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What is Hard Surface Modeling ?
Hard surface modeling is one of two types of 3D modeling commonly found in the entertainment industry. In games, films and visual effects, there is a distinction between organic and hard surface modeling. This is because there is a need to represent both inert and living things, real or imaginary.
In engineering and architecture, however, only hard surface models are created because they are inherently man-made and not alive. This doesn't mean that engineered objects cannot have round or 'organic-like' surfaces, but they have to work in the real world. Therefore, they have to be build from manufactured materials that are hard surfaces at close range (i.e. a round building is still made of metal sheets and wood planks).
Hard Surface vs Organic
Oftentimes, hard surface modeling is defined as the opposite of organic modeling, which is the modeling of characters. This isn't to say that hard surface modelers will never create characters. This only means that hard surface modelers usually create man-made, inert or mechanical objects in 3D, but not alien creatures. Although this is true in theory, this isn't exactly always the case in practice. In fact, it often requires a case-by-case analysis, and the context it will be used in.
For example, a solidified lava flow or a human stone statue would be characterized as organic surfaces. On the other hand a dead tree trunk or an fully-armored human character would count as hard surfaces. Additionally, some object designs require both specialization to be accomplished fully. There is a mix of plant and human shapes as well as hard surface detailing within the carved details in a cathedral.
In fact, it's not actually the substance from which the object is made out of that matters. What really defines a hard surface model is the type of shape it represent and it's intended purpose for movement and detail. Hard surface modelers will create shapes that mostly have hard edges, from materials that will be solid and inarticulate. That's why using the general term 'man-made' is a simple way to refer to what is generally recognized as hard surfaces.
Animating Hard Surfaces
The mechanical vs organic distinction, takes more importance at the moment of the animation of a 3D mode. In fact, one of the main characteristic of a hard surface model is how it will be animated. Indeed, they will usually be animated in a similar way as a vehicle, robot or a toy. Each articulation bends because there are sliding components instead of the bending articulation, typical of living creatures.
A Blurred Line of Work
Because the line isn't clearly defined, it serves rather as a gradient than a distinct black and white divide. The distinction mostly serves to help 3D artist working in the industry to advertise their job preference or specialization. It serves to match the right artist with the best position in the industry. The goal is to generally classifies the type of 3D modeling experience past, current or desired, but the skill set is very similar for all 3D modelers. On the other side, it also helps explain to a prospective job candidate what are the expected tasks of a position. It's a good measure for the type of 3D object that will need to be created in a particular project.
Hard Surface Categories
Here are the main categories of objects that are clearly hard surfaces, in 3D modeling.
- Houses, Building
- Interior Scenes
- Urban Decor
- Natural Terrain Surfaces
- Geological Features
- Mountains, Rocks, Rivers
- All man-made tools
- Mechanical objects
- Armored components
- Cars, Boats, Planes
- Spaceships, Alien ships
- Military Vehicles
- Humanoid Robots
- Mechanical Creatures
- Armor-plated characters
- Characters mixed with organic and armor
- Hard-Edged Alien Creatures
- Soft deforming shapes
- Trees and plants
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