Film and TV Production Designer – Phil Shearer


PROJECTS Crayon Design Studio

SPECIALTY Design | Architecture | Concept Design | Film

COUNTRY Australia

I love the personal nature of GarageFarm.NET. I consider the GarageFarm.NET team an integral – if not vital – component of my work pipeline and couldn’t work without them. With the new Lightwave plugins the process has become a totally excellent experience – no bull.

Having conceptualized various designs for productions like The Matrix, Star Wars and Pitch Black, it’s safe to say that Phil Shearer has made a significant mark in the industry. His work consists of hand drawn sketches, physical models and of course, 3d renders. His experience and well rounded skill set put him at a calibre difficult to reach, and be it a drawing, scaled model or CG, his outputs are consistently remarkable. In this case study, we’ll learn about Phil’s background, his thoughts on the nature of concept design for films, and how CG plays a role in his process. Also, we talk about the importance of having a reliable render farm service and an approachable team behind it, and, last but not least, the less apparent benefits of GarageFarm.NET’s staff personal tastes in underwear.

What’s your name and where do you live?

Phil Shearer, Sydney Australia.

What do you do professionally and where do you work?

I am a Film and TV Production Designer and as an additional outlet, Architectural Concept Designer. I physically work in Sydney and Los Angeles but am contracted from all over the world.

IMDB – Phil Shearer

What are your hobbies? What do you do in your free time?

Ha ha ha! Free time?! What’s that? One of my main hobbies is studying technical manuals and construction drawings (yawn!). I find this relaxing – weird but true. I also like restoring old things. Mechanisms are my favourite. I recently bought two 3D printers to make physical copies of some of the more interesting things I have designed. I’m currently printing my Lightsabers, Droids and from the films I have worked-on – and a 6.5 foot long model of a UBoat….. (oh, and there’s that 20” model of TIE Fighter)

The Cypher’s Big Gun was a design created for the first (and only) Matrix. It was built as a working prop and numerous soft copies, but I didn’t get an example so I’m building one.

Phil Shearer
Phil Shearer

The next image shows that pesky TIE Fighter. It’s a mess as I coated it in the wrong Epoxy but it’s BIG! And that’s fun. It will be finished by the time you get this.

Phil Shearer

I recently rebuilt the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the exhibition space it will be displayed-in. I love this kind of detail modeling.

Phil Shearer

I’m also building a rivet-detail (meaning small) aircraft for a film spot. This is a challenge as I will never finish it as I want.

Phil Shearer

I have a library of books about aircraft (mostly pre 1950), Industrial machinery and entertainment equipment, like Automatons and barrel organs. Geeky I know but any hand-built machine is cool.

How did you get involved in CG and when was it?

I got into the 3D world at the very beginning. I think Autocad was in release 1.2 or something – 28 years ago. My first real 3D work was building set designs and architectural models for illustrating over. This was in the glory days when everything was new and amazing.

My start in CG was based on necessity as many of the architectural models were simply too difficult to sketch from scratch. I applied 3D CAD to my set design process to enable the Directors the freedom to make their changes prior to illustration.

I first used Lightwave when I was designing sets and Props on Matrix (the first one and the most understandable). It was mainly used for visualising interiors and even then I was using only a fraction of its features. Most of the work was done in FormZ.

Why did you choose to work in CG?

Speed. Easier than sketching a hundred times. Not as satisfying however. A hand-drawn image still kills all CAD imagery (yeah, yeah, yeah. I know they look better – but try hanging a painting next to a CAD image and make a judgement between them). The simple reality is the virtual world helps sell ideas that other forms of imagery simply can’t approach.

Phil Shearer

This image was created for a project that didn’t quite develop. The reality was that the time-frame only allowed for a few hand-drawn images to be done but I could create several dozen CG-based sketches which were a hybrid of Cg and sketching. In the end the ability to shoot numerous views was a saviour – well for me anyway.

Phil Shearer

The hand sketch shown above is from Pitch Black. I created this in a day which would have been difficult to achieve in CG but the fact I could have used it for setting the dozen shots and the VFX department could have used the model would have been worth the extra time. Its one of my favourite drawings.

What was the most challenging or fun project you ever worked on?

There are two categories here: FUN and CHALLENGING. I always like designing vehicles and weaponry. These are fun. Challenging are those big architectural exteriors. Any person with a decent collection of “stuff” can render an interior these days, but a truly great realistic exterior…. These are a serious challenge.

Phil Shearer


This image was rendered as a set for James Cameron and his Challenger Deep project. This was a challenge (1) for the speed needed to create a set (this image was less than a day) (2) the extreme detail of the supplied CAD files (2.5 Gig for the submersible) and (3) working with the truly amazing James Cameron. I don’t say this about his history of achievement (amazing) but his ability to understand vast quantities of knowledge. He really does know everything, and the number of errors and omissions he noted in this image would stagger you…

Phil Shearer
Phil Shearer


This Cathedral was modelled for I,Frankenstein (2014) and was planned to be a scale guide for the VFX Department. The whole scene was modelled in Lightwave using instancing (some additional comping work done for display). It was a huge and infinitely detailed full-scale model designed to be easily modified. It was used in the film as a basis for the shooting model. I am not a VFX designer but get used a lot to help steer the VFX design before the Art Departments are established. By then the VFX Departments have pretty-much done everything interesting.

Phil Shearer


This was really difficult. Not for the finished product so much but for the size. This was used on an interactive display which used extreme zooming so the viewer could look at individual cars, people, buildings and the like. At 40,000 pixels wide it was the biggest physical render I have done. Some facts: 225,000 trees, 5,000+ high res vehicles, hundreds of high res buildings. Everything is 3D. Now the surprise: it took 6 hours on my Macbook Pro and a LOT less on GarageFarm.NET. It was going to be animated but the client balked at the price…

Phil Shearer


Okay, so I never said I was a particularly good Architectural Illustrator. I had only been using Lightwave as a stand-alone renderer for about a year or two at this stage. Anyway, this is chosen as the Challenging artwork because it was the first set of images that I could actually use Global Illumination in Lightwave. It took many, many hours to render them and the results aren’t great – but! They worked. This image was created many years ago when LightWave has not really a GI renderer. Now the nasty bit: the client decided on animating the whole site (aargh!). I could only do this with the help of a fledgeling renderfarm called GarageFarm.NET. I had to render the GI passes at one:eighth (⅛) resolution and composite the light areas into the HD resolution ambient lit renders (remember those spinning light rigs?). Excuse the bad comping.

I have not rendered a photo-real archvis image for a year now. The whole Archvis thing became too frustrating as the file requirements increased – and kept increasing – until my asset libraries were redundant, as were all my previous skills. The newer illustrators are doing a great job and generally for a fraction of what it costs to do the images in-house. Lightwave suffers from a crap online model presence (I’ll wait for the rebuke). I use 3D Studio Max and Maya modellers and renderers who can do the job far faster now as the amount of assets you can buy are huge, and very high quality.

The KRay guys are still a pinnacle of excellence and their work is always an inspiration to get back to archivis, if only to create a series of truly amazing images.

These are examples of my last set of Archivis images. I was struggling at this time to get a really captivating image. I was still trying to “illustrate” to help soften the CG look of the imagery but this ended-up being more of a trouble.

Phil Shearer
Phil Shearer
Phil Shearer
Phil Shearer

I would do things differently if I were to go back to Archivis. Primarily, I would focus on doing amazing work at higher prices than as much work as possible at lower prices. It’s not worth the stress. Archivis can be very fulfilling if you take your time to develop your own style.

What has been particularly challenging in getting to where you are now?

The film industry is a seriously fun but difficult industry. It’s also changing from requiring a true film design skill to the ability to produce pretty pictures. The design process is changing but still a viable source of income. For some reason I have found it extremely difficult to get work in the game-world. They are the same but soooooo different. I have no idea why. In Concept Design, it’s easy to get categorised. This can be good but it can also kill your career.

What would you say has changed the most since you began 28 years ago?

One of the truly frightening changes is the skill-level of the illustrators who are now working in the film world. I say frightening because the actual level of technical design has contracted whereas the technical ability to produce amazing imagery has gone crazy. This has seen a vast amount of copy-cat design. You only need to look at the recent blockbusters to see how the visualisation artists are sourcing their reference from each other… This is a bad development.

The actual level of technical design has contracted whereas the technical ability to produce amazing imagery has gone crazy

There are very few film designers who can draw with a pencil. This is still the biggest game-changer in the area of design and visualisation I work.

Which aspect of CG do you enjoy doing the most at the moment?

At the moment it’s the CAD modeling. I love building the concept into something tangible. I’m not a great modeller and I am spending more time learning how to use FormZ to its best abilities. The rendering is now second to this. I simply don’t have the time to do amazing renders anymore.

What’s ahead for you?

I will still be designing. I have no interest in doing anything else because I love my work. I would like to expand my business further and open opportunities to employees. Actually, I want to stay in the design field but manage more. A “Business” is different to a “Job” which is what most 3Ders have. My business would have a team of people developing a product as a supply-on-demand model…

What’s the reason behind using a render farm for your projects?

Easy. I need large renders done quickly, simply and with support.

How did it start for you with GarageFarm.NET?

The Newtek forums were raving about GarageFarm.NET when it started as you could (and still can) talk to someone who can offer excellent advice and help. It’s a very personal service.

Jeez. I have no idea how long it’s been. 12-15 years? I really can’t say but I do know you were there when I needed the help (refer to the job notes above). Regarding my development in this business, GarageFarm.NET has been there from the point I recognised I needed outside help. That’s a long partnership.

What’s the project you recently rendered on our farm?

This is a typical tale of last-minute-changes – we all know this one. So, I work with an excellent company out of Los Angeles providing Set Design for TV. We were given an excellent opportunity to pitch for the new Premiere League Studios in London, which we did and were successful at gaining of two last positions for consideration. Nice. However, just as my contact in Los Angeles was at the airport to travel to London to present we had a change of heart and decided a change was in order. It was VERY left-of-field and required a complete rebuild and a new set of HD animations completed in 8 hours. It took me six hours to rebuild, one hour to reset the scenes and 1 hour for GarageFarm.NET to deliver the 10 minutes of animation.

Phil Shearer

We got the job. How much better can it be?

What gave you the hardest time in this project?

The technical issues with keeping the Lightwave scene from “falling apart”. This happens on occasion when my discipline is lacking and the image files and models are all-over-the-place. (Talk about “No Spaces in the file names, Phil!”)

The job itself was fairly straight-forward. Only 6 final scenes at 2k resolution. It was my desire to put as many final “shop build” 3D items into the scene as possible to allow for easy changes that causes the most issues. With a very short time-frame and limited budget the results will normally be compromised, but the final results were great and did exactly what the client required.

Phil about his own render farm and using GarageFarm.NET:

I had a smaller farm of four fully-tricked out 8 core MacPro towers. They cost a fortune to keep working 24 hours a day and required a lot of time to ensure they were constantly busy. The asset investment was very high for their output so I retired them all – one by one. I now use a Macbook Pro. I also made a real attempt to use a competitor (Rebus) but found their interaction system to be so frustrating it caused me to break things…

I loved the personal nature of GarageFarm.NET. I really enjoyed discussing the day-to-day running and how the technology was developing with actual humans. I consider the GarageFarm.NET team an integral -if not vital- component of my work pipeline and couldn’t work without them. ith the new Lightwave plugins the process has become a totally excellent experience – no bull.

Do you have any stories that you remember from all those years working with us?

Er, How about the one time I was in a real bind with a render not working and Tomek (The Bossman) called me (yes me!) in his underpants, in the middle of his night to help solve the issue? Things have moved-on a bit when you have a choice of GarageFarm.NET staff and their personal tastes in underwear…

Where can people find you on social media?

I generally steer clear of social media (never done a single cent’s work for me), but am always on Skype: FILMDESIGNER and Instagram: CRAYON_STUDIOS. I am happy to take emails from people if they ask you nicely for my address:

Anything else you would like to add?

Please don’t get so popular you forget who we are! You guys are great.

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