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3D Modeling: Learning It And Doing It Right
WORK IN PROGRESS
Do you want to start 3D modeling? Or do you already know a bit about it and just want some advice to get better? Then let us share a few words of advice here.
Nowadays as a FOSS user you will most likely do 3D modeling with Blender -- we recommended it to start learning 3D modeling as it is powerful, free, gratis, has many tutorials etc. Do NOT use anything proprietary no matter what anyone tells you! Once you know a bit about the art, you may play around with alternative programs or approaches (such as writing programs that generate 3D models etc.). However as a beginner just start with Blender, which is from now on in this article the software we'll suppose you're using.
Start extremely simple and learn bottom-up, i.e. learn about fundamentals and low level concepts and start with very simple models (e.g. simple untextured low-poly shape of a house, box with a roof), keep creating more complex models by small steps. Do NOT fall into the trap of "quick and easy magic 3D modeling" such as sculpting or some "smart apps" without knowing what's going on at the low level, you'll end up creating extremely ugly, inefficient models in bad formats, like someone wanting to create space rockets without learning anything about math or physics first. Remember to practice, practice, practice -- eventually you learn by doing, so try to make small projects and share your results on sites such as opengameart to get feedback and some mental satisfaction and reward for your effort. The following is an outline of possible steps you may take towards becoming an alright 3D artist:
- Learn what 3D model actually is, basic technical details about how a computer represents it and roughly how 3D rendering works. It is EXTREMELY important to have at least some idea about the fundamentals, i.e. you should learn at least the following:
- 3D models that are used today consist of vertices and triangles (though higher polygons are usually supported in modeling software, everything is broken down to triangles eventually), computers usually store arrays of vertices and triangles as indices pointing to the array of vertices. Triangles have facing (front and back side, determined by the order of its vertices). These 3D models only represent the boundary (not the volume). All this is called the model's geometry.
- Normals are vectors "perpendicular to the surface", they can be explicitly modified and stored or computed automatically and they are extremely important because they say how the model interacts with light (they are used in shading of the model), i.e. which edges appear sharp or smooth. Normal maps are textures that can be used to modify normals to make the surface seem rough or otherwise deformed without actually modifying the geometry. You HAVE TO understand normals.
- Textures are images (or similar image-like data) that can be mapped to the model surface to "paint it" (or give it other material properties). They are mapped to models by giving vertices texturing UV coordinates. To make textures you'll need some basics of 2D image editing (see e.g. GIMP).
- 3D rendering (and also modeling) works with the concept of a scene in which a number of models reside, as well as a virtual camera (or multiple ones), lights and other objects. These objects have transformations (normally translation, rotation and scale, represented by matrices) and may form a hierarchy, so called scene graph (some objects may be parents of other objects, meaning the child transformations are relative to parents) etc.
- A 3D renderer will draw the triangles the model consists of by applying shading to determine color of each pixel of the rasterized triangle. Shading takes into account besides others texture(s) of the model, its material properties and light falling on the model (in which the model normals play a big role). Shading can be modified by creating shaders (if you don't create custom shaders, some default one will be used).
- Briefly learn about other concepts such as low/high poly modeling and basic 3D formats such as OBJ and COLLADA (which features they support etc.), possible other models representations (voxels, point clouds, ...) etc.
- Manually create a few extremely simple low-poly untextured models, e.g. that of a simple house, laptop, hammer, bottle etc. Keep the vertex and triangle count very low (under 100), make the model by MANUALLY creating every vertex and triangle and focus only on learning this low level geometry manipulation well (how to create a vertex, how to split an edge, how to rotate a triangle, ...), making the model conform to good practice and get familiar with tools you're using, i.e. learn the key binds, locking movement direction to principal axes, learn manipulating your 3D view, setting up the free/side/front/top view with reference images etc. Make the model nice! I.e. make it have correctly facing triangles (turn backface culling on to check this), avoid intersecting triangles, unnecessary triangles and vertices, remove all duplicate vertices (don't have multiple vertices with the same position), connect all that should be connected, avoid badly shaped triangles (e.g. extremely acute/long ones) etc. Also learn about normals and make them nice! I.e. try automatic normal generation (fiddle e.g. with angle thresholds for sharp/smooth edges), see how they affect the model look, try manually marking some edges sharp, try out smoothing groups etc. Save your final models in OBJ format (one of the simplest and most common formats supporting all you need at this stage). All this will be a lot to learn, that's why you must not try to create a complex model at this stage. You can keep yourself "motivated" e.g. by aiming for creating a low-poly model collection you can share at opengameart or somewhere :)
- Learn texturing -- just take the models you have and try to put a simple texture on them by drawing a simple image, then unwrapping the UV coordinates and MANUALLY editing the UV map to fit on the model. Again the goal is to get familiar with the tools and concepts now; experiment with helpers such as unwrapping by "projecting from 3D view", using "smart" UV unwrap etc. Make the UV map nice! Just as model geometry, UV maps also have good practice -- e.g. you should utilize as many texture pixels as possible (otherwise you're wasting space in the image), watch out for color bleeding, the mapping should have kind of "uniform pixel density" (or possibly increased density on triangles where more details is supposed to be), some pixels of the texture may be mapped to multiple triangles if possible (to efficiently utilize them) etc. Only make a simple diffuse texture (don't do PBR, material textures etc., that's too advanced now). Try out texture painting and manual texture creation in a 2D image program, get familiar with both.
- Learn modifiers and advanced tools. Modifiers help you e.g. with the creation of symmetric models: you only model one side and the other one gets mirrored. Subdivide modifier will automatically create a higher poly version of your model (but you need to help it by telling it which sides are sharp etc.). Boolean operations allow you to apply set operations like unification or subtraction of shapes (but usually create a messy geometry you have to repair!). There are many tools, experiment and learn about their pros and cons, try to incorporate them to your modeling.
- Learn retopology and possibly sculpting. Topology is an extremely important concept -- it says what the structure of triangles/polygons is, how they are distributed, how they are connected, which curves their edges follow etc. Good topology has certain rules (e.g. ideally only being composed of quads, being denser where the shape has more detail and sparser where it's flat, having edges so that animation won't deform the model badly etc.). Topology is important for efficiency (you utilize your polygon budget well), texturing and especially animation (nice deformation of the model). Creating more complex models is almost always done in the following two steps:
- Creating the shape while ignoring topology, for example with sculpting (but also other techniques, e.g. just throwing shapes together). The goal is to just make the desired shape.
- Retopology: creating a nice topology for the shape while keeping the shape unchanged. This is done by starting modeling from the start with the "stick to surface" option, i.e. whenever you create or move a vertex, it sticks to the nearest surface (surface of the created shape). Here you just try to create a new "envelope" on the existing shape while focusing on making the envelope's topology nice.
- Learn about materials and shaders. At this point you may learn about how to create custom shaders, how to create transparent materials, apply multiple textures, how to make realistic skin, PBR shaders etc. You should at least be aware of basic shading concepts and commonly encountered techniques such as Phong shading, subsurface scattering, screen space effects etc. because you'll encounter them in shader editors and you should e.g. know what performance penalties to expect.
- Learn animation. First learn about keyframes and interpolation and try to animate basic transformations of a model, e.g. animate a car driving through a city by keyframing its position and rotation. Then learn about animating the model's geometry -- first the simple, old way of morphing between different shapes (shape keys in Blender). Finally learn the hardest type of animation: skeletal animation. Learn about bones, armatures, rigging, inverse kinematics etc.
- Now you can go crazy and learn all the uber features such as hair, physics simulation, NURBS surfaces, boob physics etc.
Don't forget to stick to LRS principles! This is important so that your models are friendly to good technology. I.e. even if "modern" desktops don't really care about polygon count anymore, still take the effort to optimize your model so as to not use more polygons that necessary! Your models may potentially be used on small, non-consumerist computers with software renderers and low amount of RAM. Low-poly is better than high-poly (you can still prepare your model for automatic subdivision so that obtaining a higher poly model from it automatically is possible). Don't use complex stuff such as PBR or skeletal animation unless necessary -- you should mostly be able to get away with a simple diffuse texture and simple keyframe morphing animation, just like in old games! If you do use complex stuff, make it optional (e.g. make a normal map but don't rely on it being used in the end).
Good luck with your modeling!
All content available under CC0 1.0 (public domain). Send comments and corrections to drummyfish at disroot dot org.