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Working as a 3D Modeler in the Industry

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What does a 3D modeler do?

3D modeling for the real world
source: pxhere

A 3D modeler is a digital artist that uses a software package to create virtual 3D objects.  Once modeled in 3D, an object can be rotated and viewed under any angle within a 3D software and usually rendered into 2D images and movies for reviewing.  There are currently no ways of projecting a 3D model in real 3D space conveniently, but there are two technologies giving us a nice peek into what it could be like.

Virtual reality is taking a leap forward into making those virtual objects become more tangible and interactive, in a way that can fool the brain.  All the while, 3D printing makes 3D objects physically real, in a direct process from 3D design to final mode.  You can read more about the different types of 3D modeling specializations for the next digital age here.



The 3D Modeling Process

Process organigram
source: pxhere

3D modelers usually create objects based on 2D concept drawings and orthographic views (front, side and top views).  Because those drawings are made in the 'pre-production' phase of a project, 3D modeling is usually the first step of the 'production' of a project.   The pre-production part is where the story, concepts and designs are made.  Therefore, it is the 3D modeler that starts to process workflow, the chain of tasks required to bring the 3D object to the final desired look.

There are many different specializations of artists that will work on a 3D object, from designers to modelers, to texture artists and lighting artists before the final image for a model is produced.  And for every 3D object there is, in all animated films, cartoon series and games ever made, a lot of people have dedicated many hours of their lives to craft them with care.  It's just as if they were actually real, but using virtual tools.

The modeler is responsible for the first and final shape of the model and does not work directly on the texture, color or lighting applied to it.  It is, never-the-less, a crucial step in the production as it has a great influence on every step that follows it.  But in fact, the 3D shape of a model has a lot of impact on the look of an object or character itself.  Because it determines how the zones of light and shadow will fall onto the model, the shape determines howwell the model will appear once lit.  This will make the model consistently good or bad, depending on it's own quality, under almost all normal variations of lighting.



Two Industry Standards

There are two different approaches to 3D modeling and they stem from a difference in goals between two industries.   Those who are making real-time renders, such as games and virtual reality have requirements of speed and efficiency with limited hardware.  On the other hand, the film and visual effects industry does not have this limitation, and often goes to the other extreme in terms of rendering requirements.  Nowadays, it is very frequent see hundreds of computer blades linked up together to crunch the 3D renders for each frame of a movie.


3D Modeling for Film

film camera
source: pxhere

For animated films, a 3D modeler does not have very strict limits on the number of polygons allowed to be used to create his models.  It is always best to be as efficient as possible but, unlike cartoon tv series and games, there are less constraints, but also more demands.   As always in the film industry, the objective is, first and foremost, to achieve a superior level of detail and quality.  This is to make the film medium stand out as noticeably better than TV, but also because it will be projected on huge screens.  The idea of stereoscopic 3D films, vibrating seats and the whole 'movie-going experience' are all designed to make it feel different and hopefully  'better' than your living room.

So, modeling for film, and non-realtime projects, can have as many polygons as the level of detail requires.  The main objective is quality, and no expense will be spared for it, unless they run out of time or budget of course...  The rule of thumb for 3D modeling for film is to make clean topology using flat polygons of 4 sides, called quads.


3D Modeling for Games

source: pxhere

Modeling for games, and all real-time applications, has a different purpose than it has for the film industry.  The main goal here is optimization and speed.  The more efficient one can be with polygons, the better it is.  For a game, it is imperative to try to stay under the constraint of the intended hardware specifications most people will use it on.

Therefore, it is inevitable that quality sometimes has to be sacrificed for the price of playability.  Remember the Nintendo 64 and the first generation of 3D games?  It was certainly good for the time, but it have evolved tremedously since, to the point that films can now be rendered on gaming graphics cards, using non-realtime data crunching.

3D modeling for games has some other few considerations.  First of all, polygons are triangulated, meaning that each polygon has to be a triangle, and not a quadrangle, unlike the film modeling.  Luckily, this is a simple conversion operation that most 3D software have the ability to do very well.  It is however an operation that is usually much easier to do going from quads to triangles, than the opposite.  So game modelers still model using quads, but convert their models afterwards into triangulated meshes.



Main Tasks of a Modeler

The 3D modeler is at the beginning of the 'production' step in an animated movie.  He is responsible for setting up the object into the 3D pipeline correctly, according to the requirements for the production.  He has to adequately set dimensions, mesh resolution, tesselation and nomenclature to ensure a smooth workflow in the production, in addition to the artistic qualities of a sculptor.

  1. Searching for references
  2. Interpreting the 2D concept drawings
  3. Create a precise 3D shape for a model based
  4. Produce a clean topology for the 3D model with appropriate details
  5. Set dimensions and tesselation according to the needs of the project
  6. Name all the parts of your objects clearly and organize them hierarchically
  7. Render a few images of the model with ambiant occlusion to show how it reacts with light
  8. Validate your model with the studio leads make corrections accordingly
  9. Clean up the 3D scene to send it to the next department


Main Skills

  • Understanding of shapes and volumes in 3D space
  • Ability to work with geometric components  (faces, edges, vertex...)
  • Knowledge of the appropriate conventions for clean topology
  • A great attention to details
  • Ability to use a graphic pen and tablet
  • Understanding of the mechanics of unfolding UVs
  • Understanding of the texturing process


Connected Skills

  • Drawing sketches of your models in perspective and in 3D rotations
  • Understanding of volumes and shapes in 3D space

A day in the life of a Professionnal 3D modeler

Check out this article following the works of Jeremy Chinn, on what it is like to be a 3D modeler for big films.  https://www.cgspectrum.edu.au/blog/what-it-is-like-to-be-a-professional-3d-modeller

How do you become a 3D modeler?

source: pxhere

Modeling is an entry level position for many companies.  You will usually start by modeling simple props (accessories) that are simple and not too essential in the story.  Then, you will be given more complex objects and that are more and more important to the story and the project.  It could be that they are more important because they are seen in close-up, or because the characters use them all the time, or because it is a main story element.

This should allow you to determine what your interests are and move on to a modeling specialization, such as organic modeling and hard surface modeling.  A later step is to specialize even further in characters modeling, architectural modeling or environment.  It will all depend on your desire and skills in 3D modeling and the opportunities you will be given to gain experience in one area or the other.



education items
source: pxhere

Where to learn your 3D skills

Of course the main option is to go to school and learn your skills through the usual academic path or college and university.  But there are also plenty of courses offered for adults or returning students.  Even if it's not for a full-time program, there are plenty of specific skill-improvement classes at low cost in many institutions.  Check out our section on the top rankings for 3D colleges in North-America and the world.

But this is not necessarily for everyone, because of the cost of tuition cost or the unavailability of a 3D specialization in your area.  If your personal situation doesn't allow you to attend school altogether, there are many online classes, both free and paid tutorials.

We try to provide you with the best online resources to learn everything on your own, from home.   But it does requires a strong level of commitment, work and self-motivation to actually be marketable in the industry.  You can join our facebook page or learning group if you'd like to get the latest and best tutorials around.


Is this Good Career for You?

A few common traits of modelers in general

  • Are you a fan of building Lego blocks
  • Are you an avid player of Minecraft?
  • Do you have a particular eye for details
  • Do you have a slight obsession with geometric perfection


Common traits of organic modelers

  • Do you like posing characters and creatures in expressive action stances
  • Sculpting models with clay, putty (plasticine) or any physical medium
  • Interest and ability in drawing creatures (fantastic or realistic)


Common traits of landscape / environment artists

  • Ability to draw landscape environments in 2D by hand or using digital tools (i.e. photoshop, painter...)



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