Phil NGuyen – Digital Portrait #1

Phil NGuyen is a 3D artist, who has produced many amazing artworks showing great skills for human likeness, like recently his Akuma artwork.

The fun part is that this work comes from an attempt of a sculpt of Liam Neeson. Anyhow, let’s learn more from me 🙂

And don’t forget to download our free guide of the best tips & tricks from our 3D Artists interviews.

Phil NGuyen / Duc – Digital portrait of a 3D artist

  Hi Phil! Can you please introduce yourself first ?

Hi! I’m Duc but everybody calls me by my French first name Phil or Philippe. I’m 31 years old, and I live and work in Paris as a character artist. I usually work with Unit Image on video game trailers.


Akuma – Phil Duc NGuyen


  I contacted you because I discovered your Akuma artwork, who gets shared and loved from day one by all the 3D community. I saw it really everywhere : that was amazing! So congrats! 🙂 Can you tell us more about this project and why you did it ? (Somebody is telling me that there is a relationship between Liam Neeson and Akuma). And how long did it take you ?

First of all, thanks for your kind words! =)

So, yes, this project was born from a simple blendshape test for fun that I did on Zbrush (one evening after a Street Fighter V game). My sculpt was over and was doing some rendering tests of Liam Neeson. Following to that, while I was transferring the blendshape onto my Liam head sculpt, I started to notice that it was working pretty well. So I decided to move from Liam Neeson to Akuma.

It’s quite hard to estimate the time it took. I would say that the final sculpt of the head was about 2 to 3 days. The blendshape was shorter, about 15 minutes. The rest was… an eternity… More seriously, I would say around a month and a half at least on my spare time.

Initial sculpting – Phil Duc NGuyen


  What were the most difficult parts of this project (or what gave you some hard time ?) ? And what are you the most proud of ?

One of the most sensitive point was to make Liam Neeson presence disappear in the final result. In my first tests, we were able to see Akuma but also the resemblance with Liam Neeson. Outside people recognized him even though they weren’t aware of anything. Trying to detach yourself from the raw material was as itself a tough but interesting exercice.

Otherwise, what gave me a hard time was the whole technical aspect to pose it and to get a facial expression : a hacked rig was necessary. I could have done everything with Zbrush and the Transpose tool, but I really don’t find it convenient enough to put several poses onto my characters. So, I had to improvise with small knowledges on that subject.

I took a rig from Make Human (a free soft that allow you to generate a human mesh including a rig already done), and I adapted it onto my character. I customized it a little bit by setting up all the controllers needed, including several basic IK/FK systems onto my arms and legs, then projected the Make Human mesh onto mine, then finally carried out a copy skin. The advantage is that the Make Human skinning is already very well done.

After the posing was done, I had only minor details to fix with ZBrush. That process was complicated at first, but saved me a lot of time for poses. Now I can pose him in various ways, and all I have to do is launching renderings. Additional images of Akuma could pop up at anytime =)

Akuma – Phil Duc NGuyen


  In my opinion, your project reached a really amazing level of realism. The global anatomy, the skin, the hands, even the ears are so realistic. Can you describe your process to achieve that quality ?

At this quality level, there is no secret. For the first step, a good blocking is critical. But, you also need, during the sculpting process, to « break » the feeling of 3D. I mean by that avoiding flatten surfaces. A human skin is rough. Only fashion magazines do like those kind of flatten skins. So please avoid those kind of pictures as your main references, that’s really the first mistake you could do. The quality of this blocking and primary sculpting step is very important, and critical for the credibility of your digital character. Mostly if you do likeness, the « uncanny valley » hang on your nose!

For the skin texture, I use textures from TexturingXYZ website. That’s the best ressources you can find for accuracy and subtleties for the human skin.

According to the projects for which I work(professional or personal), I project my textures with Mari, or right away with Zbrush (when I don’t need any extreme accuracy, like for personal projects). And of course, way before everything, I have tons of references already stored and ready to use.

Akuma – Phil Duc NGuyen


  Can you tell us about your regular workflow ? Which softwares do you use and why ?

I’m using a lot of softwares, because I interfere from modelisation to lighting and rendering.

For modelisation, I essentially use Zbrush and Maya. For any hard surface assets, I feel more comfortable with Maya for polygonal modelisation, and Zbrush for organic modelisation.

My clothes are done using Marvelous Designer. I really love this software because its approach is nearly the same as to a real fashion designer, and everything gets simulated. The only downside is its limitation due to the definition of its output meshes, but we got big folds with nice clothes, and UVs all unfold perfectly!

The surfacing/sculpting process is done with Zbrush.

The texturing process is done with Mari for organic, and everything else with Substance Painter. Why Mari ? Because it handles UDIMs, that’s it. But when one day Substance Painter will be capable of dealing with transitions between UDIMs, I will stay with Substance for good, but also for its speed and efficiency for production.

For the rendering part, I’m using Maya/Vray together with AISurface for the skin. I know also Arnold. But for professional projects, I work almost exclusively with Vray.


Akuma – Phil Duc NGuyen


  Can you say something about other projects you did and which ones you are most proud of ?

My projects are usually characters who have shaped my youth. I like to reinterpret them in my own way. Sometimes just by idealizing them like I wish they could have been, especially for Akuma.

But there is one I particularly liked to do was the Joker. My main goal was to reinterpret the original design by Brian Bolland. This exercice was very hard but extremely educative.

Otherwise, I had the chance to work on several block-busters like Terminator or The Jungle Book, where I was trained to create hair and fur, which helped me to enhance this part of a character conception.


Here are some cool projects from Phil :

Phil Duc NGuyen

Phil Duc NGuyen

The Joker – Phil Duc NGuyen

The Joker – Phil Duc NGuyen

The Jungle Book – Phil Duc NGuyen

Phil Duc NGuyen

Phil Duc NGuyen

Phil Duc NGuyen

  Could you name some artists that inspire you ? And which you may wish to read an interview ? 🙂

There are so many! I won’t be too original. Those whom I admire and get inspired the most are Rafael Grassetti, Mathieu Aerni, Pedro Conti (portrait), Frank Tzeng, Dave Rapoza, James Zapata, and so many more! But also some people close to me, but I don’t want to give any name, otherwise I fear they go to their head!


  Do you have any advice you could share ? To beginners and/or middleweight artists that could be relevant ?

My advice is for beginners: never be satisfied with a certain comfort in your work. Always go further than what we already know is the key to get better. Be open minded to critics is also a keystone for any designer. Know how to question yourself and ask yourself the right questions.


  What is your next step Phil ? Do you have new projects upcoming ? Something about Street Fighter maybe ? Or something else ?

I continue my path. Right now, I work on daily basis on trailers and I like that a lot. That’s the perfect balance for me. The projects I have aren’t too long, but they are also diversified enough. And when I don’t have any gaming urge, I work quietly on some personal projects and I also enhance my skills a bit more. I try of course to balance that with a private life, and sometimes, that’s not easy ^^

But shortly, for my next personal project, I don’t have any idea yet. Often, the idea comes like that, and I start right on the moment. But for now, before anything else, I’ll finish my Liam Neeson likeness sculpt!


  Last question : white card! Any question(s) that you would have loved to answer and that I could have forgotten ?



Thanks again Phil! The joker ends our discussion, that’s perfect 🙂 Hope to see your next great works very soon!

In the meantime, to see more Phil’s artworks and portfolio, please check his Artstation : –

And as always, if you are a digital artist with cool content, and want to discuss about it, please send me an email (top right icon).

And don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter!