What is 3D modeling?

3D modeling is the creation of a computer generated representation of an object or character in 3D space. A 3D modeler has to build models before they can be animated or VFX can be applied. Depending on the end goal, they may be working from scratch, concept art, other 3D designs or even optimizing scan data to create models. A modeler will also work on the topology of the model, or the way vertices and edges are arranged, to ensure the model is ready for the next steps in the pipeline. Successful modelers will have creative ways of getting the job done in the time allotted while ensuring the accuracy of the final product.

Modern films and games are chock full of 3D models. In movies like The Incredible Hulk, a modeler or team of modelers were tasked to re-create the legendary character. In cases like this, the precise work of the modeler is important in keeping the integrity of the original Hulk character, while creating it with today’s amazing technology standards. In the hit game from Blizzard, Overwatch, many of the characters are wearing armor. The character modelers working on games like Overwatch have to be well versed in both hard-surface and organic modeling to complete their assignments.

A day in the life of a 3D modeler

The daily responsibilities of a 3D modeler often depend on whether or not they specialize in a specific type of modeling. While all modelers should have some knowledge in each discipline, you will often hear that someone specializes in hard surface modeling or organic modeling. An artist who focuses on hard surface modeling may work on things like spaceships, buildings, weapons, vehicles, etc., whereas someone who focuses on organic may create characters, plants, animals, outdoor environments, and more.

The size of the company may dictate what a modeler’s day looks like. At smaller companies, you may be asked to start models by concepting them yourself. At a larger company, you will more often than not be provided with concept art direction. Either way, a good amount of research should be done in most cases. To be efficient, successful modelers will break complex models into pieces and think of the quickest but most accurate way to start building each piece. You would also have to decide at this point if the best tactic would be poly modeling or digital sculpting.

Once all the prep work is done, modeling begins. A modeler may have to work with the animators who will receive the model to ensure it meets their requirements for motion. The modeler may also have to gather needs from the VFX team if, for example, they will be destroying the building the modeler makes. Once the model is finished and approved by the supervisor, it will be released to the next step of the pipeline.

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How to become a 3D modeler

Find your strengths and exploit them. Dive into the many disciplines of modeling and make sure you spend some time with each. If you find through this you excel at hard surface modeling, work on some portfolio pieces that show this skill off. In making these decisions, keep in mind that the workflow for films is very different currently from that of games, though this line is blurring as technology improves. For example, in film, you don’t have to worry quite as much about poly count, or the total number of polygons in a 3D model, as you do in games. Therefore, with games, you will have to know the process of baking, which transfers high poly model details down to a low poly model to save memory. It is very important to have this skill set if you want to apply to jobs within the games industry.

As mentioned before, research is very important. In order to prep yourself for a career in modeling, make sure you spend time gaining:

  • Knowledge of the human form, animal forms, and forms in nature.
  • Knowledge of architectural design.
  • Knowledge of mechanical design.
  • Knowledge of weapon/vehicle design.
  • Knowledge of how light will end up playing off of different complex shapes.

There are also numerous tools available to today’s modelers beyond the default settings in traditional 3D software. Many modelers are now sculpting concepts in VR in order to better visualize and take control. There are plugins and pre-made model elements for kit-bashing available that help you move faster and complete tedious tasks with ease. Doing research on these topics will help any modeler be more productive and therefore be a very important asset to any employer.

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Tips to break into the industry

Focus on only your best work, and ensure that the models are truly complete. Even if you only have two complete pieces, that is ok. Keep your 3D modeler portfolio confined to those two pieces, and make sure to show the renders, wireframes, and high to low poly if hoping for a job in games. Keep in mind that a potential employer might want to see another piece, so have a backup ready.

Networking can be the difference maker that gets you a job. Go out to industry meetups and events in person and online. They often include guest speakers from within the industry, and sometimes the software engineers behind 3D programs will come out and do one-of-a-kind demos.

What should my salary expectations be?

Glassdoor has the average 3D modeler salary at about $75,602/yr. Other sources state that a 3D modeler can make anywhere from $31,000/yr. to $90,000/yr. depending on experience and location. Senior modelers or technical modelers may even be able to break through that top amount and receive a higher salary.

You have probably also seen 3d models for sale on sites like Turbosquid and Gumroad. This is a great way to make some extra money on the side.

There is always a need for 3D modelers in the film and game industries. 3D models are used in almost every type of tv show and movie. You’ll also find them in every game and VR app. Thus, the demand for 3D modelers will be high for years to come. At CG Spectrum, you can gain all of these skills and more while learning tips and tricks from industry-seasoned mentors in our Intro to 3D Modeling and Advanced 3D Modeling classes. In just one year, you’ll be ready to apply to the 3d modeling jobs you want.

For more info on how to start 3D modeling check out our interview with hard-surface modeler Victoria Passariello.

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Ryan Fitzgerald

Author Ryan Fitzgerald

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