5 Common Pitfalls of Beginning Modelers

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Modeling is a lot of fun—until you find yourself up against a brick wall of bad topology, non-manifold faces, extraneous subdivisions, and a whole bunch of technical issues that you don't know how to solve.

In this list, we take a look at five common traps that beginning modelers often fall prey to. If you're new to the wonderful art of 3D modeling, read on so that you can save yourself from one or two headaches later on down the road.

01
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Too Ambitous, Too Soon

Ladders reaching the sky
Challenge yourself, but try to know when your ambition is getting the better of you. klenger / Getty Images

Ambition is great. It's what keeps us striving for bigger and better things, it challenges us, makes us better. But if you're thinking you're going to jump into a 3D modeling package and produce a masterpiece of staggering complexity your first time out, you're most likely mistaken.

It's tempting to aim for the stars right out of the gate, but there's a reason you see dozens of variations on the following quote so often on popular CG forums: “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, it's 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 yes, 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.

Uncertainty, more than anything else, is what leads to abandoned projects, and in my opinion, a bad image is still better than an unfinished one.

02
of 05

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 on. 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 (5-sided polygons or greater).
  • 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 a 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 re-route edges so that your mesh smooths more favorably.
  • If you notice non-manifold geometry, stop what you're doing and fix it immediately. If you're not sure what non-manifold geometry is, click here.
03
of 05

Too Many Subdivisions, Too Early

If I remember correctly, this is something we touched on in our mostly tongue-in-cheek How to Make Bad CG article, but it fits here as well.

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.

04
of 05

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.

I remember watching a 3DMotive training series awhile back and the instructor offered a good way to think about the question of whether an element of your model should be seamless or separate geometry; think about the way the model you're building would be constructed in the real world, and model it as close to that as possible.

Designers always say that form follows function, and that statement holds 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've written a short tutorial series on the matter. 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. If none of that makes sense, don't fret—the next-gen gameart workflow is very technical and way beyond the scope of this article, however, the aforementioned 3DMotive tutorial (The Treasure Chest series) covers it very well.

For now, just know, it's perfectly fine to use multiple objects to complete a final high-resolution model.

05
of 05

Not using Image Planes

I know this one well because I used to try to eyeball stuff all the time, or jump directly into Maya without considering design and composition, thinking “oh I'll design it as I model it.”

I've gradually developed a habit of carrying around a little 5 by 7 pad of grid paper, and when I'm not doing anything I'll pull out a page and sketch out orthographic ideas for buildings and environment assets. I throw away twice as many as I save, but if I like one I'll stick it up on some corkboard above my monitor so that it's there if I ever need it. If I decide one of them fits into a project, I'll make a scan and pull it into Maya as an image plane.

Not only does it allow me to work faster, it allows me to work more accurately, and accuracy is one of the keys to efficiency. I now use image planes for every major asset that I model, especially characters or complex architectural pieces, and my work is much better for it.

And this counts double (or even triple) if you're shooting for photorealism!

So now you know what to avoid!

Each and every one of us has been guilty of some or all of these things one time or another.

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.

Happy modeling!