After the 3D layout is created, we step into 3D modeling the characters, props and environments. Why? Because everything that’s going to appear in a 3D animation has to be created, or “modeled”. A 3D model is a surface representation of an object created in a 3D environment like a 3D software.
Creating a 3D model is probably the starting point for most animation artists and an essential part of 3D animation production pipeline. Modeling requires careful observation, manipulation and correction of 3D objects through different attributes of a software. Mastering this skill needs practice in various subject areas such as anatomy.
Moreover, working with 3D modeling software can be frustrating at times; because what the user experiences in most of them is not like any prior real-world experience or other common software people use in their everyday lives.
Now, let’s take a closer look at 3D modeling in a 3D animation studio and its defining role
What is 3D Modeling?
Every 3D object that is displayed in a 3D animation is made up of a 3D mesh that can be created using a wide range of techniques. Simply put, the process of creating mesh objects in a 3D software is called 3D modeling. These objects are created based on previous designs or real world observations and will be used as the elements of the 3D environment we’re trying to create.
The 3D modeling process starts with the material prepared in the design component of the animation pipeline; in which the shape of each object is portrayed in detail. The design data consists mostly of drawings and sometimes sculptures as well. The job of a modeling artist is to recreate the geometry of these objects in a 3D modeling environment.
In order to be used in a 3D animated video, 3D models need to look pleasing. They also have to be functional and properly fit into the pipeline; meaning their creation should be feasible with the resources at hand.
Animation is all about movements and portraying these movements will require deformities in the objects. Contrary to 2D animation, this can be quite challenging in a 3D animation. In fact, 3D models must be optimized for a wide range of deformities caused by movement; if not, they would look extremely odd.
3D modeling techniques
Generally, 3D modelers start with a low-resolution topology, then add more details to the 3D model. But there ARE different approaches towards creating a 3D model depending on the type of the object, the final purpose of the object, and the ability or preference of the artist or animation studio. These styles will get you to nearly the same results through different methods.
Some of the most popular techniques used for 3D modeling include:
Digital sculpting is a rather new modeling approach that relies on a process akin to clay modeling in real world. It has changed the workflow for a vast number of 3D modelers since introduction; enabling them to jump into creating art rather than getting stuck by technical constraints of 3D modeling. High-res models created by this method cannot be used directly in a 3D animation; a low-res retopology model needs to be created.
Boolean modeling is not a popular approach in the entertainment industry. In this approach the geometry of an object is created by taking two objects and making them a new one; either by cutting one out of the other, combining the two or using the negative space of the intersection as the new object.
A new method of 3D modeling was introduced with the advancement of laser scanning technology. In this technique, a real object is laser-scanned to create a digital representation of it. The scanning process is usually quick and easy, but the geometry created needs to be cleaned up before use.
Box modeling is a popular approach to character modeling. It is a quick method to create basic shapes. Everything starts with a cube in Box Modeling. The artist then starts extruding the physical features of the character like the arms, legs, fingers, etc. The 3D model will be refined by adding detail to the whole shape.
Subdivision Modeling is probably the most popular way to create form in a 3D environment. It is used to create models with scalable detail that still look good when rendered. In this technique, the focus is often on defining form first, then subdividing it and add more detail by using the extra polygons. This is in some ways similar to using large brush strokes initially and then adding more detail in conventional painting.
NURBS (Non-uniform rational B-spline) geometry is a mathematical model type making use of smooth curves guideposts that will span a surface between them. NURBS models are great at representing smooth, rounded shapes but do have limitations, which makes them more difficult to use than polygons. NURBS modeling is more popular in product visualization and architecture industries.
What does a 3D modeler do in a 3D animation studio?
A 3D modeler is the person responsible for creating the geometry of a 3D model or cleaning up the 3D models which are already created. 3D animation modelers are the digital-age equivalents of classic sculptors. The primary responsibilities of a 3D modeler in a 3D animation studio include:
- Interpreting concept art and/or sketches
- Creating 3D models based on provided specifications
- Following design guidelines and other technical constraints
- Refine, optimize or correct 3D models
- Managing digital assets
- Collaborating with other 3D artists
Pursuing a career in 3D modeling needs extensive training in 3D modeling and animation. Strong understanding of the latest industry concepts and technologies will be of great help. Most 3D animation studios shape specialized teams for different components of the animation pipeline, so interpersonal and communication skills are essential.
Working as a 3D modeler in a 3D animation studio means using your creativity and imagination on a daily basis.
3D Modeling Workflow
Each 3D artist or studio has its own workflow for 3D modeling. Different objects in a single project might also require different approaches. However, there’s a common step by step route to reaching a final 3D model; regardless of technique or style:
- References: every 3D modeling process starts with a reference such as pre-production concept art or real-world images or even objects.
- Planning: here you need to make a plan on how you’re going to create your model. Each model could be split into separate simple primitives.
- Execution: the goal is to create a primitive shape of the 3D model based on the plan and make sure the proportions are correct.
- Refinement: after creating the primitive model, you need to add additional details to your 3D model to make it look better.
- Retopology: When the 3D model is ready, you need to build your low poly model from high poly by using retopology tools.
3D modeling software packages
3D modeling is used in various industries with different purposes. Over the years, different types of modeling software have been developed with a special focus. The main usage areas and their most favored software packages include:
In the entertainment industry (including 3D animation), software packages such as ZBrush, Mudbox, 3ds Max, Maya or Blender are typically used. The usability of these software packages is not limited to 3D modeling; they can be used to do some other tasks as well, including animation, physical dynamic simulation, texturing, lighting, rendering, and compositing.
ZBrush, for instance, is a digital sculpting tool suitable for creating high resolution 3D models used in movies or 3D animations. Unlike more traditional 3D modeling software, this package is more akin to traditional sculpting.
Mudbox is another software mainly used to create high-resolution digital sculpting, texture painting, displacement and normal map creation. It offers a high-performance environment and professional-quality tools to help create highly realistic 3D characters, environments and props in less time.
3ds Max, formerly known as 3D studio, has powerful modeling capabilities for 3D modeling and a close resemblance to AutoCAD. Video game developers, TV commercial studios and architectural visualization studios frequently use this software.
Maya is somehow the industry standard in 3D animation these days. Whether you’re an amateur 3D artist or a professional animation studio, Maya is definitely one of the main software packages you need to consider working with seriously.
As a free and open-source 3D modeling and animation program, Blender comes with a strong tool set capable of creating professional high quality assets and animations. However, learning Blender is not easy and it’s considered a non-standard in the industry.
Having said this, there are tons of 3D modeling software out there. Each 3D artist or 3D animation studio might choose a different software package based on project specifications and their own requirements.
Architectural & product visualization
These do not provide the specific feature lists provided by software packages used in the entertainment industry, but are very accurate when it comes to product modeling using parametric solid modeling techniques.
SketchUp, for example, is a popular tool boasting a user-friendly interface; making it perfect for beginners interested in 3D modeling for architectural work.
Law & medical
Pretty much any of the above mentioned software packages can be used in Law and medical industries.
In a 3D animation, everything needs to be created or “modeled”; thus 3D modeling the characters, props and environments is a crucial part of every 3D animation studio’s pipeline. 3D models are surface representations of objects created in a 3D environment like a 3D software.
Approved 3D models can go back in the pipeline from here. The proxy models used in the 3D layout can be replaced with the final models; enabling the layout artist to better adjust the scene for instance.
The final models will be delivered to the texture artist to be painted and shaded (3D texturing). The rigging artist can also start working on their control systems and getting them prepared for the animation stage (3D rigging).