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Inside the incredible worlds of award-winning 3D artist Phil Derbyshire

Following his second-place win in the Hum3D Car Render Challenge 2020, we caught up with talented 3D artist Phil Derbyshire to learn more about his work and the process behind his successful submission ‘The Mini Dream’—which he created with a little help from Affinity Photo and Designer.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into your line of work.

My name is Phil Derbyshire. I am a 30-year-old 3D artist with a bachelors degree in game art and design based out of South Florida. I currently work full-time as a 3D artist at a small Arch Viz studio.

Hum 3D Reborn

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt in my element when working on art projects, but it was when I first played computer games such as the Command and Conquer series on my family’s eMachines computer system, back in the early 2000s, that I found something that I was fascinated by and wanted to be a part of. When I got older, we emigrated from the UK to the United States, and I was given the opportunity to attend an art college and work on my degree. After that, I worked briefly on creating artwork for some Unity-based mobile games before entering the Arch Viz field, which has helped me to develop and refine my skills with various render engines and DCC (Digital Content Creation) applications over the past six years.

What do you love most about being a 3D artist?

That’s a difficult question because there are so many wonderful things to love about being a 3D artist, but for me personally, it’s the world creation process. You get the opportunity to tell a story with your work, and that story can become really fluid during the process of making it. I don’t think I’ve ever started a project and ended it with the exact same goals I began with. Even in my day job as an Arch Viz artist, where I’m often given strict objectives to meet by the client, I’ll still find a way to slip in my own little creative spin and input to try to give the art a slightly different approach than was originally expected. More often than not, the client loves it because it was something they even hadn’t considered.

Hum 3D Christmas Morning
What’s your favourite aspect of creating 3D art?

My favourite aspect of creating 3D art is probably having the ability to change my mind throughout the creation period: don’t like how the lighting looks and have a better idea in mind? Delete it and start over. The camera angle you’ve chosen doesn’t make much sense now as your project has developed more? Just go ahead and move it! Want to work on a different project and come back to this one a few months or years later? Just save it and re-open it when you are ready—there aren’t many art forms out there that can give you quite that amount of freedom. We are very lucky to be living in the time that we are in—3D art is still in its infancy in some ways, and it is truly exciting to be alive and to be watching it develop and become an integral part of our daily lives.

Hum 3D The Mini Dream—made using 3ds Max, Redshift, Quixel Megascans, Forest Pack Pro, ZBrush, Substance Painter, Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer.
You recently scooped second place in the Hum 3D Car Render Challenge with your entry ‘The Mini Dream’. Could you tell us what software and tools you used to create it?

Modelling—I used 3ds Max, however, I’ve started learning Blender recently, so I’m looking forward to using that in my workflow when I get comfortable enough with it. As for the tools within 3ds Max, I used Forest Pack Pro for the scattering of grass, rocks, and leaves. I used Quixel Megascans (high-resolution 3D scans) for the tree stumps, and finally, a free plugin that every 3ds Max user should have in their arsenal—Tyflow. It’s an excellent particle system that I used in this project to create the dust particles floating above the car.

4K Viewport
Material graph for The Mini Dream

Sculpting and Texturing—I utilised ZBrush for sculpting organics such as the ants in The Mini Dream. I sculpted those little buggers on a Friday night with a couple of reference photos depicting real-world ants. I used Substance Painter for the texture work, and all of the damage and rust that you see on the Mini Cooper was painted using this same tool. I collected about 15 or so reference photos from the internet of cars and miniatures in various states of decay and spent a couple of days recreating it as best I could. Textures for the car were then exported in 8K, converted to ACES colour gamut and then brought into 3ds max for the Redshift material setup. The decals and logos I made were created using Affinity Designer, which I find to be an easy and hassle-free program to make vector art.

Scene references
Mini Cooper

Rendering—I usually use V-Ray since it is the primary render engine I use at the office, but in the past couple of years, I’ve started to take a liking to Redshift since it outputs really fast and clean results whilst allowing you to work on the scene at the same time. That is incredibly helpful since there is no wasted time waiting on a render to complete and then re-adjusting the lighting, materials, or placement just to hit render again. Being able to do it and see instant results is a game-changer.

Render elements
The details close up

Post-Production—For the final touches, I bring my renders into Affinity Photo. Here, I can play around with the colour composition, fix any blunders that made it through this far, use various render elements to enhance or decrease reflections/refractions/Z-depth, and finally bring the render to the quality and look I was striving for.

Before and after post-production in Affinity Photo
You’ve been using Affinity apps for just over a year now. How have you found them?

They are absolutely stellar applications at incredible prices, and they are stocked with many useful tools. I’m very happy with my purchase and wish I had picked them up sooner. The UI is also very intuitive, so if you’re coming from another similar DCC software, you really shouldn’t struggle to find the right tools you need inside.

Which Affinity tools do find the most useful?

I find the Pen Tool in Affinity Designer to be very forgiving and easy to use. Creating and manipulating the logos for my scenes has never been easier and quicker. I also love how easy it is to set up Adjustment/Tone Mapping presets inside of Affinity Photo. All of these facets combined make for a very fast workflow when you have a lot of still renders to process. Overall I am really happy with the apps.

Do you feel post-production is an important stage in the 3D render process?

Absolutely! That final 5-10% is as important, if not more, to tip your work over the edge. You can drastically change the entire look and feel of your artwork in this stage—even with just a few tweaks and some colour grading. Rendering in 3D also affords you the opportunity to output a Cryptomatte image.

A Cryptomatte image of The Mini Dream

A Cryptomatte image allows me, in my case, to essentially create an automatic smart mask based on the 3D object’s applied materials in the scene. This, in return, makes it simple to change an object’s visual properties in post without manually creating masks. They become extremely helpful in Arch Viz work, as it can often save you from needing to re-render an entire scene or animation if the client wants to see different colour options.

Do you have any post-production tips for achieving realistic results?

For me, as an environment artist, I would say that having real-world examples also pulled up on a second monitor, if possible, is important to ensure lighting, shadows, and the composition make sense. You also want your work to be appealing to the viewer, so there is no harm in striving to give your work a more unique artistic spin and push some boundaries.

Genesis Station
Out of all the visualisations you’ve created, which are you most proud of and why?

I’m usually most proud of my latest finished project, so right now, it is The Mini Dream as the process of creating it is still fresh in my mind, and I am very happy with the way it turned out in the end. The initial concept for the Mini Cooper was to have it washed up on the bank of a small, quiet country stream, but as I worked on the car, that idea developed into something more and something I’m very proud to have made.

What would be a dream project for you?

My dream project at this point would probably be dipping my toes back into game design. I love working with Unreal Engine and building fully interactive worlds for players to explore on their own accord. I’m also working on improving my skills in animation rendering, so making a short film/animation is another realm I would like to explore more someday soon.

Day 42 of Isolation
In your opinion, what qualities do you need to succeed as a 3D artist?

To be a successful artist, you need to have the ability to persevere. Making 3D art can take a lot of time and patience. The initial start of any project is always the hardest endeavour, but if you can persevere through that beginning stage, then you will come out of the other end just fine. I’ve entered the Hum3D Car Render Challenge in 2016, 2019, and 2020. Each time, I put hundreds of hours in, and each time, it has been a tremendous learning experience.

You also need mental fortitude when it comes to looking at other peoples artwork, as it can be discouraging looking and thinking that you can’t reach that calibre. The biggest difference between your work and someone else’s work that you really admire is usually: practice. The more practice you do, the better techniques and understanding you will develop to make even better 3D art. Never stop learning, and don’t get discouraged!

Check out Phil’s portfolio on ArtStation to see more of his incredible work.