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Exploring New Worlds: Introducing Ken Nguyen and His 22 Years of CG Journey

Victory is Ours! © Ken Nguyen

The war between the E.U.N. (Earth United Nations) and the aliens has been going on for decades and brought humanity on the brink of extinction. While wars ravage the Earth, E.U.N has sent people to explore and settle colonies on other planets.

The art series, "Exploring New Worlds", are created by Ken Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam, grew up in Paris, France, in the 80s and then moved to the USA in the mid-90s. Ken has over 22 years combined experience in architecture, video games, themed entertainment, immersive experiences and trade shows and exhibits.

In our exclusive interview, we can find out how Ken created the amazing art series and his 22 years of CG Journey!

Ken Nguyen

Fox Renderfarm: Hi Ken, thank you so much for accepting our interview! Could you give us a brief introduction about yourself?

Ken: My name is Ken Nguyen. I was born in Vietnam but left the country at a very young age after the war. I grew up in Paris, France, in the 80s and then moved to the USA in the mid-90s. I have over 22 years combined experience in architecture, video games, themed entertainment, immersive experiences and trade shows and exhibits.

Fox Renderfarm: As a 2D/3D Senior Concept Designer, do you think 2D art skills help you a lot in 3D art developing?

Ken: Like most concept artists, I started learning traditional media such as pencils, markers, and watercolors. Then I discovered Photoshop in the late 90s. I got introduced to 3d modeling with SketchUp when I was working in architecture in the early 2000s.

I would say that 2D and 3D skills work in tandem to create the desired art. Indeed, I do not think an artist is 100 percent 2D or 100 percent 3D, especially nowadays with all the new 3d software. Some use simple 3D geometries and do a lot of paint-over and photobashing in Photoshop. Others like myself use a lot of 3D and do minimum 2D work in Photoshop.

However, there were some pieces that needed a lot of Photoshop paint-over for things that were faster to do in 2D than in 3D (e.g., Adding FX such as smokes, fires, or doing color corrections and whatnots in Photoshop).

This one is a great example of concept that I spent a lot of time with paintover and texture/photobashing in Photoshop.

The Last of Them - The Ambush © Ken Nguyen

The Last of Them - The Ambush © Ken Nguyen

Fox Renderfarm: What’s your inspiration for your series of visual developments called "Exploring New Worlds"?

Ken: It is actually a long process that started back in 2013 when I did the first concept in the series called the Last of Them.

The Last of Them © Ken Nguyen

The Last of Them © Ken Nguyen

It was the beginning of my alien-invasion/post-apocalyptic/end-of-the-world series of visual developments. Humans were living in peace under the E.U.N (Earth United Nations) until the alien invasion that brought the human race to the brink of extinction.

The war between the E.U.N. military and the alien forces lasted for over a hundred years. As decades passed, humans developed new technology and spaceships that would allow them to escape the war-ravaged earth to explore other planets. That was when the Exploring New World (XNW) series would begin.

I was laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic last year and it was a perfect time to take a break and work on personal art pieces such as the XNW environment concepts. That was also a way for me to visit those worlds and escape all the craziness happening in 2020. LOL

Fox Renderfarm: How long did you take to finish the "Exploring New Worlds" series?

Ken: As mentioned above, I lost my job, therefore I had a lot of free time to work on personal projects. I spent a few months during the Spring and Summer of 2020 working on the XNW series which actually consists of different themes. The main subject is Exploring New Worlds, but there are also concepts that were parts of Alien Encounters, Alien Civilizations, E.U.N. Capital, Military and Bases on other planets.

Exploring New Worlds

Alien Encounters

Alien Civilizations

E.U.N. Capital

Alien Encounter © Ken Nguyen

Alien Encounter © Ken Nguyen

E.U.N. Capital © Ken Nguyen

E.U.N. Capital © Ken Nguyen

Alien Civilization © Ken Nguyen-1

Alien Civilization © Ken Nguyen-2

Alien Civilization © Ken Nguyen-3

Alien Civilization © Ken Nguyen-4

Alien Civilization © Ken Nguyen

E.U.N. Military Base © Ken Nguyen-1

E.U.N. Military Base © Ken Nguyen-2

E.U.N. Military Base © Ken Nguyen

While working on XNW series, I also did some concepts for the Last of Them series that tells the story of the war between the humans and the alien/mutant races on war-ravaged Earth that will lead to the XNW series after over a century has passed.

The Last of Them - The Ambush © Ken Nguyen

The Last of Them - The Ambush © Ken Nguyen

The Last of Them - Abandoned Warehouse © Ken Nguyen

The Last of Them - Abandoned Warehouse © Ken Nguyen

The Last of Them - Behind The Car! © Ken Nguyen

The Last of Them - Behind The Car! © Ken Nguyen

Fox Renderfarm: You were the Concept Artist at DIGITAL DOMAIN in 2018 in charge of environment and prop concepts for ELEVEN ELEVEN. Did you meet any difficulties while creating? And how did you solve it?

Ken: I was one of the many concept artists working on Eleven Eleven, which is an original science fiction story designed for virtual reality and augmented reality and has been selected by the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

I believe the art team worked on the game several months before Digital Domain reached out to me and hired me to help with some extra environment concepts as they were on a tight schedule.

I was tasked with creating the jungle and cave areas as well as some props. The challenge here was to create a jungle that looks realistic and natural by populating the scenes with trees and plants, and at the same time it must satisfy the gameplay.

Designing in 3D was the biggest advantage compared to 2D. Indeed, I was able to place the vegetation assets in real-time and experience the spaces with camera movements as if I were in the jungle.

Eleven Eleven VR Game © Ken Nguyen-1

Eleven Eleven VR Game © Ken Nguyen-2

Eleven Eleven VR Game © Ken Nguyen-3

Eleven Eleven VR Game © Ken Nguyen-4

Eleven Eleven VR Game © Ken Nguyen-5

Eleven Eleven VR Game © Ken Nguyen-6

Eleven Eleven VR Game © Ken Nguyen

Fox Renderfarm: Among all the projects you’ve done, which project do you feel proudest and would you share with us how you make it?

Ken: There are many concepts that are my favorites and that I am proud of. Among them are some from the XNW or The Last of Them series because they were the newest concepts and I have learned a lot from previous projects to create them. However, for this question here, I would like to share some renders that are perfect examples to show how working in 3D is fast, efficient and productive especially for architectural renders.

This project is called A Day in the City and was an entry to the 2018 Evermotion challenge.

After I read the brief, I thought it would be interesting to create a scene showing everyday life in downtown of a big city. I started gathering buildings from my 3D resource folders and played around with different layouts as shown in the WIP-01 image. I came up with seven options. They were all grey renders so that I did not have to worry about materials and textures. I then populated the scenes with people, vehicles and trees as you can see in the WIP-02 image.

After picking one of the views, I started to do some color renders and played with different lightings, weather, and time of day such as evening, night, sunny, overcast, etc. I believed the final submission was the evening one. After the contest was over, I decided to do a snowy post-apocalyptic version just for fun.

A Day in the City WIP - 01

A Day in the City WIP - 02

A Day in the City © Ken Nguyen-1

A Day in the City © Ken Nguyen-2

A Day in the City © Ken Nguyen-3

A Day in the City © Ken Nguyen-4

A Day in the City © Ken Nguyen-5

A Day in the City © Ken Nguyen

Fox Renderfarm: What’s your pipeline of 3D art?

Ken: I do a lot of 3D kitbashing using models I build from scratch as needed, free models and some that I bought from different 3D sites. A lot of them are quite affordable and they are made by professionals, therefore the quality is particularly good.

After I have an idea of what I want to do, I gather the 3D assets and compose them together in SketchUp. I then export the whole thing into Lumion, set up the views, and add lighting. I usually do some tests with white box or grey renders. I can focus on the composition and lighting/values and not worry too much about color, materials, and textures.

When I am somewhat satisfied with the grey renders, I start adding materials and textures. It is a long but fun process going back and forth between SketchUp and Lumion. Nothing is written in stone for the 3D composition. As a matter of fact, I kept on changing, adding, or rotating the 3D assets as needed. Everything is in real-time, therefore, I can see what the final render might look like with actual lighting, shadows, reflections on materials, etc.

When I have something that I really like, I render it and bring it into Photoshop for some paintover, color corrections, FX like smokes, and so on.

Fox Renderfarm: Could you briefly tell us your educational and work experience along your CG journey?

Ken: After graduating from high school, I went on to study architecture. I received a bachelor and master’s degrees in Architecture and worked for about five years as an architectural designer. I never knew that learning SketchUp (a program originally created for architects to create quick 3D designs) would help me get a job in the game industry.

Ever since I was a little kid, I always love to draw fantasy and sci-fi characters, environments, and architecture. Therefore, I decided to quit my architectural job and move to San Francisco, California, in 2003 to attend the Academy of Art University where I graduated with a MFA in Games focusing on concept art, modeling, texturing and animation with Maya and Studio Max.

I got my first job in the game industry working on concepts of environments and architecture for an MMO in 2006 using SketchUp and E-On Software Vue.

Then in 2013, I discovered Lumion3d, a program similar to real-time game engines, that allowed me to create my first alien invasion/post-apocalyptic concept that would evolve into the Exploring New Worlds series.

I have been using SketchUp, Lumion3d and Photoshop to do all my environment concepts ever since.

I also use Daz3d for my character designs, but my next goal will be to learn ZBrush.

Fox Renderfarm: Any artists or artworks inspired you most?

Ken: I get inspiration from the artists and concept art from movies like Star Wars or Avatar, and video games such as Halo, Assassin Creed, The Last of Us, and Uncharted series, and Ghost of Tsushima.

I also like to look at the old masters and how amazing the intricate details are in their oil landscape paintings.

Fox Renderfarm: The composition, lighting and coloring of your works are fantastic, how do you enhance your good sense?

Ken: Composition, lighting, and color are basic art foundations that all artists must learn. Whenever possible, one should think about foreground, middle ground and background, and what stories the renders are telling and how the composition of the elements guide the viewers’ eyes. Lighting (and shadows) when done correctly will create a sense of realism. As for color, it creates moods and emotions.

Concepting in 3D certainly helps a lot with composition and lighting especially for environments and architectural designs. Indeed, I can place, move, and rotate all the elements (e.g. rocks, mountains, plants, characters, buildings, vehicles, etc.) and see which compositions work best. Also, using Lumion I can add lights and try different weather types and times of day (e.g., morning, night, etc.) and see the changes in real-time. That would be impossible to do in 2D concepts.

Fox Renderfarm: Any other things you want to share with the CG enthusiasts?

Ken: Here is an advice that many of you certainly have heard: Follow your dreams and “Love what you do and do what you love” (Ray Bradbury). Also, learn from your past mistakes, be willing to embrace changes and learn new techniques and software. Finally, practice, practice, and practice!

As a CG artist, it is a never-ending journey of learning and discovery to become a better artist.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Life is a journey, not a destination”.

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