Book Review: Design First for 3D Artists|
by David Duberman
Design is an important concept that most people don't think about very often. Everything manmade-a clothespin, a toaster, a shirt, a building, etc.-starts out with a design, which can focus on its form, its function, or both, to varying degrees. One of the realms of creative endeavor in which the designer has, perhaps, more freedom than most is 3D graphics. That's why 3D poses such a powerful attraction for many of us: The artist has godlike power to create anything he or she can dream up.
When working in 3D, it's tempting just to fire up your 3D app of choice and start designing away, but it's wiser to start with pencil and paper. That's the first lesson taught by Geoffrey Kater in his new book, Design First for 3D Artists, published by Wordware. Kater started out as an auto designer, but then jumped over to the game design arena and now operates a computer animation studio in Hollywood, Calif.
Overall, the book is a worthwhile read for anyone who works in 3D, but it has two significant flaws, which I'll mention here just to get them out of the way. First, it seems not to have been copy edited. It's understandable that someone who is a visual artist is not also a skilled writer; the author's primary task is to get his ideas onto paper in verbal form. It's then the editor's job to rework those words into something more accessible to the average reader, but this apparently wasn't done here, which does both the author and his audience a disservice.
As evidence, I note that there is no acknowledgement of or credit for an editor in the first part of the book. As further evidence I offer this quote from the book:
3D simulates the interaction of light, shade, and shape, and it is from these fundamentals of 2D application that most 3D programs give you a choice to start your model with a cube, ball, disc, or cone.
Never mind that, in the previous paragraph, the author lists the four basic shapes "being" the cube, sphere, cylinder, and cone: The above sentence is run-on, barely comprehensible, and grammatically awkward. The next sentence begins:
They know that the foundation of every good design starts with at least one or a combination of the four basic shapes …
Who is this "they" to which the sentence refers? The only possible antecedent is "3D programs," but, of course, software doesn't really "know" anything, much less an advanced concept such as the foundation of "every" good design. While inept writing pervades the book, these are among the most egregious examples, but coming near the beginning as they do, they're rather off-putting.
The other flaw is that the author assigns tasks to the reader, but offers no feedback. Of course, it would be impossible to do so, as this is not an interactive project, and even if it were it would require a level of AI that doesn't yet exist to provide intelligent evaluation of the reader's efforts. If the book were used as a course textbook, which isn't inconceivable, the teacher could offer feedback, but someone who just buys the book and works through it on his or her own probably won't be able to objectively evaluate the results.
As mentioned, Kater advises the aspiring 3D designer to start by putting pencil to paper. The initial set of exercises has the reader drawing simple outlines of the basic shapes, then progressing to using differently weighted, different angles, overlapping shapes, and adding lighting, shadow and reflection. The last part of this chapter touches on the "incredibly intense" subject of perspective and offers some book recommendations.
The following chapter begins by introducing the concept of contrast: not only between light and dark, as we usually think of it, but sizes, motion, and so on. According to Kater, contrast is what lets imagery leap off the screen with an esthetic that supports the story. He follows this with a discussion of composition, whose elements include focal point, tension, visual flow, and tangent, or how lines meet. Basically, you can solve "bad tangents," where shapes seem to pierce each other and lines fight for attention, by allowing shapes to overlap. Additional elements of composition are color (warm and cool), proportion, the use of odd numbers, and contour. The assignment is to observe and critique the design of real-world objects. This, to me, is one of the most crucial lessons in the book. Yes, the nuts-and-bolts stuff is important, but the would-be designer who doesn't constantly and obsessively analyze the design of everything in his or environment probably won't find much success.
The next chapter, Designing Your Own Ideas, is about inspiration and execution. It covers gesture drawing, which is a method of getting your ideas onto paper as quickly as possible, while serving as a source for further ideas and refinement. If you've seen the concept sketches in collections of cartoonists' work, you have a pretty good idea of this process. Following this is a chapter on Research and Presentation. Yes, being a successful artist requires much more than just drawing or using the software. You're typically working for a client, and the client needs to be assured that you know what you're doing. For example, you need to gather reference material. This can take the form of those large books that crowd the bookshelves of most artists, and for those who work in 3D, it can even involve playing games. But not for fun, mind you; for research!
Next is a chapter entitled Your Project, which basically refines and further defines the ideas presented previously. You're challenged to come up with a story and then illustrate it. Here, as elsewhere, the author provides copious drawn examples, which serve well to illustrate his concepts. Putting the horse after the cart, he ends the chapter with a sample script. Oh well, better late than never. Following this is a chapter on Thinking Your Project Through, which concentrates on storyboarding, an important part of any animation project.
The subsequent chapter, 2D Translation into a 3D World, is one the aspiring designer might turn to first, only to be disappointed by further drawing exercises. Namely, you need to create orthographic (non-perspective) drawings of your design from different angles, which you then bring into your program of choice to use as templates for creating the 3D model. And, of course, you also need to work in 2D to create texture maps.
Lastly, Kater covers animation production in a chapter that is mostly about 3D modeling. Here he writes about paying attention to contouring, proportion, detail, and texture. The information is useful and can be applied in any versatile 3D application. Here, as in the foregoing chapters, he offers numerous illustrations, mostly from his humorous robot animation, available on the accompanying CD. The CD also has high-resolution versions of the book's illustrations.
A book like this, comprising just over 300 pages, can't possibly be a complete solution for someone who wants to learn 3D design at a professional level. But it goes a long way toward teaching the basics and providing a substantial overview of the process involved. The reader inspired by this book would be well advised to take some courses from a live teacher, and, most important: practice, practice, practice.
Available at Amazon.com - $31.47