Introduction to Blender (part 1)

preliminary render of GTEC room 115

editors note:  Blender is a wonderful open source (free) software package that lets you draw objects, animate them, and create very realistic views.  This is done by defining surface properties, and the software calculates how light would reflect from it.  The software is used by many animation studios and professional graphic artists.  It is available from http://www.blender.org

 

One of our main focuses at the moment is getting the word out about the Tech Toybox. That is, not very many people have heard about it and of those that have, many are unclear on the Tech Toybox’s purpose. So, we decided that making a promotional video would be a good way to remedy the situation. For part of the video, we wanted to show some of the equipment that would be brought in to the GTEC facility. Since a lot of that equipment weighs many hundreds of pounds and is currently located in various shops/garages, an animation was in order.

 

That’s where Blender comes in. I learned how to use Blender to make a rudimentary animation of what we intend for GTEC which can be found here:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKJ8xSL0di0

Naturally, there’s quite a bit of room for improvement but I was pretty satisfied with how it turned out considering I had never done much rendering, let alone animating. The biggest flaw, in my opinion, is how jerky the movements of the camera seem to be. If I were to do it again, I would use 60 frames per second instead of 30 since that would smooth most things over and allow the viewer to see more of the details. I would also increase the number of light path samples from 500 to something over 1000 to make each frame look like the one in the title image.

 

For the absolute Blender beginner, I highly recommend www.blenderguru.com and @tutor4u on Youtube. I’m not going to discuss the fundamentals but give more of an overview of how an animation is put together from start to finish intended for someone who is very new to Blender. This will include a bit of commentary on modelling, materials and lighting, keyframes and camera movement, and finally, the actual render.

 

Modelling

 

Modelling in Blender is quite different from what I was previously used to. I use AutoCAD quite a bit for designing masks and parts associated with display technology and FreeCAD for projects related to the Tech Toybox. My major complaint with Blender is that it is a bit more difficult to create models with exact dimensions. Bevelling and aligning objects is fully supported by Blender, but I had to do a lot of research to get things just the way I wanted. This is all perfectly fine, though, as Blender isn’t intended for high precision CAD work but for creating amazingly realistic images with disgusting ease.

 

At first, I figured that I would just use FreeCAD for all of the objects since I am fairly experienced with it. However, importing and exporting meshes isn’t really ideal because you tend to end up with objects that have way more faces than is desirable (or at least I did). For something with one material, this isn’t much of a problem. When you need to map multiple textures onto a single object, too many extra faces can become a pain. Even then, Blender has an excellent feature for merging faces: while in edit mode, you simply select the faces you would like to merge, press ‘x’, then select ‘Dissolve Faces.’

 

Since I’m not going to get into modelling in Blender, I’ll simply list some thoughts and tips that might be helpful to a novice user.

  • The “Bevel” modifier is great for making an object look more realistic by rounding sharp edges. However, if you only want to apply it to a certain set of vertices, things become more difficult as you have to set up a vertex group containing only the vertices you want bevelled. I often found it best to simply select an edge and grab/drag it into the position I wanted.

  • If possible, use a full keyboard (with a number pad) since switching between views is done with the numpad by default. At first, I attempted to use my laptop’s keyboard to do everything but remapping the views to other keys took up too much real estate on the keyboard.

  • Try and pick up as many shortcuts as possible. Blender is great at listing them in-menu and things really sped up for me as I developed muscle memory.

  • Primitive shapes have dimensions with the origin at the object’s center by default. This is one of the things that annoyed me a lot at first since you end up having to divide by 2 in your head quite a bit if you are trying to create objects with exact dimensions and positions. If I were to do it again, I would do all of my modelling in Blender and just eyeball all of the dimensions instead of worrying about having an edge exactly 13.83 units away from another. Blender fulfills its purpose quite well: enabling creation of visual excellence.

 

In part 2 of this overview, I will discuss materials and lighting with the Cycles rendering engine and detail a few related subtleties with which I had some difficulty. Part 2 can be found here.

 

 

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