5 Common Pitfalls of Beginning Modelers

Modeling is a lot of fun — until you find yourself frustrated by bad topology, non-manifold faces, extraneous subdivisions, and a whole bunch of technical issues that you may not know how to solve. In this list, we take a look at five common traps that beginning modelers often fall into. If you're new to the wonderful art of 3D modeling, read on so that you can save yourself from one or two headaches down the road.

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Too Ambitous, Too Soon

Ambition pushes us to strive for greater challenges that help us improve. But believing you can jump into a 3D modeling package and produce a masterpiece of staggering complexity your first time out will usually end in frustration and disappointment. CG forums have an often repeated statement by modelers: “This is an image I've had in my head for years, but I've been waiting for my technical skills to catch up.”

CG is hard, technical, and complex. When you're planning your projects ask yourself, “what are the technical hurdles I might run into, and can I realistically solve them at this time?” If the answer is an honest "yes," then go for it! However, if a prospective project will require you to try hair, fluid, global illumination, and render passes for the first time ever, it's probably smarter to study each of those concepts individually before you try to combine them in an image. Challenge yourself, but try to know when your ambition is getting the better of you.

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Ignoring Topology

Topology and edge flow are incredibly important for character models that are meant for animation. For static game-meshes and environment models, edge flow is less important, but that doesn't mean it should be ignored entirely.

Model in quads (four-sided polygons) as often as possible, especially if you plan on taking a model into Zbrush or Mudbox for sculpting later. Quads are ideal because they can be subdivided (for sculpting) or triangulated (for game-engines) very smoothly and easily.

Topology is a vast topic, and going into detail here would be impossible. Just keep some of the basics in mind while you work:

  • Avoid N-gons (polygons with five or more sides).
  • Keep triangles to a relative minimum.
  • Try to have evenly spaced subdivisions, and avoid elongated faces. Your polygons don't have to be perfectly square but keep them as close as you can, within reason.
  • For an animated mesh, add extra edge loops wherever there will be deformation (elbows, knees, lips, etc.).
  • Remember to clean up topology artifacts after using Maya's bevel tool, which often creates triangles and occasionally n-gons.
  • If you smooth your model and notice “pinching,” try to think about how you can reroute edges so that your mesh smooths more favorably.
  • If you notice non-manifold geometry, stop what you're doing and fix it immediately.
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Too Many Subdivisions Too Early

Subdividing your mesh too early in the modeling process will only cause pain and regret, and often contributes to the lumpy or irregular quality seen in a lot of novice work. As a rule of thumb: Don't add resolution until you're sure you've nailed the shape and silhouette with the polygons you already have.

If you do find yourself in a situation where you need to modify the overall shape of your model but have already subdivided to a point where you can't do it efficiently, try using the lattice tool in Maya's animation menu. If you're beginning to notice unsightly irregularities on the surface of your model, try using the relax brush to smooth out the lumps.

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Always Modeling Seamless Meshes

It's a common misconception among beginning modelers that a finished model needs to be a single seamless mesh. This isn't the case at all, and trying to model things that way will only make your life more difficult.

A good way to think about the question of whether an element of your model should be seamless or separate geometry is to think about the way the model you're building would be constructed in the real world, and then model it as close to that as possible.

Designers always say that form follows function, and that statement has some weight here — if you run into a situation where you think it'll be easier to model something in two pieces, do it. Now having said that, there are two exceptions to this: 3d printing and game art.

3D printing comes with a whole new set of rules that we won't get into here, but if you're interested we have created a short tutorial series on how to prepare. With game art, it's often preferable for the final asset to be a seamless mesh; however, the final game model is usually a retopologized version of a high-resolution mesh.

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Not Using Image Planes

New modelers often try to eyeball stuff, or jump directly into Maya without considering design and composition, thinking “oh I'll design it as I model it.”

A better habit is to carry around a little 5 x 7 pad of grid paper and during spare moments, sketch out orthographic ideas for buildings and environment assets. You'll probably throw away twice as many of these as you save, but keep ones you like and post them in your workspace so that they're there if you ever need them — one might fit into a future project, and then you can make a scan and pull it into Maya as an image plane. Not only does this help you work faster, but it also allows you to work more accurately, and accuracy is one of the keys to efficiency. And this counts double (or even triple) if you're shooting for photorealism!

Now You Know What to Avoid

Making mistakes is a critical part of the learning process, but it's our hope that by knowing some of the common traps that plague beginners to 3D modeling, you'll be able to avoid them yourself.

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