Using Blender: A beginner’s thoughts – Part 2

In my previous post, Part 1, I discussed some of the things to think about before starting to use Blender. In this post I will be recommending some training materials and other information that I’ve found helpful.

Before getting to the links; a couple of issues which have made this post a bit problematic to write.

Blender versions

Which version of Blender to download and use? Currently the main, stable, release is version 2.49b. There are also beta versions available, the 2.5 series, which are in development and will replace 2.49 sometime in the near future.

You will find that there are guides and project resources already made for the 2.5 versions. There are a couple of drawbacks to going straight to using them. As betas there’s no guarantee they will be a reliably stable environment on your computer. Also, some controls and capabilities are very different from 2.49b so what you learn isn’t totally interchangeable.

If you want to start learning how to make and import sculpts for virtual worlds, Blender 2.5 versions will not support a Python-scripted program called Primstar. I will be explaining more about this in one of the tutorial links.

Sculpts vs. meshes?

With developments in Second Life and OpenSim to support meshes does anyone need to learn about sculpts anymore?

My own perspective is that sculpts will still play a part in virtual worlds for awhile and are worth learning and working with.

Mesh design and importing for virtual worlds is still a work in progress. Most of the popular viewers do not, as yet, have capabilities for importing mesh objects or being able to view them. No-one is certain when it will all be ready for a full launch or what the precise technical restrictions might be. In the long-term, it will probably revolutionise what can be built. Right now though, if you want to build something, you will still need regular or sculpted prims.

One of the things that I do consider is a big positive for using mesh is that, unlike information for making virtual world specific sculpts, there is so much more to find through websites and forums. It is a lot easier to see what can be achieved from beginner level to experienced professional.

With these changes it can make for a difficult decision on where to focus. I decided to go ahead and concentrate on sculpt information and Blender 2.49b because they’re in every day use. Some of the links below go to Blender sites that contain information on mesh work and the Blender beta versions, so if you want to read more there is that option.

Tutorial links and notes

1. The Blender Survival Guide by Paolo Ciccone

The Blender Survival Guide, made by Paolo Ciccone and hosted at Creative Cow, is a thirteen part, video tutorial series on the basics of using Blender 2.49b. It is a project-based learning series and covers a lot of the basic controls and the user interface that you will need to know. This series does not include specific information on sculpt objects but is aimed at beginners who want to learn about Blender’s capabilities. An additional note is the series is made on a Mac, so it may not cover all keyboard control differences for Windows or Linux users.

I found this an excellent introduction to the controls and interface, but, I realise it might not suit all beginners.

2. Machinimatrix Blender Sculpt tutorials

If you’ve already covered the basic controls and interface, or you want to jump forward to learning about sculpts (I’d advise covering the basics first!), then this resource is specifically aimed at sculpt making for Second Life. It is still applicable to other virtual worlds. This is mostly project based but it also has other information on sculpt making, basic controls and has recently added information on meshes.

Machinimatrix offer a bundled package of Blender, Primstar, Python and library resources called JASS. They do offer a free version of this package as well as a paid version which includes additional features. If you are an OpenSim user who is interested in using the paid for version I recommend contacting them first to see if they can, or are willing to, provide support outside of the Second Life environment.

I’d already installed Blender 2.49b before I visited this site. Out of interest, I did download their free package but encountered some installation problems that I couldn’t resolve and went back to my previous set-up.

It is possible to download Primstar and Python separately and install them to follow these tutorials.

The Machinimatrix tutorials are aimed at beginners and I found them fairly easy to follow and well-designed to take you step by step to a completed sculpt.

What is Primstar?

Primstar 1.0 is a free, Python-scripted program, created by Domino Marama, for Blender 2.49a/2.49b.

At the moment, to the best of my knowledge, there is no way to make Primstar 1.0 work with Blender 2.5 betas (which I assume is down to the differences in Python versions and coding). The Domino Designs website shows little sign of updates over the last year and, unfortunately, it looks as though there will not be any Primstar updates coming out.

Primstar uses a separate, floating, window accessed by drop down menu once it is installed in Blender. It adds pre-defined shapes to your workspace, i.e. a cube, cylinder, hemisphere and so on, for you to model with and also assists with making your sculpt map. The reason this is incredibly useful for beginners is that all the shapes have been set up to meet the technical limitations that virtual worlds have for sculpts. Put simply; if your sculpt map information is not correct you will end up with a deformed sculpt in-world.

Primstar in Blender 2.94b

Primstar 1.0 in Blender 2.49b

I won’t attempt to explain in detail here what these limitations are as it won’t really make sense to anyone who hasn’t used a sculpt program before.

You can download Primstar here. Installation notes are included in the download. You will also need to download the correct version of Python that your Blender installation uses. For example: Blender 2.49b needed Python 2.6.6 for Mac OS downloaded.

As a Mac user: I can’t speak for others’ experiences but for me Primstar does have some noticeable instabilities and can prove difficult for a manual installation. Unfortunately, it tends to crash Blender a lot. Mostly when I’ve been adding new sculpt shapes to my workspace or baking a sculpt map. Another thing I’ve found is that you must click on the very top of the Blender window to have it become active again after you’ve had the Primstar window open. It remains the active window even when it has completed its action and closed.

If you are prepared to persist with using it (it is a very useful and popular tool) then save your project frequently, especially right before you need to access the Primstar window again.

Other Blender links

Blender – Blender home page with all available downloads as well as tutorials and technical information.

MasterPrim – Written tutorials on sculpts for Second Life by Parinya Rung.

Sculpt Blender – Four written tutorials for beginners to Blender and Primstar by Robyn Huffaker.

Blender Guru – Tutorials, guides and articles for Blender users.

Blender Cookie – Tutorials, resources and articles for Blender users.

Super3 – Video tutorials and resources by the well-known Super3boy. Also worth checking out is the link to the Nystic forum for Blender users.

I hope that these links will be helpful to beginners. Happy Blendering!

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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.