Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A Blender Newbie’s Guide to 42 Things about Blender 2.63 A Blender Newbie Wishes He'd Known Three Weeks Ago

I now have no idea how many weeks I’ve been teaching myself 3D animation. The days are merging together and I seem to be obsessing about the strangest things, such as UV maps and sub-surface scattering. I’ve also nothing new to show for my efforts, though the first scene for my next ‘short’ is rendering as I type. It will take about two hours before it’s done and then it won’t be any way finished since I’m not rendering it with ray tracing enabled. That's not work for daylight hours. My PC will be working through the night.

Anyway, I’m writing this blog post for the Google Bots. I want to add my knowledge to everything that Google knows about Blender in the hope that something here might help somebody out there if they happen to be learning to use Blender and making all the mistakes I’ve been making regularly. Very very regularly. It’s been a strange satisfying hell for two weeks, just learning how to the basics, and the results will be neither spectacular nor pretty. However, I think I have facial animation worked out. I can get expressions on a face, linked to controls that work the face, all sitting on a body that can move in vaguely human ways. My next stage is to work on the second scene in the short which involves walking. I haven’t even explored the problems of getting my rig to walk…

All that said, Blender is an amazing pierce of software. It’s possibly the most impressive piece of software I’ve ever attempted to use, made even more impressive when you consider that it’s completely free. However, it does have some quirks and these are my tips for Blender newbies like myself. Some of these tips are the result of my spending many hours fixing the hundreds (if not thousands) of mistakes I’ve made in my rendering adventures thus far…

  1. First of all: use the web to answer your questions. Make use of online resources. Youtube is excellent but nothing really beats blenderguru.com.

  2. Speaking of tutorials... In my experience, there are three guarantees of a great Youtube Blender tutorial. One is if it’s hosted by an English guy, usually called Nigel. The second is if it’s hosted by a smart West Coast American who you imagine has thick but trendy glasses and all year round wears a woolen hat around and has a great job in San Francisco and spends most of his day in a coffee shop. The third is if it’s hosted by a guy chewing on chewing tobacco, who is probably called ‘Gater’ or ‘Tripwire’ and sounds like he’s only helping you because it’s too cold to go out and wrestle with his hogs. Never listen to pubescent teenagers who claim to know everything.

  3. Learn the basic skills early: how to merge vertices, cut loops...

  4. Learn to switch between Vertices, Edges, and Face modes using ‘Alt Tab’ in Edit mode.

  5. Learn to distinguish your axes. Easy way to remember them is that they follow the colour mnemonic for ‘RGB’. Red is the X axis. Green is the Y axis. And Blue is the Z axis. Scaling and rotating becomes far easier if you can spot which axis you’re dealing with.

  6. Learn to move the screens around. Slide from edges to split viewports. Right click on the join and select Join Area’ to merge together to windows (an arrow appears, click on the screen you want closing).

  7. Blender works great with two (or, I suppose, three or more) monitors. Hold Shift and left click and drag on the textured trianglar area in the top right of the viewport to open a new window you can carry to your second screen. Great for having a view dedicated to the camera view.

  8. The numpad ‘.’ is the most used key on the keyboard once you realize that it will center your view on the selected object. (Took me two weeks to discover this because I don’t have a numpad on my keyboard.) In fact, learn the key shortcuts. Mirroring an object is far easier when you can just hit ‘S X -1 Enter’…

  9. Get a four button mouse. Don’t be arsing around with holding the mouse wheel down to rotate the view. (Also remember to charge it when you go to sleep at 3AM.)

  10. Don’t fanny around trying to export a video file of your animation. Export a directory of .TIFF files. Open the first file (it will end with 001) in VirtualDub and it loads the lot. Then ‘Save as AVI’. This allows you to resume a render if it fails part way since frames rendered prior to the stoppage will have been saved.

  11. One great shortcut is ‘Alt+RMB’. It can select a whole edge loop. (Also learn the phrases such as ‘edge-loop’).

  12. If you’re struggling with weight painting, it’s probably because you have poor mesh topology.

  13. If you’re struggling to texture a model, it’s probably because you have poor mesh topology.

  14. If you’re struggling to pose a model or face, it’s probably because you have poor mesh topology. You can construct your model with huge polygons over the body, legs, and arms, but remember to pack them in densely around the face and also around elbows and knees.

  15. Learn about ‘pivot points’. Blender isn’t like other 3D packages and you will find yourself trying to rotate something that won’t rotate (and I say this as somebody who still doesn’t fully understand bloody pivot points).

  16. Learn to use the Layers early. They’re MUCH easier to use than you probably think they are. I ignored them for a week before I realized my mistake. ('M' to move objects to other layers. Shift+LMB on the layers buttons, two groups of 10 squares on your lower bar, to enable or disable them.)

  17. Don't be ashamed to press numpad 5 to turn the view from perspective to orthographic. Then do your rotating. It might not seem like a big thing but you can get much closer to individual vertices and also rotate your view so you’re looking from within the model. This allows you to work on parts of the model that probably cause you the most trouble.

  18. Modifiers are amazing. Learn how to use them.

  19. Whilst modifiers are amazing, don’t add 'subdivision surface' to everything in your scene, unless you want long long LONG render times.

  20. Constraints are probably even more powerful than Modifiers. Learn to use them but not to overuse them. ‘Limit roation’ is great for stopping fingers bending the wrong way when you’re rigging a model in pose mode.

  21. Don’t get too excited by Blender’s hair system. It looks great, if fun to play with, but do you really want to spend hours combing the bloody stuff?

  22. One of the most useful shortcuts is ‘Shift S’ which allows you to center the axis on the object you’re working on.

  23. Learn the difference between materials and textures and how one material can contain many textures…

  24. Disable ‘ray tracing’ in your render options until your final render. It will, at the very least, cut down your render times by half.

  25. Low poly models with displacement maps are the way to go. You model at very high resolutions so the detail can be picked up and put in the displacement map. The actual model you use in Blender, will be in the thousands and tens of the thousands of polys, not hundreds of thousands or even millions.

  26. Speaking of low poly models, learn to bring in a displacement map. It’s not at all intuitive since you do it using the ‘Displace’ modifier.

  27. X-Mirroring does work in every situation in 2.63.

  28. Don’t worry too much about triangles. Yes, they’re bad but every model has then and the newest Blender allows them. Just try to work with polygons 99% of the time.

  29. To select all the vertices in part of your model, use the box select (press B) and drag out the box. However, to ensure you catch the hidden vertices, go into wireframe mode first.

  30. Always turn down your speculatity. It generally looks awful. In fact, makes me wonder why it doesn’t default to something lower.

  31. Don’t spend hours building your own armature. Use Rigify (defaulted to off in plugin options). Enable it and it builds the basic rig. Don’t think you’re cheating. This is just saving you for the very hard work.

  32. You really have to learn to UV map properly. Go into edit mode, select everything by pressing ‘a’ a few times. Then press ‘U’ and Smart Unwrap. Split the screen, open the UV editor, export your UV which you can then paint in Photoshop. Easiest way to texture non-critical objects. For important objects use a sculpting package.

  33. Don’t be too quick to bind your mesh to your armature. Before you do so, go into your mesh in edit mode and select ‘Recalculate’.

  34. When modeling, put a natural bend in your model’s knees and arms. This will help later on when you add bones. The IK will naturally bend it in the right direction.

  35. The best way to work is to model your basic shape in Blender, using good topology around the mouth and eyes, and only then using a more comprehensive sculpting package. This ensures that you probably won’t have to retopologise your mesh since the polys will already flow the right way around the mouth and eyes.

  36. Adding constraints to bones is very useful but make sure you learn about your local and world axes.

  37. Try to let Blender do the weight painting for you. It will make mistakes but it’s easier than doing everything by hand.

  38. The Boolean operations (under modifiers) is really handy when you want to sculpt shapes using other shapes or merging two primitives.

  39. If your textures disappear in Texture mode but still appear in your renders, make sure you’re in GLSL mode, not Multitexture. In 3D view, press N and scroll down to display. Check the Shader option. (I wasted two whole days figuring this out…)

  40. Make use of the little (+) button the save dialog box. It will keep incremental copies of your work. You will make big mistake sand need to go back. Very very often.

  41. Don’t get distracted by the Cycles Renderer. It’s amazing but don’t bother with it unless you have a great graphics card with 100s of GPU shader units. Stick with the Blenders render unless you really want something photorealistic and still or you are happy to leave you PC working for a week as it takes half an hour to render each frame.

  42. Linking resources really screws up a scene… Or I think it does. For example, you can’t access Shape Keys from a linked rig unless you’ve connected those shape keys to drivers. (Even then, I’m not sure linking works… This morning, I got up to open my scene from last night to find the armature had become disconnected from my mesh and was standing on the other side of the room I’d previously had it lying in.)

And, finally, two Blender tips I’ll probably wish I knew I week from today...

A render farm probably isn’t work setting up for just one laptop.

Getting a realistic walk cycle is harder than it looks but if you do X, Y and Z it’s really easy.

Okay, I’m off to figure out that X, Y, and Z as well as to model a dancing banana with human legs…



  1. a banana with legs - sounds interesting :)

  2. What can I say? My 'script' involves a banana with legs. It will be an internet first and you'll see it right here...

  3. I am looking for BLENDER tutorials for beginners that I can download and view OFFLINE.
    Can you help?

  4. Check Youtube and then use one of those plugins for Chrome such as 'Grab Any Media'. They work really well.

    You can also find loads of great Blender videos at http://www.blenderguru.com/ and I think they're on Youtube so you might be able to grab them as well for offline viewing.