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    Joshua Halford: The 3D Artist Who Breaks the Boundaries of Car Rendering

    Joshua Halford: The 3D Artist Who Breaks the Boundaries of Car Rendering

    Discover more about Josh, a UK-based 3D artist with ten years of experience in the computer-generated imagery field. With his piece "Buggy Race", a clever and funny portrayal of a spider piloting a stick-built vehicle propelled by snails, he just won the Car Render Challenge 2023, which is sponsored by Fox Renderfarm, a leading cloud rendering services provider and render farm in the industry. His work was unique and innovative compared to the other entrants. His primary area of interest is product visualization, but he also likes working on side projects that test his creativity and abilities. He finds inspiration in the natural world and in films such as "Planet Earth".

    Join us in finding out more about Josh’s background, his techniques, and his vision for the future of 3D art.

    Fox Renderfarm: Hi Joshua! Thank you so much for accepting our interview! Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

    Joshua Halford: My name is Josh, originally from the UK, but currently residing in Amsterdam. I've been a professional 3D artist for about 10 years now, primarily specializing in product visualization. In my spare time, I indulge in personal projects like the one I did for the competition. Additionally, I enjoy woodworking, making furniture, playing video games, engaging with Lego sets, and playing board games. I also have a passion for going on bike rides around the Netherlands and, whenever possible, indulging in snowboarding, although opportunities are limited due to the absence of mountains in the vicinity.

    Fox Renderfarm: Winning first place in the Car Render Challenge 2023 is a significant achievement. What motivated you to participate, and how did you feel when you learned that "Buggy Race" had clinched the top spot?

    Buggy Race © Joshua Halford

     Buggy Race © Joshua Halford

    The Project Car © Joshua Halford

    Joshua Halford: So, I actually entered the competition last year as well, but unfortunately, I didn't win anything. After seeing all the amazing entries that took the top spots, I realized that what I submitted might not have been creative enough. That's why I was determined to give it another shot this year, aiming for something quite different from what people might expect. Learning that I won was incredibly exciting because I genuinely had doubts about my entry being accepted, considering it was quite far-fetched for a car. So, it was a delightful surprise for me. A lot of effort went into it, so it was really gratifying to see that all that work paid off in the end.

    Fox Renderfarm: Can you walk us through the creative process behind "Buggy Race", from conceptualization to final execution, and how did you come up with the idea of arachnids/spider racing on a moonlit forest floor?

    Breakdown process of snail © Joshua Halford

    Breakdown process of snail © Joshua Halford

    Joshua Halford: After my submission last year, I decided that I wanted to create something quite different. I already had in mind that I wanted to incorporate natural elements because a car, by nature, is very artificial, and veering towards nature would be unexpected. I have a passion for macro-photography and anything related to the intricate details found in things, so I was drawn to the idea of portraying insects. Initially, I considered depicting a beetle driving a wooden car with regular wheels. However, while watching Planet Earth with my girlfriend, we came across a segment featuring Cuban racing snails with striking racing stripes and vibrant colors reminiscent of racing car decals. This inspired me to use snails to power the car. From there, I began conceptualizing ideas for the chassis. Although I initially wanted to utilize AI to assist with this, I found it challenging due to the lack of online references for such imagery. Instead, I turned to real buggy and tubular chassis designs used in motorsports. Using 3D Studio Max, I sketched out the dimensions and incorporated the snails in a naturalistic manner. Developing a workflow became essential. Originally, I planned to gather sticks from local forests, scan them, and deform them into shape, but realizing the enormity of the task, I explored using Houdini's procedural modeling capabilities. Despite being new to it, I found it to be a valuable tool and began experimenting with generating sticks from splines, leading to the evolution of the concept.

    Fox Renderfarm: Do you have some sort of standard working pipeline or procedures that help you to build and develop your work?

    Joshua Halford: With my personal projects, I'm quite free in how I approach them because I enjoy having an idea and striving to achieve the end result as closely as possible. However, there are often challenges along the way, things I don't know how to do or unexpected issues arise, requiring me to adapt my workflow frequently. This differs from my day job, where we follow a much stricter working pipeline. I appreciate this balance; while the structured pipeline ensures smooth operations at work, for my personal projects, I prefer to figure things out independently and develop my own workflow along the way. I find this approach beneficial as it exposes me to various techniques, even if some don't pan out as expected. Despite encountering failures, these experiences provide insight into potential future applications of those techniques. For this project, I extensively utilized custom HDAs and Python scripts in Houdini, skills that will undoubtedly prove useful in future endeavors. The process was quite fluid; I experimented with numerous approaches, many of which didn't succeed initially, but through iteration and adaptation, I eventually found solutions that worked. Overall, it was an enjoyable journey of exploration and discovery, albeit one that deviated from the conventional route.

    Fox Renderfarm: "Buggy Race" features a moonlit forest with glowing mushrooms and plants. How did you approach creating the atmosphere and lighting to convey the surreal and magical ambiance of the scene?

    Behind The Scene I Moonlit forest © Joshua Halford

    Behind The Scene I Moonlit forest © Joshua Halford

    Joshua Halford: The lighting setup in the scene is relatively straightforward, comprising only a physical sun, an HDRI of a forest, and a fill light on the right-hand side to soften shadows. Initially, I didn't plan for the moonlit foggy atmosphere, but during the rendering process, my girlfriend suggested adding fog, which sparked a significant shift in direction. Originally, I envisioned a photorealistic piece that was absurd enough to be obviously unreal, but midway through, it lacked excitement and felt clinical. Embracing her suggestion, I adjusted the color palette to a cooler tone, introduced glowing spores for contrast, and heavily relied on post-production, particularly in Nuke, to achieve the desired effect. This approach pushed the limits of what could be achieved solely in the rendering engine. Drawing from my experience with Nuke in my day job, I knew how to manipulate the raw renders to match my vision. 

    Despite the deviation from the initial concept, the project took on a more mystical and magical quality, enhancing its overall impact. Also, I drew inspiration from a lot of Pixar's work while creating the project, contemplating how their talented artists would approach a similar task. Their films served as a significant source of inspiration for me during the creative process.

    Fox Renderfarm: The use of snails as the driving force behind the buggy is quite unique. What inspired you to choose snails, and how did you incorporate their characteristics into the design of the vehicles?

     Pimp My Ride © MTV

    Pimp My Ride © MTV

    Joshua Halford: As I mentioned earlier, the inspiration for the project came from watching Planet Earth and seeing the Cuban-painted snails. Their vibrant colors and unique appearance reminded me of the flashy style from the old 90s show "Pimp My Ride." Incorporating them into the car design added a touch of bling, and their vibrant colors would enhance the overall image. Additionally, using snails as wheels eliminated the need for a complex steering mechanism, allowing me to keep the chassis simple. The concept of snails autonomously moving the car, akin to a horse, which seemed plausible and added a humorous twist, considering snails are known for their slow pace. This idea allowed for a blend of imagination and humor, where a slow-moving animal became the driving force behind something resembling a racing car. Ultimately, this concept offered endless possibilities for creativity, with my imagination being the only limit.

    Behind The Scene I Snails as driving force © Joshua Halford

    Behind The Scene I Snails as driving force © Joshua Halford

    Fox Renderfarm: Could you share the duration it took to bring this piece from concept to its final rendered form and highlight which aspect of the process consumed the most time? What contributed to this time investment?

    Behind The Scene I Creating process of spider © Joshua Halford

    Behind The Scene I Creating process of spider © Joshua Halford

    Joshua Halford: It took me a little over two months to complete the project, during which I dedicated a significant amount of time and effort. With a four-day working week, I utilized my days off to focus intensively on the project. Moreover, with the quiet winter season in the city, I devoted many hours during weekends and evenings to it as well. The most time-consuming aspect was creating the spider, mainly because it involved unfamiliar territory for me. Character work isn't something I typically do at my job, so it was a steep learning curve. While I had prior experience with Zbrush for personal projects, rigging and grooming the spider were entirely new to me. I drew a lot of inspiration from a Samsung advert featuring a brilliantly crafted spider from a couple of years ago, aiming to achieve a similar level of quality. This led me to invest a significant amount of time in watching grooming tutorials across various software packages, not just in Houdini. In hindsight, I may have gone a bit overboard with the details, but it was a part of the project that I thoroughly enjoyed. It presented a refreshing challenge compared to my past work, and I found myself deeply absorbed in it. Moreover, I'm also a stickler for details in my job, often spending perhaps a bit too much time on them, but it's something the clients appreciate, even if the producers sometimes don't. 

    Over the two months I spent on this project, the rendering process was quite intensive. I rendered it at 5k resolution, which took approximately 12 hours, and some of the other passes rendered in around 30 minutes. However, rendering the volumetrics was extremely time-consuming, taking three to four days. I had to plan for this lengthy rendering time and conducted test renders along the way. Simultaneously, I worked on sorting out the post-production in Nuke, building scripts and deciding what additional elements I needed from Houdini to enhance the final result in Nuke. Initially, I started with lower-quality test renders overnight, but I was taken aback by how long the full-resolution rendering was taking, especially for the volumetric effects. There were moments when I worried it wouldn't finish in time, but fortunately, it all worked out in the end.

    Behind The Scene I Creating process of spider © Joshua Halford_

    Behind The Scene I Creating process of spider © Joshua Halford

    Fox Renderfarm: Samuel Winter praised the level of detail in every part of the image. What were the most significant challenges you faced in achieving such intricate detailing, and how did you overcome them during the creation of "Buggy Race"?

    Joshua Halford: The main challenge I encountered was managing memory usage. While Houdini offers an excellent instancing workflow that was incredibly useful, the numerous textures I used began to overwhelm the memory during rendering, all of which were in 4K resolution. I had to optimize as much as possible and streamline various aspects of the project. One compromise I had to make was with the sticks on the buggy. Initially, I used displacement maps, but due to memory constraints, I had to switch to bump maps. While this compromise wasn't significant, it still felt like a loss of detail, especially in high-resolution test renders. Additionally, I had to combine textures to reduce the number of texture files. Although the sticks were individually baked, I grouped them and arranged their UVs in a loop in Houdini to bake them into a single texture, resulting in 36 4K textures. This process involved a lot of back and forth, which was concerning given the time constraints, but necessary to ensure the project could be rendered successfully. Fortunately, I received advice from colleagues to render the scene in V-Ray standalone instead of Houdini to significantly reduce memory usage. Although it required some adjustments to the pipeline, primarily scripting to bake the scene out to a V-Ray file, it proved to be a worthwhile solution.

    Fox Renderfarm: The title "Buggy Race" suggests movement and action. How did you capture a sense of dynamic motion in a static digital rendering, and what techniques did you employ to convey the excitement of a race?

    Joshua Halford: Yeah, that was actually a challenging aspect because it was a still image, and I wanted it to convey a sense of speed, which added to the humor of the image with the snails appearing to move quickly. I experimented with a few approaches. Initially, I planned to incorporate motion blur into the image, but the memory constraints became an issue, preventing me from rendering motion blur directly. I considered adding it in post-production, but it didn't work well in Nuke and compromised the intricate details I had meticulously crafted. So, I decided against using motion blur in the end. Instead, I posed the car to simulate a drift, a visual cue associated with speed. I also utilized dramatic camera angles, with a low perspective and a short lens, to enhance the sense of scale and velocity. Additionally, I included subtle details like dust trails and debris flying off the snail, some of which had a hint of motion blur. Despite these efforts, achieving the desired sense of movement was challenging. As soon as I attempted to add blur, I realized it detracted from the painstaking work I had put into the details.

    Fox Renderfarm: Were there specific AI-powered rendering techniques or tools that you incorporated into the creation of "Buggy Race" to achieve the praised rendering quality? How did these tools contribute to the final visual appeal of the artwork?

    Volkswagen Beetle Car © Volkswagen

    Volkswagen Beetle Car © Volkswagen

    Joshua Halford: I did utilize some AI tools initially for concepting, but they didn't quite meet my expectations. It could have been due to the prompts I provided not being precise enough. One amusing observation was that whenever I mentioned "car" and "bug" together, it would generate a Volkswagen Beetle consistently. This required me to be cautious with the language I used to describe my vision. Despite this, some of the generated images helped me refine certain aspects of my concept. However, I didn't rely on AI for rendering the final image. The only AI tool I used was Adobe Firefly to create the decal on the car's wing. Since I'm not proficient in illustration, I requested it to generate a hand-drawn shell spoof logo, which turned out quite well. The only drawback was that it struggled with text, often misspelling words, so I had to edit it manually later. Nonetheless, it saved me a significant amount of time, as illustrating a logo would have taken several hours.

    Although it may seem like a minor detail, it greatly enhanced the image. Overall, I find AI tools beneficial because they allow me to delegate tasks I'm not skilled at or interested in, freeing up more time for creativity. While there are certainly pros and cons, I believe the advantages outweigh the drawbacks, as they enable me to achieve decent results quickly, leaving room for more creative exploration.

    Fox Renderfarm: Can you share with us about your favorite projects or pieces you've worked on, and what made them particularly enjoyable or fulfilling for you?

    Joshua Halford: I really enjoyed working on this project; it's definitely one of my favorites, if not my absolute favorite. It went reasonably smoothly and came together in a good way. It was one of those projects where I felt genuinely excited to see the end result as I worked on it. Everything seemed to fall into place, and I never questioned my decisions or sanity, which was a relief. The whole process motivated me to reach the finish line eagerly anticipating how it would turn out.

    Lego Star Wars animation © Joshua Halford

    Lego Star Wars animation © Joshua Halford

    Regarding my experience with Houdini, I'm fairly new, having used it for just over a year and a half. One of the first personal projects I took on was a Lego Star Wars animation, which I haven't finished yet due to this competition. I enjoyed it because I had to devise a way to build Lego geometry based on an input file, such as creating asteroids from rock geometry. It was a departure from traditional modeling, more like solving a puzzle, which I found engaging. Many techniques I developed for that project, like using Python scripts to copy lights to points, were applicable to the buggy race project. In Houdini, it's challenging to use multiple lights at an object level, so I had to write scripts to copy lights to points and drive their attributes, similar to what I did for the glowing spores in the buggy race.

    Lego Star Wars animation © Joshua Halford

    Working on personal projects allows me to learn unconventional techniques that I wouldn't explore within my job's strict pipeline. For instance, I experimented with creating atmospheric volumetric effects for the Lego animation, which I reused in the buggy race project. It's satisfying to develop tools and techniques that can be repurposed across different projects. I'm fortunate that I had already developed many of these tools before the competition, saving me time and effort during the project.

    Fox Renderfarm: Are there specific cultural or natural elements that consistently inspire your work? How do these influences manifest in your creations?

    Joshua Halford: I've always been intrigued by photography, especially macro photography, because it reveals the intricate details of nature that often go unnoticed. I follow numerous Instagram accounts dedicated to capturing macro shots of mushrooms and other subjects. This fascination with the hidden beauty in everyday scenes served as significant inspiration for my work. I was drawn to the idea that even the most mundane objects hold a wealth of captivating detail, waiting to be discovered.

    Nike I Air Max Kids © ManvsMachine

    Nike I Air Max Kids © ManvsMachine

    Regarding artists who inspire me, ManvsMachine is undoubtedly at the top of my list. The artists there possess an exceptional eye for detail, creating works that are not only technically impressive but also artistically stunning. Their creations stand out as true art, blending technical prowess with creative brilliance. Additionally, as I've delved deeper into learning Houdini, I've gained a newfound appreciation for how mathematics and coding can be harnessed in art. While I was initially awestruck by the detailed work in programs like ZBrush, learning Houdini has shown me how mathematical concepts can be creatively applied to produce visually captivating results. Overall, I have a deep appreciation for various artists and art forms, but there are certainly a few that leave a lasting impression on me.

    Fox Renderfarm: Have you had any experience with Fox Renderfarm's cloud rendering services in the past? If you have, what is your opinion of our cloud rendering offerings? 

    Joshua Halford: I don't have any experience with your render service at the moment, but I certainly plan to use it since I now have some credits for my personal projects. I haven't used cloud rendering services much before because I typically render on my own computer, even though it can take a long time. Usually, there's no strict deadline, so it's manageable. In my studio, we sometimes resort to cloud rendering when our render farm is overloaded, but it's not a common practice. However, I do recognize that cloud rendering services are fantastic, especially when you need something rendered by a specific time.

    Using a cloud rendering service would be a significant advantage for me. One of the challenges I faced in this project was not so much rendering, but rather Houdini's process of building the geometry. To achieve all the intricate details, I had to adopt a workflow where I create a high-resolution mesh and then bake textures to a low-resolution mesh, similar to Zbrush. This process, done within Houdini, can become quite slow, especially when working with numerous nodes and loops, as you can see here. My computer would often take ages to complete tasks like caching and baking textures, sometimes even up to three days. Having access to a cloud rendering service would undoubtedly be a huge time-saver, especially for freelancers like me who often work with tight deadlines. Being able to push tasks overnight and knowing they'll be completed by morning would be incredibly beneficial.

    Fox Renderfarm: Finally, with the rapid advancement of technology, how do you envision the future trends in 3D art, especially considering your experience in winning the ‘Car Render Challenge 2023’?

    Joshua Halford: I think, as I mentioned before, AI is going to have a significant impact. The Pandora's box is already open, and we're witnessing drastic changes in the industry because of it. Some people might worry that there won't be any jobs in the future, but I don't believe that will be the case. Artists will always be needed; it's just a matter of the tools we use. One major benefit I see is the continuous release of new AI models almost daily. Many of these can greatly benefit people with limited experience or time, particularly in labor-intensive tasks like texturing and retopology. In my opinion, these tasks are less about creativity and more about technical execution, so AI can handle them, allowing artists to focus on creativity. 

    Regarding any dreams or extra thoughts, I'd advise keeping up with current technology as it's advancing rapidly. Learning new programs, like how I ventured into Houdini alongside 3D Studio Max and Maya, can open up many opportunities. Each software platform has its strengths, so don't feel tied to just one. Embrace learning new things, even programming and scripting, as they can be creatively empowering. Writing Python scripts, for example, is a creative process in its own right, albeit not visually. As a professional, it's incredibly beneficial because it allows you to leverage the power of computers to work for you.

    Thanks again to Joshua Halford for accepting our interview! Wishing new heights in your professional career! keep up with your great work.

    Joshua Halford’s social media:

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