This is a conversation that we have been looking forward to since day one. Esben discovered Render Weekly during it’s first week and has been an integral part of the community. He has not only contributed some incredible imagery, but also some extremely relevant and helpful tutorials for the product rendering community; you may not guess, but the RW team is self-taught and we owe a lot of our skill development to Esben’s videos. Here, we get to take a closer look into his background, workflow, and philosophies.
RW: Esben, Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to be where you're at in the creative industry?
Esben: I got into 3D when I was about 13 years old. There was this computer magazine that came in once a month with some demos for 3D software and a program called Strata 3D with a tutorial on how to do some basic modeling. I talked to one of my friends in school about it and he introduced me to 3D Studio Max and told me that it's what they used to make movies and things like that. I then got into 3D Studio Max and some polygon modeling for a couple of years or so but kind of lost interest. I didn’t really enjoy polygon modeling and I found it really difficult to shade and light the scenes back then. Instead, I got into photography, video editing and also played a lot of music. Fast forward to 2008 when I started my product engineering Bachelor at Odense, I got into Parametric CAD modeling and came back into contact with rendering using Keyshot through an internship.
RW: Wait, so you went to school to become an engineer?
Esben: It was a product design/engineer degree. So it was half mechanical engineering and half industrial design. After three and a half years I felt that I was not really that good of an engineer and I was not really that good of a designer but it was fun and having that cross-over knowledge has proven to be useful when working with more technically focused clients. On the sixth semester (out of seven) I went for an internship at a furniture company and they used Keyshot so that was the first time I got my hands on it and I was like, woah, this is so much easier than when I was using 3D Studio Max. The drag and drop sensation was easy and I played around with it for a while and that's how I got back into rendering.
RW: What is something you remember designing in school?
Esben: In our first semester we had to create a dentist chair. Yeah, it was a really difficult task and there were a lot of cruddy chairs made; it was hard to figure out where to put the focus. Some teachers felt it was more mechanical engineering and others felt it was more industrial design.
RW: Did you get a job after you graduated?
Esben: Yes, I started at Velux as a design engineer 6 months after graduation. They design and produce rooftop windows. I worked in the accessories department making shutters and blinds and was in charge of the entire project from design to the construction to getting the pieces molded. I was also doing visualization in the process. It was at that time that I discovered that the visualization part of the design process was really the most fun for me. I worked there for 2 years and during the last 6 months, I started having fun doing really nice renderings of not-too-well-designed mechanical parts. That’s when I figured that I should probably quit and try to do something with more focus on product visualization. At that point, I quit and I studied a masters degree in lighting design at AAU in Copenhagen while starting up my freelance business. Denmark provides a minimal level of financial support while you are in school so I was able to have a minimum income while I got started. So I started building up my portfolio and got my first client job.
RW: You quit your job to start a visualization company. How did you get your first client?
Esben: My first client was a referral from the Keyshot forum. A guy called @Speedster. He had seen my work and didn't have time to take on a project so he forwarded it to me. In the beginning, I had maybe one project a month. At first it was slow but it was all I could handle alongside my studies.
RW: How did the Master's Degree help you?
Esben: The focus of the lighting design master was mostly architectural. However, working with lighting helped me to see it more analytically and understand how lighting interacts with spaces, on materials and how you can use it to enhance certain features and hide others. I think that I have subconsciously brought that into my product rendering work as well. Lighting is pretty much my favorite part because it really makes a huge difference between a boring rendering and an exciting rendering.
RW: You are a lighting Master. How has your real-world photography background helped you in your 3D visual communication?
Esben: I'm basically a product photographer. All the basic skills that you need to have as a photographer like composition, creating an exciting setup, post process, color theory has a very direct relationship with 3D rendering. To me, it's the exact same whether you're taking a photo or doing a rendering. Rendering is just another tool to make an image.
RW: Your home is also your office? How do you balance the two?
Esben: The commute is nice, I just have to step out of my bedroom and into my office. I really love that I can be close to home and not spend time getting from one place to the other. Sometimes it can be a bit lonely to be in the office all day and just talk to clients over the phone or video call, or sometimes I feel like I miss out on that collegial feeling - like having a conversation at the coffee machine or things like that. So I once tried to move to an office space but I didn't really like that I had to go there and stay there for a full day then go back home, so I just prefer working from home. My style is more about putting in work in the morning for a couple of hours, kickoff a rendering and go out for a walk, make some coffee in the kitchen, or read a little. Just about 15 minutes to 30 minutes and then go back to work. I try to end my work in the afternoon by the time my wife comes home. She works from 9 to 5 so I like to try to keep my work within that frame so that we can have the evening together.
RW: The Render Weekly team started learning Keyshot through your tutorials on youtube. At what point did the tutorials start coming through and why?
Esben: I got started two or three years ago with a single tutorial. I remember that I thought about it for at least a year before I got my shit together and did one. I was really scared of just getting on the camera and speaking English (which is not my native language), but then I did one and the feedback was good. It was really nice to see that I was able to help people and get messages from others saying that they learned more from my short tutorial than they did from two years of learning Keyshot in school. It's a nice feeling when people feel like they've learned so much and made better renders because of me.
RW: Have the tutorials paid off for you in the long run?
Esben: Yeah it has been a really good tool for getting new clients. All the clients that I've had over the last year or so always begin their messages to me by stating that they have seen my work on YouTube and they really like it. So, it has proved to be a really good advertisement tool for my business. Something I did not expect in the beginning.
RW: Who are some of your clients you have done work for?
Esben: So far I’ve done work for a lot of smaller design companies and advertising agencies and more well-known product companies like Logitech, Fender, Coloplast, and Worx. Besides that, I’ve also been doing KeyShot training at companies like Lenovo, Huawei, Grohe, and Novo Nordisk.
RW: You get a lot of inquiries about certain tutorials from hundreds of followers. How do you decide on the tutorial that is most important?
Esben: I don't really have a strict plan that I follow, it's more like if I feel like doing it tutorial I'll do it. Sometimes it's a question from the Keyshot Forum or answering a question of how I did something on Instagram, and if it's fairly easy for me to build a tutorial for that then I'll do it at my convenience. People come up with really cool questions on their own and I usually just pick those.
RW: What is your relationship with Keyshot?
Esben: I was employed on a freelance basis with Luxion for a bit last year. You might have noticed that I did some of their quick tips and webinars. Currently, I’m back working for myself but we are in close contact.
RW: Your latest work has been more animation focused. Is that where you are headed?
Esben: Last year a majority of my client work was animation and I really enjoy that. The animation tools in Keyshot are quite basic but they get the job done. Whenever I’ve had the need for deformation and simulation features, I’ve been using Modo to create that and import the result into KeyShot to use as the render engine. Recently I’ve started to get into Houdini to do more advanced stuff. I still like using KeyShot as my main rendering engine as It's just more efficient for me to work with KeyShot to be able to use the same materials and lighting for stills and animation.
RW: How do you practice animation in the product world and acquire new skills?
Esben: I did this rendered skull with blood coming out of it keeping in mind that maybe one day I'll have to render a water faucet with water running out of it. So, I try to think of how the techniques I am practicing can be applied to a product space. While learning a new trick I like to do something different to help get my focus a bit away from what I do for client work. To get inspiration I look at other animations online. When I find something I like, I look at the camera movements, lighting, materials, etc. and try to be very analytical about it to get knowledge about all the aspects needed to create that specific animation. It's really just about a ton of experimentation. Just keep experimenting and experimenting and play with it. That has always been my way of learning things; just dive into it try some new shit. It's not like skateboarding or other extreme sports where you might get hurt if you mess up. What's the worst thing that could happen?
RW: Is animation your main focus for the future?
Esben: I would love to be able to do more animation work, the money is a bit better and it's a little bit more fun and challenging. I think as more and more people learn how to create strong still images I find getting into animation seems to be the new type of work that can set me apart and keep me ahead of the curve. I still love producing still images and product photography but I'm more focused on advanced animation right now.
RW: Your work requires a lot of processing power. What kind of machine are you rendering on?
Esben: I actually have two stations now. Back in 2017, I built my first workstation when the Threadripper 1950x came out, and then last fall I built another workstation with the 2990 WX. Rendering time became a bottleneck in my process and I couldn't take on more clients because I didn't have the processing power. For instance, the final output for a 1-minute animation can sometimes take up to one week to render out. I was having to outsource work to render farms but it became a bit too expensive. So instead, I built the second one to just render out animation projects while I work on new projects on the other one.
RW: Why have you participated in RW?
Esben: I participated because I like challenges and working within a set of boundaries. I think it's valuable to see what other people create. I'm always shocked at how many talented people there are out there. It’s hard not to drop the jaw by seeing how much talent there is.
RW: Why did you pick the topic of caustics for our collab?
Esben: I think the topic of caustics for the collab could be really cool. I feel like it is something that often times is missing in renderings. When you have lights hitting metal pieces or traveling through glass and liquid you're getting reflections or refractions on the other surfaces. It brings in that missing level of realism. I think it would be cool to do an image and a tutorial of how to set it up because just hitting that caustics button won’t always work. Your scene needs to be set up around the idea of using caustics. Expect some new tips and tricks on that tutorial.
RW: Any advice you want to share with those who are in the process of learning how to render?
Esben: Set a specific goal for yourself for something you want to create. Use reference images as guides and search online to figure out to do if you are getting stuck. Don’t stop or move on to a new project until you’ve reached your desired goal. Also, when you are done, ask yourself whether you would be impressed by the work if someone else had created it. If not, ask yourself what is needed for you to be impressed by the shot and do your best to implement that.