What Is 3D Modeling?

3D modeling software produces three-dimensional digital effects

Worker with CAD drawing in office Credit: Monty Rakusen
Monty Rakusen/ GettyImages

3D modeling is the process of creating a 3D representation of any surface or object by manipulating polygons, edges, and vertices in simulated 3D space. You can see the results of 3D modeling in movies, animations, and video games filled with fantastical and imaginative creatures and structures.

3D modeling is achieved manually with specialized 3D production software that lets an artist create and deform polygonal surfaces or by scanning real-world objects into a set of data points used to represent the objects digitally.

How Is 3D Modeling Used?

3D modeling is used in a wide range of fields, including engineering, architecture, entertainment, film, special effects, game development, and commercial advertising.

A popular example of 3D technology is its use in major motion pictures. Just think of the scenery in James Cameron's 2009 movie Avatar. The film helped transform the 3D industry when it used many of the concepts of 3D modeling to create the movie's planet, Pandora.

Is 3D Modeling Difficult to Learn?

3D modeling is fun but difficult. Unlike many graphic arts fields, it has a substantial learning curve and involves creating sophisticated software. Beginners in 3D can be put off by the time needed to learn it, but with patience, they can create animations, structural renderings, and video game graphics.

The software you're using will likely have a wealth of online tutorials and instructional classes. Take advantage of these resources to help you become proficient with the software and 3D modeling.

What 3D Modeling Software Should You Use?

3D modeling software allows you to design basic models of characters or objects. Full-featured programs provide the tools you need to flesh out your designs with realistic details. There are many 3D modeling software programs on the market. Among the highest-rated are:

  • AutoCAD: AutoCAD was doing 3D long before it was popular. This professional commercial software released in 1982 and is considered the gold standard by many designers. It's available for Windows and macOS operating systems.
  • ZBrush: ZBrush from Pixologic incorporates clay sculpting techniques into its professional-level software. The process takes many hours to complete, so it isn't recommended for beginners. The same developers produce Sculptris, which is a similar, but a simpler, free 3D modeling application that new 3D designers might try first.
  • 3DS Max from Autodesk: This is popular with video game developers and visual effects artists. Although the software can handle animation and engineering, those features require extensive training to become proficient. 3DS Max works with Windows.
  • SketchUp: SketchUp is a 3D program for designers who have some experience in 3D modeling. It specializes in architectural structures and is frequently used for visualizing architecture, interior design, urban planning, engineering, and construction. It's available for Windows and macOS operating systems.
  • Blender: Blender is free open-source 3D modeling software suitable for creating animated films, visual effects, art, interactive apps, and video games. It operates on Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems.