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WARNING: Blender is a lot more difficult to learn than SketchUp so if all you are interested in doing is making STATIC 3D models then you should concentrate on SketchUp. Even if you are interested in 3D animation and the beautiful, realistic lighting effects that are possible in Blender I encourage you to learn SketchUp first.
Blender is a very powerful 3D modeling and animation program that you can download free from blender.org (be sure to download the latest version). Blender is not the only 3D modeling and animation program, of course. Others include 3D studio Max (expensive) and Maya (expensive). But Blender is certainly the best FREE modeling and animation program. In fact, in my opinion, Blender is simply the best and most fun free program on the planet! So in our course we will focus on Blender.
We hope to make our own characters and animate them, though it will be a while before we can make an animation as professional as the one below which was entirely made in Blender. It's called Big Buck Bunny and it lasts 10 minutes. Choose the highest resolution that your internet connection can deliver - HD if possible! You can play the video full screen if you want! If you are looking at this page at school then the video will not be visible - sorry! Beneath the video are some introductory notes. If you like the video below then look also for Sintel and Tears of Steel on YouTube - these are more recent Blender projects and Tears of Steel shows how real-world video can be combined with the virtual objects in Blender.
3D modelling software is used in industry in the design of all kinds of objects from planes and cars to toothbrushes. The objects can be placed into a virtual world where lighting can be set and cameras positioned and moved as desired. With a bit more work, the objects can be set up in such a way that they can be printed on a 3D printer in any of a number of materials including plastic, stone, glass, aluminium, stainless steel etc. It is even possible to do 3D printing in colour.
3D modeling and animation software is used by film studios to produce movies like Toy Story, Ice Age and Avatar. Three kinds of animation are possible:
1. Animate a rigid object. This is the easiest kind of animation. You just need to record the desired location, rotation and scale of the rigid object at certain moments in time. This is done by recording 'keyframes' at certain points in the 'timeline'.
2. Character animation means giving an object (such as a robot or a lion) a skeleton (also called an armature) and then moving the bones of the skeleton to make the object appear to walk, run, jump etc. This is more difficult than the rigid body animation described above since it involves several extra steps. The complete process is:
- Make the basic 3D model showing the parts of the model that will be visible in the finished animation (the 'skin' of the 'body parts', if you like)
- Make a skeleton and attach the body parts to the skeleton. Apply restrictions to the movement of each joint in the skeleton.
- Set up a single movement of the skeleton consisting of several 'keyframes' - this will be a cycle of movement that can be repeated if necessary.
- Incorporate the animated model into a virtual world that you have designed and adjust the lighting, camera angles, etc.
3. Animate anything! A guiding principle of Blender is that anything that you can change should be animatable, so for example if you want the colour of an object to change over time then that (or any other change) is possible!
Everything on this page is vitally important if you wish to learn Blender so study this page very carefully. When you start Blender you will see a cube in the main ‘3D View’ window, along with a horizontal grid and probably a lamp and a camera. The screen is complex, with 5 windows altogether, as shown below:
Note that the official Blender term for windows is 'editors' (the timeline editor, for example) and in my site I may switch between the two terms 'window' and editor' which for me are synonymous. For more information on how to work with windows/editors, please see the bottom of this page.
Here are some hints for navigating (changing your viewpoint) within Blender (these are the same as in SketchUp though Blender and SketchUp are very different overall). Don't forget that the mouse pointer must be over the correct window (usually the 3D View window) in order to get the result you want.
- To orbit, hold down the middle mouse button and move the mouse.
- To pan, hold down the shift key and the middle mouse button then move the mouse.
- To zoom simply roll the mouse wheel.
It's easy to accidentally move or rotate objects in the wrong directions in Blender. One way to minimise this risk is to get the habit of working in standard views: from the top, front or side (the right side). To look down from the top, press Numpad 7. To look from the front, Numpad 1. To look from the right side, press Numpad 3. To get the complementary views, use the Ctrl key. For example, to view from the bottom use Ctrl+Numpad 7. The view that you are using is indicated in the top left corner of the 3D window.
Use Numpad 5 to switch between Perspective view and Ortho(gonal) view. Perspective view looks more natural but I strongly recommend you use Ortho view all the time since it gives much more control. Press Numpad 0 to switch into or out of Camera view. Camera view lets you view the scene from the location of the active camera and thus allows you to preview what the final rendered image will look like, since the active camera is used to make the render. Numpad 8, 4, 6 and 2 behave in logical ways that I will let you discover for yourself.
- Very important: Select objects using the RIGHT mouse button (not the left like in SketchUp).
- To select multiple objects hold down the Shift key and use the right mouse button. You can also Shift-right click to unselect a selected object.
- Press A to unselect All objects or, if no objects are already selected, to select All objects.
- You can also make selections with 'box select' (also called 'border select'): press B then draw a selection rectangle (box) that touches (it does not need to enclose) everything you wish to add to the current selection.Warning: if something is already selected when you begin using box select then box select will ADD to the current selection. Most of the time you will be wanting to make a fresh selection so you will usually need to deselect all (press 'A') before using box select.
Perform transformations on the selected object(s) by clicking any of the tool buttons on the Toolbox at the left of the 3D view window (press T if you can't see the toolbox) or use these keys for the most basic operations:
- G (grab) to move
- R to rotate
- S to scale (shrink or expand)
When you make these changes you must confirm them with a left-click. If you right-click instead (or press the Escape key) then that change will be aborted.
To constrain the above transformations to a single dimension you can follow those letters with an X, Y or Z. For example if you type GY then you will be moving the object in the Y (green) direction only.
You can also follow these letters with a number. For example if you type S3 then you will scale the object by 3 (3 times bigger in every dimension). If you type GZ5 then you will move the object 5 units in the Z direction (upwards).
Instead of using the letters G, R and S you may prefer to use the 3D manipulator instead (see left image below). Turn on the 3D manipulator by clicking the button at the left end of the right image below: then choose from translate (move), rotate or scale with the other three buttons (in the image below right the translate option is selected).
You can then use any of the three arrows to modify your object in one dimension or you can drag the white sphere in the centre to apply a modification in all directions at once. Using the coloured arrows is a good habit for it ensures that you know exactly which direction the movement will follow. You can make the 3D manipulator display more than one transformation type by holding down Shift and then click adding other types of transformation (for example you could set up the manipulator so that it allows you to translate or rotate).
You can UNDO actions with Ctrl+Z, as in most other programs. To redo what you have just undone, use Shift+Ctrl+Z (not Ctrl+Y as in many other programs).
If you try to do something in a certain window and nothing happens make sure that the mouse pointer is over that window.
See the Keyboard Shortcuts page for more important keyboard shortcuts ('hotkeys').
You must save carefully and often for two reasons:
- You may assume that if you do Ctrl-S then Blender will immediately save your work, like most programs do. In fact Blender will display a message asking you if you want to replace the existing file. If you move the mouse the message will disappear, leaving you thinking you have saved your work when in fact you have not. Try to get into the habit of doing File>Save instead of Ctrl-S for File>Save does not have this problem - it saves your work immediately without question.
- The save dialog looks rather different to what you are used to:
In the save dialog (and also in the Open dialog) you should click on a folder once not twice to open it. Clicking on the symbol '..' (two dots) will take you to the folder that contains the current folder. Choose the drive you want to save to at the left (always the H drive if you are working at school). Add a bookmark for the H: drive so you can navigate easily to it in the future. Then type the desired file name where you see 'myfile.blend' above (you do not need to type the .blend extension since if will be added automatically if necessary). You need to click the 'Save Blender file' button at the right to actually save the file - you can't save by just pressing the Enter key. As previously stated, be sure not to miss messages that might pop up when you try to save such as 'Replace existing file?' - these messages will disappear when you move your mouse unless you are watching for them, meaning your work does NOT get saved.
Since it is so easy to FAIL to save your Blender work properly, it is a good idea to check that your file really exists in the H drive before you close the program.
If you are putting a lot of time into a Blender project (or any other computer project) you should go beyond saving your work regularly - you should save different versions of your work as it progresses. That way you will have backup copies if your file gets corrupted and if you need to step back to a previous state of your project because something has gone wrong you will have this possibility.
Follow the links at the top of this page for several Blender projects that you can try. Expect to feel a bit lost and frustrated in the beginning but after a while you will hopefully start to enjoy Blender as much as I do...
3D animation may be offered to you as a possible end-of-year project - there can't be many ICT exercises more satisfying than making a 3D model and then making in move it the way that YOU want, but it's a rather time-consuming process and you may want to look for something easier.
If you would like to go even further with Blender, you will find many additional lessons on www.blender.org including several video lessons. Speaking of videos, you can also find dozens of Blender lessons on www.youtube.com . Unfortunately, however, you are not allowed to access YouTube videos from school!
Working with Blender's windows
Higher up this page the 5 windows (editors) of Blender's default screen (layout) were presented. Here is more information on working with windows in Blender:
Each window can be resized by dragging (with the left mouse button) the border that separates this window from a neighbouring window.
Each window can be split into two windows or joined with another window by using the left mouse button to drag the pattern of slanted lines that you see in the top-right corner or the bottom-left corner of the window (try it). Note how the pointer changes into a white crosshair when you are correctly pointing at the pattern of lines. If you pull the crosshairs INTO the same window then the window will be split into two windows. If you pull the crosshairs into a neighbouring window then Blender will try to join the two windows. However, the joining can only succeed if the neighbouring window edges match those of the first window. For example, of you try to join a window with another window to the right then the top and bottom edges of the two windows must line up exactly. When windows are joined the original window (where you pulled the crosshairs from) expands over the other window, causing that window to be suppressed.
Each arrangement of windows is called a 'screen' and you can switch between a number of screens using a pull-down list in the Info window at the top of the Blender interface. The main screen you will use is called 'default' and if you 'mess up' the window layout you should be able to get the default screen layout back by choosing 'default' from this list. You also can save new screen arrangements by pressing the plus sign, though this should not be necessary for a beginner.
Each window has a 'header' containing various menus and buttons but this is a bad name for it could just as well be at the bottom of the window as at the top. In fact you can switch any header between the top and bottom positions by right-clicking it and choosing 'Flip to Top' or Flip to Bottom'.
Each window can be easily switched to display any of dozens of different window types, by using the button at the left end of the window's header. Try changing the main (3D View) window into a Graph Editor window, for example, then switch it back into a 3D View window.