My Journey with 3D: Told through software

Fun Fact: There are more polygons in one of the window handles in the left image above than in the entire image on the right.

Seeing as it’s now pretty much exactly 4 years since I first started exploring 3D as a field to go into, I thought it might be a good idea to put this journey down on digital paper; told through 4 different pieces of software. Less for narcissistic reasons, more because my entire belief is that you have to know where you’ve come from to know where you’re going. I mean sure; may this also serve as a directory, of sorts, for those also starting out in the field and perhaps experiencing that same trepidation I did. ‘I’ll never be as good as X Y and Z at it’, ‘Where do I even start?’ and of course the old favourite, ‘Is this even a serious career choice?’

The eagle eyed will note that 4 years is not a long time at all in which to go from complete amateur to established ‘professional’ in any field; not least CGI. Well, while I was completely new to 3D this time 4 years ago (I had to look up what a polygon was), to say I was completely fresh to it all would be a half-truth…

1) Floorplan 3D Essentials

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Floorplan 3D is a native Windows 3.1/95 application and no longer functions on modern hardware.

It was a rainy, windy Christmas Day in 2001. I was nine years old. My memory from this time is extremely vague at best, but that Christmas sticks in my mind. I was opening my presents with all the excitement of a child that age. I remember clearly opening my Guinness World Records 2001, a chest of plastic stationary drawers, a whole lot of nick nacks…followed by three fairly inconspicuous looking square packages from my parents. The first was an architecture book; The Home Plans Book, by David Snell and Murray Armor. I liked pencil drawing architectural elevations at this point but technically speaking knew nothing about the subject, so this was an apt gift. Then followed Total Cad 2D-3D from IMSI; an early consumer CAD CD-ROM application which was surprisingly ahead of its time. I loved these gifts and couldn’t wait to feed them to my ancient IBM machine. Then I opened the third; this one I was less excited for at the time (sorry mum), as the packaging was nowhere near as exciting to me as the first. It was a copy of the Floorplan 3D Essentials CD-ROM.

ibm_ps10
IBM 486SX PS/Valuepoint, the first and best computer I ever owned; already vintage by 2001.

Armed with my new toys, I retired to the IBM and fed it these two shiny new discs; the CAD one first, of course. It completely threw my 9-year old mind and while I could see its potential even at the time, I didn’t do much with it beyond trying to learn basic functionality. But wait! I had another to try! Within hours of finishing the installation (a whopping 20mb!!!), I was completely hooked on Floorplan. This program actually let me take the designs from my new book and turn them into 3D I could walk around and experience! Best of all, it was simple enough for a child to use (somewhat conveniently). Now let me be clear on something at this point. My first project looked like this:

Back 1front

Between the late 90s graphics core running on something like 50mhz of CPU, and my own skills as a pre-adolescent, I wasn’t going to get any masterpieces done. But boy, it didn’t matter one bit. Over the course of the next 2-3 years, I produced around 30 buildings; complete with furniture and in some cases, landscaping. Many were original, many weren’t. I didn’t care. This was my Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Half Life. I had discovered the joys of 3D.

2) 3D Home Designer

A few years on, and the story of how I got hold of this next software is somewhat less interesting than the last. I believe I picked it up on the high street; I had the choice of a Deluxe or standard version so of course chose the Deluxe for £14.99; it came with a booklet on decorating which I never read (!), but also an extra 500 ‘materials’, which would prove useful.

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3D Home Designer is still a very operational application available online for a pittance, though the graphics are a little dated and don’t expect good optimisation. 

A few years on, and the story of how I got hold of this next software is somewhat less interesting than the last. I believe I picked it up on the high street; I had the choice of a Deluxe or standard version so of course chose the Deluxe for £14.99; it came with a booklet on decorating which I never read (!), but also an extra 500 ‘materials’, which would prove useful. Upon some digging, this turns out to be a budget, re-packaged consumer version of the Arcon visualisation software; an industry standard ArchViz solution still in use today. In many ways, it was effectively a better version of Floorplan. The basic tenets of conumer-level 3D were all here, only this time the graphics actually looked like what they were supposed to…most of the time. It was with this software that I learnt the beauty of ray-traced rendering, some (very) basic texturing skills and, crucially, it was an introduction to the world of lighting. Surprisingly for the time, this software carried a fairly comprehensive lighting engine which taught me so much.

 

 

Again though, this was all completely basic 3D skills; I was still just placing assets other people had made. Now though, I had access to basic lighting and texturing which only enhanced my love for the art-form even further.

I’m going to stop now and highlight something extremely important but somewhat controversial. You’ll note that I was already adept with placing assets in a scene, then lighting and fiddling with textures. Now, for many this right here is 3D Visualisation….creating a scene by adding and composing from assets found online. There’s nothing wrong with this practice; it’s perfectly valid if you’re working to a fast turnover or there simply isn’t any call for creating your own models. However, the ability to reliably and consistently model from scratch is the only way to become a real 3D Visualiser as opposed to a 3D ‘Arranger’, and is only becoming a more valued skill to have.

With this software I created a large body of work; not all of it good work, but work all the same. For around 4 years I played with this software almost non-stop until eventually it was 2007 and I had to choose a ‘serious’ line of work and opted to study Film Production. Back then, 3D was something the cool kids studied who wanted to work in Gaming or CGI; not a serious pursuit (!)

Fast forward another 5 years.

3) Live Interior 3D Pro (OSX)

Annotation 2019-03-11 150326
This software is still available on Mac and PC, albeit completely re-branded and revamped. I can strongly recommend it for dipping your toe into the world of 3D without jumping in.

During the final year of my first degree in which I mostly focussed on cinematography, I had to create some 2D set plans in a great screenwriting program called Celtx as part of an assignment for a module called Corporate Video Production. Yes, it was as corporate as it sounds. But one good thing came out of it; I recalled my days with 3D Home Designer and decided to blow my lecturer’s socks off by creating a fully 3D representation instead, despite not being a Design student at all. One problem; I owned a Macbook Pro, not a Windows 95 clunker by this point. So with 3D Home Designer already out of the running, I set about finding another piece of software which I could pick up quickly and create nice visuals with. Welcome Live Interior 3D. This amazing piece of software is still around today though under a different name, and capitalises on the OSX platform to deliver the same consumer 3D experience I’d come to know and love over the course of the past 10 years. Featuring a GI render engine, bump mapped textures and more realistic lighting, this application was a perfect evolution for me; albeit I was still using a consumer grade program. Regardless, I got the assignment done, got my F (no, really) and started finding some roots with it. For at least several months of my Film production degree, I spent most of my time making models and it was great. Just me and the software again.

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Most of my work was fairly simplistic in Live 3D. But again, I learnt some more core 3D principles such as how lighting, cameras, textures and even models worked on a fundamental level.

Then reality hit back and I had to stop all this silliness once more. I wanted to be a cinematographer and 3D was just a silly pastime with no legs. After graduating, I did an MA in lighting and cinematography; whether or not this was worth its weight is debatable. However, between this and my first degree I learnt a lot of valuable skills; key ones being composition, technical camera skills, colour and sound science and crucially, lighting; which I ended up majoring in during my Masters. Knowledge in these things would seriously help me much later on down the line.

3a & 4a) Adobe After Effects CS5 & DaVinci Resolve 11

Wait, this isn’t 3D software. And that makes six, not four! You lied to me!

Ah, but it’s relevant. During my degrees I also picked up a strong skillset in post-production; namely, colour grading and basic compositing. I became fairly strong with AE in particular; rotoscoping and compositing became necessity for various projects I worked on. The hours I spent infuriating myself with this program. ‘Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I do that? How do I make this 3D……?’; you get the picture. I started yearning for the freedom my 3D programs had afforded me for all those years past and genuinely felt frustration towards AE specifically for making it ‘so hard’ creating 3D environments.

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Most of my work was basic compositing work by this point. Adding smoke, VFX and playing with lighting became my bread and butter.

A few years on and I’m severely disillusioned with film. I loved creating beautiful imagery first and foremost, but grew weary of the constant impediment at every turn. Not enough dynamic range. Not enough soft boxes. Not enough grip. Wrong weather. Wrong colour grade. Wrong people. Wrong industry; all I wanted to do was create what was in my head but it would be constantly and consistently quashed by both my own position on the hierarchy but also practical limitation on a large scale.

I started exploring options.

Getting back to After Effects, it was at this point that a motion graphic designer friend; an absolute master in After Effects himself; mentioned a program in which I could make anything imaginable within crisp 3D space; and integrate it seamlessly with After Effects to pretty much do whatever I wanted with VFX. By this point though, Film VFX wasn’t something I wanted to do with my life so I politely ignored this frankly brilliant advice.

The software, incidentally, was called….

4) Cinema 4D

c4dr14
R14 was the version I cut my teeth on but lacks a lot of the features found in the software now.

Almost a year completely out of work later, another good friend in much the same boat as me, starts spouting off that he wants to work in the games industry. Bless him, this didn’t end up going anywhere for him. But being a fairly keen PC gamer by this point I decided it was worth a shot. How else was I going to use my degrees? So I downloaded Unity engine and instantly became infuriated by the fact I had to, once again, use other people’s models and could never hope to achieve my imagination. I found the entire experience stilting. Pissed off that once again I was being limited, I went on Wikipedia and read the entry on 3D to see how easy it would be to make my own assets; foolishly, I disregarded my earlier experience as being completely unrelated. So after learning what a polygon was and the absolute basic fundamentals such as what texturing does and what models actually are, I set about finding software. It was never a guaranteed thing that I’d go with Cinema 4D; quite the opposite, in fact. I saw C4D as a motion graphics application unable to hold a candle to 3DS and Maya for visualisation. However, at this point in time it was also cheaper, vaunted as having an easier learning curve and was the best for creating animation. Thinking as only a film student would, I took the plunge on Cinema purely because I thought I may be able to link my current experience in better. Turns out I was completely wrong and I basically started my journey learning an all-new field of digital imagery from scratch. My experience from before counted for nothing.

Or did it?

Within a week, I’d created a fairly decent cannon model; complete with animation:

Within a month, I’d re-created my first ever fictional model from Floorplan 3D Essentials…and learnt a lot about global illumination in the process:

15 Front Fog-2

Within three months, I’d fallen in with a small game modding community with whom I’d worked many years ago on sourcing sounds for. They would prove to give me the launchpad I needed to start taking 3D seriously. At first, I created a steamship for a current game they were working on:

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 22.17.36Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 13.47.31

I consider this my first ‘proper’ 3D model. I learnt the basics of box modelling as well as texturing from doing it. Once that had been successfully added, I was then given the task of creating a Palatial mansion based on very strict historical drawings:

Hampden Front 1

While it did take me an embarrassingly large amount of time to model this, I learnt a lot about texturing and architectural rendering in doing so. I also created many other ship based assets, such as this cannon:

0002

Unfortunately, they eventually had to abandon the project for various reasons and this was the end of my affiliation with them. By this point though, I was becoming seriously excited with what I could do in Cinema 4D; I’d completely forgotten that the whole point was to make games! Six months in, and I’d created my first major piece of work:

Canal low Overcast
‘Victorian Factory’ was my first piece of ‘complete’ 3D work. I remain extremely proud of the detail and lighting I put into this model, despite still being very new to the field.

Finally, I was able to create whatever I wanted. It was beyond liberating. Moreover, my experience with lighting and composition was starting to come out and give my work its own style. Eventually, this would play a huge role in my work looking professional despite having zero formal education in the field. With the awe-inspiring artwork posted online daily, it wasn’t hard finding inspiration to constantly improve. It was by this point I started seriously considering a career in the field.

Epilogue

A lot of exciting models later, I felt once again restricted; this time, by Cinema 4D’s standard render engine. Another year and a half went by and I’d been able to begin working freelance and getting paid for my effort. By this point I’d been modelling about 2 and a half years so decided to start taking myself seriously as a 3D Visualiser. For me, this involved removing my final limitation. The solution I chose was Octane Render Engine; and it would prove to completely change how I saw my own modelling. Suddenly, my scratch-made models and textures were shining; every detail being shown in beautiful, perfect, crisp 3D. Sure, a bad artist blames his tools…but surely a good one thanks them? Regardless, I’d finally found a way to unlock myself. The quality of my work sky-rocketed as I felt a fresh confidence in doing this for a living; it was no longer a pipe dream but becoming a reality. For this, I don’t attribute Octane, Cinema 4D or even my degrees and years of learning. Just as you wouldn’t say a tree sprouts from a fully grown trunk, my 3D journey begins and ends with a seed.

A seed which was laid on a cold, dark December morning almost two decades ago.

29 LV8
‘Enterprise House’, a massive architectural detail study of a mostly fictional structure, capitalises on everything I love about 3D; the ability to create anything imaginable to a high standard, with no limit whatsoever, followed by the ability to experience the work from any angle.

 

TLDR

  • You’d be surprised by how much consumer-grade 3D software can teach you. Very surprised.
  • You don’t need education to learn 3D; just a ridiculous amount of self-determination and initiative.

  • If you think 3D isn’t for you, you’re right. It isn’t. You have to love it to do it.

  • If you think working in 3D is a pipe dream, you’re wrong. It’s a very large industry in 2019.

  • Find your passion and work with it to progress your own art. In my case, this was history. Niche? Absolutely. Fruitless? Certainly not.

  • Don’t get hung up on software. It really doesn’t matter if you use Sketch-up or 3DS. If your work is good, you could be using Microsoft Paint and people won’t be able to judge you.

  • Equally, don’t fall behind. I learn something new every day; be it by accident or by design.

  • Find what it is inside yourself that wants to create the work. For me, it was the feeling of being able to completely express myself without practical limitation.

  • If you ever feel like you’re having the mickey constantly taken out of your work in an industry, leave. Nothing is worth that and leaving film was the best choice I ever made.

That about wraps this up. As always, let me know if there are any burning questions by contacting me via the R&H website: rhviz.com.

 

All work displayed on this page is (C) Rob Nutter 2019. 

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