Blender is becoming a massively popular and powerful 3D program. It is used by more than 6,000 companies worldwide, across various industries and companies, including Facebook, Ubisoft, and Lockheed Martin (https://blenderbasecamp.com/home/which-global-companies-use-blender/). Its modeling versatility makes it a great way to enter the 3D industry. Most 3D projects begin with a 3D model, which is then textured and prepared for further use in animation, VFX, scene rendering, and video games. Because of this, hard-surface modeling skills are fundamental and applicable in virtually all 3D disciplines.
This chapter introduces hard-surface modeling and how it is different from other modeling styles, namely organic modeling. You will learn about some basic principles that are commonly used in hard-surface modeling that we will later apply in the hands-on projects.
We will also cover the importance of hard-surface modeling skills and how they can be applied professionally in different areas, which will help you realize the potential benefits of what you will learn in this book.
By the end of this chapter, you’ll be ready to begin creating complex 3D objects and prepare them for further use by creating materials and textures from scratch.
In this chapter, we will cover the following topics:
- Understanding hard-surface modeling
- Defining hard-surface objects in Blender
- Creating a simple hard-surface modeling workflow
- Reviewing the projects
Understanding hard-surface modeling
Hard-surface modeling is a 3D modeling technique used to create machines, vehicles, weapons, and any non-living objects with hard and static surfaces. Most man-made objects in our everyday surroundings would be categorized as hard-surface objects. A typical computer is an example of a hard-surface object. It is made of hard and artificial materials; it cannot be bent or folded like a shirt.
In Blender, hard-surface objects are typically defined by more technical features such as sharp edges, flat surfaces, and separation between loose parts. They are rigid bodies or objects that are restricted in motion to a particular mechanical movement and do not deform. This will be discussed further in the next section, Defining hard-surface objects. Things such as clothes, creatures, and natural objects are not hard-surface objects because their surfaces are usually soft and non-static.
Figure 1.1 shows an electric guitar model, an example of a typical hard-surface object:
The electric guitar has flat surfaces, lots of sharp edges, and separate parts. As with almost any complex model, some parts consist of some organic modeling features, but it is generally a hard-surface model.
Understanding organic modeling
Organic modeling is the opposite of hard-surface modeling, and it deals with things such as plants, animals, characters, and generally other living things, but also things such as clothes, statues, and car bodies. I know what you’re thinking – those last two don’t seem to fit in there at all.
Categorizing clothes as organic modeling makes some sense since they are soft and foldable, but cars and statues sounds silly. The reason these are in the same category is not because of the nature of the objects, but because of how they appear in a 3D modeling program. Figure 1.2 shows an example of a typical organic model:
The monkey in Figure 1.2, commonly referred to as Suzanne, has a different surface from the electric guitar. It appears much more intricate and there aren’t any sharp edges or flat surfaces. Instead, the entire object is covered with a grid of polygons. To fully understand the difference between organic and hard-surface modeling, we must get a little more technical.
Some artists will argue that if a model is animated, it is organic and not hard-surface. A tank is a great example of a typical hard-surface model with a static surface, but it can still become partially organic. Do you remember that scene from The Hulk, where the Hulk bends the barrel of a tank backward and points it at the driver’s head, as shown here?
According to some artists, this type of animation will turn the hard-surface barrel of the tank into an organic model. This is because making an animation like that requires a model to have some features that are typical of organic modeling.
Understanding this argument can be a little difficult, so let’s take a close look at a simple example to help us understand why a bending animation requires a model to become partially organic. Let’s imagine an aluminum panel in two variations, as shown here:
In the first variation, it is completely straight and flat, like a typical hard-surface object. In the second variation, we dropped a heavy metal ball on it and bent the surface. To achieve this look, we need to subdivide the surface into many small faces, each of which is slightly angled. This creates a lattice-like pattern on the surface, which is typical of organic objects. Now, even though the metal surface is still hard to touch, it can be described as having an organic surface.
The conclusion, then, is that the most important aspect that makes the distinction between organic and hard-surface modeling is the geometry of the objects’ surface. Hard-surface objects generally have sharp and straight edges, flat faces, and static surfaces, while organic models generally have bumpy, deformed, bent, or irregular shapes and surfaces.
Before we start creating some basic hard-surface objects, let me explain why it is important to distinguish between the two modeling styles in the first place and why we aren’t just jumping straight into a modeling project. The main reason is that they use completely different modeling techniques and workflows.
This is something that needs to be considered because we cannot start a complex modeling project without doing some planning and preparation. How we begin our modeling process depends heavily on the style of modeling, so it’s important to decide which style we are going to use beforehand.
Blender offers many different modeling tools, but some simply aren’t suited for hard-surface modeling, while others aren’t suitable for organic modeling. Again, this will be clearer when we start introducing some practical examples, but for now, it’s important to understand that we’re making this distinction because it will allow us to develop a workflow more easily.
In this section, we quickly reviewed the theory of hard-surface modeling and how it differs from organic modeling. We established that hard-surface modeling is mainly defined by the characteristics of an object’s surfaces and its geometry. In the next section, we will determine what exactly all those characteristics look like on a 3D object in Blender.
Defining hard-surface objects in Blender
Now, it’s time to jump into Blender and look at some examples. As we stated in the previous section, hard-surface modeling is typically defined by features such as flat surfaces, sharp and straight edges, and multiple loose parts.
We are going to focus on hard-surface modeling, but it is important to understand the differences between the two modeling styles, so let’s go over those features one by one and compare them to organic modeling.
The first thing that identifies a hard-surface object is the sharpness of its edges. We don’t see any sharp edges on the right-hand object. Instead, every edge appears to flow and bend smoothly. Most of the time, edges on hard-surface models will also have thin bevels.
A bevel is a slightly rounded edge that looks as though it has been sanded and smoothed. This adds a touch of realism since there are no perfectly sharp edges in real life. Figure 1.6 shows an object with and without beveled edges:
Bevels are used to simulate real edges in 3D, and they also affect how light reflects from the edges to allow for realistic rendering. In game development, bevels are often avoided because they cost a lot, meaning that they add a lot of polygons to the model, which makes them harder to render.
Because of their high cost, bevels are often baked as normal maps so that they are visible on the surface, but they aren’t part of the 3D model. Apart from realism, bevels can also be useful in many other ways, as we will see later in our modeling projects.
Unlike organic models, hard-surface models tend to have a lot of flat surfaces. This is different from organic models because most organic surfaces appear soft and curvy. Organic surfaces consist of many smaller faces with slight angular differences between them, which create the lattice-like pattern on the mesh. This lattice pattern is usually a dead giveaway of an organic-style surface.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we will never see a curvy surface on a hard-surface model. Figure 1.7 shows a tank turret made with two different modeling styles:
This tank turret is a good example of a hard-surface object with an organic-like surface. It is most definitely a hard-surface object, but the mesh pattern looks a lot like something you would see on an organic model. Because of this, when modeling the tank turret, we can use tools that we would normally use for organic modeling.
Proportional Editing is an example of a tool that’s typically used in organic-style modeling because of how it changes the surface. It can also be used to model a hard-surface object, such as the tank turret in Figure 1.7. Proportional Editing is a polygon modeling tool that allows us to control how much an action influences polygons or objects around the one we selected. We can use it if we want to create a smooth bump on a surface, as shown here:
When we select a vertex and move it up with Proportional Editing enabled, the other vertices around it will also move, but not as much as the one we selected. They will be influenced proportionally by how close they are to the center of the gray circle, as shown in Figure 1.8. Anything outside the circle will not be influenced. This looks like an organic surface, but let’s see how it can be used on a hard-surface model.
We can use Proportional Editing if we want to deform the tank turret to make it slightly pointier in the front. The tool can be activated by clicking on the Proportional Editing Objects button in the top middle of our screen in our 3D viewport window, as shown here:
Then, we can select any vertex in the front of the turret and scale it down on the Y axis, as shown here:
This will cause other vertices around it to come closer and create a pointier shape. From this example, it is important to remember that while an object does have a hard surface, organic modeling tools can still be useful.
Another feature typical of hard-surface modeling that we haven’t mentioned yet is the non-continuity of the Edge Loops. An Edge Loop is a generally continuous line of edges. In theory, loops should be connected end to end, but even when this is not the case, we can select a line of edges, vertices, or faces in the section where they are continuous.
This can be observed by using the Select Loop tool in Blender. We can select a loop by hovering over an edge and holding Alt while selecting it with the left mouse button. On a typical hard-surface model, most edge loops are going to be short and unconnected.
As shown in Figure 1.11, when we select a random edge loop, most of the time, only a few edges, vertices, or faces will be selected. At the end of the selection, the loop breaks down into different elements because of the sharp edges that are typical of hard-surface modeling:
On an organic model, the Select Loop tool would give us different results, as shown here:
The selection is long and usually continuous, meaning that the selection has no beginning or end. Sometimes, the selection is surprisingly intricate, as you can see on the ear of the subdivided Suzanne.
Another interesting thing that is common to hard-surface objects (and less common on organic ones) is that most of the time, the object will consist of several loose parts. Loose parts are individual items with fully connected geometry. Figure 1.13 shows an exploded view of a hard-surface object with all its loose parts separated:
If we select any face on an object and move it, the face will pull a few other connected faces with it. This will deform the mesh, creating an unwanted result, as shown here:
To prevent this, we must select all the polygons that are connected so that nothing is deformed when we move the selection. This can be selected instantly by hovering over a vertex, edge, or face and pressing the L key in Edit Mode.
With that, we’ve gone over some technical differences between hard-surface and organic modeling, and we have a clearer image of what exactly hard-surface modeling means. Now, let’s learn how to start a hard-surface modeling project by developing a simple workflow template.
Creating a simple hard-surface modeling workflow
In this example, we’re going to look at the modeling workflow for this T-72 tank:
- Gathering references: Usually, the first thing we must do is find a reference image to help guide us through a project. For a simple object, a single photo will be enough. But when creating a more detailed object, such as a vehicle, it’s best to find a blueprint, as shown here:
We will cover the details of how to find a blueprint and set it up in Blender in Chapter 2, Creating Basic Shapes for an FN SCAR.
- Separating the parts: We want to break the object down into separate components because this allows us to work step by step. It’s important to do this because when working with complex objects, it’s easy to become overwhelmed as to where to start working. This tank can be broken down into three major components: the hull, the turret, and the tracks/wheels, as shown here:
- Creating the block-out model: Now, we can begin creating the objects, starting with the parent. We always want to find a part of the model that everything else is attached is. This will act as a frame of reference and once we create that, we can just keep adding other things to it. In this case, the parent will be the hull because everything else is attached to it. Then, we can create a very simple version of all the major parts:
- Increasing detail: Once we have created an outline for the rough shapes of the object, we can start creating the smaller and more detailed parts. In this case, we will start adding hatches, screws, armor panels, and similar. This is what makes the model look more intricate and complete. Most of the work is done in this step:
Reviewing the projects
This section briefly outlines the contents of this book.
In the first part, we will create a high-poly FN SCAR assault rifle. Here, we will carefully introduce some essential modeling tools and techniques, while elaborating on the four-step workflow we just covered. This project will be covered over three chapters:
- Chapter 2, Creating Basic Shapes for an FN SCAR
- Chapter 3, Adding More Details with Polygon Modeling and Modifiers
- Chapter 4, Texturing and Rendering the FN SCAR
Figure 1.20 shows what you will be creating:
In the second project, we will design and model a sci-fi race ship without using any blueprints. We will use some of the tools we will have learned about in the first project and improvise our way through a medium-poly model. Once the model is complete, we will use some interesting texturing techniques to make the model appear more detailed and realistic. The second project will be covered over two chapters:
Figure 1.21 shows what you will be creating:
Our final and most advanced project will involve creating a T-72 tank. Here, we will use everything we’ve learned so far, as well as some new methods, to create a highly detailed top-quality modeling project. After modeling and texturing, we will use constraints to rig the tracks, which will make animation possible. This is the skill and quality level that’s typically expected from professionals in the 3D modeling industry. This project will consist of six chapters:
- Chapter 7, Modeling the T-72 Tank: Basic Shapes
- Chapter 8, Modeling the T-72 Tank Hull
- Chapter 9, Modeling the T-72 Tank Turret
- Chapter 10, Modeling Tank Tracks
- Chapter 11, Rigging Tank Tracks
- Chapter 12, Texturing the Tank
Figure 1.22 shows what you will be creating:
Every model will be textured and rendered, which allows for better presentation in a portfolio. By the end of this book, you will be able to model, texture, and present mechanical hard-surface models at virtually any level of complexity.
In this chapter, we defined hard-surface modeling and reviewed some features common to this style. We established that hard-surface objects typically have sharp edges, flat surfaces, and non-continuous edge loops and are usually separated by parts. We also developed a basic four-step workflow that we are going to use for our projects in the coming chapters.
In the next chapter, we will follow the first three steps of our workflow structure to create a simple version of an FN SCAR assault rifle. You will learn how to use some essential modeling tools that will later be used in more advanced modeling techniques.