Saturday, February 14, 2009

What is 3D Design?

3D Design... what can be said about it?
One of the latest manifestations in the digital world. Born out of the need for the virtual creation of objects, mostly in the engineering and architectural world, from buildings to bridges, to natural disaster simulations, to vehicles and mechanical parts. The artistic applications of 3D, where then not easily tackled by the likes of one such as I, or any of my fellow non highly technical savvy professionals. It required mostly a lot of programming know how, a lot of 3D abstract thinking if you will, that went into a process that only gave the pleasure of viewing the results after a lot of math and physics where applied in order to place a X,Y,Z 3D object in a THREE DIMENSIONAL VIRTUAL SPACE.

So, what's the deal with these three letters "X, Y, Z" ?
These are well known coordinates for anyone that works in the three dimensional virtual space. In fact, two of them are already well known themselves by anyone who works two dimensional media, in programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw, Adobe Indesign, and so forth. "X" and "Y" are the horizontal and vertical coordinates respectively for position in the two dimensions. A Zero point is given for where these two coordinates meet, and from there you either move in a positive summation of units or a negative one. And unit measurements are handled in pixels, inches, centimeters or whatever is required. This also applies to even what you're seeing on this webpage, things are placed with a specific vertical and horizontal coordinate, and even though a lot of 2d professionals don't know it, they already do a little of 3d on a daily basis.

By placing one item over another one on a 2d canvas, you're doing 3D of sorts.
The "Z" coordinate is all about Depth. Objects on a web page are also bound by this placement, a lot of web designers have heard of the infamous "layers" (which is also a well known term with many 2d applications, like Photoshop, Illustrator, CorelDraw, etc), and all who work with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) have at some point learned about positioning, floating and how block items interact with and over each other on the browser view port. Actually there's one specific css parameter called: "Z-index". See? :)

So, honestly, understanding how 3d works is not all that hard.
What IS hard is learning to use each one of the 3d applications out there. From freeware ones like Blender or Terragen to mid range ones (mid-range defined by pricing) like 3ds Max and Lightwave, to the High End expensive ones like Maya and Softimage (which lately have had mayor price cutbacks - luckily for all of us users). So like I said, the hard part is understanding the concept behind each tool, each part of what is involved in the process of creating 3D content.

3D is not only modeling, there are many other things involved.
That's why whenever a mayor motion picture 3d production is being made, lots of different specialist from the 3d technical world are hired on to the project. For instance you have to involve professionals who dedicate themselves just to create concept art. This means they are the ones first responsible for how things will actually look. They are the creative minds that determine how a spaceship will look, what style a suit will have, what a monster looks like, and so on.

Then there are the ones who take those concepts and turn them into 3D models. But is doesn't stop there, for like the Tyrannosaur character you see as a background for this page, once I've made the 3d geometry and volume definition for it, it still needs basically COLOR and TEXTURE. So as a third step in the creation process, you will find experts just in skinning the 3d models (nope, it's not about taking off the skin, actually the other way around). They will define coordinates and render a flattened skin of the model (much like the flat version of a world globe that looks like sliced orange skins spread out flatly) and then pass it on to the fourth group of people involved in the creation chain: The digital painters. These again are more of the 2D realm (not necessarily, but all they really need to do well is paint with applications like Photoshop and Painter), and so their responsibility is creating the superficial appearance of what ever part their working on, like skin, metal, leather, etc. They're also involved in working on backdrops for movies, and not only of the 3D kind, you will find these experts making backgrounds for even live footage film, or a combination of both 3D and live footage, where making a maquette or a 3d environment is much more time consuming and costly than just painting the whole scene on a canvas, these professionals are called matte painters.

Then there are also the guys who RIG the 3d model. Meaning, that they set up skin, "bones", "muscle" systems, joints, moving parts, and anything else that is involved in the functionality of the 3d character, vehicle, or whatever it might be. Then you will have the animators. They are the guys who run around in parking lots pretending to be Velociraptors or imagining how in the hell a dragon would do the Tango or how would a Centaur fight while at full gallop. There's also the lighting crew, they decide how to best light the scene, the character, the girl's face in contrast to the villain's, the creepy hallway, and so forth. And lastly there are all those involved in the additional special effects like smoke, fire, water, ect. Gasp gasp... yes many many specialists as you can see, and trying to do it all by yourself could be considered crazy, understandably. There are those who try, and you can follow their painstakingly slow process, and admire their patience, dedication and obvious talent like for instance Bryan Taylor and his creation RUST BOY and you will notice there are no more news in the site diary after January 2006! (mention of a large scale movie version is made, so probably in the end, it will be a whole team like the one I mentioned before). So as you can see, I do bits here and there of the whole process, being firstly an illustrator and secondly an amateur 3D designer (I still can't consider myself at the level of professionals I've seen out there) I like to dip my nose in the whole range of interesting sides the 3D Virtual World has to offer. (hint hint, look at my stuff by means of the top left menu).

So, what's the point of using such complicated 3d technology?
It has many benefits! For instance animating and generating this animation into video a 3d character compared to the antique stop motion process, you will get much more natural and smooth results. You have no limitations as to what an object or character can do, since it's a Virtual Universe, this Universe can be subject to realistic physical laws or your own version of them. Things created in 3D are very very neat (not in the "cool" context, but meaning clean and sharp), to the point that you actually have to add wear, dirt, grime, scratches and such in order to fool the eye when your purpose is realistic 3D renders. It's just a matter of having access to things you would otherwise might not, from a long ago extinct Dinosaur, to an ancient building, to super giant spaceships and anything else your imagination might require. Realistic or intentionally non-realistic 3d is all a realm onto itself, and it's a very gratifying journey getting there I might add. I highly recommend it to anyone willing to get into a steep learning curve and a passion for making dreams into realities. Virtual 3D realities that is (wink).

All well and good, but are there commercial benefits at a smaller scale?
So, when we're not talking about mayor film studio productions, or just something that's not bound to be on TV is there still a reason to take advantage of 3D?

The answer most definitely is YES! One good example is the football helmet I made for the sports book I used to work for (along with other sports gear) or the 3d versions of coffee accessories I was making for the coffee company I also worked for. These 3d objects solved a sometimes complicated and expensive issue, of the problem it represented every time you needed a depiction of iconic items in various marketing solutions, that if approache by either photographing original real items, or trying to photomanipulate existing images, adding backgrounds, other real world objects into the environment or brand logos and colors, in most cases it would be a lot more work, with none of the clean cut and controlled aesthetically pleasing effects you could get from a 3D Render.

In other words, once I had put in the time to create the 3D representation of one of these reusable items, textured them, and set up initial lighting and virtual camera views, I could easily work what is simply the virtual representation of a real life photo or filming studio. Where you have cameras, lighting, backdrops and props at your disposal. If you go and see the football helmet for instance, you will find it taken from different angles and with various logos and colors. All I had to do, was change the texture applied, change the camera angle and lighting (just the same as a real life studio), then hit render. When doing a real life photo-shoot, you are limited by the capacity of your gear, how far you can push it (tripod, lenses, lighting filters, diffusers and anything else at your disposal) and most of all, WHAT you are trying to shoot. Props get dusty, scratched, opaqued by time, and most of the time, you can't even really find what you need for the shot. 3D solves all this, and much much more. For instance, I could render if needed a thousand football helmets together (of course render time would increase dramatically), which is not the same as putting them together in Photoshop, because remember, having each of them as a spherical reflective surface, each on has a different angle of refraction in relation to the camera (view) angle, and you simply can't replicate that by using a 2D application. And after you have invested the time necessary for creating all these virtual 3d props, all you have to do is import them to your work area (virtual photo or film studio) and simply render the image you need for your marketing campaign.

Please feel free to see what I have done myself in 3D up to now.
Just go to my page and use the top left menu (3d Design), and if you have questions, observations or suggestions on my 3d accomplishments, please feel free to contact me!