Here are some of the things that I’ve learned in my experience as a professional 3D modeler and designer. I hope you find them as useful as I have!
#1: Ask what the end product will be used for.
When someone comes to you and says “I want a 3D model of X”, make sure to ask what they plan to use the model for – not just in the immediate future, but also down the line as well. Encourage them to think of the model you create as a basic building block for the rest of their endeavor. Remember; 3D models don’t care what you do with them. If you build a model in Maya for a video game, that model could also be used as a 3D print as well. So when someone asks you to build a 3D model of a toy or a spaceship or what have you, find out what they plan to do with it, and build a modeling plan that incorporates those needs.
#2: Be Efficient.
Whether you’re building a model for a video game, movie, or CNC machining operation, it pays to make your models clean and tidy. With polygon modeling, this means a minimum of wasted polies – so make sure all your verts are welded, you don’t have overlapping polygons, etc. If you’re making a model in a parametric design software like SolidWorks, try to bunch your features together and keep duplicates to a minimum. Bonus points if you actually organize them into folders. Not only will it help your model load quicker and be easier to work with, but it will help anyone else who may have to work with your model down the line.
#3: Remember that you’re not the only one.
This ties into my previous point; you may not actually be the only one working on this model. It’s not uncommon for a freelancer or a staff member to build a model, then three months later someone else has to make changes to that model or use it in their scene. A model that is poorly laid out or even worse, full of errors, could require hours to correct or in some cases, even a total rebuild. When you put your model together, especially in parametric packages, it helps to lay things out as if you were building it for someone else (if you can). This will make sure that your work is logical and easily followed.
#4: Be fast, even if you make mistakes.
Wait, what? I just told you guys to make sure your models were clean and well-made, why am I now saying the opposite? This ties into point #1 – if you know for a fact that the only time this model will be used is for a quick render or will only ever be used for a video game, then be as quick and efficient as you can without breaking anything. For example; if you are given an assignment to make a model for a single render, then the back side of the model (the part that won’t be seen) doesn’t really matter. Ditto for small poly errors as well – sometimes it’s easier to just clean up a render glitch in post than it is to go back and rework the model’s topology. For CAD models with complex surfacing, you often have to break the history tree multiple times before you’re done, so it’s not even possible sometimes to keep a clean and well-laid out parametric history.
#5: Maintain a good file structure.
This is really helpful on large projects. Pick a standard file structure and try to stick with it as best you can. This will keep your projects organized, so you can come back to them later if need be (especially helpful when putting together portfolios), and efficient structures will save you time. If you have to dig through 20 folders every time you want to open a project, you’re wasting time and thus, wasting money. The structure I use is as follows:
Within the 3D folder I usually have three separate folders;
…and within the 2D folder I usually have a mix but they usually include;
#6: Take notes.
This is pretty self-explanatory, but seriously, you can’t remember everything! Taking notes during client discussions will help you save time and effort, and keep you from looking incompetent halfway through the project when you can’t remember whether or not the character is supposed to be a girl or a guy.
#7: Be communicative.
If you’re doing your job right, you’ve asked the client questions, written down what needs to be done, made a plan for building the model, used a cohesive file structure, and built a well-laid out model in an efficient manner. With all that being said, sometimes issues crop up that you don’t forsee. Don’t pester your client with constant status updates, but do keep them informed if you think you might have a delay. Don’t sell yourself short; remember, they hired you because you are the expert. If you say there will be a delay, then that’s just how the model had to happen.
#8: Be up to date.
With that being said, keep your skills sharp, and use online communities to keep improving. I’m guilty of not doing this enough myself, but there are some great online communities out there for 3D artists, like Polycount, Core77, and CGSociety. Get on there and look at what other people do – just seeing the wireframes of other people’s models will help you improve your own. Remember to ask questions, and happy modeling!