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© AJ Jefferies
© AJ Jefferies

Collaborating with kids to create adorable monsters

The Monster Project brings kids’ sketches to life in full 3D. Artist AJ Jefferies tells us about the role V-Ray for 3ds Max plays in these fun collaborations. 

In our conversation with MDI Digital's 3D artist AJ Jefferies on CG Garage, we learned a lot about his artistic journey and the hoops and hurdles that led him towards a successful career in CG illustration.

As well as dedicating his time to regular projects for adult clients, AJ enjoys working with young ones. We caught up with AJ to have a chat about an exciting collaborative initiative, "The Monster Project," in which professional artists reimagine magical creatures drawn by kids. Keep reading to learn how the playful scene was created with tyFlow and V-Ray for 3ds Max.


About AJ Jefferies

AJ Jefferies is a CG Illustrator/Animator, and partner at CGI studio MDI Digital. He has a talent for creating captivating visual storytelling and digital artwork for advertising, print, and multimedia. His playful and comedic style is seen in the rebranding of Cadbury's Dairy milk range and his "Alternative Oscars" for Esquire. His illustrations inspire conversation on social topics such as eco-friendly toys (Brussels Airlines' in-flight magazine) and nutrition (Women's Health magazine). AJ enjoys pursuing passion projects like collaborating with kids in "Monster Project." 

Check out AJ's portfolio >
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What's the idea behind The Monster Project?

AJ:  The Monster Project is a fantastic scheme created and run by Katie Johnson from Austin, Texas. Katie goes to schools and local community centers and gets kids to invent and draw their very own monsters, then a bunch of artists from all over the world take these fabulous creations and put their own creative spin on them, which Katie then shares back with the kids. 

It gives the kids an insight into how their ideas can spark the imagination of complete strangers, it puts an emphasis on creativity, art, and exploration. Most importantly, it’s a huge amount of fun for everyone involved! 

How did you find out about it and get involved?

AJ: Katie initially started the project back in 2009 or 2010, but it was just her, going into schools and drawing her versions of each kids’ monster. She decided to widen the net a lot and reached out to artists from all over the world via the internet.

© AJ Jefferies

A very talented artist friend of mine named Timothy J. Reynolds tweeted back in 2014 that he was taking part in it that year. I’d never heard of it before, but looking into it and seeing the work Katie was doing to bring all these people together meant I immediately contacted her and asked if I could join in. Thankfully, she said yes and I’ve been taking part ever since!

© AJ Jefferies

What's the creative process of going from a crayon sketch to a rendered 3D image?

AJ: Over the years my creative process has changed a little but the key thing for me is trying to understand the essence of the kid’s monsters and then trying to build a fun, one image story or world around them. Sometimes those scenarios and worlds come quite quickly because the kids have included elements for me to draw upon, sometimes I just let my mind wander off and see what it comes back with! 

© AJ Jefferies

I always start with a lot of sketching, thumbnailing ideas and  compositions to see which ones leap out to me as a good fit. I also have to keep in my mind that whatever I’m designing, I will then have to model, texture, and light. So the longer I spend on the idea for the illustration the less time I have to actually bring it to life!


Once I’ve settled on a solid approach, I’ll start blocking in the scene in 3ds Max, and modelling the characters, usually in ZBrush. I’ll start rendering things fairly quickly, partly to think about the lighting and mood but mostly so I can see how the composition of the scene is holding up and then drawing over the top with any notes or changes I want to make further down the line. 

V-Ray didn’t break a sweat when the time came to render the full high-res artwork!

AJ Jefferies, MDI Digital

After a lot of iterations, things will eventually all click into place and then I’ll fine tune whatever I can in the time I have left. I have to fit my work on these in and around my professional commitments so it can often mean burning the midnight oil but I really do enjoy the whole process. 

AJ Jefferies © Trident

Are there any V-Ray features that are essential for creating this work?

AJ:  I love the softness and warmth subsurface scattering can bring to objects, so I use that a ton in my Monster Project illustrations. But the key feature is simply pure speed. Using IPR to light scenes with almost instant feedback is a life saver, especially when I’m experimenting with lots of different looks. For my collaboration with Mariah (2021), I used tyFlow to scatter hundreds of thousands of flowers and grass objects. I really worried I’d gone too far, but V-Ray didn’t break a sweat when the time came to render the full high-res artwork! 

Design Firm: Davis Design
Client: Cadbury/Mondelez International
Software: 3ds Max, ZBrush, V-Ray, Photoshop

For this tasty rendering, AJ used a combination of software to visualize Canada’s top five Cadbury bars in five unique letters. All the textures were created through variations of the V-Ray SSS2 material, apart from the caramel "E," which was achieved through Vray Mat SSS/fog translucency, and the "C" which was a photograph of honeycomb manipulated on a displacement map.  

Which of your own Monster Projects have you enjoyed most, and why?

AJ: It’s really hard to pick just one! There are always things I’d change about each artwork but equally, I’m proud of each one. Seeing the kids’ faces once they all get their monsters back truly is priceless.

If I absolutely had to single one out, I think it would be 2017’s Monster collaboration with Reagan. I was really happy with how the final composition turned out, and the expressions on all the characters but without question the best part was receiving  a video of Reagan seeing it for the first time. Their reaction to it and the rest of the class brought the biggest smile to my face and if I’m ever having a bad day, watching the short video always cheers me right up!


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