What is 3D Modeling? Let Me Explain.

Originally published Monday, July 6th, 2015 in The Times, Ottawa, IL.


My June 9 column discussed some of the situations I'd run into while trying to start a new business.

A few people told me that, while they'd found the article interesting, they didn't understand what I was talking about when it comes to what I actually do, which is 3D modeling.

It was only seven years ago I first started learning 3D modeling. My dad always has been a very techie guy, so we had a "computer room" before many people had a home computer at all. But still, I remember the very clueless feeling I had after my first "Intro to 3D Modeling" class. The teacher, who would later point me to the architectural rendering field I'm in now, basically set us free to stumble our way through for that first assignment: building a snowman.

Looking back, a snowman was the perfect introduction to 3D modeling, and so even though I'm limited to describing a visual concept with only words, I'm going to use that same introduction to explain the concept to you now.

3D modeling is like building with blocks. I remember having a set as a kid with blocks of all shapes and sizes. When I use a 3D modeling software I have those same choices: cube, sphere, cone, cylinder and torus. (a fancy term for a doughnut.)

So, with that in mind, imagine making a snowman. The hardest thing to get used to when you first jump into 3D is the third dimension. We're used to seeing flat, two-dimensional images. You can move along the "x" axis (left and right) and the "y" axis (up and down). But the third dimension is the "z" axis, and that moves forward and back. So you start with a sphere and you can move it side to side, up and down, and forward and back. You do the same with the next two spheres, a cone for the nose, and so forth. And voila! A snowman!

With me so far? Great!

Now, let's imagine that those blocks aren't solid. Let's take a cube this time. You can probably imagine changing the size pretty easily. But, you also can start manipulating the shape, too. A cube has six faces (four sides and a top and bottom), eight corners (which we call vertices) and 12 edges. I can grab any of those and push, pull, resize and rotate. The possibilities just grow exponentially, and now you can imagine creating a lot more complicated creations beyond just a simple snowman.

On top of that, I also can ADD faces, vertices and edges, increasing the possibilities even further. This is the basis for all computer graphics. It's how Pixar made Nemo, how Michael Bay made the Transformers and how I create 3D architectural renderings.

With the model completed, you have to paint it, which we call "texturing." For a model of a building, I can assign a brick pattern to my walls, shingles to the roof, and glass to the windows. After that, I give up a lot of the reigns to the computer itself. I have to tell it what I want, but the computer takes it all into account as it simulates a rendering.

And that class, is 3D modeling in a nutshell.

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