20 Tips For 3d Artists

I’ve been working as a 3d artist for sixteen years. Not only have I gone through a lot of different working methods myself, I have also seen how a lot of other artists customise their workflows. I’ve seen great ideas, and I’ve also seen people fighting bottle-necks.
Refining your workflow means:

  • More work done in a given time
  • It takes less time to complete a task
  • Less stress on the artist, so you have more creative energy

So here are my thoughts on how to work more efficiently. Some these ideas are common sense. Some are not quite so obvious, but are based in reason. And some of the ideas require an amount of effort that you may not be prepared to put in, but really are effective.

Touch-Typing

You are going to be spending potentially the next fifty years using computers a lot. Touch-typing is an essential skill. When you can’t touch-type, in order to enter data into a computer, you have to keep glancing at your keyboard, and then flick back to the screen where your eyes strain to find the place where you were typing on the screen. Multiply by the number of times that you have to do this, and consider what sort of state your eyes will be in after a decade in the computing industry. Touch-typing means that you never have to look down at the keyboard, so you can stay focused on what you are doing on the screen.
speed-typing
Completely essential for all computing professionals, and yet absurdly, touch-typers are in the minority. If you have never heard of Mavis Beacon, perhaps you should get acquainted. Or check out drop.

Take breaks

Crunch time is something that unfortunately cannot be avoided in the deadline orientated environment of a triple-A production studio. Make sure that you stay as sharp as possible by ensuring that you take breaks from your retina-corroding LED monitor at least once every two hours.
man-asleep-on-desk

Health

Sleep, diet and exercise are all very important when it comes to your career as a games artist. The long hours combined with often freely available crunch food can often lead to a poor diet. Eating little and often with relatively healthy snacks is a manageable way of ensuring that you are working correctly as a human being. Having the strength to say no to free office pizza is also a boon.
Body Builder_01
Having the correct posture at your workstation comes down to setting your chair up correctly as well as having keyboard and monitors at the correct height. Making sure that you have nailed these will ensure that you are not beset by back problems, which is a pitfall of having an office career.

Learn How To Script

If there is one thing that slows down an art task it’s having to do iterative processes. For example, if you have to work your way along the edges of two adjacent meshes to ensure that the vertices match, doing this by hand would be a tedious process. And having to do this dozens of times would take hours.
Computer_nerd
Learning how to script would give you the power to create a script that would reduce such a tedious task into seconds worth of work time. You will also be one of the most valued members of an art team if you can do basic coding.
Consider:

  • MAXScript
  • MEL
  • Python
  • C#

Internet

The internet is useful for research, but facebook, twitter, personal email and gamer blogs don’t really help you finish that model quickly.

Wireframe

Based on the way a human eye works, we find it easier to perceive a black dot on a light surface than a white dot or a dark surface. So you’ll get a big perception benefit by setting the wireframe colour to a dark colour on the object you are working with.

Colour-Coding Geometry

3d Studio Max allows the artist to pick from a myriad of colours for their model wireframe. Being creative, artists may well be tempted to pick interesting colours for their models. However, they are missing a trick here. Using the colour to signify different kinds of geometry within a scene is a great way to use wirecolours. For example, an environment scene may have the following coding:

  • visual mesh: grey
  • collision: magenta
  • lights: yellow
  • LODs: red

Colour coding geometry allows you to visually understand a scene, without having to look up object names, or inspect objects individually.

Sketch

When you are working on a concept model, it is very possible to build the object directly in the 3d package, and to try things out directly. Creating an original model is a massive trial and error process. When it comes down to it, you will save time making all the design mistakes by sketching the model idea rather than trying to build it directly in 3d. If you don’t already, get yourself a sketchbook and keep it on you all the time.
hover dalek
The more you draw in 2d and work out deisgn problems, the better form your 3d models will take.

Reference

If you are working on a realistic model, make sure that you have all the reference material you need so that every aspect of your model is accounted for and there is no guesswork.
LobourneConcept2

Observation

Think about how an object appears in the real world. Especially true for hard surfaces. Wood grain, paving and brick-work must be textured correctly around corners. The object has to make sense!

Mirror Modelling

This s a common sense thing. If you are working on a symmetrical model, work on one side and use a mirrored reference model to duplicate your work onto the other side of the model. This is built into packages like Z-Brush by default, but it can also be done in Max and Maya. Maya users can get hold of the the third party download, ConnectPolyShape to do this.

Read

During an art school interview, the interviewer threw me what I thought was a curveball. After an inspection of my artwork, she went on to ask me what the last book I read was. I told her that I had read a pulp fantasy novel. She didn’t look impressed, so she asked about the book before that. A similar answer virtually induced eye rolls. I got good feedback from my art work, but the low-down was that I was advised to read more. Reading is possibly the best way to form creative imagination. It forces the mind to do the hard work of visualisation in a way that films and TV simply cannot achieve. They do the hard work for us. Reading is essential in order to develop a creative mind.
bible-reading

Music

There goes a story that a new starter at a Walt Disney studio met veteran Disney animator in his first week. He decided to ask the animator what music he chose to listen to while he was working. This apparently resulted in him receiving the hair-dryer treatment. Apparently the idea of distracting the working mind with music was abhorrent. However, in our modern generation, a games studio sees a majority of the staff listening to music and using it to focus. What I would say is that the best approach to music is to pick a type of music that is free from vocals. This is especially true for programmers and scripters where you have to have your mind clear enough to literally think in another language.
Headphones-Surround-Sound

Keyboard Shortcuts

This is possibly one of the most important things to get right. 3d packages provide you with an ok default set of keyboard shortcuts, but because the software is aimed at very different client types (modellers, architects, product designers, animators etc), the default shortcuts are something of a please-all compromise. It’s important to be able to create a shortcut layout that gives you access to most of your modelling functions to your left hand. The right hand (assuming you’re right-handed of course) is on a mouse, so you need the left hand to be able to deal with all the mode and tool changes without you having to look down at the keyboard. The other reason to nail a really good set of shortcuts is so that if you change packages (eg from Max to Maya), then you can have a seamless experience if your shortcuts are the same for the various functions that you use. I can literally have Max on one monitor, Maya on a second and work between them with very little difference in how they respond. Look out for the dedicated post on my 3ds Max Setup, which is coming up soon.

Menus/Toolbars

Max’s ‘Customise User Interface’ functions allow you to set up Max to give you the tools you use most commonly. Make the most of this!
max_screenshot

Quads

Try to stick to modelling in quads as much as you can. There are several benefits. Tessellation increases always go more smoothly. Using technology such as Maya’s subdivision surfaces will love you for using quads. And using quads as opposed to fully triangulating a model makes it a lot easier to interpret in a viewport.

Helper Objects

Having a set of prebuilt sizing guides will really help you to build a model quickly. For environments, having objects set up to represent door sizes, room heights, corridor widths and character size will allow you to quickly and visually create your model.

  • Male/female/children volume guides
  • Jump distances
  • Vehicle sizes
  • Animal sizes
  • Door/window/ceiling heights

Shapes

An artist told me that while he was at college, a colleague of his spent a great deal of time working on a surface model of a lighthouse. Every vertex was hand placed to great effort. The artist pointed out that he could have used a lathe modifier and achieved his shape in a matter of seconds. Said colleague wasn’t too pleased…

Layers And Selection Sets

Use layers to organise a complicated scene. Being able to manage a scene will allow you to make the edits you need and to find the components tht you want to work on.

Naming Conventions

Ensuring that you name everything using a set strategy will help you out a lot. Call collision ‘object_col’ and LOD models, ‘object_lod’. Naming conventions become especially useful for character models where having a rock-solid approach to bone naming can really help with scripting and rigging the model. And ultimately, when you have an environment scene, you could be dealing with hundreds of model components. Having them fully named will allow to know what is what in a scene, and importantly, it will also help other members of an art team

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