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A new approach to modeling instruction at PolyPlane

The best way to learn 3D modeling?   Forget about the software.

For the moment anyway.  That’s part of the philosophy at PolyPlane, a new instructional site that emphasizes the broader concepts of 3D graphics before delving into the dashboard of a particular CAD application.

PolyPlane“People just starting out in 3D modeling are forced to wrap their brains around a lot of unfamiliar concepts all at the same time,” says Gabriel Mathews, principal of Portland’s Con Cor Design Group and author of the video series.  “At the outset, stepping back and understanding the process of modeling in general actually makes learning an application a lot less frustrating.”

The first series of free videos at PolyPlane.com – called “pre-flight” – gives the overall lay of the land (or grid, in this case) for students before they even get into the cockpit of a modeling application.  Each three-to-four-minute lesson focuses on a basic concept in the problem of generating 3D geometry.

“We try to build an overall framework of modeling for the newcomer.  We don’t want to just define the term but show why it’s important and how it works in the big picture,” explains Mathews.   “Once you have this sort of schema in mind, it makes it much easier to take command of the software when you do finally approach it, because you know what you need and what to look for.  After a short time on PolyPlane you can really pick up any kind of modeling application.”

This can include engineering packages, like SolidWorks or Pro/E, curvilinear NURBs-based applications like Rhinoceros or Alias or tools for animators or artists like 3DStudio Max, Blender, or Maya.  Having more prior knowledge about the basic tenets of 3D can also help students make smart choices about which software are most in line with their interests, Mathews says.

Sketch To Model video course from PolyPlane.com.

Modeling school bite by bite

Mathews was inspired to launch PolyPlane by a friend’s successful instruction site for 2D graphics called CTRLPaint, which uses short video illustrations and friendly narration to introduce new techniques piecemeal.  He thought a similar approach would work to cut through the complexities of 3D curves, meshes, and surfaces.

Mathews says there are dozens of other sites with modeling tips as well as tutorials put out by software developers, but he finds that too often the offerings expect the viewer to already have a background familiarity that amateurs usually lack.

“You get something that is 45 minutes long and loaded with acronyms and technical jargon,” he says.  “Any outsider is not going to know what a UVW map is.  It’s discouraging when you slog through a long tutorial and only grasp 50% of what’s being said.  And if the instruction is too centered on the software of a particular brand, it also tends to assume the viewer has a working knowledge of modeling already.”

In contrast, each short PolyPlane video explains in simple terms and clear illustrations another piece of the puzzle.  Visitors to the pre-flight series can accumulate a solid background of the principals in a few spare moments during the week, without opening up a modeler app.

“A lot of modeling is problem solving, more of a mental maneuver, like how to break up the object you want to make into more basic geometry, for instance.  Your modeler is not going to do for you, it’s something you learn to visualize,” says Mathews.

“Each video you wind up learning another little bead of wisdom:  how to control a camera view, why NURRBs are important, what does it matter to set up an origin point a particular way.  As you get into modeling in whatever platform, all these rules of thumb eventually become second nature to you and you don’t really even think about it.  But when you are starting out they can become the roadblocks in understanding the software.”Polyplane 3D modeling tutorialWatch and Learn: PolyPlane employs visual aids to show the conceptual underpinnings of modeling actions.

Test Flights

Learning by doing eventually is part of the ride, too.  PolyPlane has longer 2-hour series – called “sketch-to-model” – which put the principals to work in a practical, step-by-step modeling project.   Here it is helpful to follow along in a modeling application, Mathews says, but it doesn’t much matter which application; the user can adapt the general PolyPlane techniques to whatever platform.

Mathews says that many designers tend to switch applications at some point in their education or careers, so it helps to be open-minded at the beginning anyway.  He himself initially took a college course that taught AutoDesk products, then discovered Rhinoceros and taught himself the application with the help of his previous instruction.

“People tend to gravitate to a system eventually that becomes their favorite tool.”  For cost-conscious students, Mathews says a free sample version of Rhino or Google SketchUp works for the more intensive PolyPlane exercises.  Students can get a solid foundation with the pre-flight and the tutorial projects during a month of free trial.  After that, students can purchase the software for relatively low cost.

“I chose the Rhino environment in the video examples because it is what I am most fluent in and it tends to be the most affordable paid software.  It’s true that Google sketch up is free but the complete loaded version of the software is $499.  Rhino is around $1000 but if you are a student it is $199, so it turns out to give the most bang for the buck.”

Regardless of the software choice for students, Polyplane aims to create the most economical instruction method in terms of time.  “Whether you have to learn 3D modeling for school or on your own, we think PolyPlane will get you up to speed the fastest,” says Mathews.

PolyPlane plans new free videos every week throughout 2012, more advanced projects, and other design resources for the beginner.  Check out other video lessons at www.polyplane.com.


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