Using Blender: A beginner’s thoughts – Part 1

I had hoped that this post would be my Eloh Eliot beginner’s tutorial, which is still being created at the moment, sorry folks. As it is taking rather longer than planned I’m going to jump ahead with a two-part post that was going to be published later on and deals with 3D design, specifically using Blender.

One of the first things I wanted to look at, after moving to our own virtual world, was creating sculpted objects. As virtual world residents may recognise; the use of sculpted prims, and recent developments for use of modelled meshes, has become a standard part of the environment. The design and creation of sculpted prims and meshes is perceived as being a highly specialised area. This does pose particular challenges to a beginner-level builder.

General thoughts

In some ways the view of specialisation is completely understandable; it tends to be associated with the huge expense, and need for training, that relates to such programs as 3DStudio Max and Maya. Generally, for pricing reasons, these two programs are beyond the reach of most beginners in 3D design. If you are a novice and hobbyist user the costs are, without including any hardware that is up to necessary specification, somewhere between £3,500 to £6,000 when bought as new, not including VAT (prices based on U.K official sellers).

These programs are often perceived as the best, and only ones, to use. This does apply if you want to develop a career as a professional 3D designer but there’s an English colloquialism saying that comes to mind: “all the gear and no idea”. Having a copy of either of these programs will not transform you into a genius at 3D just by installing and opening them. There’s often the belief in virtual worlds, especially the more commercial, that because everyone uses them this is the only way to go. This is absolutely untrue.

There are alternatives. Quite a few more than you may have heard of, based on this list, so this takes some research on what you are prepared to spend and what suits you best. However, top of most lists, especially for free software, is Blender.

About Blender

One of the first things you encounter when asking about Blender is the idea that it is “difficult to learn” and other variations on that theme. I believe this is slightly misleading. Blender, by its nature, is complex because it has a variety of functions. It has the potential to be used for creating games, films, iPod and iPad apps, compositing, animation, logo and product design etc,.

Here is what I consider to be the two toughest things about Blender for a beginner:

1. Finding the right training resources. Many resources relate to earlier versions of Blender, so controls and functions that are referred to can differ dramatically in newer versions. Remember too that Blender is a very broad program and specific virtual world information is only a relatively small part of the entire user base.

Everyone learns in different ways, so what is helpful to some won’t be to others. On viewing a lot of online material – these resources are usually developed by people who are not qualified trainers and educators. Some are expert users and some are not. From my experiences: I firmly think that part of the view of Blender being difficult is in trying to find training materials that are easy to follow or aimed sufficiently for users at beginner level.

2. The User Interface and technical information. If you are used to programs like the Adobe product range, Gimp, Poser, etc., you will probably find Blender’s U.I really intimidating the first time you see it (I thought version 2.49 looked horrific). This is usually the first hurdle. Don’t expect yourself to understand it until you start using it properly. Also, you will need to learn about the technical limitations on what you can import to virtual worlds. It might look difficult but it can be learnt in a practical way, with time.

Tips on starting out

  • Think about how you’ve learned other skills and the method that worked the best. If you don’t learn well by reading through a PDF manual then try finding videos. If you prefer project-based learning then try to find which resources use this method.
  • Be prepared to research what training materials are available before you start using Blender. It won’t help your motivation to spend weeks learning the basics only to come to a complete halt when you can’t find a suitable resource that will help you develop further.
  • If you want to purchase training resources then check out thoroughly any samples of the trainer’s work that they have made available. Without naming names; I’ve come across two recommended resources, a DVD tutorial and a book, which I would have purchased based on what other people had said about their usefulness. After some sample viewing I found that they were unsuitable for my learning style and decided not to buy.
  • Do try and create your own training plan or routine. You’ll need to set aside a regular number of hours a week to concentrate on development; try and start with a project that uses simple shapes, such as – a basket, a vase, a hat, rather than aiming for a fully rigged steampunk avatar or exact recreation of a gothic cathedral. It’s great to have strong ideas and aims but be realistic about your level of experience.
  • Perhaps the most basic thing – if you’ve never done any 3D modelling previously then you’ll need considerable amounts of patience. The unlikeable but obvious truth applies: you do need time to develop your skills and knowledge and, unless you have a natural talent for it, that means spending proper time learning over months and years.

These points are not meant to discourage a beginner from trying Blender, or any other kind of sculpt/mesh program. This is all based on advice I wished I had received when I threw myself into learning Blender. After a month of learning the basics I was so frustrated at my lack of progress I gave up. Five months later I came back to it and am starting again with more realistic goals this time.

I would like to make a final point on 3D modelling for virtual worlds: think about what you want to make and why. This kind of design work is not going to suit everyone, no matter how creatively talented you are in other areas.

Do you really need sculpts and meshes for what you want to achieve or because there’s an expectation that they have to be used?

As with any project for your virtual world; this is about your creative expression and imagination. In the commercial race to have super-realistic pretties, people often forget that amazing things can still be made from ordinary prim shapes.

I’m going to give a visual example of this by showing some boots from Second Life. These were made by Fallingwater Cellardoor of Shiny Things around 2008 and they are made entirely from regular prims.

Although this creator has moved onto using sculpts for her business; I think these boots still stand as an excellent example of what can be achieved by good prim building and texturing techniques.

Old Boots Black by Fallingwater Cellardoor

Shiny Things - Old Boots, Black. Made from standard prims.

(Photo taken at Neverwhere sim, Second Life, December 2010)

In my next post I will be writing about training resources for Blender beginners and including links.

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