July 7, 2008

Book review: <em>Blender 3D: Architecture, Buildings, and Scenery</em>

Author: Nathan Willis

You probably know the open source 3-D modeler Blender for its animation tools, which have brought audiences short films Elephants Dream and Big Buck Bunny. But Blender can create realistic 3-D models for any purpose, as Allan Brito's Blender 3D: Architecture, Buildings, and Scenery (Packt Publishing, $45) presents. This book approaches Blender as an architecture visualization tool, detailing the features built in to the editor and the techniques that make architectural modeling differ from crafting game or video effects.

Brito begins with a brief introduction to Blender itself. Chapter one is a overview of the application, coupled with a brief description of architectural visualization. Chapter two is a guided tour of the Blender interface, including all of its constituent modes -- modeling, editing, rendering, and so forth. Chapter three delves deeper into Blender's modeling tools, explaining the important differences between different methods of creating objects, such as extrusion and modifiers.

Chapters four and five explore basic architectural modeling techniques in Blender. This includes building with proper proportion and scale, making precise adjustments, and attention to architectural particulars like symmetry and modeling rounded objects. It also includes a look at planning a project before you begin modeling objects, so that you can take better advantage of layers, level of detail, and external object libraries. Finally, it incorporates a discussion of importing CAD files from other applications, including which formats are supported and how to prepare them for import by removing unnecessary objects.

Chapter six deals with furniture models, as opposed to buildings. Tutorials for modeling two examples are given, but the bigger topic is how and when to take advantage of external furniture libraries. Brito lists resources for finding existing furniture models (both free and for sale), and describes how to make economical use of a small libraries when resources or time are limited.

Chapters seven through nine explore adding detail to Blender models with materials, textures, and UV mapping. Chapters 10 through 12 explore Blender's lighting system, including built-in lamps, shadows, the radiosity and ambient occlusion lighting models, and the extra options available through the external YafRay renderer.

Chapter 13 explains two animation options for use after a model is complete. First, it describes how to create an animated walk-through or fly-through of a completed model suitable for use in a presentation. Second, it explains how to use Blender's game engine to create a 3-D model that users and clients can explore interactively.

Finally, chapter 14 gives basic advice on how to post-process rendered images in the GIMP, including color correction and touching up stray rendering artifacts.

What's to like

Blender 3D: Architecture, Buildings, and Scenery is primarily a guide for architects or draftsmen who have no experience with Blender. Consequently, if you are an experienced Blender wizard looking for help building a model of your dream house, you are likely to find much of the content repetitive.

But you might still learn a few things; Blender's architectural capabilities get little attention elsewhere compared to its game, video, and animation tools. The book spotlights features and tools that you might not have explored in other projects, such as the edge length display, which will automatically measure the lengths of objects' edges. Using it can help you maintain precise measurements in your model, but without the book I might never have found the switch to activate it, buried as it is in the Mesh Tools 1 menu.

Likewise, if you have never attempted an architectural model before, the basics covered about planning and building walls, rooms, openings, and furniture are useful. Without prior experience, you might waste considerable time trying to UV map walls with openings for doors and windows; the book gives practical advice on correctly placing seams.

And even those familiar with Blender can learn about the application by looking at it from a different perspective. I had not thought of the game engine's potential use as an interactive model walk-around tool, and the discussion on the differing effects of Blender's available lighting techniques could benefit 3-D designers of any stripe.

Still, the real winner is the person with some experience designing rooms and buildings -- perhaps even with other 3-D applications -- who has never encountered Blender before. Brito does a good job of providing a focused introduction to the complex package, explaining the tools necessary for constructing architectural models without getting sidetracked by situationally irrelevant topics like armatures, rigging, or NURBs. Reading through Blender 3D: Architecture, Buildings, and Scenery, you could come away with the impression that modeling and rendering buildings was Blender's primary purpose.

What's not

In the minus column, the book suffers from one flaw shared with several black-and-white Blender texts: unclear illustrations, in particular on screenshots of model editing in Blender. Blender's gray-on-gray color scheme simply does not reproduce well in black-and-white; the interface looks muddy, and narrow, light-on-dark features like wire frame models get lost entirely.

This book fares better than some because it does not reduce the illustrations to postage-stamp size, but it is routinely difficult to see the in-program screenshots of small objects like cameras and lamps, thin objects like edges and loop cuts, and text labels. There are gray arrows pointing to items of interest in many of the illustrations, but they are too often lost in the low contrast gray of the screenshot and their own (gray) drop-shadows.

I'm not clear exactly how much of Blender's color scheme is adjustable; Ton Roosendaal has said that the forthcoming 2.50 Blender release will offer more customization. In the meantime, my advice to anyone else working on a black-and-white Blender book is to do everything you can to increase the contrast in the interface before you make your screenshots. The defaults never look good in print.

I also found a distressingly high number of proofreading mistakes in the book, including spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. The copy of the text I received is a first printing, of course, and hopefully future revisions will correct the mistakes. But as is, there are so many misplaced commas that I actually found them distracting me from the text -- and that takes a lot of misplaced commas.

Brito's writing style is informal, and while at times that goes well with the text's gentle introduction to Blender, it can also make some sections difficult to follow. For example, several passages concerning the tradeoffs of different technical approaches to a particular problem (such as building versus buying furniture models) devolve into a string of hypothetical questions. The result sounds more like the author having an argument with himself than giving the reader advice.

Also, some technical topics receive sparse discussion when additional detail would help the reader. For instance, radiosity, ambient occlusion, and YafRay's global illumination are presented as alternatives, each with its own pros and cons -- but the actual differences between the methods are never spelled out. And it is mentioned casually more than once that using triangular faces on objects is bad, but the reason is never explained. In both cases, the book would have been strengthened by an in-depth explanation. Those who don't want such detail could skip it, but arming readers with more information can only help them make better decisions.

Finally, the book is not meant to serve as a tutorial or textbook -- there are only a handful of hands-on modeling exercises, and no bundled disk or downloadable examples -- but readers are likely to be at the computer with a copy of Blender running. A few more hands-on tutorials and example files might go a long way toward explaining advanced concepts like lighting and animation.


On the whole, Blender 3D: Architecture, Buildings, and Scenery is a good buy for people already experienced with architecture or interior design but who are just taking their first steps with Blender. It takes a systematic approach to a large and complex application, and focuses on just those features that the reader needs to get started.

Experienced Blender users with a background in animation, character design and rigging, or gaming will not find as much new information in the book -- but they may be surprised at points by how much Blender can do, and will benefit from Brito's experience when they are called upon to design realistic-looking buildings.


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