A lot of people seem to be struggling to find things do with their time recently, but I’ve actually been quite enjoying the lockdown at times as there is loads of stuff that I rarely have the time to pursue. So, I thought I’d share some ideas to help you fill your time during quarantine (and, perhaps, beyond) that are more creative than just saying “read a book”, “watch a TV series” or “play a video game”.
So, in that spirit, I wanted to tell you about my new favourite hobby; 3D modelling, using an application called Blender. It has been a good creative outlet for me and has been helping to keep me sane these last few weeks!
Blender is an open-source 3D creation suite, developed by the Blender Foundation and a community of developers. It is supported by companies like NVIDIA, Ubisoft, Epic Games and Google and, though its reputation used to be somewhat questionable, it is has developed considerably in the last few years and is now rumoured to be used at Pixar, as well as a number of game developers and special effects studios. Plus, researchers like us have been using it to create all sorts of cool data visualisations!
Because it is open-source, it is free to download and use (for any purpose) from Blender.org.
Ideally, you need a reasonably powerful computer, preferably with a graphics card, but this is not essential (it will just take a bit longer to render the results).
When you open it you will be greeted by its main interface, which looks a lot like this (minus my WIP lighthouse scene, obviously!):
Now, this can be very intimidating; I remembered how terrified I was when it first I opened it, but there are plenty of tutorials online to show you how it all works.
There are several great Blender tutorials on YouTube, but the channel I’ve used the most is probably Andrew ‘BlenderGuru’ Price. In particular, I can recommend his 20-part doughnut tutorial. Your Blender skills will grow (along with Andrew’s beard!) from first principles to the end result; a photo-realistic doughnut, sat on a table next to a coffee cup in front of a brick wall. Here’s a teaser:
Now, that might not sound like much, but the tutorial covers everything from the interface to the basics of modelling, materials, lighting, particle effects (i.e. the sprinkles) and even some basic animation. There is a lot to learn, but this is definitely a good place to start.
Another top recommendation if you want to see what Blender can do is Ian Hubert [link], who I saw speak at the Blender Conference in Amsterdam last year. He does some amazing stuff, as well as some hilarious “lazy tutorials”.
As with most things, once you’ve got the hang of the basics, the best thing to do is to experiment for yourself and then search around on YouTube or Google if you have more specific questions/problems. Find people whose style you like, or who are modelling the sort of things that you want to create. There is a great community out there who have created a range of resources to give you advice and support.
As well as using it at work, I’ve been using Blender in my spare time for the last year-or-so, creating a number of simple scenes and other small projects. I’m happy to admit that some of them were dead-ends, or that I didn’t have the skill to pull them off at the time, but (any artist will tell you) that is how you learn; try things, make mistakes, learn and persevere.
Anyway, here are a few of my creations. First, the doughnut scene that I modelled by following the tutorial above. To see how I developed this scene, check out my new ArtStation page or my YouTube channel.
I’ve also created a few scenes like as the castle and shuttle bay below. These may look complex, but for the most part, they are made up of simple shapes with basic textures and lighting effects. Blender can do a surprising amount of the work for you and, as I’ve said, there are plenty of tutorials to teach you all the cool little tips and tricks that make scenes like these possible.
The trees around the castle, for example; I modelled three different trees, then used a particle system to multiply them across the map, which varies the position, size and rotation automatically, so I didn’t need to model and position each of the 1,000 trees manually. The floor and walls of the shuttle bay are simple, flat shapes with procedural textures applied to them to fake the appearance of panels on the wall and smudge marks on the floor. Plus, all of the lighting, reflections, glow effects etc. are handled by the built-in rendering engine.
I’ve also dabbled in creating more complex models and even some basic character animation.
I’ve used a basic compositing trick to create the glow of Vader’s lightsaber, while the emissive material of the blade itself lights up the scene and reflects back onto the shiny hilt. I also created a range of characters for a project called ‘The Journey’, which I will be sharing later in the year. Here are three of the principal characters, modelled very simply and then animated with an addon that creates a posable skeleton for you.
So, that’s a little bit about Blender and some examples of the cool things you can do with it. There is definitely a learning curve but, now that I’ve got the hang of the basics, I find it an absorbing and satisfying way to spend my time, just like working on photography or the digital drawings I used to do back at University.
If you are interested in this sort of thing, and still looking for something to fill your time while we’re all stuck inside, why not give it a go?