Daniel I. Scully


Learning 3D using Blender

Though I always try my best I’ve never been particularly good at drawing, it’s not one of my strong suits. But I often feel the urge to create pictures, particularly of the ships from Star Trek – a show I get a great deal of enjoyment from. Finally I’ve found the time to solve this dilemma by learning how to create computer generated 3D graphics.

My tool of choice so far is Blender. As free, open source software it’s exactly what I need to get started, and it’sĀ available for Windows, Mac and Linux. There’s also a large and active Blender community so you can find plenty of help online. In particular I’d recommend Andrew Price’s BlenderGuru.com tutorials – he seems to have made videos on many of the things you’ll want to try, his practical explanations are pitched just at the level I needed, and the outcomes look great!

The downside to Blender, in fact any 3D graphics tools, is the steep and painful learning curve at first. Be prepared to struggle with everything – too many keyboard short-cuts, to many strange menus and terms, and just plain not knowing how to go about getting the result you want even if it seems like it should be simple. The only solution is to stick with it – 3D graphics is a practical skill and the only way to learn is having a go.

My first attempt at modelling was back in April 2013, a Type 8 shuttle craft:


As you can see it wasn’t great. I found modelling even the basic shape quite difficult, and the result shows it. Frankly, by the time I’d finished the model I was a bit exhausted and didn’t put much thought into slapping on some basic materials and rendering it (the lettering on the side is a complete hack!).

I didn’t get a chance to make a second attempt until after I’d finished my PhD thesis, but with a bit of free time over the last couple of months I sat down to a second attempt. This time I made the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D. This was probably a more challenging model than I should have taken on for just my second attempt, but it’s the ship I’ve always wanted to make!

Here’s how it turned out:


It’s a big improvement over the first attempt. I’m pretty pleased with the modelling, which I think gets the shape well, though I chose to omit some of the smaller details this time. Drawing the texture was a lot of work and quite difficult – I also learnt that I could have made my life much easier by making different choices during modelling (the only way to learn is to try!). Probably I still have most to learn about how to get more realistic looking materials. But I think my favourite addition over the first attempt is the glow effect on the blue nacelles which, I’ve learnt, can be achieved in compositing.

Now I’ve got a reasonable looking model I’m much more motivated to keep trying. The more I use Blender the less work it becomes to learn new things, it really is the first few steps which are the hardest. But if you’ve ever wanted to try 3D graphics I’d recommend giving it a go – despite the grind, rendering that final image can be very satisfying!