Common Pitfalls of Beginning Modelers

And how to avoid common traps

Modeling is a lot of fun — until you find yourself frustrated by bad topology, non-manifold faces, extraneous subdivisions, and a bunch of technical issues that you may not know how to solve. There are common traps that ensnare beginning modelers, though. If you're new to the art of 3D modeling, read on so that you can save yourself from one or two headaches down the road.

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 on your first try usually ends 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 complicated, technical, and complex. When planning your projects, ask yourself, "what are the technical hurdles I might run into, and can I solve them at this time?" If the answer is an honest "yes," go for it! Suppose a project will require you to try hair, fluid, global illumination, and render passes for the first time. In that case, it's probably wiser to study each of those concepts individually before combining them in an image. Challenge yourself, but try to know when your ambition is getting the better of you.

Ignoring Topology

Topology and edge flow are essential for character models meant for animation. For static game meshes and environment models, edge flow is less critical, but that doesn't mean you should ignore it entirely.

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

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 possible, 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," think about how you can reroute edges, so your mesh smooths more favorably.
  • If you notice non-manifold geometry, stop what you're doing and fix it immediately.

Too Many Subdivisions Too Early

Subdividing your mesh too early in the modeling process will only cause pain and regret and can contribute to the lumpy or irregular quality seen in many a 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 find yourself in a situation where you need to modify the overall shape of your model but have already subdivided it 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.

Always Modeling Seamless Meshes

It's a common misconception among beginning modelers that a finished model must be a single seamless mesh. That's incorrect, and trying to model things that way will only make your life more difficult.

An excellent way to think about whether an element of your model should be seamless or separate geometry is to think about how 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. However, there are two exceptions: 3d printing and game art.

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

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 environmental 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 we hope that by knowing some of the common traps that plague beginners in 3D modeling, you'll be able to avoid them yourself.

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