially as a lot of the software is still changing very quickly. Instead I would say to think about the types of experiences you want to make or see, and get really good at one technical aspect.

I am a bit of a hypocrite here as I am the type of person who wants to learn everything. Over time, you can keep learning, but start somewhere that makes you excited, and build from that. Lots of creators do not use code at all in their work, whilst others use it as much as they can; some are big on 3D, while others use 2D.

3D understanding opens up a lot of possibilities to realise more spatially focused ideas, but you don’t need something like Cinema4D. I use Blender at the moment and there are lots of tutorials on YouTube for it. Spark AR, Lens Studio and Effect House each have documentation on their websites so I would start with those, official templates and creators’ tutorials.

A range of Balraj’s work on their Instagram, from the iriNeon effect on anime to type animation, and a template inspired by Doja Cat and Sza’s Kiss Me More

How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
It was admittedly here-and-there at the start. I began by experimenting in Spark AR for Facebook and Instagram, with ideas and materials connected to self-expression that felt more genuine than posting the perfect selfie. It was more of a hobby to explore, so I didn’t put too much time into it. When lockdown happened I learned more, but focused on software engineering since, as fun as it was, AR as a realistic career didn’t seem possible because I had no wider understanding of the AR world.

After an unexpected recruiter reached out, my hopes for AR grew and I spent much more time learning Spark AR, and with the focus, my skills improved dramatically. I mostly learned through experimenting and learning from others online, although the learning content wasn’t so vast at the time, so I asked a lot of questions.

I also like to experiment with new features, so I built a fun TikTok effect of [animated character] BMO from Adventure Time which follows the user’s body position. I’m also expanding to learn more in-depth AR topics like GLSL [OpenGL Shading Language] and more scripting.

“I mostly learned through experimenting and learning from others online... I asked a lot of questions.”

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
The most inspiring thing is when people who have knowledge on a topic and use it to help others learn in online forums, and without ego. I am talking specifically about personal work here; if you’re being paid for a project, it’s not nice to get someone to help without offering something in return. The genuine grassroots communities online have also been wonderful in helping to build confidence and bringing our voices together.

Being outside is another one, especially around nature. It takes you out of your own head, out of the world of others’ minds and, to me, is the best place to process your own existence and let yourself wander to new ideas.

Lastly, a good computer. Having better hardware makes such a difference – I used to have to wait 20 minutes just for my computer to start up and load the limited applications that would work on it, so you can imagine how much more is possible when you have better working tools.

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge has definitely been visibility and being considered equal enough to receive opportunities for work. There are a lot of talented and skilled creators, but like we see across the creative industries, BIPOC in the West are only being heralded as worthy of established client work if they have already worked on an established brand (and that which is to the taste of decision makers).

It’s a catch-22 and results in tokenism, and a mindset where those who are successful feel no need or desire to create another seat at the table for someone else. I really hope those with the option to, do let us in for the long term.

As the original creator of the popular 3D neck tattoo effect, do you think AR designers can protect their concepts and designs once they’re on social media, and if so, how?
It’s a tough one. At the moment, there is no way to protect your designs or concepts. It comes down to individual integrity, and I have seen both sides of that. On the one hand, it does make you want to stop creating and keep away – but when you see people use your work and credit you, it does encourage you to create.

In particular, with my 3D neck tattoo effect, a group of influencer-creators accused me of copying them, while copying the effect themselves. Tactics like fake accounts, bots, attempted hacks and organising mass followers with manipulated storylines and targeted friendships have been used to bully and harass those who stood up to them. Unfortunately, the same behaviour can continue without accountability or reprimand.

“At the moment, there is no way to protect your designs or concepts... but when you see people use your work and credit you, it’s encouraging.”

I hope to see more ethical responsibility be taken by companies and individuals, instead of forgetting for the sake of popularity and leaving those affected isolated or forgotten. When there is no accountability, it creates an environment where original creators are hesitant to rightfully say a design concept is theirs because of a fear of being dismissed and perceived as dramatic.

All I could do over the past year is keep existing, be firm with boundaries and careful with whom I interact. It is like how the law is a problematic system where the truth is often not enough, so it relies on trust that people will do the right thing. If you see an effect you like and want to make something similar, you can foster an uplifting environment for everyone simply by crediting the original creator or bringing them onto a paid project, especially if the idea is from someone with a smaller following, or marginalised.

By giving the original work its due credit, everyone has more opportunities to work and collaborate, but the environment has not fostered that so far. However, I know my work stands on its own, and your own creative thinking cannot be replicated.

The original Instagram neck tattoo AR effect Balraj created, which was both popular and controversial

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I’m still learning! So far I have learned that it really depends on some people who are very kind and aware putting in a good word for you, and people who can make it happen. It’s about listening and challenging prejudices so that marginalised people have a chance at earning a living.

There are a lot of assumptions that AR effects are very easy to make and are a quick $500 job, but don’t be afraid to turn those offers down because you are building from techniques and skills you have developed with time. Higher quality effects need to have much higher budgets, and factors such as changes from reviews and approvals take time too.

As most freelancers will say, it is hugely nerve wracking to not know if or when a next paycheck could come. My learning from that is to not get too excited when you do land one project; if you are the lead, get 50% before starting, and only fully set the time aside to work on it once it is confirmed in writing.

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
It takes some luck. It is something not many will say – maybe they‘re the lucky ones – but it really does. You can work hard and be the most skilled creator, but without others believing in you and challenging their own biases to give you a chance, it can only be a hobby. Keep in mind the type of people you have around you too; make sure they support and challenge you in the right ways, professionally and on a human level.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar career?
To start with, I would look at what type of effects you want to see and be part of developing. From there, take it one skill at a time, and learn about the wider industry. Some solely get their income from branded effects, or get subcontracted in from time to time and others work full-time for companies.

AR design and development is still in its early days, so getting good at one software or skill type is probably the more sensible starting point. Decide on what your effects are for. It doesn’t need to be the same reason every time, but think about whether it’s to develop a specific technical skill, for a specific audience, or for your own artistic exploration. Be prepared to keep learning as things evolve, collaborate with others, search for learning resources and ask questions on forums to build your ideas.

Interview by N'Tanya Clarke
Mention Balraj Bains