The Workflow of a Generalist at Industrial Light & Magic

Omar Fernandes shared a short breakdown of the ViperMKII project, talked about working on Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, and spoke about becoming a generalist.

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Hello, my name is Omar Fernandes, I was born in Guinea-Bissau, a West African country, but I grew up and lived most of my life in Portugal. I have been working in the 3D world for over 20 years. 

Over the years, I have worked for companies such as Industrial Light & Magic, Rockstar Games, Scanline VFX, Ubisoft Massive, MPC, and Frantic Films, to name a few. There, I had the opportunity to work on such projects as Grand Theft Auto V, The Division, World of Warcraft, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Ready Player One, Avengers Infinity War Saga, Red Notice, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, and many others.

Becoming a 3D Artist

My journey into the 3D world started at the end of the ’90s. I was already addicted to movies and games and I was mesmerized by all the 3D and visual effects, although I was simply enjoying them as a mere gamer and spectator and naively didn’t investigate how those were made. So that appreciation, what later became my passion and my craft, started off more out of necessity and practicality. 

Back in 1998, while I was studying to get my Architectural Degree, I was requested to build physical models for every architectural project and take them to school for review. After evaluating it, which felt like less than a minute, the teacher would tell us to take it home. This resulted in countless hours of labor and significant expenditure of materials to then just be stored away. I ended up with large amounts of wasted material and models, and I had no space to store and keep them.

At the same time, although these models were useful for early scale, volume, and light studies, they weren’t able to neither fully reflect nor represent my design intents, ambition, and imagination.

Around that time, I heard about two 3D softwares: 3DStudio Max and Maya. I saw the examples of them generating basic 3D primitive shapes to much more complex geometries. I saw the opportunity in these tools and was motivated to upskill so I could use 3D instead of the physical models to showcase my work.

During that learning process/period, my architectural designs also “evolved” in style. Since initially, I was only able to use basic 3D primitives and Boolean operations between those, I adopted a more “minimalist design style” so that my 3D models could represent it. This “symbiotic approach” led to better results, both for my architecture reviews and my 3D visualizations representation of design intent.

In the third year of my Architecture Degree, my 3D modeling interest widened as my skillset increased. Instead of just architectural models, out of practical necessity, I was now passionately trying to model and incorporate cars and inventive landscape environments into my 3D exploits. 

The internet was not a thing yet, and resources weren’t so available online. To practice and learn, I went to bookstores to find every single book I could about the subject. They were scarce at the time, especially in Portugal. Luckily, that year at University I met other 3ds Max users. Eventually, that drove me to use 3ds Max more as we could exploit it, get more resources, and share knowledge together more easily. There was a lot of trial and error, long nights of troubleshooting, and tons of crashes. It would eventually pay off, giving me a good insight into how 3ds Max worked.

When I completed my degree, the internet was then finally full of 3D art forums. I got hooked on it, watching other people create their works and sharing my own. Then, I landed a job at an ArchViz company, doing ArchViz and advertisement, which gave me further experience in creating assets, embedding fine and realistic detail and textures into my models, as well as exploring an array of different light solutions and environments. Soon after, I went freelance because of the freedom of managing my own time, which gave me the chance to still be able to dedicate time to my own personal projects.

In 2007, I decided that I needed to get exposure to the international 3D industry, so I enrolled in VFS and took the 3D animation and VFX course. Over that year, I managed to learn as much as I could out of the things I had more difficulty doing (animation, character modeling, compositing). After that, I started my VFX and Games journey.

I think my mindset as a generalist came from my freelance days. I had to learn a bit of everything to get the job done faster and with higher quality than my market competitors. Some of the work I successfully landed forced me to learn new things and investigate the full skillset, from modeling to FX and complex animations and simulations, where I was forced to constantly research and learn the best (effective) method and/or software that would allow me to quickly reach those targets and expectations.

Industrial Light & Magic

I first joined ILM back when they were hiring for the newly opened Vancouver Studio, I was offered a role in the Generalist team there. However, as I felt the need for a change of environment, I requested to be sent to Singapore instead. I joined as a Senior Generalist/Sequence Lead for World of Warcraft, where I was in charge of building the Karazhan tower.

Over the course of 5 years, I worked on the following projects: 

  • World of Warcraft
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
  • Rogue One: a Star Wars Story
  • Ready Player One
  • Avengers: Infinity War
  • Aquaman
  • Avengers : Endgame
  • Red Notice
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

My role in these projects depended on necessity, fluctuating from Senior Generalist to Generalist Supervisor.

At the moment, I'm part of the Generalist Leadership Team, which translates into lots of meetings, figuring out new hires, doing the bidding and reviews, setting up sequences, and training the team. 

Overall, I can say that every project at ILM has been fun: from creating entire deep underwater sets (Aquaman) to making moody African landscapes (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever). However, if I had to pick favorite assignments, it has to be Rogue One, Ready Player One, and Red Notice. 

For Rogue One, I worked in both the Generalist Team and the Modeling Team creating variations of a destroyed U-Wing, Gun Turrets, changing Canary Wharf into Scariff, and cool sequences in Eadu.

Creating environments for Ready Player One was an amazing adventure. Working on Steven Spielberg's movie was a dream come true and the closest I got to doing a full animation movie.

Red Notice was a challenging one since it was the first project where I supervised the Generalist team, having to fit into the shoes of also a manager and trouble-shooter instead of just focusing on a particular part of the project.

Working on Ready Player One

For Ready Player One, I had the opportunity to be there from the start, which allowed me to actively improve designs as I had creative input to some existing concepts. I was in charge of several environments, and my work varied massively between each of those. I'll try to break them down the best I can. Bear in mind that this was a team effort! I get a lot of collaborative help to manage to deliver everything on time.

Shining Overlook Maze: we had to come up with a solution to create the snowy maze. We started with a proxy of the geo to scatter the edges, then used Particle Flow in 3ds Max to create the particles that would be on top of the edges, and later converted them into geo to be the snow bits. 

After one piece was tested and working, it was a matter of copying and changing values to achieve natural randomness and a diverse look.

Hallyday Journals Building: I started by modeling the interior, where Parzival is looking at Hallyday's life. There was a concept behind it, but I used my architecture background to fully ground it, adding more details and making everything look plausible and realistic. After the approval from the director, I moved on to the exterior.

It had a concept that I didn't think looked realistic and plausible, so, despite using it as a base, I did research on the architectural build-up and technology of tall glazed buildings and created the result we ended up seeing in the movie.

Overlook Theatre: I had to create the theatre entrance. We had very few pieces of concept art, and that allowed me a great degree of creative freedom.

Again, I did my research, this time focusing on the Neoclassical Architecture style rules and precedent buildings, and created a version based on that. My Architecture background really helped, especially in this one. I already had past knowledge of this style and knew where to get strong references, and which famous buildings to revisit and take ideas from.

Since I got to work on these environments (with the exception of the maze, which was from the existing concept used in the movie Shining) in a conceptual stage, there was a lot of back and forth with the director to get the designs approved, showing several references and, in some cases, having to start from scratch again, making totally different versions. 

Parts of the work are the challenges and frustrations, but there is also thrill and satisfaction in creative work. A 3D artist learns to deal with it all, especially in ILM's Generalist Department.

All of the work was done inside 3ds Max, using V-Ray rendering and making use of 3ds Max's modeling tools and V-Ray Triplanar maps for texturing, which allowed me to speed up the process of experimenting and creating.

The ViperMKII Project

Battlestar Galactica was one of my favorite childhood shows. It used to air on TV on Sunday afternoons on one of the only 2 channels we had available back then. After the remake ended in 2009, I was fixated on the idea to remake one of the infamous Viper ships. Eventually, a couple of years ago, I managed to get some much-appreciated free time, so I got down to work.

It was a slow-burn project because I would model something and then go off on another busy workload period. Therefore, I was only able to pick it up months after, from time to time. Because of that, the design kept changing, based on new references I would pick up along the way and my different mindsets and moods over that extended time period.

At the start, I created a basic proxy geo matching the design we see in the series. Then, I researched army aircrafts to get references for the pieces I wanted to build and incorporate into the design. When I managed to get a cool design of any particular piece on paper, let's say the engines, I would then model it all to its end details. This is something I often do as part of my method: I finish certain pieces, allowing myself to be excited and eager to build the remaining parts that I still haven't got time to get to. As always, there was a lot of trial and error, especially because it was my first spaceship. I had no idea how a compelling spaceship design should work.

Also, since I am not a fan of overpaneling/greebling everything, I tried to avoid it as best as I could. I would model, then check the results with visual references of fighter jets to make sure the panels made sense, all this while trying to keep the soul of the original Viper design.

Once the model was done, I took it to RizomUV to get it unwrapped. I created around 15 UDIMs for the entire ship to get enough resolution into the close-ups. The texturing was done in Substance 3D Painter using some custom grunge maps, hand-painted details, and the procedural tools Substance 3D Painter had to offer.

Finally, the render was done in V-Ray using Sun and Physical Sky. I also added V-Ray Aerial Perspective to achieve the hazed look of the distant mountains. I tried to keep it as simple as I could. 

Hard surface modeling is something that, weirdly enough, relaxes me. So, I do it all the time. Every time I get free time, I try to design and model something. There is something about the clean panel lines and surface smoothness that really pleases me. Maybe because of that, I keep doing it for practice and have ended up with so many unfinished car models in my personal library. After all, “Repetition is the mother of learning,” says a Latin proverb.


I feel the main challenge generalists face is time. Speaking from personal experience, we usually get less time than other departments and a bigger workload (especially when working in huge environments).

When I mention workload, it’s because we're not counting on other specialist departments to fully contribute to supplying a specific part, like textures or models. We need to pick it up ourselves and be able to do a shot from the beginning to the end. That is what pretty much sums up, in my mind, what it means to be a generalist: to be able to deliver a shot without having to wait.

My advice for young artists would be, practice, practice, practice as practice makes perfect (or close enough.) And use references for everything you do. Ground your work to reality and do research. It can be an image from the internet or a photo, anything that can make your work feel realistic or plausible. It might be as generic as scale and proportion, the smallest detail, like the way dirt accumulates on a building. That and attention to detail will make your work stand out.

Omar Fernandes, Lead Generalist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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Comments 1

  • Olson Ethan

    Great article and artist! Being a generalist is an impressive and exciting feat, getting too own so many areas of development. Looking forward to more articles like this. #3dsmax


    Olson Ethan

    ·a year ago·

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