Exploring 3D On the Cheap

I’m old, like - really old, ancient enough to have seen the original Toy Story movie in a physical theatre, with popcorn and tickets I’d paid for myself (back then Netflix was a service that mailed DVDs to your house, and the local Blockbuster was king).

While Woody and Buzz were nothing short of voodoo to me, the notion of an entirely computer-generated film was something that seemed about as likely as private space exploration or a planned mission to Mars.

Over time, the wizards at Pixar continued to blaze Hollywood trails with Monsters Inc. (the realism in Sully’s fur blew my mind), Finding Nemo (water animation was now a staple in Tinseltown) and Ratatouille - bringing believable human characters to the party.

With every technological advance I became increasingly sure that it was something out of my grasp. I was convinced you needed access to a giant farm of computers, bucket-loads of investment money, and a team of no less than twenty NASA / MIT engineers on your payroll if you wanted to produce anything remotely similar.

I’m happy to tell you that the world is now a very different place, and you can get similar results at home with free software, some skills upgrading, and a home computer suitable for running modern video games.

I started fooling around with 3D content creation with 3DS Max and Rhino in the late 90’s, when learning 3D meant downloading a questionable copy of 3DS Max from some back-alley site (there was no ”student version”), and spending hours reading forum posts by other nerds online. My attempts at anything noteworthy were limited to logo animation for a provincial lottery and a 3D product configurator for an international self-balancing scooter company. 3D wasn’t something I’d actively pursued, but it was always something I wished I could be better at, despite the learning curve and long rendering times associated with anything more than basic.

Then along came CAMP.

If you ever get the opportunity to attend Calgary’s CAMP Festival, go. It’s a two-day conference for digital media creators and artists, padded by workshops taught by industry giants. This year I attended a 3D character creation workshop (thanks to TELUS and their diversity scholarships for “out of area” artists) taught by Chris Dowsett, a local film director with a passion for self-directed learning. I left CAMP with a renewed interest in 3D as a medium - but the pain inflicted with software licenses was a total turn-off. Cinema 4D and Octane used in class would come with a hefty price tag, and because the adult version of me thinks software piracy is a little more than uncool - I’d have to leave my dimensional dreams on the shelf.

I had an interesting thought: what if I could take what was taught with commercial tools and apply them to open-source (free to install and use) alternatives, would they produce similar results? How big are the differences to learn? Is there an online community that could help answer my questions quickly?

The answer to my questions leads to a 3D tool called Blender, which was a very different animal than I’d remembered toying with in my early career.Blender is a 3D modeling and animation tool used by casual 3D enthusiasts from around the world.

The software is free to download, install and use - regardless of what you are using it for. It runs equally well on Mac, Windows, and Linux computers and as I found out, is more than capable at producing professional results (If you’ve seen the animated movie ”Next Gen” on Netflix, you’ve seen Blender in action). The Blender I’d remembered was plagued by a non-standard user interface, had a massive learning curve and really didn’t compare to more industry-accepted tools.

The latest version of Blender (2.8) is an experimental download (alpha) - but it’s what I’m using to learn and create with, and I’m really impressed. The stable version (2.79) has a bunch of tutorials out on YouTube and blog posts online, but the interface is still pretty clunky.Blender 2.8’s interface is easier to understand than previous versions, and its physically-based renderer (the part of the application that converts your working scene into a photo-realistic image) called Cycles creates stunningly-real imagery (with Blender’s principal shader, node editor, HDRI lighting and beautiful depth of field).

So far, I’ve been hacking around with Blender tutorials I’ve found online (I made a pretty sweet cupcake thanks to the robotic European accent of MrSorbias, set up a physically accurate photo-studio with some of Derek’s advice, and learned the ins and outs of HDRI lighting and the node editor with a Creative Shrimp named Gleb).

My original creations have been more focused on the rendering portion of Blender (the images you can push out of Cycles are worth a serious look). I’ve been generating the type of content you see splattered all over social feeds and VJ loops in an effort to farm insta-likes, and plan to do something more serious soon - but I’m having a blast and haven’t spent a cent.

My learning style is completely “monkey see, monkey do” so YouTube can be a sea knowledge with zero tuition costs. If you work in a similar fashion, here’s a list of curated resources I found to be the best of the bunch:

  1. Blender Made Easy
  2. CG Cookie - Blender Training
  3. CG Masters
  4. CG Geek
  5. DERRK (Derek Elliot)
  6. Gleb Alexandrov
  7. Grant Abbitt
  8. MrSorbias Tutorials
  9. Oliver Villar
  10. TutsByKai
  11. Olav3D Tutorials
  12. Zacharias Reinhardt

Will Blender be something I push past the hobby stage and incorporate into my daily routine? I think so, but not in the way I’d originally imagined.The majority of my work ends up in a web browser, and 3D on the web is looking a little like “Toy Story” did all those years ago. A few projects that have caught my eye are Three.js (a JavaScript library that brings 3D content into a web page via JSON), Augmented Reality content for Facebook and Snapchat, and rendering video content for motion graphics for my own video projects.

How about you? Is 3D something you’ve wanted to explore but felt restricted by costs or the learning curve? What resources do you use to help with your projects? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

Subscribe to michaelwarf.com

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox

Michael Warf

Michael Warf

Leveraging boundless curiosity - Michael habitually takes deep-dives into creative, technology and life-hacks - and airs his exploits via social media.