As a designer who started out working very much in two dimensions, 3D graphics always used to have a seemingly unattainable aura of mystique to them. 3D software can be notoriously complicated, incredibly expensive, and can require seriously powerful machines to render files with.
All of these things are now changing, and fast. The aura is beginning to dissipate as entry level tools have become more powerful, open source and Adobe Creative Cloud software now competes with specialist applications and heavy processing can be done in the cloud. Even the venerable Microsoft Paint now has 3D capabilities!
This makes it an exciting time to start working in 3D. In the last year or two I’ve explored some of the tools available to designers, and am now sharing what I’ve found. A quick caveat - I do not claim to be an expert in this field, and am presenting much of this from a 2D designer’s perspective.
In the first post in this series I introduce some ways to get started working in 3D, including software tools and online resources, many of which are available for free or at low cost, along with some suggestions if you’re planning to invest in a computer capable of running it.
In the second part I will get stuck into 3D drawing and modelling in VR, which is fast becoming a useful part of a professional workflow.
In the third part I will look at cutting edge and future technologies relating to 3D graphics, where the future looks very bright.
What kit is needed?
3D software is notoriously demanding on computer processors. The good news is that these demands are similar to those of gaming and VR software. Some Macs are now VR compatible, meaning they should also work well for general 3D work, and gaming PCs such as Dell’s Alienware range are well suited to 3D work too.
You can get started on a standard Mac or PC. As always the more RAM and the faster processor you have, the better. However what really helps is having a decent graphics card. Nvidia leads the way here, and its recent cards are compatible with most 3D software. I went the way of the PC after being a Mac user for many years, in order to get a better performance machine for my money. Aim for at least 4GB of memory on your graphics card. Comprehensive guides can be found here:
Software: Adobe’s offering
As many designers subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud package, this is a good place to start looking for 3D tools.
While it is yet to commit fully to a high end 3D software tool, Adobe has added a number of 3D tools over recent years. I got very excited about Photoshop 3D, only to find the learning curve very steep, render times slow and end results to be very mixed unless aiming for a very artificial look. Its Dimension application addresses some of these issues, enabling production of polished 3D product, packaging and branding graphics.
Adobe’s After Effects animation software has for some years included access to the Lite version of Maxon’s Cinema 4D. C4D Lite is a great tool for creating geometric shapes and animated text and logos, and includes C4D’s refined lighting tools (including volumetric lighting) and highly controllable rendering options. I bumped up against its limits fairly quickly however, when attempting more detailed modelling work, and its more sophisticated motion graphics features are unavailable in the Lite version.
Adobe’s After Effects gamely incorporates some 3D capabilities within its ‘two and a half D’ framework, and some of its plugins are ‘3D aware’. However a genuine all-round 3D application would be a very welcome addition to the Creative Cloud Suite.
Blender - an open source alternative
Outside of the Adobe ecosystem, professional 3D software such as Maya, 3D Studio Max and Cinema 4D is often prohibitively expensive for smaller studios and freelancers. However I’ve recently been introduced to open source (ie free) 3D software Blender – it’s actually been around since 1988 so is tried and tested. I’m still getting to grips with it, as it has a few quirks, but is incredibly powerful for a free piece of software, and includes a animation tools, physics system, Python scripting capabilities as well as many paid-for plugins.
Photogrammetry, or the use of photography to create 3D models of real objects and locations, is a fast-growing area. Drones and laser scanners are optional luxuries – you can get started using just a smartphone camera.
For my first effort with this photogrammetry I used Autodesk’s ReCap, and for my subject chose a glamorous Savoy cabbage. It turned out surprisingly well, it delivered a highly detailed model which needed only minor fixes. Sadly Autodesk’s free ReMake photogrammetry software is no longer available, though ReCap does have a fully featured free trial, and similar fully free tools are available.
High end rendering of 3D graphics is often done in the cloud, and now less specialist tools are starting to use this facility too. Autodesk’s excellent ReCap Photo photogrammetry software processes photos that you upload to its cloud service, and can send you back a detailed 3D model in just a few minutes.
Previously most commonly used in games development, physics-based animations are appearing more and more in motion graphics, 3D branding and animation work. An elegantly simple example is the current Channel 4 branding, and a deliberately rough and ready application of this technique can be found in Nikita Diakur’s oddly charming Ugly.
Inspiration: social media and portfolio sites
The sharing of new techniques and design work has never been easier. Instagram’s unsettling influence on the way the world looks extends to the world of motion graphics, with bright, bold animations proliferating. Some of my favourite accounts to follow include Andreas Wannerstedt, Randy Canoj and the prolific Beeple.
Behance is a great place to look for detailed break-downs of 3D projects, as well as some dauntingly good 3D work.
2D designers are used to working with photos and illustrations from picture libraries, the good news is that similarly, there are various libraries of 3D assets out there too.
Adobe stock have a recently launched library of 3D assets, including models, lights, materials and even scenes
Unity users can access the Unity Asset Store, which contains a wealth of assets both free and paid-for, many of which can be used in other applications too.
3D warehouse is a library of free 3D models intended for use in the Sketchup application, which can be used elsewhere as well.
3D Ocean is a large resource of low cost 3D assets.
Let me know what you think!
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