High school student makes impressive 3D renders of big-time Mac leaks [Setups]

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Ian Zelbo's monitor shows a render of a leaked MacBook Air concept he worked on with Jon Prosser. on.
Ian Zelbo's monitor shows a render of a leaked MacBook Air concept he worked on with Jon Prosser.
Photo: Ian Zelbo

It’s not every day you come across a high school student running a successful tech-based business – never mind one whose 3D renderings are routinely seen by thousands of people. But that’s the case with 17-year-old New Yorker Ian Zelbo and his RendersbyIan.

His detailed and realistic renders of leaked tech products, including Macs, get loads of exposure on social media from his clients, the likes of Jon Prosser of @FrontPageTech and Sam Kohl of iupdate.

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Oh, and Zelbo also says he’s also a ballet dancer at Lincoln Center.

Wait, what?!

Well, you better read the interview below to get a clue about how he became so accomplished at a young age. We decided to do a little Q&A with him in the form of a Setups article. The following is lightly edited for readability.

Q&A with Ian Zelbo of RendersbyIan

Q: With your renders, how did you get started? How many clients?

A: I started 3D rendering amid the [COVID-19] pandemic, probably around July. I have loved tech my entire life and have followed Apple news on sites such as Cult of Mac for what seems my whole life.

One day I stumbled on a Blender tutorial by a YouTuber named Blender Guru, and I was immediately interested. I started by following his tutorial on making a donut, and while it is quite a few hours of work, I highly recommend it.

After that tutorial, I dived into Blender and started experimenting. The first 3D model I did without a tutorial was an iMac concept which looks surprisingly close to the new 24-inch iMac. Next, I created my first iPhone SE model and went from there.

I started posting my renders on Twitter, hoping to get some recognition. Somehow, with [my] 20 followers, Sam Kohl [with] iupdate on YouTube, found my Twitter account and followed me. I direct-messaged him as soon as I saw and we started talking. He said he loved my renders and wondered if I had ever done any concepts because he was looking to have concepts in his YouTube videos.

This conversation changed everything for me. I went from making renders of current Apple products to visualizations of future products based on leaks. We started working together, and we have done many videos together visualizing iPhone 13 rumors, while that has slowly died down as the leaks go silent.

I am incredibly thankful to Sam and everything he has done for my career. In part because of his videos, and other people reposting my work, I found another client, Payette Forward, on YouTube, and we have been working on a few projects.

Currently, I am looking to expand to more clients, but now I have only worked for Jon Prosser, Sam Kohl and Payette Forward. I have also gotten various offers from other YouTubers and significant companies in the past weeks, but those are still preliminary.

Q: How did you end up doing renders for Jon Prosser?

A: I posted my iMac concept based on his leaks on @FrontPageTech, thinking nothing would happen, but Jon saw it. When he retweeted it, I could not believe what was happening, then I got the notification that he followed me, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

I started watching Jon at the beginning of the pandemic, and I would always look forward to his podcast and YouTube episodes and am a huge fan. He and Sam Kohl are good friends, and Jon saw my work on Sam’s YouTube videos.

Here Zelbo shows his render for the Google Pixel Watch he worked on with Prosser.
Here Ian Zelbo’s screen shows his render for the Google Pixel Watch he worked on with Jon Prosser.
Photo: Ian Zelbo

[Prosser] then contacted me on Twitter a few weeks later, asking if I wanted to be all over the news for a few days. Naturally, I said yes, and we started working together on the renders of the infamous Google Pixel Watch.

Then, just a few days ago, he asked if I could make renders of the colorful MacBook Air after featuring my concept in his YouTube videos, and of course, I happily agreed.

Q: How did you acquire your skills? 

A: Through various YouTube tutorials and mentors, such as Michael Ma (@apple_idesigner), I acquired the necessary technical skills. However, I think my ability to make renders look (hopefully) very realistic is by studying Apple. I have watched every Apple event, studied their renders for hours, and figured out what the Apple “look” is. This includes their use of shadows, reflections and certain things they always do.

For example, for almost every animation or render they do, the camera lens texture is the same and has been for over two years. I also am interested in photography, and I think this is where I got the ability to compose a shot and light it accordingly.

Q: How is your setup well-suited to what you do? What issues did this setup solve for you and how?

A: I created this setup a few years ago when I needed to do casual video editing, and it needs work. Right now, the only reason I use it is to have a larger screen when doing my work, but the color accuracy of my current monitor is not great, so I tend to edit colors in Photoshop on my MacBook Pro’s display.

What is well-suited, however, is my peripherals and accessories. I cannot live without my MX Master 3 for Mac, which I recently got for my birthday in December. I used to have a very cheap mouse and never appreciated how important having a quality mouse is, especially for minute adjustments.

I also have no problems with my Apple Magic Keyboard 2, which was included with the 2015 iMac my parents found in a closet.

Also, while likely controversial, I love my HomePod and use it every day to control the HomeKit accessories in my room, listen to music, and ask basic questions like the weather

Lastly, my M1 MacBook Pro has changed everything for me. Until December, I made renders on a 2015 base-model iMac with a dual-core i5 and no dedicated GPU. Turning the system on took a few minutes, so rendering a simple image could take a day.

Being able to work with more complex models and move around in the viewport smoothly has changed rendering significantly for me, not to mention the render times being hundreds of times faster.

I love my MacBook Pro, but now as this turns into a business and not a hobby, I want to upgrade. When it comes out, I want to get the 16-inch MacBook Pro, with the (tentatively named) M1X chip for faster renders. I had considered getting the rumored 32-inch iMac. However, since I am going to college in two years, I think a laptop suits me better.

Q: If you’re not quite done with your setup, what’s left to do?

A: I want to upgrade my MacBook Pro when Apple releases their successor to the 16-inch, and I would definitely like to upgrade my monitor. I have looked for hours, and I think the best options for me are the LG UltraFine 23.7-inch in collaboration with Apple, and the LG UL850-W.

Not only are these both 4K, which is fantastic for sharp detail, they also are very color-accurate, both have support for connection through USB type C, and look good on a desk.

Lastly, I am also looking to get the new Magic Keyboard that comes with the iMac with the inclusion of Touch ID whenever it becomes available separately.

Q:  What part of NYC do you live and work in? Did you grow up there? Do you live with family?

A: I live on the Upper West Side in Manhattan and have lived in the same apartment my entire life. I recently turned 17, so I live at home with my parents, two birds and a dog. I have two siblings, but they are both in college.

Q:  Future plans? College? Growing your business?

A: I am currently a junior, and I am taking the SAT and applying to colleges in a few months. I want to take a gap year and work freelance before going to college. I hope to study engineering or something with design and math in college, which are two things I love.

Something nobody knows about me is that I am a ballet dancer at the School of American Ballet in Lincoln Center, associated with the New York City Ballet, and I hope to continue dance in college if possible.

Q: Anything you’re currently working on, something coming soon, leak-wise?

A: A few projects I can’t [talk] about yet but just for me I’m working on a 14-inch MacBook Pro based on the stolen documents [Cult of Mac reported on in April].

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If you would like to see your setup featured on Cult of Mac, send some high-res pictures to info+setups@cultofmac.com. Please provide a detailed list of your equipment. Tell us what you like or dislike about your setup, and fill us in on any special touches or challenges.