What Is 3D Printing?

Are you curious about 3D printing? Watch my latest video to learn the basics of how 3D printers work, and at the end of the video I will tell you how you can start experimenting with 3D printing without even owning a 3D printer!

3D Modeling Software

As I mentioned in the video, there are several powerful 3D modeling programs that are available for free or with a free license for hobbyists and makers. Here is a quick summary of some of the most popular free 3D modeling programs: Continue reading “What Is 3D Printing?”

Modeling and Printing a Brain Slug from Futurama

Now that I’m feeling more comfortable with my 3D printer and I even designed some of my own files to print using Autodesk Fusion 360, I decided to try something a little more challenging: modeling and printing something more organic looking.

Fortunately, my wife gave me a Wacom Intuos 3D tablet for Christmas, which comes with ZBrushCore. ZBrushCore provides some of the same functionality as the powerful ZBrush modeling program that lets you sculpt your object, in a manner similar to modeling clay in the real world. This kind of modeling is perfect if you’re making something that is supposed to look organic. Continue reading “Modeling and Printing a Brain Slug from Futurama”

My First 3D Printed Object

I have been reading about 3D printing for a while, but I haven’t had a chance to play with the technology yet. So I decided to test the waters by using a third-party 3D printing service, Shapeways, to print an object I created.

Click to view full-size image.
Click to view full-size image.

I decided to make a small 3D version of my site logo, since I already had objects for the buildings. So I fired up LightWave Modeler and set up a single object with the buildings connected by a base. I had to tweak the buildings to make them printer-ready: all pieces must be fully closed, you cannot have stray polygons, all polygons should be tripled, etc. Newer versions of LightWave have a convenient command, “Mesh Repair” (in the “Detail” tab), that will evaluate if the model is ready for 3D printing.

Once I had the completed model, I exported it as an OBJ file and uploaded it to Shapeways. The system automatically checks your model for errors, which takes a few minutes to complete. If you have errors, you can try to fix them using Shapeways tools in the browser or you can upload a replacement object. I had to fix the thickness of the antennae because they were too thin for the material I wanted to use. So I fixed that minor error in LightWave and uploaded the final file. Continue reading “My First 3D Printed Object”

3D Character Generation Tools

I recently discovered MakeHuman, an open source tool for creating 3D character models. MakeHuman is a standalone program that allows you to create a character mesh. Then you can tweak the base model using sliders for dozens of features, such as head shape, torso depth, finger length, breast size, and many more.

You can also add clothes and other accessories to your character within the application. In addition to the default clothes (named “Geometries” in the application), you can import community created accessories or even make your own in the 3D modeler of choice. And once you have your character model, there are preset poses you can use if you just want a static pose for a scene. Of course, if you want to rig the model, you can export using the A or T pose. Once you have your final character and pose, you can export the mesh to your choice of format.

A simple male character I created using MakeHuman.
A simple male character I created using MakeHuman (click to view full-size image).

MakeHuman is a useful open source application, but another developer, Manuel Bastioni, has improved on MakeHuman by turning it into a Blender plugin and adding significant improvements to the character generation. Many of the same model sliders are available within the plugin. Additionally, he created presets within each category that you can mix into your existing model. You can still use the preset poses in the plugin, but if you are going to stay in Blender then the character is already rigged for your own custom poses or animation!

But I am most excited about the ability to use different base models. In addition to the standard realistic model, he added some anime-style base models, too. And if you create a character using the anime base model, all of the sliders will still work correctly even though the geometry is different than the realistic models.

Unfortunately, I am not very familiar with Blender. However, by using the Maya interface control settings and reading the beginning of a Blender tutorial, I was able to quickly learn enough to play with ManuelLab and create a very simple anime character (see below). I also created the ultra-simple “tube top” she is wearing in LightWave, to test out how clothes are created and then applied within ManuelLab (mesh created in LightWave and then applied in Blender).

A simple posed character I created using the ManuelLab plugin in Blender.
A simple posed character I created using the ManuelLab plugin in Blender (click to view full-size image).

If you need to quickly create characters and do not want to build your own character meshes, MakeHuman and ManuelLab are great tools to add to your arsenal. Enjoy!

Linear Color Workflow

I finally looked into a more advanced animation pipeline feature named “linear color workflow”. The concept is simple: you can represent an image using a very wide range of values, thus preserving a very wide range of color values and brightness levels in a single scene. And if your entire workflow uses this high dynamic range data, you can perform sophisticated effects to the final image that are not possible when you are limited to the 8-bit integer RGB values that are normally used in JPG, PNG, and similar file types.

I used this article from Except.nl as a great introduction to the topic. Using the article a guide, I rendered my own scene and tried some of the recommended tools. Continue reading “Linear Color Workflow”

Pixar in a Box

Pixar has partnered with Khan Academy to provide free education about the animation process to students. The course is named “Pixar in a Box“.

Khan Academy provides free online courseware for students. Unlike Coursera and other so-called “open” education sites, Khan Academy does not charge for any of their courses and does not even use advertising. The website originally started as a series of YouTube videos by founder Salman Khan, who was tutoring his cousin.

Most of the courses are geared towards general education of K-12 and college students, with courses like “6th Grade Math” and  “Chemistry”. More recently, Khan Academy has started partnering with other companies, universities, and museums to provide more niche education. The “Pixar in a Box” course is designed for middle-school and high-school students, but it is available to everyone.

The courses are math-heavy, showing how math is used the animation process. For example, one course explains how trigonometry is used to create the Pixar worlds and another teaches how weighted averages are used to create characters. Pixar’s goal is to show how academics relate to real-world applications that students care about.

Maya Marble Material Tutorial

Creating a marble texture in Maya is as simple as adding a single node. But you can use a more advanced node network to further improve the look of the material. This tutorial will show you how to assign a simple marble texture to an object and then build on that simple texture by adding additional nodes.


In preparation for this tutorial, I created a very simple scene: a polygon sphere (radius: 1.000), a camera pointed at the sphere (focal length: 55), a key light off to the left of the camera and a fill light (40% intensity) from the right of the camera. Continue reading “Maya Marble Material Tutorial”

LightWave Premultiply Alpha

Render Globals - Alpha FormatBy default, LightWave 3D enables a render option that could cause headaches when you get to the compositing step of your pipeline. I am referring to the “Alpha Format” setting, which can be found in the “Output” tab of the “Render Globals” settings. When you first open a scene, LightWave sets the value to “Premultiply Alpha”.

If you are rendering your frames without any transparency and you do not need to composite your renders together, this setting will not change the look of your final result.

However, if you are relying on the alpha channel to control transparency of your renders and then compositing multiple renders into a single frame, this value becomes very important. And, unfortunately, the default is probably not the best setting to use.
Continue reading “LightWave Premultiply Alpha”

Leap Motion Controller

There is a new human-computer interface device on the market that lets you manipulate the cursor or even 3D objects by just waving your hands in the air. That device is called the Leap Motion Controller, and it is surprisingly inexpensive. Using infrared cameras, it can track exactly what you are doing with your hands and use that to control your mouse cursor or run specialized code written into compatible applications (similar to how pressure-sensitive tablets have even more options in Photoshop than just the operating system you are running).

Autodesk has integrated the Leap Motion into Maya, so it is already possible to use it with at least one popular 3D software suite. Leap Motion has a promotional video on their website showing it in use with Maya, although the technical details and examples are very sparse: Continue reading “Leap Motion Controller”