Year One: A Year Long Journey into Blender and NPR.

Danny Grimm, a good friend of BlenderNPR and all-around good guy, has given us an amazing story of his delving into the vast world of NPR/ER:

The Journey

The road to learning Blender has been a long, wonderful and stressful journey, and using it to create NPR art work has been even tougher for me. I consider myself an advanced newbie, even after a year, because every time I feel I’ve completed my model I find there’s more that I can learn to make it better and easier to manage, as I move on to one of my upcoming goals, animation.

Getting myself into this, I knew that it would be a very time consuming project because until I achieve my goals, I keep going at it. This specific character is one I’ve worked on for over a year as many on Facebook and Forums have seen. Someone on Facebook mentioned I was pretty dedicate and patient for sticking with this one character for so long; and when it comes to this, I am. I’ll admit, I’ve taken a few breaks here and there (from Blender in general) because I can feel myself becoming hopeless when things don’t go my way, especially with regards to texturing and rigging, and the dreaded work dealing with UV Unwrapping and Weight Painting. But as I tackle each new problem, it renews a new sense of hope and creates excitement to continue on.
So even this far into Blender, I still feel new at it, I am still learning more thanks to help from everyone around the web, from Forums to Facebook. In fact I learned about Freestyle comes from the fine folks at the Blender NPR Facebook Group. Thanks guys!

All about this one girl

The girl in the images are that of Irene Jameson, a young woman in her mid-20s that survives an extraordinary Earth event and eventually finds herself in the dire situation of being isolated, alone. She’s the main character for the Sci-Fi Novel I am working on “In The Year 2525“, (not related to the song of the same title, although it’s one of of my favorite songs). I wanted to create my own art that represents the novel, and if things work out with Blender, the Novel may end up as a Graphic Novel (that would be fun to do).

The design of the character was originally hand drawn in a half-baked anime style I never perfected. Then I used vector applications such as Illustrator to bring it up to date in this digital era, and eventually I decided that learning to do 3D modeling would probably be best in the long run, especially since I’m not that great at hand drawing and Illustrator felt like too much work for little return. Thus my journey into 3D modeling.

Art wise, the character and the universe she lives in was inspired by classic anime, stuff I loved watching back in the 80s and early 90s. And with that in mind, Blender NPR was a perfect fit for me.

The Early Days.

My journey to Blender wasn’t a straight shot, I did have to deal with some detours along the way in my newbie search for an affordable 3D application (I didn’t know any were free at the time), including the one that almost directed me on the wrong money-pit path, Daz 3D. I have no ill-feelings towards Daz, it did help me get used to 3D space while providing some instant gratification. But something didn’t feel right, I knew it couldn’t be this easy to get such great results — I even created a passable likeness of my main character with the Aiko model. But when I shared the render with people and I got my props, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt because I didn’t actually create this model, I just manipulated something someone else created. I quickly realized I wasn’t modeling, thus I was not satisfied.

Moving along, I discovered ZBrush for content creation, they didn’t offer a demo without emailing them first, but they never responded, too bad guys because I was considering fronting the money for it. I then found Makehuman, but it didn’t provide the level of results that satisfied me, no matter much I modified the human model, it still didn’t have the level of style I required, so I went back to Daz 3D since it was as close as I’ve gotten to my goals, hoping I can figure something out even if I have to spend more money on it. But then on one particularly hot day, I did a search on how to create an Anime Model from scratch in Daz only to land on a tutorial based on something called Blender, and it was free, widely available, and it had a community of users, content creators. So I took a chance again, another application to learn, but this one felt worth it.

The day I downloaded Blender, it was on a hot Saturday afternoon (110 degrees), I’ve spent the next 14 hours of that day, sweating in place, going through every UI tutorial I could find on Youtube. Unfortunately many were old and based on older versions of Blender, but it was just enough to get around, at the very least to help guide me on what to search for. Within the weekend my very first model ended up being a Dodge Challenger, but I never completed it as the tutorials didn’t take me beyond newbie status, and I didn’t know much about loop cuts, extruding, edge creases, etc to continue. But that’s ok, a car wasn’t what I wanted, I wanted an Anime Girl. So to get what I wanted and quickly, I learned how to export the Aiko model from Daz, and import it into Blender. Before I knew it, I had put in about 2 months of work into manipulating this one Daz model into what I wanted, and I got very close to my original Illustrator drawing. This was my first victory in the world of 3D, but then reality took me back to why I abandoned Daz to begin with: it still wasn’t my creation.

She will be mine, oh yes, she will be mine…

The thought of using something that looked like my art work, but not created by me still didn’t sit well with me, and I ended up abandoning two months of work on the Aiko model in Blender and started from scratch. At first it was tough to do, on one hand I was very close to my goal, on the other, I needed a sense of accomplishment to go with my own creation. But even with trashing that work, that didn’t mean it was all for nothing. Working with Aiko in Blender provided me with experience I needed to create my own content. I learned how to make loop cuts, extrude, scale and more. And best of all, I understood how and why the topology flowed on Aiko’s body to achieve results, and it wasn’t that difficult once I understood. So I started on more tutorials, modeling the female body, adding materials, setting up nodes, rigging the body and texturing. This ate up the rest of my 2013, and even to this day, only just recently did I get textures and normal maps going.

But despite all I’ve learned, the one thing that was most important to me, even if the character itself didn’t look like like a classic Anime Girl, is that the coloring, lighting and shading did look Anime. There were many examples of Toon and NPR renders resembling Anime styles and cell shading, but most of them at first glance are very easy to spot as being CG (by how Blender draws lighting on surfaces). I needed something that looked like it was closer to being hand drawn, and because of this I spent weeks on just materials nodes and lighting alone, I’m sure most would have gotten it done in a few hours, but I’ve gone through every variable I can find to find the right balance of everything from colors to lighting. And now I have the experience to do it all over again if need be.

With Blender, I originally started off with “Blender Render” and the “Edge” line option, but even then it had issues I didn’t like. With Blender 2.68, there was the Cycles Toon BSDF Shader and Freestyle integration, and as you can imagine, it put me back into learn mode for several more weeks. Eventually I ended up getting exactly what I wanted from it. And after a tough year of nearly 3-hours per night of dedication to this one model, ignoring my cat’s wishes to play with me, ignoring my fiance’s call to love me (sorry babe), I can say that I’ve achieved my goal: A from-scratch, hand made, 3D NPR anime-ish girl made all in Blender that I can call my own.As a Blender newbie who asked the community for help (and got it), I am also willing to do the same for future newbies to the best of my abilities, feel free to contact me on FB or DA, links below. 

Thanks for reading. 🙂

Thank you Danny! You inspire us to keep on pushing in our own endeavors!
  • Wasili Novratidis

    Well, nice to read. There are more on the same path as you are. Look at my own avatar, freshly brewn and had somewhat the same experience as you had.

    The sad thing is that people can achieve cool looking anime chars but don’t go the whole path as you stated before – reaching into an anime. More obsticals to overcome on this steep and rocky path, like background drawings, story boards, compositions. Still a few know how to reach the end goal. Never quit on giving up and just go for it.

    People do know about Makoto Shinkai, the man who made “5 cm per second” and “The places promised in our early days”. He was groundbreaking in using CG in stead of real paintings. But what few people know is that he started out with a very nice and small anime called “She and her cat”. 5 minutes of quality and teaches you that a story is more often important then only the visuals.After that he quit his job and shut himself down for 8 months and created “Voices from a distant star” which debuted his big breakthrough. Sure he was already involved in the gameindustry but still it was a big gamble.

    So what does that teach you, infact just go onward and learn from others. There are more people who have the same goal. I am very active on the google+ community “3D Anime” and yes there are only a few active members but those who are active strife for the best possible result and thus inspire others. Drop by and learn from the posts in there.

    • Thanks for reading!

      It was pretty important for me to go all the way, especially with regards in creating something that I can call my own.

      The hardest part I think was making this model have a Toon look and feel to it since in Blender it’s easy to create a gradient-rich CG look. I really put a lot of effort in trying to make this model look as less CG as possible, something closer to what I would create in Photoshop or Illustrator by having full control of where the light/shadows would be placed (whether or not it was totally accurate). Getting a bold sharp and clean contrast between light and shadow was both easy and difficult (part materials, part lights and part topology), but I feel I’ve accomplished most of that especially in the 2nd image posted above.

      In Anime, I know there are many shading types used for different scenes, so I experimented with both Hard/Soft lighting as seen above, one day to be used in scenes that would benefit from that kind of setup.

  • Sura

    Hello, I realize this is a pretty old blog entry and hope you still get notifications for replies.

    I had the same dilemma. I was writing my own novel which exceeded few books but I was lacking in drawing skills to create stuff to represent and materialize some of things from my novel.

    Like you, I turned to Poser first few years ago. But never really got into it. Few months ago, I tried again and realized Poser was progressively dying and that Daz3D was blossoming. So, I gave Daz3D a go. It was free after all …
    Only to realize later that it wasn’t really free. I had to purchase some assets to create very high quality renders. But like how you felt, I was NOT satisfied. They were not my creations. But I still am using Daz3D even now because my main priority was creating my own spaceship due to Sci fi nature of my writing. I never imagined I’d spent over a month in trying to learn Blender. But it was my only choice as other applications, like Modo, 3Dmax, and so on, were insanely expensive.

    I did manage to complete modelling my first space cruiser at which point I grew familiar with how Blender works and decided to perhaps model my own figure…
    I will probably get a quick human model done in Makehuman and export it to Blender.

    Thanks for the nice read.