Blender 3D Basics Beginner's Guide Second Edition

4.8 (8 reviews total)
By Gordon Fisher
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  1. Introducing Blender and Animation

About this book

This book teaches you how to model a nautical scene, complete with boats and water, and then add materials, lighting, and animation. It demystifies the Blender interface and explains what each tool does so that you will be left with a thorough understanding of 3D. This book starts with an introduction to Blender and some background on the principles of animation, how they are applied to computer animation, and how these principles make animation better. Furthermore, the book helps you advance through various aspects of animation design such as modeling, lighting, camera work, and animation through the Blender interface with the help of several simple projects. Each project will help you practice what you have learned and do more advanced work in all areas.

Publication date:
August 2014
Publisher
Packt
Pages
526
ISBN
9781783984909

 

Chapter 1. Introducing Blender and Animation

Welcome! It's a good guess that you are interested in learning how to create 3D animations or model 3D objects, maybe for use in games or 3D printing. You've chosen Blender 3D and you want to learn how to use it. This book is a good choice for learning Blender 3D. We did research on what hurdles new users faced and what were their frustrations with other training methods. So we will go step-by-step, learning how to use Blender comfortably to create animations, and do modeling, lighting, camera work, and much more. We will start out with simple steps and get comfortable at using the Blender interface, making and animating a rowboat and a sloop, and creating our own private island as shown in the following screenshot:

In this chapter, we will cover the following topics:

  • A small introduction to Blender.

  • Installing Blender and giving it a quick test.

  • The top ten reasons to enjoy Blender 3D

  • General animation and a glance at a few videos. The videos give us a quick introduction to animation.

  • A few basic principles of animation.

  • Watching some early computer graphics on how computer animators learned animation.

  • Uses of 3D.

  • The inner workings of Blender.

 

Welcome to the world of Blender 3D


The following is a screenshot of the Big Buck Bunny movie that was made using Blender:

The world of Blender is not an animated world as seen in films such as Big Buck Bunny or Sintel that was also made in Blender. It's the amazing community of people all over the world who use Blender. Artists, programmers, scientists, professionals, amateurs, teens, and retirees all use Blender, and now you will be one of the newest members of our community.

One thing that makes this community remarkable is the concept that since Blender is free, you pay for it by helping out the Blender community. There are many ways to give back to the community. You can recommend Blender to your friends, have fun helping other Blender users on websites such as www.blenderartists.org, critique their works, or pass along tips that you have learned. Blender is an open source software. Once you have mastered Blender, you can help create new functions for Blender itself or work with the Blender foundation team to make new cutting-edge examples of what Blender can do; for example, the films Sintel, Tears of Steel, and The Gooseberry Project were all created using Blender. There are as many ways to help the Blender community as there are Blender users and, most importantly, helping others will help you as a Blender user. Blender is not a solo sport, so join in!

Tip

Big Buck Bunny, Sintel, and Tears of Steel are animated films created by the Blender Institute

They were made with the dual purposes of improving Blender by bringing the best Blender users in the world together to push Blender to its limits, using its full capacity, and demonstrating to people what Blender is capable of. You can download Big Buck Bunny, Sintel, or Tears of Steel, or watch them at these locations:

Big Buck Bunny can be seen at http://www.bigbuckbunny.org/.

Sintel can be seen at http://www.sintel.org/.

Tears of Steel can be seen at http://mango.blender.org/.

 

Discovering Blender and animation


As Sintel, shown in the following screenshot, learned about her little Dragon, you will be learning a lot about how to use Blender. We will start out with some quick exercises to introduce you to the basics, and as you progress, you will be able to do more and more. As you study and practice, your hands will learn the Blender commands, freeing your mind to let it concentrate on modeling, lighting, camera work, and animation.

This book is about using Blender 3D; we will cover things that can help you build 3D objects for games, models, real-time simulations, 3D printing, and more. Blender began as an animation program, so it's good to start there.

However, there is more to animation than knowing which buttons to push while using Blender. Animators who are skilled at using the software but do not have a broader understanding of animation do not get the full use of the tools. They don't understand the culture or the history of animation or how animation principles have been used by masters such as Ub Iwerks, Chuck Jones, and Hayao Miyazaki, and therefore, they cannot profit from them. Thus, in this chapter, we will look at animation in general, and then computer animation specifically.

As you go through this book, you'll start by creating some simple animations such as moving the lights and camera in Blender. Once you are confident with this, you'll study the fundamentals of modeling and complete a simple modeling and animation project; finally, you will work on a more complex scene to expand your skills and get comfortable with the whole Blender production cycle.

There are many excellent books that teach you how to animate. In this book, we will focus on Blender and include pointers about animation that will help you educate yourself about animation in general and get the most from Blender.

Repetition is important when learning a skill. It takes repeated usage before your arms know what to do when the mind says "scale this box." So be patient. Play, learn, and have fun!

Learning Blender will literally change how you think

You'll be able to look at an object and think of several ways to create it. You will perceive everything differently. As you walk down a street, you will be imagining how you might model it or render it in Blender.

One thing to remember is that there are no buttons in Blender that say "Don't touch". As long as you back up your files and use the Ctrl + Z keys to undo any mistakes, not much is likely to go too wrong.

Now, it's time to begin our discovery of Blender. Using Blender is as simple or complex as you want it to be.

Let's begin simply. To start, we will open Blender and render a scene. Rendering is like taking a picture in Blender. When you take a picture in real life, you have a camera, some light, and something or someone you are taking a picture of.

In a Blender scene, there is a camera, a lamp, and something to render. When you render, Blender scans the scene from the camera's point of view. It notes which objects are where, and what lights are available. It figures out how each object will be lit, what the surface of the object looks like, what part of the object the camera can see, how big it should appear to the camera, and other factors, and then Blender creates a picture. It's pretty amazing.

We'll dip our toe into Blender, just so you can see that using Blender is not difficult and that you can do it. Then, we will do a little background study on animations so that you will understand what animators are trying to accomplish in Blender. Then, using what you have learned, you'll be ready to learn more about Blender.

Installing Blender

Go to http://www.blender.org/ to download Blender for free. There is a Download button on the main menu, which will direct you to the location from where you can download the latest version of Blender for your system. Blender runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Follow the instructions and you should have Blender up and running quickly.

To use Blender, you need to first check that your machine has certain minimum system specifications so that it is capable of running Blender. Here's where to find your system information:

  • On a PC that runs XP or Vista, click on the Start button at the lower left of the Windows screen, then go to Programs | Accessories | System Tools | System Information.

  • On a PC that runs Windows 7, open System Information by clicking on the Start button. When the search box opens, type System Information, and choose System Information from the list of results.

  • On a PC that runs Windows 8, at the bottom-left corner, tap or click on the Start button (Windows logo key) on the screen and choose System from the pop-up menu.

  • On a Mac, click on the Finder | Applications | Utilities | System Profiler or Finder | Applications | Utilities | System Information.

  • On a Linux machine, check the System Settings | System Info.

The following is what Blender needs in order to be able to run:

  • System

    • Windows XP, Vista, 7, or 8

    • Mac OS X 10.6 or later

    • Linux

  • Minimum hardware requirements

    • A 32-bit Dual Core CPU with at least 2 GHZ and SSE2 support

    • 2 GB RAM

    • A 24-bit 1280x768 display

    • A three-button mouse or trackpad

    • An OpenGL-compatible graphics card with 256 MB RAM

  • Recommended hardware requirements

    • A 64-bit Quad Core CPU

    • 8 GB RAM

    • Full HD Display with 24-bit color

    • A three-button mouse

    • An OpenGL-compatible graphics card with 1 GB RAM

  • Optimal (production-grade) hardware requirements

    • A 64-bit Dual 8 Core CPU

    • 16 GB RAM

    • Two Full-HD displays with 24-bit color

    • A three-button mouse and a graphics tablet

    • Dual OpenGL-compatible graphics cards, quality brand with 3 GB RAM

Tip

Using a three-button mouse and the numeric keypad

After looking at the hardware specs, you may have noticed that Blender is designed to be used with a three-button mouse. Whether you are running a Mac and using a single-button mouse, or you have a laptop with a touchpad or trackpad, this is a great time to go to the store and buy a three-button optical or wireless mouse with a mouse wheel. They are not expensive. You shouldn't need anything special. I took one from a PC, plugged it into the USB port of a MacBook Air running Snow Leopard, and it worked fine. I polled a number of Blender users and they all said that using the three-button mouse was faster and easier than other devices.

If you are using a tablet with a higher end system, check your tablet documentation on how to reproduce right, middle, and left mouse-button clicks.

Also, if your computer does not have a numeric keypad built in, treat yourself to an external one. They are not expensive and will add a lot to your enjoyment of Blender, as well as improve your productivity.

Using Blender

Now that you have the latest version of Blender on your system, it's time to try it out.

 

Time for action – rendering your first scene in Blender


Although Blender is very powerful and has a lot of features, it's easy to get started using it. Blender has a default scene all set up for you to render. The following steps will help you render your first scene in Blender:

  1. First, start your copy of Blender. You can either click on the Blender icon in the directory that you have installed it in, or use a shortcut or alias if you have created one. Blender will even run from a data stick, so you don't need to have it installed on a particular computer.

  2. When you've started it, you should see something similar to the following screenshot. You will also see a splash screen in the center, with an attractive image made in Blender and some links.

  3. Move the cursor over the big central window. Click the mouse to close the splash screen.

  4. Then, if you are running Windows or Linux, press the F12 button on your keyboard.

  5. If you have a Mac, click on where it says Render on the upper left, above the large 3D View window. Select Render Image from the drop-down menu. This is because Macs often have the F1 and F12 function keys already mapped to specific functions.

The following are the changes you should make to optimize your Mac for Blender. When you have made these changes, you will be able to use Blender in the same manner as Windows and Linux users, and you will be able to press the F12 button to start rendering:

  1. Go to System Preferences, select Keyboard, and then check Use all F1, F2, etc. keys as standard function keys. Don't worry, you can still get the regular functionality of the buttons by pressing the required button along with the fn function key.

  2. Next, in Keyboard Shortcuts under Dashboard & Dock, uncheck the Dashboard/F12 checkbox, so you can render by merely pressing F12.

  3. Then, uncheck Exposé Desktop/F11 under Exposé & Spaces. Now, you will be able to use the F11 key to bring back your most recent rendered image.

  4. Now, click on the left arrow at the top left of the System Preferences window to get back to the main System Preferences window. Now, select the Exposé & Spaces symbol in the top row above Keyboard. Select the Exposé button. Go down to the Dashboard section. Select the button that says Middle Mouse Button (MMB) when the menu pops up, and select the dash at the bottom of the pop-up menu. This will enable the MMB for use with Blender.

  5. Finally, click on the left arrow at the top left of the System Preferences window to get back to the main System Preferences window. Select the mouse symbol next to Keyboard. Uncheck where it says Zoom using scroll wheel while holding. This will activate the control key while using Blender.

What just happened?

Congratulations! You've now rendered your first scene in Blender. You can see the scene to be rendered in the preceding image. The cube is easy to guess. The dot surrounded by dashed lines is the lamp. The four-sided cone with a triangle on top is the camera, and there is a reference grid beneath the cube.

When the scene is rendered, as seen in the following screenshot, Blender shows you what the camera would see. The cube is colored gray because you haven't chosen a color. There is only one lamp in the scene, and Blender calculates where the lamp is and where the sides of the cube are. The lamp is not an object like a light bulb, so it is not seen in the rendered image, but its light is used to set the brightness of the scene.

While it's rendering, Blender figures out what portion of the light would bounce off a particular side of the cube and into the camera lens. Some sides point away from the lamp, so they appear darker. The sides facing towards the lamp appear to be brighter. Blender even does a trick that you don't see at all. Blender figures out which parts of the cube the camera does not see, and to save itself from additional work, it doesn't render what cannot be seen.

Rendering this image was simple for you. Blender doesn't get any more difficult to use; you just learn more things to do with Blender. In the following chapters, we will break down the sections into easy-to-do steps using Blender.

Mac users, thank you for making changes to the interface of your Mac. Now, you can use the standard Blender commands. These will pay off by making the using of Blender much easier and fun. You can still access the Dashboard via the Mac menu bar.

 

Time for action – closing Blender


Now, let's close Blender and study some basics of animation. Steps for closing Blender are as follows:

  1. Press the Esc key to close the render window and return to the 3D View window.

  2. Press Ctrl + Q to quit Blender.

  3. A dialog box will pop up, asking you to confirm that you want to click on Quit Blender; click on it to quit Blender.

What just happened?

When Blender renders a scene, it brings up a special render window over the 3D window. Pressing the Esc button closes this window, returning you to the 3D window. Pressing Ctrl + Q closes Blender 3D down completely. Congratulations! Everything else about learning Blender is just an elaboration on this.

 

Top 10 reasons to enjoy using Blender 3D


We all have our reasons for wanting to use Blender. The initial reason was that I wanted to teach a class on 3D animation at the Parks and Recreation center. I needed a 3D system that would fit the budget and that students could take home to use. Since then, I've also used it professionally, creating animations for an airline, a national football league team, banks, and more. With Blender, I made the first animated entry ever submitted to the Film in 48 Hours contest, and one Blender animation of mine was accepted in the Ozark Foothills Film Festival. I've even built a 3D printed model of a proposed lunar lander. Therefore, you never know how Blender will come in handy.

The top 10 reasons to enjoy using Blender 3D are given in the following table:

No.

Reasons

10

It's a fun hobby that will last all of your life.

9

You can use it to make a portfolio to get a job in games, films, advertising, and other fields.

8

You can start a home-based graphics, animation, or game business.

7

Blender has the largest user base and a great world-wide community.

6

You can express your artistic side and make things the way they should be.

5

It's fun to build your own worlds and have God-like power over them.

4

You can make games with the Blender Game Engine and make assets for them.

3

You can learn how to do computer programming with Python.

2

You can impress your friends by making animations for your civic social group or favorite team.

1

You can get coffee or a snack, or take a nap, while it's rendering and still be productive.

 

Getting a good background in animation


One of the best ways to learn animation is to study it from its beginning so that you can see for yourself how people learned about animation and improved what they could do. This was a lesson that was learned and then relearned when computer animation was introduced. So let's go back to the roots of animation and watch them grow, and then go back to the roots of computer animation and watch it get started.

Going back to the year 1922 on an animation field trip

We are going to go into the past, back to when animation was young. We are going there because there are general issues that everyone encounters when trying to put graphics into motion. Early animations were simple, so it is easiest to see the fundamental animation techniques done and also see examples of where it wasn't done so you can tell the difference.

Back then, like now, animators were under pressure; they had a short time to turn out a completed animation. They ran into issues such as what was required to tell a story believably, what kind of look to give it, how to make it easy to do, and how to complete it before their deadline. They also had to answer questions such as how to tell the story, how to get all the art work done, and how to photograph it with a camera. A lot of the answers they came up with are now universal.

First, we are going to look at a Felix the Cat animation called Felix Turns the Tide that was made a few years after World War I. It was one of the seventeen different Felix the Cat films made that year (which equates to approximately one animation every three weeks). It was a silent animation and cutting edge for its time but pretty primitive by modern standards, as you can see in the following screenshot:

From the thought balloon, borrowed from newspaper comics, you can see that animation hadn't come too far from its roots.

It's a good place to start because they had figured out the mechanics of making an animation, but they were just beginning to learn the language of animation. In this book, you will learn both the mechanics of a Blender animation and how to do it well. It's a learning experience we will share with these pioneers—so we're in good company!

 

Time for action – watching Felix Turns the Tide


Now, what you need to do next is find the animation and watch it. Next, you will think about certain aspects of what you have seen. There are no wrong answers. The important thing is to think about these concepts. Through these, you will understand more about animation principles and how they apply to Blender. Now, put yourself in the mind of someone living in 1922. World War I was just a few years ago. The first commercial radio stations were new. A person named Otto Mesmer did most of the animation work on Felix Turns the Tide. So put yourself in his place. You have a month to make it, and that is not enough time. How are you going to tell the story? Watch the animation, but go back and watch it again to see how he did it.

  1. Search on the Web for the terms Felix Turns the Tide + 1922. YouTube, archive.org, or some other site should have the video. Archive.org may have a higher quality version. The Felix Turns the Tide movie was made in 1922 and stars Felix the Cat, who was the hottest animation star of the time.

  2. Watch Felix Turns the Tide.

  3. As you watch, look at Felix's movement. Does it look realistic or are we given a series of poses and a moment to see each one?

  4. Look at the background. How did they stage the scenes? Think of the scene where he goes to say goodbye to his girlfriend, or when he hijacks the balloon. How is the camera used? Would you have used the camera in the same way?

  5. Look at how they designed the animation to meet the audience's expectations. Audiences were used to the comic strips of newspapers, which used symbols such as speech balloons and musical notes to convey action. Do you see other places where the animation looks like a comic strip? Do modern animations use material from other genres that you are used to these days?

  6. Look at how the sausages get to the battle by wireless. Do you think that modern audiences would accept this? Imagine you are remaking this animation in 3D using Blender for a modern audience. How would you handle getting the sausages to the battlefront?

What just happened?

Felix Turns the Tide sure isn't as complex as Big Hero 6, but it's surprising how well they used their limited tools and told a story. This was only six years after cel animation had been invented. Cel animation revolutionized early animation because it allowed you to put different parts of an animated frame on different transparent layers of plastic cellulose, so you didn't have to redraw the entire scene every frame. However, the animation was pretty stiff, and the motion went straight from pose to pose. Their use of the camera reflected the use of films at that time, plenty of long shots and long takes. They also borrowed the visual grammar from comics with things such as speech bubbles and dotted lines to indicate where they were looking.

Moving ahead a few years in time, to 1928

Animators are learning that their craft and technology is advancing. Walt Disney had lost its main character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Universal Studios. Universal also hired all of Disney's animators except Ub Iwerks, Disney's star animator. This was a serious blow to Disney. Therefore, Disney was desperate and they needed something to stay in business. In 1928, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created their first Mickey Mouse animation, Plane Crazy. It introduced both Mickey and Minnie. However, Disney could not find a distributor for it, so it did not get released. Their next Mickey Mouse movie, Steamboat Willie, was the first American animation with sound, and that opened up the market for Mickey. For us, since Plane Crazy was made as a silent film and retrofitted with sound, it showed how animators had perfected their skills in the period between 1922 and 1928 before the use of sound.

 

Time for action – enjoying Plane Crazy


Felix the Cat was pretty stiff. In the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, you can see that things had improved a lot in a short time and that they had discovered what made animation work. What differences do you see between the style of the Felix cartoons and those of Mickey? The following steps will guide you in understanding how revolutionary this animation is:

  1. Search on the Web for the terms Plane Crazy + 1928. YouTube, archive.org, or some other site should have the video. This is a good example of silent animation at the dawn of sound. As you watch it, keep Felix Turns the Tide in mind and see how the two are different. In addition, look at the driver at 3:51; is that Felix?

  2. Watch it now. Don't be afraid to stop the action or look at some parts more than once.

  3. Look at Mickey's movement. What differences do you see in how the characters move and look that allowed Iwerks to do a more subtle characterization with Mickey than the animators had done for Felix?

  4. Look at the background. They are softer and lusher in Plane Crazy than they were in Felix Turns the Tide. Does this accomplish the purpose of highlighting the characters by contrast? How would you decide how much detail to put into a given background?

  5. Look at how the camera is used. In what ways is Plane Crazy visually richer than Felix Turns the Tide and how does this help tell the story?

  6. Look at how the things are squashed and stretched in Plane Crazy. How did Ub Iwerks distort things to make Plane Crazy more dramatic?

  7. Look at how your expectations of what will happen are misdirected. How did Ub Iwerks manage to redirect your expectations so you were fooled, or does it allow him to add or remove something without you noticing?

What just happened?

Animation has improved quite a bit in these six years. Now, the basic principles of animation are codified and used with good results. Instead of a static, stage-like establishing shot, we enter the scene following a cow, from blackness into a farmyard filled with activity. Objects are contorted surrealistically. There is no way to foretell where the story is going and the camera is used to immerse you into what is happening. When Mickey is flying along the road, Disney puts you into the action, giving you a view from the plane's cockpit instead of showing you what the airplane is flying through, heightening the action, but also saving work by using just a few lines and some colored background to achieve a hair-raising ride.

Arriving in 1938, the animation industry is at a peak

By 1938, the animation industry is mature. Felix ceased production in 1936. Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in December of 1937 and was beginning production on Fantasia. With the popularity of Popeye, Fleischer Studios had become the number two animation company and was working on Gulliver's Travels.

 

Time for action – sailing to Goonland


In 1938, Fleischer Studios did the Popeye cartoon Goonland. This is a good example of the state of animation as a mature art form. If you have questions about some of the terms, check the table in the Animation Principles section that follows. Animating well was a science by 1938 and was codified. As you watch Goonland, see what animation principles it employs. The following steps will help you focus on different parts of the animation that use different methods:

  1. Search on the Web for the terms Goonland + 1938. YouTube, archive.org, or some other site should have the video.

  2. Look at Goonland with an eye to what progress has been made since 1930. According to reviews on www.imdb.com, this has some of the best artwork of all the Popeye cartoons.

  3. Look at how complex the motion is. In addition to the main character's motion, there is secondary motion. It can enhance or detract from the main motion. What places do you see where the secondary motion improves the scene?

  4. Look at how objects move. Arcs make design and motion more interesting than straight lines. What places in the animation do they arc the motion to make it more interesting?

  5. Look at when objects move. Anticipation and follow through help carry the motion.

  6. Look for exaggeration of the motion. How does exaggeration help the feel of animation?

  7. Notice how few metaphors are used. There are no eye-lines, no text balloons. Do visual metaphors like this still have a place in animation? Why or why not?

What just happened?

Goonland was made during the peak of 1930s animation. The principles of animation were well known and widely used. At the start, the secondary motion of clouds in the background is so dramatic that it almost makes you seasick. The anticipation of Popeye taking in an exaggeratedly deep breath prior to filling his sails with wind helps sell that it can be done. When he grabs the goony hair to disguise himself, it snaps and springs towards his hand. That is a follow through. There are fewer metaphors except when the goons fight and you see a cloud of fists and arms, or lines radiating from his face when Popeye sees his Pappy.

 

Animation principles


You have seen how animation developed over the space of 16 years. People learned techniques that aided in making an interesting and exciting animation. It didn't happen overnight, but when everything came together, the synergy of the techniques made animation come alive.

The following table lists techniques to think about and incorporate into your work as you learn to animate in Blender:

Technique

Benefit

Squash and stretch

Makes animated objects such as clay. A ball hitting a wall gets taller and narrower as it flattens on the wall momentarily, and then resumes its original shape. This punches up the motion and gives the viewer clues about the weight and rigidity of an object or character.

Anticipation

Anticipation prepares the audience for something that is going to happen. When Wile E Coyote goes off a cliff when chasing the Roadrunner, he pauses mid air before falling into a deep canyon and then he falls.

Staging

How is the action framed by the camera and what part of the image area is used? You want to present the action in the clearest and most dynamic manner.

Straight ahead action and pose to pose

Most 3D animations are pose to pose. You set keyframes of the most critical points of the animation and then Blender creates the motion between those points. However, you can modify this action so it flows on a curve and speeds up or down as it travels.

Follow through and overlapping action

A baseball pitcher's arm doesn't stop instantly when the ball leaves his hand. That's follow through. The pitcher's arm moves rapidly, and his head moves much more slowly. That's overlapping action.

Slow in and slow out

Think of a drag racing car accelerating or an F1 car stopping in the pits. Motion rates do not change instantly. You need a period of transition.

Arcs

Arcing motion and curvy lines can be more attractive and powerful.

Secondary action

Motions that emphasize the main motions can add a lot to how interesting the motion is. Think of the motion of a woman's dress as she walks along.

Timing

The use of time in animation will affect pacing, characters, and the effect of an action. Events must happen at a believable rate but you can exaggerate time dramatically.

Exaggeration

Exaggerating size, timing, or motion makes it more interesting and accentuates what you want to be most important.

Solid drawing

This is applying basic drawing principles of form, weight, and volume to animations. For Blender, this becomes modeling, texturing, and moving the object to give it a proper feel of weight and mass.

Appeal

A character does not need to be as cute as Hello Kitty to have appeal, but the audience must have a way to relate to them and enjoy them. An object should also have pleasing proportions, and perhaps some sparkle to catch the eye or motion to add detail.

Misdirection

It can be used to change the plot, or guide the viewer's eyes, magician-like, so that they will not notice entrances, exits, or changes.

Contrast

How does the character or object being animated stand out from the background so your eyes know what to follow?

 

Learning from your animation heroes


One of the best ways to learn is to study what others have done; that is no surprise. If you wanted to be a soccer (football) star as a child, you probably watched Pelé on TV and imagined yourself scoring goals the same way.

Animation is the same. It's good to watch the animations that others have made. The following animations are a few recommendations that you can try to create:

  • Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Trolley Troubles

  • Felix the Cat, Woos Whoopee

  • Popeye the Sailor, The Paneless Window Washer

  • Betty Boop, Minnie the Moocher

  • Lotte Reiniger, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, made in Germany

  • Jiri Trnka, Ruka (The Hand), considered the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe

  • Ivan Ivanov-Vano, Blek end Uait, made in Russia, which may be disturbing to some

  • Quirino Cristiani, El Mono Relojero, made in Argentina

Please remember that the times and values were different, and watch the animation and not their attitudes.

 

Time for action – making a folder of your animation heroes


You probably already have bookmark folders in your browser. Why not create one of your favorite animation heroes? The following steps will help you to make a folder for your animation heroes:

  1. Think of who your animation heroes are.

  2. Create a bookmarks folder in your web browser that will store the addresses of websites about your favorite animators or animations that you have seen.

  3. Now, go online and look at some works that you know, whether it's Disney's Fantasia, South Park, or Plumiferos (Free Birds), which was the first feature length film made entirely in Blender.

  4. Add a link to your folder whenever you find something you like.

  5. You can find quite a number of interesting animations by just looking around on the Web. For example, Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues is a feature animation done by one person in Flash. It's pretty amazing. I also found Snow-bo, by Vera Brosgol and Jenn Kluska, and Kenya on www.weebls-stuff.com. There are many great Blender animations at www.blenderartists.org.

  6. Come back and watch these animations repeatedly. You'll see something new each time.

What just happened?

You just gave yourself an animation reference library to enjoy and study. As you learn animation, you may want to come back to them as references, to see how they solved animation problems.

 

Starting to use computers for animation in the 1960s


The first interactive computer graphics project was carried out on the Whirlwind computer, which was used in an attempt to create a flight simulator for the military. Other early adopters were GM and Boeing who tried to use the computer to help them design automobiles and airplanes.

The history of interactive graphics began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1961 with two big projects, one of which was called Sketchpad. It's shown in the next image that was provided by MIT. Sketchpad was created by Ivan Sutherland, and it was the forerunner of programs such as Blender. You can see Timothy Johnson using it to model what looks like a chair. To control it, he's using a light pen, the box with 40 buttons on it, and all the switches on the panel to his left. Blender also requires both hands to operate.

The other project was a game called Spacewar!, by Steve Russell, which was the first video game to be distributed.

Let's continue with our tour. We're going to look at a demonstration of Sketchpad. Then, we will look at Triple I, a company founded by three MIT professors to build advanced computer graphics display hardware, and we will see what their in-house 3D animation department was learning. Finally, we will look at the first short film from Pixar, where the animation and the computer animation industries met.

Beginnings of 3D animation in 1963

It's time to meet Blender's great-great-grandfather. Originally, TV screens were used by computers for short-term data storage, but it wasn't long before people tried to connect the screens to computers just to make graphics. The amazing thing about this is that one man came up with everything in 1961. Ivan Sutherland put this system called Sketchpad together. It was the first real-time interactive computer graphics system; all others are descended from it, including Blender.

 

Time for action – meeting Ivan Sutherland and Sketchpad


The video Ivan Sutherland : Sketchpad Demo is not an animation. It's a look at the interactive computer graphics program that was the prototype for all others, including Blender, and it gives you an idea of what primitive computer graphics were like. Follow these steps to watch the video and observe the variety of graphics that are being produced. While they may not look like modern animation, they have the same fundamental elements.

  1. Search on the Web for the terms Ivan Sutherland + Sketchpad Demo (2/2). YouTube, archive.org, or some other site should have the video.

  2. Watch it now. This is the beginning of modern computer graphics.

  3. What kind of graphics do you see? What kind of 3D animation is it doing?

  4. What kind of input devices do they have?

  5. They spoke about master drawings and instances of these drawings and the data structures that make them. Does this have anything to do with modern computer graphics?

  6. They showed the Lincoln Labs TX-2 computer used by Ivan Sutherland. What do you think would win in a computing power contest, the TX-2 or your mobile phone?

What just happened?

We just saw the grandfather of all computer animation programs. Similar to early ink animations, it was all done with lines. They had the basic 3D transformations so they could rotate objects and display a quad view similar to the Quad View in Blender, but there was no shading. You probably noticed there was no standard keyboard or mouse, but there was a box with buttons, switches on the computer, and a lightpen that they used. The lightpen was a distant ancestor of a tablet or a touchscreen. The data structures were very important. Blender definitely uses versions of the master drawings and instances, as you will discover. And yes, your cell phone has much more computing power than the TX-2.

Going to the late 1970s, a few companies are doing 3D animation

By the late 1970s, a few companies are experimenting with video- and film-quality computer animation. One of the first was a company called Information International, Inc. or Triple I. At that time, they were doing some of the best animation in the world, which led to them being one of the teams that made the original Tron. Looking back, what is amazing is how simple the graphics are.

 

Time for action – seeing the Triple I demo 1976 – 1979


This video is a compilation of two different demo reels. You can tell the change by the soundtrack. Look at their approach to animation. This was bleeding-edge graphics in its time. The Triple I demo reel shows huge improvements in computer graphics. Objects have solid surfaces, colors, and highlights. Watch this demo reel and notice the improvements since Sketchpad. Compare it to modern computer animation to figure out what is missing:

  1. Search on the Web for the term Triple I (1976–1979). YouTube, archive.org, or some other site should have the video.

  2. Watch it now and enjoy it.

  3. Did you notice the equipment at the very beginning? Do you see the movie camera? How about the data tablet and the keyboard? Can you find the removable discs for data backup and the computer tape drives?

  4. Just as we saw an improvement between Felix and Mickey, there's been a lot of advancement from Sketchpad to the Triple I demo reel. What changes do you see?

  5. Notice the teapot on the table in one of the scenes? Have you seen it elsewhere?

  6. Look at the geometry of the 3D models such as the ABC logo and the Mercedes Benz logo and the building. You can see that the sides are made of flat panels called polygons. What are some of the ways that they play with these polygons to make it more interesting?

  7. Compare the animation here with the animation in Felix Turns the Tide. Both are primitive. Are there similarities in how they handle backgrounds? Is Triple I's plastic look equivalent to the line art in Felix because they couldn't do any better?

What just happened?

The first machine you saw was the FR-80 graphics recorder, the most advanced film recorder of its time. Next, you can see a digitizing tablet and a keyboard terminal. The two low machines in the foreground are disk drives. The multi-platter disks had an enormous capacity of 200 MB. Backing up data has always been a problem for animators. What are some of the ways you can back up your work?

This is quite an improvement over the work in Sketchpad but still very stiff. The work on color, lighting, textures, and post processing was all being done for the first time. The animation was still being done by people trained at Cal Tech, not Cal Arts. What is amazing is that this was a professional demo reel. Now, it might not even get you a job as an intern. Back then, it was mind-boggling.

The teapot was created in 1975 at the University of Utah and has become like the mascot of computer graphics. This was a very early use of it, and in this case, it was testing curved surfaces and shading. The teapot makes many appearances in films, including in Toy Story.

Back then, there were no such things as geometric primitives. Each object was digitized vertex by vertex in a similar manner to what was done in Sketchpad. However, the use of the digitizing tablet allowed much more flexibility and precision. The Peter Fonda bust was made by taking aligned photographs of him, mounting the images on a digitizing tablet, and then inputting each vertex one by one, based on the images. It was the first CGI image of a human in a major motion picture.

 

Time for action – watching Triple I's 1982 demo reel


It's just a short time later. However, computer animation is starting to come of age. It's no longer a gimmick, and for the first time, professional art direction is being used. The (Triple I) 1982 demo reel is the beginning of computer animation being used in films and TV. Computer animation now had to compete with traditional photographic techniques and looks. Watch this demo and see whether they succeeded:

  1. Search on the Web for the term (Triple I) 1982 demo reel. YouTube, archive.org, or some other site should have the video.

  2. Watch it now and enjoy it.

  3. Check out the magician Adam Powers. How do you think they animated him?

  4. Does the KCET-TV animation compare well with modern motion graphics?

  5. What is happening with the quality of modeling? How do the Star Wars X-wing fighters compare with the earlier Datsun car?

  6. The Cindy character is the first whole body human character. Compare her and the Peter Fonda head?

What just happened?

In the first demo reel, the animation pretty much consisted of objects floating in space. In the 1982 demo reel, the background becomes an integral part of the scene, and in the Adam Powers section, we have a simple character animation and the first mo-cap animation.

Bringing on a creative director, Richard Taylor, Triple I's animation started to have filmic qualities; the KCET animation was an early example of good motion graphics.

The team consisted of the same people, with the addition of an Art Director. So we can see that using principles of graphic design is starting to make a difference.

Not only are the models becoming more detailed as with the X-wing fighters, but now they are getting shaded. The Cindy model was the first shaded representation of the human figure. Like their work, you may start out simple, but your work will get better and better.

Introducing Pixar in 1984, and everything comes together

In 1984, Pixar was the first place that combined computer animation technology with traditional animation techniques. While the modeling and rendering were not much better than anyone else at that time, the use of the twelve animation principles revolutionized computer animation. When it was introduced, other animators were in awe.

 

Time for action – adventuring with André and Wally B


This was Pixar's first animation. It was made in 1984. It was directed by John Lasseter, who had been a traditional cel animator at Walt Disney and was familiar with the standard animation principles. The modeling was very simple, and the storyline goes right back to the simplicity of Felix the Cat. So you can see, even successful and modern companies have learned from the old school, just as you're doing by reading this chapter. Here is where computer animators learned to use the same animation principles. Watch The Adventures of André and Wally B and observe how many of the principles that you can see are still in use:

  1. Search on the Web for the term The Adventures of André and Wally B. YouTube, archive.org, or some other site should have the video.

  2. Watch it now and enjoy it.

  3. You learned about classic animation principles. What animation principles do you see being used?

  4. Compare the color use and detailed backgrounds to what Triple I did.

  5. Look at the trees, why are they all similar?

  6. Compare how dynamic these characters are with Adam Powers by Triple I.

  7. Often, animations have inside jokes. Did you notice the gloves on André's hands? Which other animated character wore gloves like that?

What just happened?

The Adventures of André and Wally B was a landmark film in a number of aspects. It took ten VAX-11/750 super-minicomputers and a Cray X-MP/48 supercomputer to render it out, and it was the first computer animation to use motion blur.

More importantly, it was the first computer animation to have used animation principles seriously. For example, in Squash and stretch—when Wally gets ready to chase André, he first squeezes front to back and then straightens out as he flies. Here is a list of the animation principles that were used in this film:

  • Anticipation: Notice André's reaction as he first sees Wally B, but we don't.

  • Staging: Notice the close up for their first encounter and then the long shot when Wally is chasing André.

  • Straight ahead action and pose to pose: You can notice this when André is waking up.

  • Follow through and overlapping action: Wally's feet are not attached, but they react to his motion. His wings move faster than his legs.

  • Slow in and slow out: Note how André's eyes open and close as he is waking up.

  • Arcs: When Wally goes to sting André, he does a barrel roll first.

  • Secondary action: Wally moves in to threaten André, and André leans back in response.

  • Timing: You can notice this when you see André quaking and then you see Wally for the first time.

  • Exaggeration: You can notice this when Wally tweaks André's nose.

  • Solid drawing: André and Wally seem to have real weight and mass.

  • Appeal: Wally is cute.

The trees are an application of a master object and instance as invented by Ivan Sutherland. Their coloring sets the tone of the animation, and their smooth-rounded shapes contrast with the spiky-busy background. Those gloves on André's hands look suspiciously like Mickey Mouse's gloves.

You can see the difference between this and the Triple I animations. This animation was such a breakthrough that the Association of Computing Machinery had John Lasseter write a paper called Principles of Traditional Animation Applied to 3D Computer Animation for the July 1987 issue of Computer Graphics.

Have a go hero – educating yourself about 3D animation

There are a lot of great animations to look at. You can never watch too many. If you have time, watch any Pixar short films you can find. You might also want to check out the following films for a better idea of the range of animation that was happening back then. Do you see differences in the animation styles of the Americans, the Europeans, and the Japanese?

VintageCG on YouTube has a good collection of early computer animation. Some of the titles are:

  • MAGI Synthavision demo reel (1982), this was Triple I's main competitor. Both worked on Tron.

  • Sogitec Showreel (1985), this is a European competitor. They used some of the equipment that Triple I built, but had their own studios.

  • Japan Computer Graphics Lab (1985) shows what the Japanese were doing at that time.

  • Stanley and Stella in Breaking the Ice (1987), the first animation with flocking behaviors to control the birds and fish.

  • Reboot Intro (1994), this was the first half-hour TV show that was entirely computer generated.

Your greater understanding of animation will increase your ability to create it.

Back to the present

So far, we've studied the roots of animation and of computers. It's good to see that the great started humbly, and to see how things improved as they practiced. This gives us inspiration. It's the journey we are all on. The changes from Adam Powers to The Adventures of André and Wally B are impressive, as animation professionals moved in and showed the computer boys what using the principles of animation could do for their computer-generated animations.

 

Using your 3D skills, what can you do with them?


There are a lot of different ways to use 3D. The following are a few ways you might want to use your Blender skills.

Creating 2D animations

It might seem odd, but if you watch animated shows such as Futurama and American Dad, in outdoor scenes or ones with cars, planes, and rockets moving in them, you can tell that they were originally created in 3D and were then colored to match the rest of the 2D animation. One director told me that his 2D animated show is all done in 3D but shot with a camera setting that flattens it out again. He finds it's faster to make it that way than with Flash or other 2D animation packages.

TV and videos

This is the market Blender was originally built for, back in the days when it was the in-house system at a Dutch advertising firm called NeoGeo. Blender is a good tool for local TV stations and advertisers because it can do a lot quickly and deliver quality results at a price that even the smallest TV station's manager will appreciate. Networks such as Azteca America have used Blender in some of their studios. Blender is good for schools and universities as well as personal video projects.

Films and pre-visualization

Blender has started to be used for feature films such as Plumiferos in Argentina and The Naughty 5 from India. In addition, short films such as Sintel show that Blender has the capacity to do it. Hollywood has been known to use Blender for pre-visualizing a movie before it's made, to figure out how the movie will look when they make it. Pixar uses Blender for its intern program.

Stereoscopic 3D

This is a hot new trend in films. You need to have two cameras render the same scene from slightly different locations, just as if your eyes are slightly apart. However, the cameras have to work in sync with each other. Think of how your eyes shift if they were to go from threading a needle to looking at mountains in the distance. Blender can do this as well as any other 3D animation package.

Web animation

Blender is good for rendering complete animations or for making graphics to be used in Flash, gifs, or HTML 5 animations.

Games

Blender has its own Game Engine. Therefore, it's good for making your own games and showing what you can do. You can also export Blender files for use as assets with other game engines such as Ogre, Unity, and CrystalSpace. You can find out more at sites such as www.blenderartists.org.

Flight and driving simulators

The Blender Game Engine and Blender's physics packages make it possible to make your own flight and driving simulators.

Digital signage

Nowadays, we are seeing digital signs almost everywhere, from HD monitors in McDonalds to the building-sized signs in Las Vegas. With user-selectable resolution, you can make animations in Blender to whatever size you need, for whatever use. The files can then be uploaded to the Web and distributed to displays all over. This is a quickly growing market for advertising companies.

Displaying scientific data

Because the Python language allows using a scientific data set, anything from weather to a rocket to medical simulations can be animated. NASA uses Blender at some of its locations as does the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Legal evidence display

With animation for the legal system, the models are often simple though realistically proportioned. The clients are paying for accuracy, not fancy graphics. Blender's physics engine can help you make realistic animations. You can make car crashes, track bullets, and help when a crime comes to trial. It's an in-demand way to use your animation talents.

Architectural walkthroughs

Clients of a multi-million dollar project want to see what they are getting before they spend their money. This is a very specialized use of Blender and other 3D animation systems. You can give your clients either a high resolution video walkthrough or use the game engine to make it interactive.

Virtual reality

Blender can output a virtual reality .X3D file to create virtual reality on the Web that can be used interactively on most browsers.

Virtual sets

A set that you see behind the TV personality may not exist at all; it might be a set modeled and rendered in Blender.

Interactive instructions

The Blender game engine can be used to make interactive illustrations or lessons, or Blender can provide graphics for Flash or websites.

Showing what can't otherwise be seen

For anything from dinosaurs to the moons of Saturn, 3D is probably the best way to demonstrate what can't be seen directly. This can be used to show others the ideas in your head and the visions you see, taking them to places that are too small, too large, or too dangerous to visit in reality.

Creating a portfolio to get a job

If you do good work and can demonstrate it, many employers don't care what software you use. I know of one animator who perfected his Blender skills while serving in Iraq. He took what he did to the big studios and soon he was working on major Hollywood films. Get involved in animation social media groups. Check out other animators' portfolios.

Product development and visualization

Blender can be used to design and create real objects. Real copies can be made using 3D printers when you export your Blender files in an STL or X3D format. You can find out more about this in Blender 3D Printing Essentials by Gordon Fisher, which is published by Packt Publishing.

Pop Quiz – uses of Blender

Q1. Blender cannot be used for which of the following purposes:

  1. Outputting a Flash animation

  2. Creating games

  3. Making a feature-length movie

Q2. Blender is not used by:

  1. NASA

  2. Restaurants

  3. People like you

 

Summary


This first chapter was there to get you ready for Blender 3D.

You dipped your toe into Blender, opened it, rendered a scene, and closed Blender. You looked at the roots of animation, and the techniques that were developed to make animation producible and enjoyable. You got to see the beginning of computer animation and computer games and understand how the principles of animation apply to computer animation. You've got a top-ten list of cool things about Blender and some ideas on how you can use the skills that you will develop with this book.

In the next chapter, we will get you comfortable with working in Blender. We will discover the secrets behind all those windows, get an explanation of the basic geometry behind 3D animation, and learn how to use the 3D View window where most of the work in Blender is done.

Let's go!

About the Author

  • Gordon Fisher

    Gordon Fisher got his start in computer graphics, working with industry pioneers at Information International, Inc. Since then, he has made 3D animation for clients including the U.S. Army, Ford Motor Co., the Dallas Cowboys, the Southeastern Conference, Costco, and Southwest Airlines.

    He has been using Blender professionally since 2002, and has given classes on using Blender and using Python with Blender at Python conferences in Texas and Arkansas. His short film, Land and Sky, made with Blender, was shown at the Ozark Foothills Film Fest. His work has been displayed at the National Air and Space Museum.

    He is the Creative Director for Point Happy Interactive and spends his spare time as a bicycling advocate and space activist. He has written articles about 3D modeling and animation for the American Modeler magazine and Digital Video Producer e-zine.

    Browse publications by this author

Latest Reviews

(8 reviews total)
Excellent
Well laid book, easy to get into and read. Great at explaining some of the more difficult concepts in Blender.
Good starter guide in learning how to use blender
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