How to Create Your Own Virtual 3-D Model

by Ken Burnside

Three-dimensional modeling is a skill set that's moving out of the realm of professional engineers and CGI artists and into the realm of intermediate computer literacy. While professional-grade 3-D modeling software such as LightWave and Maya are expensive, plenty of free modeling options are available for people who are just getting into the field.

Hobbyist-Level Modeling

The entry point into 3-D modeling is hobbyist or casual modeling. The premier application for this is SketchUp. Developed by @Last Software in 2000 and later acquired by Google, SketchUp has won industry awards for its drawing-based interface that lets users sketch the shape they want and then extrude it into a 3-D model that is rendered with full 3-D information. Models made in SketchUp are compatible with Google Earth, and versions released since 2010 can make files compatible for 3-D printing. While it's possible to do solid modeling in SketchUp, the browser-based tool can't match the full performance of dedicated, professional packages.

Photo-Realistic Rendering

Cinematic modeling generates large numbers of photo-realistic rendered models; they make up the background for many major motion pictures. Any time you see an alien invasion fleet demolishing landmarks, you're seeing photo-realistic rendering. The primary tools for this in Hollywood are Maya -- named for the Hindu god of Illusion -- and Blender, Maya's open source counterpart in 3-D rendering. Both programs are mature and have user interfaces that require study and familiarization, comparable with getting up to speed on Photoshop or Illustrator.

Solid Modeling

Not all modeling is wire-frame or surface modeling. Solid modeling renders an object that is geometrically correct inside and out. While most art-modeling software uses texture mapping and bump mapping to give the visual illusion of texture to the rendered image, solid modeling uses complex mathematics to create a model that can be tested or cut in half to reveal the interior. While SketchUp can do solid modeling, intricate models require software that is more powerful. The two industry leaders in this area are Rhino, which is well suited for making organic shapes, and SolidWorks, which can be thought of as a high-end CAD program with extrusion capabilities.

Animation Models

Making character models for animation and games is a trickier process than making static models or solid models for 3-D printing. The models must have internal structures called bones that regulate where joints bend. Many of them also need extra work to make sure that lighting and ambient effects like wind affect the clothing in the right ways, and so they move with the right amount of weight. If you want to get your start on animation modeling, download and use Autodesk Softimage Mod Tool 7.5. It was originally released in parallel with Autodesk's professional figure-modeling software, SoftImage Pro. While it hasn't been updated since 2009, the tool is still widely available (link in Resources) and its files are compatible with most game-rendering software, making it easy to create a character model, load it into a game and see how it behaves.

About the Author

Ken Burnside has been writing freelance since 1990, contributing to publications as diverse as "Pyramid" and "Training & Simulations Journal." A Microsoft MVP in Excel, he holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alaska. He won the Origins Award for Attack Vector: Tactical, a board game about space combat.

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