By: Josh Webb
Have you ever wondered how Pixar gets all that detail in their landscapes and characters? To the point you can see the fabrics stitching on a characters shirt or the particles of dirt and moss in the ridges of a rock. Well I’m here to “Break the Modeler’s Code.” Side note, there is more than one way to achieve the techniques I talk about in this article and although Pixar or a major video game title may have not used the exact same technique, the results will be very similar.
Normal maps are very very very important to a 3D modeler. If you read my previous article about organic modeling you will remember I talked about poly count and how important it is to keep that poly count DOWN. You may wonder, “Well Joosh how do you keep polycount down when you want to add detail to a model?” Well i’m glad you asked. The answer is NORMAL MAPS. Normal maps give you the ability to add crazy amount of detail without adding ANYTHING to your polycount. A normal map is basically a baked image texture with RGB information that gives the illusion that there is more detail in a model than there actually is. Below is an example of a fabric normal map.
If you were to apply this map to a t-shirt or cushion it would give the illusion that there is more geometry than there actually is. Below is another example I created quickly with this same fabric map to demonstrate what I’m talking about.
Here in the SRG office we use normal maps in every single project on almost every single texture.
Next modeling secret is UV mapping. The easiest way I can explain UV mapping is to imagine a sphere and a map of the world. In order to wrap the map of the world around the sphere you would have to essentially flatten the sphere by cutting it up. Example Below.
This technique allows us to apply a flat 2D image to a 3D surface. It gets pretty difficult when you move into more complex objects such as a character or organic shape. Once you have all the UV’s laid out flat you can take that layout of the UV’s into photoshop and draw your texture from scratch. This way you can get detail in all the right places. Another example that might be easier to understand is the design of this christmas chocolate.
These two modeling techniques are used in almost every single 3D model out there. It takes time and is a bit hard to understand at first. Luckily there are many tools now that achieve these techniques automatically in minutes, even seconds. But it’s good to understand the basics on how these tools work to further push the realism and detail in a model.
If something didn’t make sense or you just want further detail about UV mapping or normal maps please feel free to reach out to me. There is a ton to cover just in these two topics and I left a lot out.
Thanks for reading!