Toby Lee: Becoming a 3D Artist

3D artist Toby Lee
Toby Lee - HDR Light Studio artist

Lightmap recently chatted with Toby Lee, an automotive CGI specialist currently based in Stuttgart, Germany, where he works for leading CGI company, Mackevision, as a senior 3D artist. Originally from Cheshire in England, we asked Toby about his experiences as a Brit abroad, his journey as an artist and how he would implore any studio to utilise HDR Light Studio.

Bugatti lit with HDR Light Studio

Toby Lee originally envisioned a career in the game industry – he even studied relevant college and university courses to that effect, but after modelling a car during his studies, he discovered a passion for automotive design. After that, Toby lost any interest he had in making games and used the course and his Games Design degree at Leeds Beckett University as a way of enhancing his skills as a 3D artist.

Like most students in creative fields, Toby struggled to find any relevant work post-graduation, and after two years of building a strong portfolio, Burrows CGI Studio in Essex entrusted him with his first job as an artist. Unfortunately for Toby, his first job didn’t work out as planned and he was let go. A job in retail awaited, presenting him with a stark reminder of what was to come if he continued on a path lacking in focus and application in such a competitive industry.

“I was told by my first employers that I simply wasn’t cutting it as an artist. The skill was there but not the desire or concentration. I thought to myself ‘I’ve made it’ and then just coasted through the next nine months without ever pushing myself further. I found myself working at an outdoor clothes shop and was kicking myself for blowing my first chance as a 3D artist.”

Porsche GT3 lit with HDR Light Studio

After an eye-opening period away from the industry, Toby was re-energised and determined to work as a CGI artist, no matter the location, he would work anywhere in order to fulfil his automotive ambitions.

“I was determined to get back into the industry and spent the next month building a new portfolio and showreel. I sent hundreds of emails to as many VFX/CGI studios from all over the world that I could find on Google.”

”A few weeks later I heard from a German company called Pixomondo and I upped sticks and moved to Germany as VFX trainee. I was earning less money than I was at the clothes shop, but I had finally got my foot back in the industry and the experience I gained during that time was well worth the sacrifice.”

Since moving to Stuttgart in 2014, Toby honed his craft at Pixomondo and then Staud Studios; a photography-centric environment that exposed Toby to an entirely different view of the industry and what it takes to be the best CGI artist.

Agera lit with HDR Light Studio

“During my first nine months in Germany, I learnt more than I ever had at University or by watching videos on YouTube. At Staud Studio’s I was fortunate to sit next to a guy who had been an automotive photographer for the last twenty-five years and was now a CGI artist. He transformed the way I viewed and executed my projects by always challenging me to explain why I did things a certain way.”

”The experience of being surrounded by these types of people who were already at this incredibly high level was a huge motivator and influenced me to ask lots of questions in order to learn and get better at what I do. In this industry, you need a combination of natural talent/eye, or you have to commit to learning the necessary knowledge whilst continually practising your skills in order to be successful.”

Originally from Cheshire, Toby admits to missing his family and the trivial aspects of England, like fish and chips, but hopes to one day return to British shores if the right opportunity came along, but currently feels the cost of living in London makes Stuttgart a no-brainer.

“I have travelled a lot during my life so moving abroad never really fazed me. I do miss home comforts, especially family and friends, but I got fed up with certain aspects of life in England and really wanted a change. I am lucky that everyone in Germany speaks English because I am still to master German. Maybe one day I will return home with my family, but living costs in London and the lack of real opportunities in other parts of the country means Germany offers the best work/life balance.”

One key difference he has noticed during his time, other than the cheap way of life and workplace cultural differences in Germany, is the sheer financial muscle and glamour found within the CGI industry in Stuttgart, and Germany in general, compared to the UK.

“There is a lot more money involved in cities like Stuttgart because of the leading automotive brands that operate here like Porsche and Mercedes. The budget for their marketing and launch campaigns are always much bigger and more interesting than those I have seen in the UK. The area as a whole is a hub for the CGI and VFX industries, especially as the government incentivise companies to create content here with tax breaks.”

Fleeing the comforts of home and establishing yourself in a new country, with a new language and a fiercely competitive industry is a challenge many Brits would struggle with, but Toby has flourished, enhancing his skills, trying (if not mildly failing) to master the German tongue, and creating his own family along the way. During our chat, Toby informs me he has recently accepted a position at leading CGI firm, Mackevision; an amazing opportunity and challenge as a Senior 3D Artist within their Automotive Department with more emphasis on CGI.

“I really enjoyed the last three years at Staud Studios, I learnt a great deal but I felt it was the right time to go to a company that had CGI/3D in their DNA, which Mackevision has always focused on, compared to the photography-centric environment at Staud. I am excited to take on familiar challenges with clients like Mercedes Benz, with the added responsibility of helping junior artists the way I once was.”

Maclaren lit with HDR Light Studio

Like most artists, finding the perfect workflow is crucial to creating the best-looking content, and since the very beginning, Toby has always utilised 3ds Max, later adding V-Ray, VRED, Houdini, Corona and HDR Light Studio to create a variety of automotive imagery. HDR Light Studio, in particular, has been a game-changer for Toby, who first started using the lighting tool whilst at Staud Studios.

“The key difference between HDR Light Studio and the native lighting found in certain 3D packages is the sheer efficiency of lighting. With HDR Light Studio I can add and experiment with numerous lighting settings so much faster, enhancing the quality and speed I can complete tasks. The simplicity of the software and the instant results mean that no matter where I go, I will always implore any employer to add HDR Light Studio to their workflow.”

A few key lessons Toby would pass on to his younger self and, in particular, any budding CGI artists is to continually push your limits, avoid complacency, and crucially, if you have a keen eye for lighting, learn as many photography techniques as possible – a valuable skill he learnt during his German adventure.

“I wish somebody has said to me, when I first started out, to study photography and lighting techniques. 99% of CGI artists are trying to imitate real life products or cars and a lot of the skills you learn about cameras and lighting in real-life photography provide you with transferable and essential skills when working in CGI.”

Learn more about Car Studio Lighting for CGI

Thank you to Toby for taking the time to share your journey with us. To view more of his work visit his Behance.