Blender 2.70 offers a professional set of 3-D modeling tools that rivals its proprietary counterparts' tool sets for small- to medium-sized projects. Once you learn each step of the character modeling process, you can render still images and movies with extremely convincing materials and lighting -- in some cases, indistinguishable from photography. Each successive Blender release moves closer to replacing the internal rendering engine with Cycles as the main engine, and the realism achievable with Cycles enables you to make surreal scenes look physically believable.
Modeling a Character
This step requires sculpting skills, but Blender offers some tools that make 3-D modeling easier than clay sculpting. Most artists start from the default cube by adding vertices, a subdivision surface modifier and maybe a mirror modifier to make it symmetrical. Press “1” to switch to Front view and “5” to turn off orthographic mode so that you can see your model the way the camera sees it. Press “Tab” to enter Edit mode, then click “Subdivide” to add one vertex to each edge and face of the cube. Click “Limit Selection Visibility” to enable selecting all vertices inside the cursor, then press “A” to deselect all vertices and “C” to enter cursor selection mode. Left-click and drag the cursor over all vertices on the left side, avoiding vertices in the center or right side, then press “Delete” to remove the left side of the cube. Press “Tab” to exit Edit mode, then click “Modifiers” in the Properties panel. Add Mirror and Subdivision Surface modifiers; their default settings are fine for now, but as you sculpt, you can increase the subdivisions to get a more complex topology.
Each 3-D modeling program works a little differently, and in Blender, you need to plan your final topology as you model because it's difficult to remove vertices after you've modeled a character. Click “Proportional Editing” and choose “Enable,” then right-click the cube's bottom-center vertex to select it. Press “3” to switch to side view and “5” to turn off orthographic mode, then press “G” to grab the selected vertex. Blender displays the proportional editing circle, and you can adjust its size with the scroll wheel. At this early stage, make the circle about the size of the cube, then drag the selected vertex down to create a chin and left-click to set it in place. Use this proportional editing method to place each vertex where it needs to be to make a head shape.
Extruding Faces and Refining Topology
To extrude a body from the head, select several faces on the bottom side of the cube and press “E” to extrude them. You may want to disable the proportional editing circle or adjust it to your liking. Drag the selected faces down to create a body and left-click to set them in place. Press “Ctrl-R” to make loop cuts along the extruded section, then adjust the number of cuts with the scroll wheel and left-click to set them in place. Repeat this extrusion method to create arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers and toes, using the proportional grabbing technique to shape each body part. After creating the general shape, you need to work on the topology and fine details, which require advanced modeling skills, especially in the face and hands. Select “Sculpt Mode” from the Mode menu to shape the character in more of a clay sculpting style by left-clicking and dragging areas with the mouse. To learn more about the advanced subject of topology, visit Blender Cookie to watch their excellent tutorials.
Parenting an Armature
Even if you're only rendering still images, it's useful to create a rig to pose your character, and rigging is probably the easiest part of character modeling. Create armature bones by pressing “Shift-A,” pointing the cursor to “Armature” and clicking “Single Bone.” With the bone selected, press “G” to grab it, then move it to your character's hips with the mouse. Press “E” to extrude bones in the shape of a spine, neck and head. Click “X-Axis Mirror” in the Armature Options menu, then repeat this extrusion process for the right arm and leg, which are mirrored on the left as you extrude. After creating a basic armature, press “Ctrl-P” and select “Armature Deform With Automatic Weights.” You now have a basic, posable character rig, and you can move on to advanced rigging techniques such as inverse kinematics, mesh deformation and parenting.
Shading, Lighting and Rendering
Along with sculpting your character, shading and lighting require the most artistic ability of all steps in the process. The Cycles rendering engine, which you can select from the Engines menu, uses modular nodes for all rendering properties. Display the node editor by clicking the “Editor” menu and selecting “Node Editor,” then add a material to your character by selecting “Materials” from the Properties panel and clicking “New.” Learning and mastering the art of shading and lighting can take hundreds of hours, and a fast computer with a new graphics cards can greatly decrease the time it takes to render your image and see what you have. To render on the fly in a small window, select “Rendered” from the Viewport Shading menu. This display changes every time you adjust your shaders, lights, armature or any part of your scene, so you can get a fast preview of your render without waiting for a high-resolution version. When you're ready, press “F12” to render the scene in the UV Image Editor window.
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