Future of 3D modeling looks organic – why care about polygons?

Future of 3D modeling looks organic, image
3D Modeling programs and devices advance in leaps and bounds. New tools make sculpting accessible and ever more organic. Can artist skip learning the ‘oldschool’ skills and just embrace the new?

3D Tools of the Future are here

Coming up is Motion-based creation with a new device, Leap Motion, think Kinect on stereoids. The developers say it was originally developed with 3D modeling in mind. See some collected videos on the tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQkKyOOyLSs&list=PL867A53645EDDD94C

Playstation 4 developers are showcasing motion-based solution offering freedom for modeling, amongst other applications. See here from 1:50. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI4nn9uDFGE

Another new device takes the user in to 3D, Virtual Reality that is. Oculus Rift is a revolution in VR-headset-space and built with games in mind. While not meant for 3D modeling I can’t help thinking how it would be to work in a blank, Tron-esque virtual space that you could populate with whatever references or other stuff you need. Combine that with a motion sensor like Leap Motion and wow. http://www.oculusvr.com/

3D scanners are also coming to home users, in time. Surely there would be no approach more organic than the original, clay? Gnomon School blog speculates on those possibilities.
And you don’t have to wait for the dedicated scanners. You can scan objects with Kinect controller. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=of6d7C_ZWwc

All in all technology barrier is getting lower and lower. Which is great.

So if sculpting gets so easy and fun..

Why care about polygons or polygon modeling anymore?

If you do sculpture then you don’t need to.
But otherwise the issues areas are:

  1. Scanned/Sculpted Model is not readily usable for anything else than a sculpture.
  2. Many types of 3D models are best realized with polygon modeling tools.

1. Sculpture or scanned model is good for a sculpture only – unless you apply modeling skills

sculpt detail
A scanned or sculpted 3D model, by default, does not have construction that makes sense for anything other that what it is – a sculpture. For animation, game or any other practical use the sculpture is too dense and has no useful topology aka directed polygon surface flow. (One COULD pose a sculpted figure in a sculpting program, and sculpt to fix the issues in the new pose, or do all same steps in real clay and scan each pose in to 3D, and then render those poses for stop motion-like animation, but that would be painstaking.)

Too dense model consist of too many polygons and is simply too heavy for game or animation use. Fortunately there are tools to slim it down like Zbrush’s Decimation Master. However it does not fix the topology.

No uv-map means the model is not mapped for texturing. Software like Zbrush allow texturing without an uv-map but it works only in the said software. Zbrush also has great auto-uv-mapping but it is not the same as a map planned and made by a person. Games in particular can demand very creative tricks in this area. And the hook here it is that a person can’t reasonably uv-map something that doesn’t have a decent topology.

It comes down to (good) topology – without it a model..

  1. deforms badly in animation or posing
  2. shades oddly
  3. displaces less well
  4. can’t be sensibly uv-mapped
  5. and is pretty much in every way more difficult to read and work with

For more on some of the above points, please see Why Surface Flow Matters, Modeling For Animation and Testing Models for Animation.

To make good topology one has to understand polygon modeling. And if it is characters than required is some knowledge of anatomy. It is also beneficial to understand how models are rigged and what happens when they animate.

What about automatic topology?
Ideal would be fully automatic and perfect topology creation tool so that artist could focus only on the fun parts, shaping and painting.

There are tools that help a lot. 3D Coat and Zbrush for example offer auto-topology-tools. This 3D Coat video shows the idea well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEnwxnNMPk4
However the video sticks to larger elements for a reason. In areas of detail like the face the tools need a lot more guidelines to produce something usable. Again the user needs to understand polygon modeling. Also the ‘automatic’ tools are by definition not as precise as modeling tools (after all the idea is Not to work with polygons). Hence polygon or two out of place may become a pain to remove. Well, until the retopology-tools advance to a level resembling artificial intelligence.

2. Many 3D model purposes and styles are best realized with polygon modeling

Second major defence for polygon modeling is that many platforms require low-polygon models which are impossible or too much work to do with the organic future tools. Sculpting can’t compete in low-poly with polygon modeling simply because that is what polygon modeling tools were made for (in the beginning all modeling was low-poly).

Low-poly modeling is also a skill and style(s) of its own and is used in great variety of platforms and media, including many types of games, multimedia, web and visualization to name a few.

Future of 3D is bright

CGmascot head sculpted
While I want to remind people that new tools don’t change modeling altogether, I am still excited by them. The progress is wonderful and very welcome! The work becomes ever more fun. I for one can’t wait to play and create with some of these tools.

BTW I didn’t mention alternatives to polygons in this article, like voxels, as I don’t think they are yet solid enough to compete with polygons in everyday use.
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Animation Character Creation Tutorial – Modeling Tools

Here is  a look into the modeling tools and technique used in coming Animation Character Creation Tutorial.  The tools I use are very standard fare, hardly new to anyone who has done polygon modeling, which is all good – the goal is to keep it easy and fun. The method is the interesting bit. Techinique shown in the video is something I’ve talked about before, too.

Even if this is all familiar to you already, you can watch the video as a brief example of what my video tutorials may be like.  This video is an early(and very very small) part of the final tutorial.

Click Vimeo-link in the video to watch it in HD at Vimeo.

Music:  Eighteen Pieces by Soda and Sevenhundredbeats by Duncan Beattie.

The tutorial develops well and more info will come.

Animation Character Creation Tutorial – Teaser

This has been requested enought times, so here I go, finally. This project is loads of fun to work on and really time consuming too. I hope you’ll like it as much as I do.

You can also watch it in HD at vimeo.

Tutorial Details (in short)


Covers a bit on character design, then goes deep to modeling a character for animation, uv-mapping, sculpting, texturing and finally quick posing and to a promotional render. On the way I tell you why I do things the way I do.  Tutorial video duration will most likely be 10+ hours.  The base head & eye-modeling alone is around 1 hour 40 minutes.

Software used

Luxology Modo (for 3d) and Adobe Photoshop (2d). However no part of the tutorial needs just those two softwares – you can use any similiar software to get the job done. I will list 3D-tools used(such as bevel) in the tutorial details, so you can see what your software can do and what, if any, you need to employ another software for. And instead of Photoshop you can use any capable bitmap painting/editing software.

Aimed for / Level of difficulty

Anyone who knows how to operate a 3D-software. I’m not explaining very basics – software manual and generic tutorials can tell you that. However I do go over what tools we will use and where.


Tutorial will be in HD720P video, quicktime-files, and with a menu to easily access them.


Tutorial will be available from a reputable online vendor as a download or on a dvd.


The price won’t be low but not scary either and the value for money will be high.

Future plans

Tutorial is planned as the first in a series that goes from design all the way to animated short film production and finish.

That’s it for now.  More will come, at least a trailer, before the tutorial releases.

What would you like to have in such a tutorial?  Please feel free to write comments and questions below.
Update: Tutorial is delayed for unknown time -a LONG time- due to other work taking my time. I rather not set a date for release and miss it again. If you want to make sure you don’t miss the release without coming back here to check over and over, subscribe to site RSS feed or Email Updates.

How to keep Modeling fun?

I’ve written bits about polygon flow and modeling for animation and a comparison of a model built for animation with another that’s not. What about modeling technique? What do you use?  Have you weighted the pros and cons?  Note that this is only about polygon modeling, not about nurbs or sculpting.

I think modeling should be fun. To be fun it needs to be fast and without fear of making mistakes, of getting stuck.  Fun modeling is safe.

First way of making things easier would be designing with a pen. Polygons can’t beat drawing in planning. Second,  having the option of displacements and normal maps I would do very fine detail with those – not with polygons.

In modeling the fly in my soup has been keeping polygons 4-sided and relocating  ‘poles’, aka points where 5 or more edges meet, to where I want them. I have spent endless hours on these two things.

Why 4-sided aka quads? Quad polygons are something many programs prefer and also what displaces(i.e. sculpted detail coming out via displacement map) and deforms(animation) in the most relieable way.

And why move poles?  Areas with poles don’t deform well in animation and may produce render artifacts.  Push them where they are unnoticeable, to places that don’t deform much.

So, fun modeling would be a process that keeps polygons as quads and lets you control pole placement.  And ideally it would all happen without having to think about it.

Modeling methods

1. edge-out / detail-out / poly-by-poly method

Modeling technique: detail out / edge out / poly by polyStarts from a quad polygon or a strip of such polys, and extends more quads out from their edges. Often in this style you start from detail areas such as the eyes or mouth and then draw polygons to connect them. Everything stays as quads by default as long as you know where the extended polygon strips should go and connect. Same goes with the poles – you need to know where and how to place them. This style requires a design drawing to follow.  Also it takes some skill to either have the polygon flow setup in your head or to plan ahead of time and draw it on the design drawing.
pros: polygons stay as quads, not much clean-up work, good for details and fast to build when you know what you’re doing
cons: need to know what works where and what connects to what beforehand

One very nice example of poly-by-poly modeling is base mesh creation for this Yeti.

2. detail-in / box-modeling / sub-division modeling

Modeling - box modelingBeginning is a box or other base shape in your 3D software, which you shape to overall figure and start to carve detail in. You work more with polygons than edges.

This style is often connected to subdivision modeling, where you model just like above but view the subdivided version of your model instead (or on the side) of your actual work-model. The work-model stays as low-poly(easier to animate) while the final rendered result is the subdivision-surface.
pros: can go ‘freeform’ – model with little planning, can conceptualisize still in mid-process, easy to start with, easy to do major changes, fast workflow when done right
cons: detailing is more difficult than with no. 1, can be hard to keep polys as quads unless done ‘right’, can get difficult to direct the edgeloops when you are dealing with overall shape rather than just the loops themselves

Some tutorials:
Wiro’s tutorials
Southern’s Minotaur series

Which to use? You can use both.  Box-modeling is best for big things, poly-by-poly does well in detailing.

Fun modeling

This solution is all box-modeling: a way that keeps to quads and allows moving poles around.

Limit tools to the following (in addition to standard move, rotate and scale). This pretty much ensures you create only quads.  Tie the commands to hot-keys for speedy workflow.

Modeling - bevelbevel/extrude
modeling -collapsecollapse
modeling - merge polysmerge (to clean after collapse)
modeling - turn polygonturn polygons
Modeling - bevel groupCreate areas and edgeloops by beveling a group of polygons. This creates loops around and keeps quads. Go as far as you can with bevel – it is the easiest tool to use. See around the mouth and nose-loop beveling in the image.
Modeling - add polygon with bevels and collapseAdd one polygon. Select 2 or 3 polys, bevel and collapse. Remove the offending edges/merge polygons and you have one new polygon.
Modeling - remove polygon with polygon turn and mergeRemove one polygon. Turn 2 polygons like shown and merge to remove one polygon.
Turn polygon/edge (or similiar tool) to direct polygon flow. This is also how you can move poles around (to where they do the least harm) and in some cases even remove them.  See ‘Remove polygon’ above how the geometry changes.

Some of you may describe this as Taron-style modeling. It is very much the same, but I don’t often model with subdivision on. My end result is frequently for games where subdivision sorface is not an option (yet), so I stick to regular polygons.

That’s it. Box-modeling with certain tools used in certain manner gives just quads. This is a way to stop worrying, just relax and have fun. Of course the style is not completely trouble free, can get confusing with polygon turning, but still highly recommended.  If you still end up with a triangle somewhere, if it does no harm there then leave it in.  I’m not an advocate for Quads only – I just like to keep mostly to quads.

BTW the above method is also shown in brief in the latter half of this video: Animation Character Creation Tutorial – Modeling Tools and Method.  I will go futher into the workflow logic of it later.

What type of modeling feels natural to you?  What do you think of the ‘fun modeling’ style?

Character Creation in brief

Animation ready character creation steps very briefly (for animation production or games).  These are for those wondering how to go about it in general or for those wanting to compare workflows.  Includes tips.

Backstory in design

Backstory, motivation and emotion –  we expect these things from characters.  Who is your character?  What drives him?  What kind of life he leads?  How do all these things show in his appereance(design) and behavior(animation)?  Solid characters have solid stories.  Little of what you write may make it to the screen, but just having the story in hand supports everything, makes choices easier and gives your character feel of history.

Match story with style

What visual style is the most effective to tell just this story?  Cartoony may give you more freedom in expression, but may not deliver as much information as you could with a more detailed style.  You may find the story changing too, to meet the style.  There is no style better than some other, but overall I find realism usually a poor choice, for it ups the challenge in all aspects yet can’t tell a story any better.  Pixar for one knows this.  They stick to cartoonish characters even though their enviroments are getting more and more real and detailed.

Draw your character

Goblin design for a story of mine You might be very fast at modeling and wish to visualize there, but I don’t think it can ever compete with a pen.  More to the point, you need at least front and side-view pictures of you character to ease your modeling and for making sure you stick to the chosen style.

Choose a modeling method

Modeling gurus may go directly to shaping final model in polygons leaving the fine detailing to a sculpting software.  Yet, if you have the option, more organic way would be to sculpt first without worrying about polygons.  You might for example start with Zspheres in Zbrush or from a volumetric blob in 3D Coat and sculpt like crazy.  Then you would build the lower polygon-mesh on it and project the detail from old to this new mesh.
Pick the method that you are most comfortable with.  You can mix and match methods as you go.

Model for animation

Make sure your surface flow is optimized, edgeflow supports the directions of the motions and allows extreme poses and the joints have loops and volume where it is useful.  The better and simpler your base model is, the less problems you will have at rigging, animating and later when making changes.

Build simple and flexible animation rig

The less bones you use the smoother(organic) transitions you’ll get in their areas of effect.  And the simpler you rig is, the easier it is to animate and change later if need be.  When done make some action poses with your rigged mesh to test if it is all working correctly.

Fish UVs

UVW-map it

Automatic uvws, such as AUVtiles in Zbrush, may be all you need for animation production and pretty much make UVW-mapping trouble free, but please note AUV-tiles work only with 3D-painting.  For games, and often for animation production too, you need well planned and carefully divided UVW-islands.  These help painting textures in 2D, understanding what you are working on, and allocating more texture space to what is important(like the face).

Paint textures.

I recommend 3D-painting softwares for most of the work and 2D like Photoshop for futher detailing and colour&contrast correction.  Be sure to generate normal- and displacement-maps from your high-detail mesh.  Normal maps are defacto detailing tool in games these days and can replace displacement maps in animation production as long as the character isn’t viewed too close.  Also don’t look down on bumb-maps, ‘old tech’ as they may be.  They are great for small details.

Fisman textures

Light and render your beauty

First, with character in relaxed or T-pose, create even lighting with global illumination and bake out an ambient occlusion-map.  It works  as a dirt-map for animation production and games, helps bring out skin folds and other crevices, and for games gives sense of realistic lighting, too.  Now pose your model.  Make the pose asymmetric and such that it shows personality.  Remember to give the eyes a focal point unless you want a zombie-look.  Make your model ‘pop’ with 3-point lighting(or similiar) and render using at least the following texture maps: color, specular, ambient occlusion and normal/displacement.

That’s it, animation ready character creation in brief.  Do you do things differently?  Feel free to give critique and share your approach.

Tutorial – Model an Animation Ready Male Body

This tutorial is for those wanting to learn character modeling or modeling for animation.  It shows how to model a male body, a base mesh.  End result is good for both animation and sculpting.  For more info read an article about modeling for animation or see another where I test the tutorial-mesh against another mesh.

The model doesn’t have a proper head nor does the quide show how to make one.  That is topic big enough for another tutorial.

I’m also giving away the final mesh in OBJ-format. You are free to change and use it any project you like.  But selling, model or tutorial, is not allowed.  This is free learning material.

Grab both tutorial and 3 variations of the mesh at Files.
If you like this tutorial or have critique please leave a word.

Modeling for animation – Test

Earlier I wrote why surface flow matters and a bit about why model for animation. Here I wish to show the benefits with visual examples.

I will compare how two character meshes deform in animation.  To make this comparison mean something, I have selected one of the best base meshes I could find without directed edgeflow.  This mesh is made by unknown person.  It has nice even division of polygons – good for sculpting.  Second mesh, seen on the right, is mine and built for both sculpting and animation.  It is almost exactly the same size and shape as the first.  I have rigged both meshes in Messiah with one rig – they both do exactly same motions.   I haven’t done any weighting of bones to the mesh – Messiah bones have a good effect on the mesh by default. Point is that with this setup the only difference you can see comes from the meshes.

Modeling for animation Test - the meshes we test with

Here are the meshes in rigging pose.  My Edgelooped-mesh has different head and no toes as I was lazy and many characters will be wearing shoes anyway.    The edgelooped mesh has about the same number of polygons in the body as the ‘normal’ mesh, but more definition because the flows define shape.  The flow also helps maintain shape in extreme motions, like seen in the stretching example.  Observe the general form, especially upper shoulder and chest area and the hip.  See how the edgeflow helps to keep the shape and how it deforms it a bit better?  Difference is not notable everywhere, but it is there and it is important.

Modeling for animation Test - stretching

Modeling for animation Test - arms

You may argue the first mesh would show the same definition if we just pushed points around and added a few polygons.  But that’s just it – unless you add those polygons as carefully placed loops, you will have to add a lot more than ‘a few’ to get the same definition edgelooped mesh Modeling for animation Test, knee examplehas with less polygons.

Some might also say that the flows don’t matter that much in animation production, because when final mesh is subdivided to gazillion polygons at rendertime there will be more than enough for joints and to keep the definition.  I disagree.  Base mesh is the one that gets animated, it sets base grid for the final – any problems in the base are still present in the final.  And I dare say they become more visible in a highly detailed mesh.

Last examples show how the edgeloops help in joint areas. With the knee I’m using the loop shown here (see image with lots of loops).  Same works at elbow and at shoulder-top.  The loop ‘binds’ the parts together and provides material for both sides of the outward bending limb – keeps the volume.

Modeling for animation Test - finger loops

With fingers I’m using a simpler ‘loop’ to keep polycount low.  It adds one more edge on the out bending part and helps to keep the volume.  It also introduces triangle-polys.  If triangles are a problem, add a full around the finger loop instead.


Mesh with evenly spaced polygons does well in animation and a mesh with planned edgeflow does even better.  No suprise there, but I needed to test it anyway.

What’s your take on this?  Is edgeflow really that important?  What is your preferred flow – care to show it?  I know mine is just one way to do it.

Modeling for animation – Body

Character modeled for animation is modeled to deform well in animation. This article desbribes benefits of edgeflow and edgeloops and the general ways to use them on a human/humanoid torso and limbs.

To begin check out  my article on surface flow, if you already haven’t.   And then, to go futher we need to understand edgeloops.  Quoting guru Bay Raitt:

An Edge Loop is an interlocking series of continuous mesh edges used to accurately control the smoothed form of an animated subdivision surface.

Edgeflow and Edgeloop are essentially the same thing.  Flow as a loop separates areas, defines shapes and directs edgeflow. You use loops in places where major deformation happens in animation.

Overall edgeflow within each looped area matters, too. Idea of a good flow, as I see it, is that when stretching or compression happens the polygons are already aligned towards the change.  Then the deformation is usually problem free.

The general advice is to model the flows following the main muscles under the skin. It can get needlessly complex considering how many mucles move a human body.  Some people have been obsessing over edgeloops for years.  Luckily you only need loops for main muscle groups or body masses.  Think what main masses/muscles move in a character and how. Direct the surface to flow along them and form loops around them.  The loops may be interlocking and that’s all good.  Then they mix and crease together better.

What if you want superb muscle definition?  Much of the missing detail can be added with displacement maps(from Zbrush, Mudbox and the like), and when the base moves correctly the displaced ‘muscles’ on it move mostly alright, too.   Though if you want realistic flexing muscles, you need a heavier setup – but this gives a good base to start from.

modeling for animation - body loops and flowsWhat are the Main Masses moving in a human/humanoid?

  • Back of a character bends below the chest.  You need loops going around the torso.  Chest bends too, even the rib cage below deforms, however the musle masses on chest and shoulder & back-area have more effect on the shape change, shoulder having clearest effect. You should have flow from chest directed to flow over the shoulder and to the back. Please note my optimization here has lead to a pole, a 6 edges intersection, in the middle of the back. It is not troubling me, but if you build similiar mesh you may want to add few polygons in that region to get rid of the pole.
  • The arm-mass connects to the shoulder and the problem area is over the arm-socket.
  • Head and neck moving about affects the area around the neck and some ways to the back.
  • Legs move the buttocks as well.   The mass movement limits to top of the hip bone, pretty much.
  • With arms and legs the problematic bits are knee and elbow both. Masses of back- and forelimb come together and separate there.  The loops help to give more mass on the outside part of the bending limb, giving material for both parts that bend away and a centerline that stays more or less in place. You may get by with a tube-like structure here for cartoon-characters where things aren’t that exact OR by having many loops that you carefully weight to bones to deform just right.

model    for animation - x-loop

Highlights and edges show the flows I like to use for this model.   Disclaimer: Please note this is definitely not the only way to do this, just A way.  You can get by with less loops, more loops or with different loops. Whatever works, works – I find these work for me.

The loops above, in limbs and at the top of the shoulder, are variations of a very useful x-loop.  See the diagram of a more complete version of it.

Also here is another version, a knee with more ‘mass’ left in.modeling  for animation - knee variation You can do varied X-loops.

Do you find this helpful?  Please let me know.  And if you don’t think the shown flows help animation, please give critique.

Read more about edgeloops here  http://web.archive.org/web/20120422232142/http://www.3darts.com.br/tutoriais/edge_loop.php. Original article has expired but can still be found in Google archive(Thanks Terry). It is in Portuguese.  Here is a translation to English.

Surface flow – why it matters

Often when someone new to 3D shows their first model online, the form lacks definition and the whole thing looks a bit play-doughy.  And if they show the model wireframe, you can see the construction may have lots of polygons but the distribution is not even nor does it flow with the shape.  It’s often because they construct the model without changing surface flow.
Surface flow is directed with either the edges between the polygons or by polygons themselves – the same thing really.  It is usually called edgeflow.

Benefits of good edgeflow

  • more definition with less polygons, an optimized mesh
  • better deformation in animation (if built with anatomy in mind)
  • better shading

surf.flow good flows

I’ve prepared some examples, an organic shape done in two ways:
1.  with edges directing the flow
2.  no flow directions made

First image is our example shape, a cute  nose.

surf.flow nosepolys

Here it is as a basemesh and same with subdivision(control cage showing).  The nose has 42 polygons.  Now lets try achieve same shape and definition without any  flow direction – starting with 42 polys.

no surface flow, examples

As you can see, results don’t get much better with more polygons, somewhat worse in fact.  The model becomes difficult to work with.  Yet I’d still have to increase polycount to achieve the same definition we get with directed surface flow.  You CAN get good results this way in a sculpting program, working with thousands or millions polygons, but to get anything out that you can use in any other program, or animate for that matter,  you have to reconstruct the model surface flow.

surf.flow mouth exampleAnimated models benefit from good surface flow when flow is correct in places where the deformation happens, like around the mouth.  See the pic.  And sorry but I shan’t torture myself by building a poor mesh for comparison.  Just imagine a  rough head shaped tube here with a polygon or few pulled in for the mouth.  If you think that’s bad, imagine what happens when it is animated.

Good surface flow also improves shading simply because having a flow that defines the shape nicely from the ground up, you have every big and small part of said mesh aligned along the shape and not against it.  Also with good flow you do not have mesh issues(poles, etc.). When virtual light rays hit those parts, they reflect and refract as they should.  Shading, that is highlights and shadows and all, looks like it should.  I have no solid proof on this, but can say from experience that models with good edgeflow render better.

To conclude building without edgeflow is harder, needs more polygons and renders worse. Our nose is not the best example, but the difference should be apparent in the render below. Left nose is with good edgeflow, right is without.

comparing model with good surface-flow and other without

Besides the bit about animation, all of the above also applies to hard surfaces models, not just character models.  So model with directed flows, model well.  We’ll go into edgeloops and modeling for animation later.

This whole article, the concept, is one of those things I wish somebody had explained to me a long long time ago.  So here it is, in my words.  I hope somebody out there benefits from it.  If you found the article useful, or if you think it’s all nonsense, please comment – let me know.