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Advanced 3ds Max Character Modeling


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Michael Hurwicz looks at Advanced 3ds Max Character Modeling, a training DVD by Kenny Cooper (demo artist and primary narrator) and Jim Lammers (project manager and some narration) of Trinity3D.

An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part ...

(Andrew Marvell. 1621–1678. "To His Coy Mistress")

Creating a detailed, realistic 3D character model using an application such as Autodesk 3ds Max has been compared to "knitting a house." In other words, in addition to being challenging, it's repetitive, nit-picky work, and incredibly time-consuming. This is particularly true if you are creating a model that has to deform properly when animated. For that reason, people creating character modeling tutorials usually try to simplify the process in some way, to speed things up for their students and themselves. One approach is to create a character without a lot of detail. (Think Pinocchio.) Or, if you are going to go for a lot of detail, perhaps you pick just one part of the body to focus on, such as the face or the hands. You can just not worry too much about how your character will animate; that makes everything a lot easier. Another possible expedient is not defining too precisely what you are aiming at, so that any decent result can be declared a success. Still another labor-saving device: make sure that your character is wearing huge quantities of clothing, preferably made out of metal. Masks, hats, helmets, shirts, pants, capes, suits of armor, boots and mittens are all a lot easier to model realistically than faces, heads, necks, arms, torsos, legs, feet and hands. Another possibility is to use bitmap materials based on photographs to represent some of the finer details, such as subtle shadings of musculature.

In the Advanced 3ds Max Character Modeling training DVD, Kenny Cooper and Jim Lammers take none of these easy ways out. They tackle the most challenging 3D character modeling task--an unclothed human model, designed for animation, and based on reference photographs--and they execute the job in its entirety, using no materials, to exacting standards, and not just shaping the body to show musculature, tendons and bone structure, but down to details such as fingernails and the little web of skin between the fingers, (To clarify the "unclothed": The model is not "anatomically correct," but the bikini worn by the real woman in the reference photographs is not modeled either.)

The result is a unique, and uniquely valuable, resource for the student who is truly committed to learning modeling in 3ds Max. You have to be committed, because the DVD shows every repetitive, nit-picking step of the process--16 hours worth. On the other hand, I found that seeing every step of the process gave me a better feel for how this work is actually done than anything else I have ever encountered.

So far, I have used this DVD more as an extended demo than as a step-by-step tutorial. I have by no means tried to duplicate every step of the process. I wanted to get an overview of the process first, and to some extent I think the DVD demands this, because the author doesn't provide much in the way of step-by-step overviews but basically just plunges into each phase of the project, commenting as he goes. There is a little booklet that provides a very brief summary of each video, such as "The toenails are added to the toes." But that doesn't tell you what the steps are for adding the toenails to the toes.

So, to me, the ideal way to use this DVD is to go through the whole thing quickly to get an overview of the whole character modeling process. Then go back to the first movie, go through it once quickly to get an overview of the task at hand, and then attempt the task yourself. This is particularly true because the videos often include mistakes, backtracking, and moments of pondering and even confusion. Not that mistakes or confusion predominate, but the modeling process by its nature is not a linear, precise science, but an iterative and to some extent intuitive art. That is, quite a lot of the time, you are looking at the model, making an educated guess as to what needs to be done next, trying something, looking at the results, and then making a decision about whether to leave it as is (at least for now), refine it, correct it, or completely undo it.

Since your efforts as a student will seldom need the same refinements or corrections as those on the DVD, you can't simply follow along with everything the author does. You have to figure out what he is trying to do, know the result you are trying to achieve, and make your own judgments about how to move in the right direction from wherever you have landed. The DVD does provide a starting .max file for every movie, so you can start each lesson at the same point that the author does. But it is not at all unusual for these movies to be 15 to 30 minutes long (a few approach 45 minutes), so you're frequently talking about a significant journey from the starting point to the end of the lesson. Because of the nature of the task, your journey is simply not going to be exactly the same as that of the author. So, again, in order to guide your own journey effectively, you need to have an overview and know where you are going.

Of course, the difficulty with this approach is that it's time-consuming. It assumes that you will go through each video a minimum of three times. That's 48 hours of listening. One technique that I found useful was to use a player that has a fast forward mode that does not mute the audio. The QuickTime Player doesn't work for this. It allows you to scrub the video, so you can quickly run through the visual aspect of any movie. But it mutes the audio while you are scrubbing, so you can't hear the commentary. I used the Sony Vegas video editor as a player, which allowed me to speed the videos up by 30 percent or more and still understand the commentary. During slow, repetitive tasks, I didn't miss anything by doing this. And of course I could always go back and replay a section when things suddenly got interesting. The speed-up also turned the commentator variously into Mickey Mouse, Jiminy Cricket, a wheel bearing going out on an old Chevy, and a family of excited mice. I highly recommend it.

Speeding things up makes it easier, when the narrator goes into a repetitive vertex adjustment, to opt to just grasp the major steps and then go do your best in editing the mesh. If you aren't getting good results, you can return to the video and try to follow in a more step-by-step fashion. Some artists may skip over areas they can already handle well, especially after the first ten movies when there is some repetition of procedure. The saved scenes for the start and end of every movie allow you to "pop in" at any point in the project--if you just want to follow along with the section on creating the hands, for example.

I was able to watch the movies in Vegas, by the way, because the DVD is not a movie-type DVD, meaning you don't have to watch it in a DVD player. The video files are ordinary QuickTime (.mov) files that you can copy to your hard disk or watch straight from the DVD. I really appreciated this, since it made it easy to watch the videos in Vegas. It also means, incidentally, that the DVD does not auto-run. If you put it in your computer's DVD drive and boot up, nothing happens. You have to go to the "movies" folder on the DVD and access the video files there.

The painstaking, repetitive nature of modeling, while it can require extra doses of stimulants while going through the DVD (I used mostly chocolate-covered ginger), also means that you have the opportunity to watch the same basic tools and approaches applied to a variety of tasks, with a variety of challenges and solutions. By osmosis, more than by verbal explanation, you begin to get a feel for the process of roughing out and refining, how to make the subtle adjustments, why and how to maintain obtuse angles in the flow of your edges for gentle contours and smooth deformations, how the changes you make on your non-smoothed model will look when smoothed, when to change over and work with surface smoothing turned on, where to compromise (nobody's going to be looking too closely behind the ear), and when it really is worthwhile to put in another half-hour (on making the visible part of the ear look more like an ear, for instance). Also, when not to give up hope: Even though it looks terrible now, you may be seconds away from something really great. You learn the rules and where you can make an exception, or where you really want to make an exception. For instance, you see why quads (four-sided polys) are generally better than three or five-sided polys, because the mesh flows better and looks more organic and natural. You also see where you might want to use three-sided polys to attain a less flowing shape, such as in the tendons on the back of the hand.

Very little of this was totally new to me. But the whole experience is like learning a language by living in the country and hearing the language spoken by native speakers every day in a variety of situations, and then having plenty of opportunities to try it out yourself. There's no substitute for it, and no better way to really gain fluency. (In fast forward mode, it's more like the "Europe in 10 Days" bus tour. "It's Tuesday; this must be the arms.")

Some other areas I now have better facility with, thanks to this DVD:

  • Setting up reference art
  • Using transparency in the modeling process
  • Using a cloned reference so that you can see smoothed and unsmoothed versions of your model simultaneously
  • Maintaining smooth contours, and creating creases, bumps or ridges where you want them
  • Reorienting faces by scaling vertices onto a single plane
  • Refining geometry with cut and slice
  • Using shift-scale and shift-move to create new faces
  • Working quickly, efficiently, and flexibly with extrude and bevel

In addition, there is a wealth of information to be gleaned specific to modeling various parts of the body, such as the eyes, ears, hands and so on.

One other thing that I found inspiring about this DVD was the speed that the author is able to attain through the use of hot keys and (I assume) the middle mouse button/wheel. The sound track of the DVD is often a clatter of hot keys. It is not unusual for the author to go 5 or 10 minutes without ever clicking an icon or a menu. It made me realize that I was working much harder than I needed to and could double or triple my speed by consistently using hot keys for select-move-rotate-scale, the mouse wheel to zoom, and alt-middle mouse button to arc rotate the view.

In terms of production values, the video is fantastic: 1024 x 768 and with no visible degradation of the image at all. It looks just like using 3ds Max live. The audio level is a little low in a few early movies, and much of the audio is a bit noisy, but not enough to be distracting or interfere with understanding the narration.

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