February 8, 2006

Blender 3D wikibook reviewed

Author: Nathan Willis

The 3D modeling and animation studio Blender enjoys a reputation for being difficult to learn. In fairness, all such 3D design applications demand significant effort because of their inherent complexity, but a lot of free software aficionados who find the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) and Audacity easy to pick up struggle with Blender. Blender 3D: Noob to Pro is a collaboratively written textbook available through wikibooks.org that does a good job of addressing this need for training.

As its name suggests, Blender 3D: Noob to Pro begins with the absolute basics of Blender and 3D modeling and takes you through increasingly harder material, hopefully leaving you with complete knowledge about the program's strengths, capabilities, and functions. Which is to say, working through the book (hereafter referred to as B3:N2P) will not transform you into a 3D modeling wizard, but it will teach you how to use the tools at your disposal. How high you climb in the pantheon of 3D artists subsequently will be up to your innate abilities -- abilities Blender can unleash, but cannot enhance.

Contents: good and bad

B3:N2P has three main sections: Beginner Tutorials, Advanced Tutorials, and Miscellaneous Tutorials. Beginner Tutorials takes you through the Blender interface, details the basics of modeling (including meshes, materials, and textures), and introduces lighting, rendering, and animation.

The Advanced Tutorials delve further into animation -- including armatures and bones -- and explore scripting with Python. Miscellaneous Tutorials contains material that the authors have not worked into a final position in sequence with the other content, including appendices on troubleshooting and links to off-site tutorials.

The main drawback of B3:N2P is the very fact that it is a wikibook: collaboratively written, edited, and rewritten. As such, the quality of the material and the writing can vary widely from one section to the next, and may not even be complete.

In the table of contents, each section is labeled with a symbol denoting its completeness on a zero-to-four scale. About one-quarter of the pages listed are either empty placeholders or references to external materials. But that by no means indicates that the other material is less valuable.

The first topic -- "Become Familiar with the Blender Interface" -- is a gigantic hurdle for new users, and B3:N2P serves them well, beginning with the basics of the Blender Windowing System and breaking down the interface elements and how they interact with each other and the mouse. Blender makes exorbitant use of keyboard shortcuts, which the authors of this book choose wisely to introduce only as necessary.

Even at a measured pace, though, the Blender UI is still a challenge. Only a few hotkeys have a mnemonic connection to the tasks they perform. In some cases, multiple key bindings perform the same task; for instance, you can accomplish zooming with the mouse scroll wheel, Ctl-Alt-left-mouse-button, Alt-middle-mouse-button, or the +/- keys. The actions performed by other key bindings are dependent on what mode the program is in and/or what sub-window the mouse cursor is in.

The fact that the faults of the interface require so much explanation, of course, is not the authors' doing. The authors lay out a notation system at the beginning, and the more complete sections adhere to it. Ultimately, though, real comfort with the Blender interface can come only with time invested in Blender on the 3D modeling process. In the meantime, the authors provide several cheat sheets that you'll want to print out and keep close at hand.

The "Mesh Modeling" chapter is also cleanly written. It walks you through the creation of 3D objects at a sensible pace and through small projects, each of which introduces a few new concepts. Less complete discussions on materials, textures, and lighting follow, to round out the Beginner Tutorials section.

The Advanced Tutorials begin with a very good chapter on Python scripting, followed by an excellent (albeit technical) chapter on armatures and bones, the keys to animating 3D models. One weakness in Advanced Tutorials is the lack of small projects for you to work on. Part of what makes the mesh modeling chapter so effective is that it allows you to learn by doing; these later chapters abandon the "textbook" approach and resemble more of a reference manual.

The last half of the Advanced Tutorials section is the least fleshed-out of the book and contains only a few fully written pages. The Miscellaneous Tutorials section consists of an extensive index of Blender tutorials and information available elsewhere on the Web, and a pair of interesting tutorials on creating realistic fur and eyes.

The fur and eyes tutorials will likely prove useful only to advanced readers, but they make for interesting reading even if you're not applying for a job at Pixar Animation Studios. The index of tutorial links is so comprehensive that it is daunting to look at, but it provides a wealth of information doubtless of great value to eager students.

Wikibooks: friend or foe?

It would be unfair to spend too much time criticizing the flaws in B3:N2P that stem from its wiki nature. The material is inconsistent; much of it needs copy editing both for grammar and style. Not counting typos, there are stylistic problems that can actually impair your understanding of the subject matter. One of my pet peeves, for example, is chronological backpedaling, as in "Do X. Make sure you haven't already done Y first, or you will have to do Z instead (and here are the steps to do Y)."

In a printed book, an editor would handle problems of that sort, either through rewriting or sending the writer back to try it again. But the wikibook format makes that almost impossible. The primary authors have produced excellent training material, but its value is diluted when incomplete and obtuse writing is interspersed.

David Millet, who started this wikibook and wrote the excellent interface chapter, readily admits this shortcoming. "Lesser material has been added," he said, from "random users making one or two edits here and there, when they don't have much concept of the goals of the tutorial, and they aren't familiar with what is already covered in previous tutorials, etc." However, he said, "I think that in the long run, it's for the book's benefit."

Millet began B3:N2P in response to the frustration of new users with the outdated Blender documentation. A self-taught Blender user, he began by outlining what content to include based on his own learning experience. At the beginning, he had no success soliciting help, but after posting his first draft at wikibooks.org, volunteers appeared offering their services.

Wikibooks.org is an official Wikimedia Foundation collection of open content textbooks, founded in 2003 with the stated goal of bringing educational material to the masses. Millet agrees with the project's principles, though in his experience the "educational" element may not make sense outside of an academic course setting. Initially, he built homework projects into the outline for B3:N2P, but reports that no one ever actually completed the lessons.

Replacing Noob to Pro

Millet is ambivalent on whether Wikimedia's anyone-can-edit-any-content policy renders creating a real textbook unworkable. But he has announced plans to start over on a new Blender wikibook -- a training text like B3:N2P, but one that takes a different approach in several key areas.

The new wikibook is entitled Blender 3D: Go Pro! and is hosted at the Blender.org wiki. Millet hopes this host will allow the writing team to incorporate far more screenshots and visual aids; the painfully slow Wikimedia servers forced him to stick to a text-based approach in B3:N2P.

With better image-serving performance, B3:GP can incorporate more illustrations in every chapter, allowing Millet to revive his idea for a top-level section on artistic technique -- a concept originally slated for B3:N2P that never saw the light of day.

Millet is also keeping the writing and editing under stricter control for B3:GP. The wiki is under lock and key for the time being, as core authors plan content and write initial drafts. Millet says he does not want the new book's tighter editorial control to be seen as exclusive, though, and encourages all interested parties to contact him if they want to help.

Millet's departure from B3:N2P leaves an editorial vacuum, but he believes the book remains a valuable resource and that the Blender community will keep it going. Though it may eventually be in friendly competition, right now his new book is still too far away to be much use to Blender beginners.

Blender 3D: Noob to Pro has its flaws, but it is unquestionably the best introduction to this large, complex software studio. Readers familiar with other 3D modeling and animation applications will find no better resource for learning Blender's challenging user interface, and readers new to 3D itself will find the educational material helpful, practical, and easy to follow.

Click Here!