One of the most common questions I hear is “what software should I use”? The answer to this depends on three factors;
1) What do you want to make, and why?
2) What software do you have access to?
3) What software do you have access to that you are most comfortable with using?
The best way to choose a 3D software package is to start with an idea of what you want to make (chair, person, spaceship), and for what purpose (video games, 3d printing, mass production). After you’ve got your idea, you should go out and try as many 3D packages as you can get your hands on. This will give you the breadth of experience that you’ll need to find a 3D package that “clicks” with you and that you enjoy using. I will share some of my experiences and recommendations at the end of this article, but you should feel free to explore and experiment with whatever you find, whether or not it’s on my list. With a working understanding of the different surfacing methods and how they work, you will be able to pick a package that suits your specific needs and desires.
Having an understanding of all the surface types will also give you the freedom to consider multiple options when approaching a 3D model, and prepare you for future developments.There is a trend that is just starting now, where the separate worlds of CAD and computer graphics are beginning to meet and mix. For examples, we have Fusion 360, where we see subdivision modeling techniques making their way into the CAD space, and MeshFusion for modo, where we see CAD boolean and filleting operations making their way into subdivision modeling. Both of these programs have been on the market for less than three years as of the time of this writing, so it’s a very exciting time to be a multi-surface modeler.
Surface types, workflows, and design intent
How to read this diagram;
The three green circles marked organic, blend, and hard surface are descriptions that form part of the design intent, or what it is that you intend to design. If you wanted to make a spaceship, you could describe it as being able to fly to the Moon, be very fast, and be a hard surface model. Something like a person, animal, or wrinkled handbag would be described as an organic model or having organic surfaces. Something like a bracket, spaceship, or a car would be described as hard surface modeling, and something in between, like a chair with flowing organic curves, or a person with a robotic arm, is considered a blend between both or a formed organic shape.
The GPU is a specialized chip in your computer that is designed to handle the calculations necessary to quickly show 3D data in realtime on a computer screen. Similar to a CPU, or Central Processing Unit, a good GPU is essential to being able to make complex 3D models. Many low-cost computers come with low-power GPUs on their motherboard, called “integrated graphics”. However, for professional 3D work, it is important to have a separate, or “dedicated” graphics chip.
Your design intent also includes the purpose for which you are creating your model. If you want to create a model for a videogame, then a CAD (Computer Aided Design) modeling application probably won’t have the tools you need to create a finished product. Vica-versa, if you wanted to create a 3D model for mass production, then a computer graphics (CG) application probably won’t have the dimensional control that you would need to ensure that the part can be manufactured and will work in the real world.
This does not mean that you can’t use a CG program for a real world part, or a CAD program for a model in a movie or video game. It just means that you will have to keep in mind the limitations of the tool and plan accordingly. This comes down to workflow.
Not all workflows are created equal
Do you remember when I said “…no matter what, if you’re viewing a game model or CAD model on the screen or in your hand, you will always be looking at a triangulated mesh.”?
This is important, because it tells us that all 3d models, no matter how they’re built, can be broken down into a single, unifying descriptive method, rendering them fundamentally the same at some level.
Now remember #3?
“3) What software do you have access to that you are most comfortable with using?”
You can make an organic model using parametric modeling, and you can make a hard surface model using direct modeling. In fact, most people have to today. Video game/CG models have special requirements, as do CAD models, and programs these days are very specialized for one industry or the other. The trick is to find a 3d package whose interface you find the most comfortable to work with, as well as giving you the tools necessary to accomplish what it is you want to design.
Every 3D package has it’s own interface, which will drive the workflow within that package. That is why it is important to try as many different packages as you can. However, there are two major workflows out there that every package serves as an interface for. These two workflow paradigms are called direct modeling and parametric modeling.
What is direct modeling?
Direct modeling is the process whereby 3d models are modified by clicking and dragging vertices, edges, or faces on the model. It is a form of destructive editing, which means that any changes that are made to the model cannot be modified after they are performed. Once a change passes out of your software’s undo history, there is no record of the model before the change.
There are four main methods that artists use when performing direct modeling. The first is called box modeling. It is the process whereby a box, or cube, is used as the basis for creating the entire 3d mesh. Edge loops are added to create more vertices, which the modeler can grab and move around. By combining simple tools and modifiers, such as extrude and linear falloff, modelers can precisely edit and adjust large portions of the mesh at a time. This means that complex models become fast and easy to manipulate, so long as the modeler keeps a mental note of the major edge and polygon loops in the mesh, and the directions that they are traveling in. This direction of polygon and edge flow is referred to as polyflow, and mastering it is an essential skill to a professional subdivision modeler.
The second is called edge modeling. It is the process whereby a flat plane is created and geometry is grown from it by extending or extruding its edges to create more flat planes. This technique has the advantage of being able to define complex but critical polygon loops first, and then fill in the rest of the model later. A great tutorial on how to model a human head using edge modeling can be found here.
The third is called sculpting, and the tools that support this mode are designed to simulate the experience of working with clay. Artists use digitizer pens with special tablets to sculpt extremely complex organic forms in much the same way that a sculptor would do so in real life. These tools allow for intricate and detailed forms with voids, blends, pockets and other surface irregularities to be crafted quickly and easily in the virtual space. These modeling packages exist as voxel, subdivision, or polygon editors.
The fourth method doesn’t really have a name, but I’m including it anyway. It is the process wherein patches of NURBS surfaces are defined by drawing curves (similar to edges) in 3d space, then lofting and joining them together to form surface patches. These patches are then stitched together to form larger NURBS Surfaces. Using this very manual method of three dimensionally defining curves and relationships between surfaces, designers are able to have precise and exacting control over surfaces and their interactions with one another.
What is parametric modeling?
Parametric modeling can be used with any surfacing type, however today it is predominantly used with NURBS surfaces and B-Rep solids in the design and engineering industries. Parametric modeling is the process whereby a model is defined parametrically, or by using parameters. These parameters are contained within modeling operations called features. An example of a feature is when you extrude a square into a cube. That extrusion is called a feature. The height of the extrude, as well as the length and width of the square that made the cube, are all parameters.
Let’s say you built another cube on top of the first one, using another extrude. The first and second cubes are now features in the program’s history. Designers use history trees (visual lists of the features used to build the model) to “go back in time” and change parameters anytime in the model’s construction history. These changes then propagate through the model’s history tree, changing anything that they’re related to. In this example, you could go back and change the height of the first box, and the second box would move up or down to stay on top of it.
Some basic lingo
3D Modelers - These are 3D modeling packages that specialize in modeling only. They often have in-depth modeling features, but sometimes lack other tools, such as rendering, animation, etc.
CAD - Computer Aided Design. This term typically only refers to 3D modeling when performed in the context of design for manufacturing.
DFM – Design for manufacturability. This is the “art of designing products in such a way that they are easy to manufacture” (Wikipedia). Some software have tools that help the designer determine manufacturability.
A rendering (n) - A work of visual art.
A rendered image (n) – The still image that is produced by the process of rendering.
Computer Graphics – of or having to do with everything that is seen on and produced by computers that is not text or sound.
A rendered animation – A series of rendered still images that are played in rapid succession to form the illusion of movement.
A CG animation - A rendered animation, produced by computers.
Software - any set of machine-readable instructions that directs a computer’s processor to perform specific operations. Wikipedia
3d package – Specialized computer graphics software that incorporates one or many sets of instructions to produce multiple outputs.
My Thoughts on Software
What follows are my impressions of various software packages on the market today. I am an industrial designer and indie game modeler. In my opinion, what software package you choose to use is irrelevant; since a tool is merely a gateway to creation.
I have some thoughts on which packages are designed to be more or less intuitive, and I have tried to make these thoughts clear. If you are just getting started on your own in 3D, I would recommend starting with Sketchup. It will give you exposure to both physical and virtual design, and is very flexible in how you use it. modo has an interface that is designed to be flexible. After you’ve been working in 3D for awhile, I’d recommend using it to experiment with new workflows.
Without further ado, here are my thoughts and impressions of 3D software;
Maya (NURBS/Polygons/Subdiv) - I only recommend it because everyone uses it. Basically evolved with the computer graphics industry, so everything that can be done with computer graphics at this point probably has a plugin for Maya, which makes it a very effective omni-tool. It’s also standard at almost every studio, so when schools and universities create their CG curriculums, they generally opt to teach Maya. This also means that a lot of educational material is written for Maya, and much of it (including, for students, the software itself) is available for free all over the Internet. I tried to teach myself Maya, and it made me want to stop doing 3D modeling. Maya is best at and designed towards large studio and workflow environments. Maya is free for students. Perpetual license is $3,675 for professionals, or $185 a month.
3DS Max (NURBS/Polygons/Subdiv)- 3DS Max is big, old, and is used in lots of industries. It’s development history is similar to Maya’s, and I find its interface difficult to use and challenging to learn. However, there are lots of companies in the CG, gaming, architecture, and oil-and-gas industries that still use it. It has lots of functions that that make for a very powerful modeling workflow, and enable it to work well in large studio environments, which is where it will mostly be found. If you want to get into a career where you will work in these sorts of environments, then there’s a good chance you’ll run into it in the wild. If you’re just starting out on your own and want to learn how to model, its daunting interface and feature-laden toolset might be too much to decipher. In my opinion, there are many other programs on the market today that offer similar features in more cleanly-designed packages. However, the upshot is that since it’s a legacy product, it has a lot of plugins and tutorials to increase its functionality and help you learn. These tutorials are also usually available for free all over the Internet. It is free for students, and the perpetual license is $3,675 for professionals, or $185 a month.
modo (Polygons/Subdiv) – A relative newcomer to the industry, modo has the benefit of experience, and still is the software package I use the most today. Formed by ex-Lightwave developers, modo was originally built to be a fast and efficient subdivision modeler. After several years, the software has grown to become an all-inclusive package, with modeling, painting, animation, simulation, and rendering, integrated into a beautifully designed workflow. Luxology, modo’s development company, recently merged with The Foundry Visionmongers (referred to mostly as The Foundry), and is now integrated into a massive CG pipeline. Honestly at this point, a lot of modo’s development is going into expanding its capabilities. My only worry is that over time it’ll become bloated like Maya, but at the moment it is still a powerful, fast, and fun program to use. Best of all, Luxology’s tutorials are rock solid. Unfortunately, the intro ones are for-pay only. It’s been awhile since I’ve used them, but I remember that I was basically doing sub-D modeling my first day after only maybe 2 hours of video. Worth the money. Free 15 day trial, or $25 for a 30 day trial, the intro tutorial videos. Comes with a $25 credit for the purchase of a new modo license. $1,500 for a professional license.
Lightwave (Polygons/Subdiv) – Lightwave has had some ups and downs in the past. Interestingly, Lightwave is actually two programs, one is a modeler and the other is a renderer. Used in many professional motion pictures, including Firefly and Battlestar Galactica (2009) (Zoic Studios), Lightwave is a competitor to Maya and Max, as well as modo (in fact, Luxology was formed by many former Lightwave developers). This is another application you could try on your quest to find the perfect fit, but be careful; the last several years have been unkind to Lightwave’s development, and many in the industry fear that it may be on its last legs. Free 30 day trial, professional license is $1,495.
Sketchup (Polygons)- This program is thought of as a blocky architectural modeling tool, but it’s really an advanced polygon modeler. The ability to have CAD dimensioning in a poly modeling tool is great, and it means that if you want to learn both CAD and CG at the same time, it’s a good software to start with. Free for students and individual makers. $590 for professionals.
Blender (Polygons/Subdiv) - Whenever someone asks about “free 3d software”, people invariably point them to Blender. I have seen some amazing stuff done with this software, and it’s truly incredible that all this power is available in a free program, built up by a community of people, many of whom are volunteers. It’s got a lot in it, too – sculpting, animating, modeling, even it’s own game engine. But this software has Maya’s problem but ten fold – with so many people stirring the pot, it’s a nightmare to navigate. The Blender Foundation does sell training videos, though, and there are a lot of free resources around the web. Free.
Cinema 4D (NURBS/Polygons/Subdiv) - I went through a couple classes in college where they taught this. I was working with modo at the time, so I didn’t pay much attention, but I have some friends who use it and do amazing work. From my perception, it’s a competitor with Maya and now modo too. Free for students for 18 months. $2,000 for professionals.
Fusion 360 (NURBS/B-Rep/T-Spline)- Autodesk’s purchase of T-Splines did not go unnoticed. They launched Fusion 360 and the software is certainly ambitious – it’s the only product on the market where you can have direct modeling of T-Spline bodies and parametric modeling of NURBS/B-Reps in the same modeling environment. Right now it’s clunky, slow, buggy, and not really a “cloud” software package. I find this software to have a very messy interface, but lots of potential. It just had a big interface redesign and optimization release which fixed some of the problems I was having with it, but much remains left to do. It has a reasonably functional parametric solid modeling suite, and if you want to mess with T-Splines it’s the best way to do it. Free for students, 30 day trial. Pricing comes in at $40 a month, $115 a quarter, $300 a year.
Rhinoceros (Rhino) 3D (NURBS/Polygon) - Solid direct modeling NURBS package. Direct NURBS modeling has kind of a steep learning curve, and Rhino doesn’t really give you much help – though the new interface is slightly more approachable. Typed-in commands are faster to use than button hunting, but it can be daunting for the new user. Compared to the competition (Alias), this program is a steal, though. Worlds away a better deal in terms of price/performance for a CAD package. Free 90 day trial. Professional license costs $1,000 for just the modeler. Student license is $200, and once you graduate it converts to a professional license.
Moment of Inspiration (NURBS) – Approachable NURBS modeling package with a friendly user interface, this was developed by one of the former Rhino developers. It comes with an excellent polygonal export, so it plays nice with polygon modeling programs. Designed to be simple to use, this might be an option for you if you’re looking for a simple NURBS modeler to learn on or to augment your existing modeling pipeline. Free 30 day trial, $295 for a professional license.
Alias (NURBS/Polygon)- I’ve never really used it much. I worked with a designer who did, and he was excellent, but when I tried to use it I couldn’t find where to start. Does more out of the box than Rhino, but for what we were doing (retopologizing 3D scans and building aftermarket motorcycle accessories), I was able to keep up with him by just using Rhino. However, Alias is really popular in the transport design world for car bodies and other objects that require fine control over surface blending. Free trial, free 3 year license for students. Free trial, free for students, $4,200 for professionals.
SolidWorks (B-Rep/NURBS) – Great program, just really expensive. Easy to use once you understand what parametric modeling is best at (translating known parts into CAD so that known values can be changed later), and how to design using parametric values. The interface is very point and click – there are few shortcut keys. The entire program can be used with just a mouse and a number pad. Really fun to use a 3D mouse with. Probably the most user-friendly parametric modeler on the market today, aside from Fusion 360. The only down side is the pricing. Free 30 day trial, $150 year-long student license, $3,995 for basic professional modeling package.
Inventor (B-Rep/NURBS) - Solid modeling application geared towards engineers. Made by Autodesk, competitor to SolidWorks, though “competitor” is used lightly – SolidWorks is worlds and away the industry standard. I’ve never used it myself. Free trial, free for students, $7,295 for a professional license.
TinkerCAD (B-Rep) - I’ve never used this, but a friend was curious to hear my thoughts. I signed up for an account and watched a couple tutorial videos. The program is essentially a cloud-based boolean (add/subtract) solid modeler. It’s a true cloud application, as it runs entirely in your browser with no local install. Since the boolean objects are able to be interacted with, even after they perform their operations, it’s technically a parametric/history-based modeler as well, though it lacks a history tree. However, the lack of ability to create a custom shape within the program means that you will eventually hit a hard ceiling of what this program can do without learning another program as well. Free with three tiered subscription plans at $10, $20, and $50 a month.
OpenSCAD (B-Rep) – OpenSCAD is open source software for creating 3d models using programming. I have never touched it, but it’s on this list in case you’re more of the scripting persuasion and want to try it out. Free.
Sculptris (Polygon) – An extremely simple to use, free sculpting program put out by Pixologic, the company who makes the professional sculpting program ZBrush. I’ve used this application and enjoyed it – but my personal need/desire for sculpting is relatively low. It’s a great way to get your feet wet, simple to use, and if you need some strange organic forms or sculpts for a project, it’ll work in a pinch. Definitely check it out, just so you at least have some exposure to the sculpting environment and workflow. Free for personal and commercial use.
Mudbox (Polygon) – Aquired by Autodesk some time ago, Mudbox is a pure sculptor modeler that fits neatly into an Autodesk-only pipeline. It has some tie-ins with Maya that allow you to easily go back and forth between the two programs. César; It lacks the powerful sculpting tools and workflow of Zbrush, and the retopology tools aren’t very good. It’s more difficult to create a base mesh in the program, so many times you will need another package. I would not recommend it over ZBrush. Free for students, $10 monthly, $200 annually, $500 for a new professional license.
3D Coat (Voxel) – 3D Coat is a voxel based sculpting program, and is comparable in features and price to ZBrush. If ZBrush’s interface doesn’t click with you, maybe give 3DCoat a try. César: I have not used this software. 30 Day demo, $99 for students, $379 for professionals.
MakeHuman (Subdiv) – This is basically a 3D “make your own person” kit. Users begin with a basic human body and adjust sliders to parametrically change their appearance. The program is great for developing detailed character models quickly and effectively, with little experience in character modeling – though you probably won’t have the same freedom as if you had modeled it yourself. However, with an extremely open licensing scheme, outputs from Makehuman can be used both for personal and professional endeavors, making it a great way to build models for importing straight into your project, or base meshes for further refinement in another package. Free
There are many tools for working with digital content. 3d software has grown to the point of being easy to use, widely accessible, and extraordinarily powerful. When you design something, you will save time and resources by coming up with a clearer idea of that thing in your head, before you start making it a reality. Doing this will also afford you the ability to anticipate future variables and plan for them ahead of time, which will in turn influence your 3d modeler choice. Is it necessary for you to have precise control over individual surface curvatures or hole spacing, even after the first 3d printed prototype? Or is what you want to make something where the most important variable is that you are able to develop forms quickly? Having an understanding of the various facets of 3d modeling will enable you to choose the right tool for the right job. It’s up to you to figure out the rest.
Coming up next…
The next major article will be about design principles and some considerations when incorporating the human element into your design. I will also be starting a series that talks about each of the individual surface types in greater detail. If there’s something you would like to see, or have a specific question, I’m always available at jordan.pelovitz [at] gmail [dot] com.
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