Avatar Creation for Social VR, Part 2: The Blender Interface and Project Setup

Note: This series is an ongoing work in progress, and the video tutorials in particular will be updated and published publicly after I have finished recording the entire series. For now, the visibility for the videos has been set to shareable link only – if you have feedback on their clarity, pacing, or even whether or not the jokes land, I would welcome it in the comments here or on Youtube.

So! Welcome back! This is part two of the series, which introduces the Blender interface, setting up your project with reference image planes and your starting cube, and introduces the tools you’ll be using for mesh editing.

We’re going to create this avatar by manipulating edges, faces, and vertices individually, by cutting, tweaking, and extruding until we have a completed model – a process sometimes called poly modeling, or box modeling.

Later, I’ll be producing another series after this one that gets into the sculpting workflow, but if you’ve never modeled anything before, it’s probably best to start with an understanding of box modeling. It’s a process that you can do entirely with a mouse instead of a stylus, it will get you acquainted with the blender interface, and doing everything edge by edge, vertex by vertex, will help you gain an appreciation for your polygon economy, which is vital to have, when creating avatars with a decent performance rating.

The Blender Interface

Select “General” from the new file options.

Launch blender and select the new General file option. You’ll have a scene with three objects in it: a camera, a light, and a cube. The biggest window is called the 3d viewport, which lets you see objects as they exist in the 3d space. Let’s talk about some basic navigation:

Camera manipulation: Using your middle mouse button is how you move the camera. MMB on its own will rotate, shift+MMB will pan, and ctrl+MMB will zoom. Scrolling your mouse wheel also zooms. Alt+MMB will rotate the camera and snap to the nearest orthographic view. Try swooping and zooming and panning the camera around for a little bit. It will soon become second nature.

Oh, and when I use the word “click” on its own, I’m always talking about a left mouse click. “Click” means left-click, “right click” means right-click, and “click the middle mouse button (MMB)” is a middle-click. Does anyone actually say middle-click? It feels clumsy.

Your workspace: Blender is designed to be an entire suite of tools meant to facilitate all kinds of different tasks associated with 3d modeling, animation, and compositing, and all of those tools can’t fit on the screen at the same time, so if you look at your menu bar at the very top, you’ll see a series of tabs that have preset workspaces with editor window layouts arranged with all of those different tasks in mind.

the blender workspace tabs

You can also tweak your existing workspace by grabbing the edges between windows with a mouse click to resize them, and if you grab at the corner of a window, it is a coin flip as to whether it will spawn a new window, or eliminate an existing window.

We’re actually going to be focusing on modeling for the moment, so let’s grab the Modeling tab from the list of workspaces.

Click the Modeling tab to select the modeling workspace

At the top left of every editor window you’ve got a drop-down with a list of all of the available editor types, if you ever get lost.

the icon in the top left of every window has a drop-down menu to choose from any of the editor types. Note “Object Mode” next to the drop-down in the top left.

At the top left of our 3d view, next to our editor type selector, we have our mode selector – there are several different toolsets within the 3d view that we will want to switch between: for the moment we are only going to concern ourselves with object mode and edit mode. Object mode allows you to grab and manipulate objects within the 3d viewport. Edit mode allows you to modify individual elements of an active object. If you press the tab key, you can flip between object and edit mode quickly. We will be doing this a lot.

mode selection options in the 3d view

When you tab between object mode and edit mode, you will notice that toolbar on the left of the 3d viewport changes, as do the sub-menus across the top of the 3d viewport.

How to hide the 3d cursor

There’s a red and white circle at the world origin called the 3d cursor. It’s a part of the Blender UI that’s been a part of blender since before it was even called Blender, and theoretically it’s very useful, but personally, I hate it, and I never use it. At the top right of the 3d view you have a few drop-down options that determine what’s visible in your scene, and how your scene is displayed. Click the one that looks like a solid circle overlapping the outline of another circle, which will give you your Overlays options. Banish the 3d cursor to the phantom zone by unchecking it in the Overlays dropdown. Now you don’t have to think about it anymore. You’re welcome.

Make sure Statistics is checked. You want to know how many triangles are in the scene.

With the same Viewport Overlays options open, check the box next to Statistics. This will let us know how we’re doing on our polycount budget as we create our model.

The Outliner and Properties editors

The other two editor windows that we’ll be using, on the right, are the Outliner and the Properties editors. The Outliner is a list of all of the objects in your scene, nested according to their hierarchical relationship to each other. If you’ve used other 3d editors, or even a vector graphics application like Illustrator or Affinity Designer, this will be familiar to you. If you click on each of the objects currently in the Outliner, you’ll see the corresponding object in the scene view become selected. We can also hide or unhide individual objects in the scene from the Outliner, and if we got into the Filters dropdown in the top right, we can toggle other properties.

Toggling selectability in the Outliner

For example, if I wanted to leave my point light and my camera where they are, keep them visible in the scene, but not select them by accident, I can toggle the ‘selectable’ carrot, turn off selectability for those two objects, and now if I drag a marquee around all three of them in the 3d view, only the cube is selected.

The Properties editor will surface a lot of the data about everything in your scene, as well as the active tool, and whatever object or component you have currently selected. It’s a little bit overwhelming at first but the tabs are organized in a very straightforward way: first you’ve got tool properties, and then the next group is a collection of scene properties, then collection properties, and then a group of selected object properties, which is where we’ll be spending most of our time. If you get lost, there’s navigation breadcrumbs at the top of the editor that tell you where you are.

Blender is at its most powerful as you become familiar with its hotkeys. When you click into the various menus to perform commands or use tools, take note of which tools and commands you use most frequently, and try to memorize the hotkeys, and try get into the habit of using those hotkeys, instead of going to the menus. Soon, you will build them into your muscle memory, thus mitigating the friction between your imagination and the act of creation.

That’s enough of the interface to get us into trouble for now. Let’s get started.

Project Setup – Reference Images and Symmetry

So I’ve got this little fox character I sketched out in Clip Studio, in orthographic front and side views, that I’m going load into Blender to use as visual guides to block in the character masses. We’ll call them Galiote. You can download the images if you would like to use them for your own modeling practice here:

Galiote – front view

Galiote – side view

Galiote – hand (we’ll get to this one later!)

Galiote, front and side views.

Youtube is already a bottomless well of information on how to draw, and how to use every conceivable drawing application, so I’m not going to get into how to draw an animal person. You don’t technically need to know how to draw in order to do poly modeling, you can start with an orthographic character reference sheet that shows front and side views – something that many furry artists are happy to provide for a nominal fee. And I’ve met a fair few industry professional 3d artists who have only extremely rudimentary drawing skills, if at all. So if you’re not confident in your drawing ability, do not be dismayed, it is by no means a prerequisite to being a successful 3d artist.

Adding a reference image

In Object mode, click Add, then select Image > Reference. Browse to where you have your reference images saved and load your front-facing reference image. You’ll notice that it will place the image plane facing the camera, which isn’t what we want, if we’re just looking at it in a three-quarter view perspective mode. So, undo that, and let’s face front: you can do this either by alt-MMB rotating to face the front, or you can just click the positive Y axis in your orientation widget at the top right of the viewport. Now we can load the front view. Rotate to the positive X axis, load in the other one, and we’re good.

clicking any of the axes on the viewport navigation widget will snap to the orthographic view perpendicular to that axis

I saved both the front and side view images as 1024x1024px square, so I wouldn’t have to worry about matching their scale once they’re loaded into the scene. If we take a look at the properties for the image planes we can see they’re each five meters square – average avatar height is a little under two meters so that’s bigger than it needs to be, but we don’t really need to worry about that until we start rigging the model, so we’ll leave it be for now.

in the Object Data tab of the Properties editor, select each image reference plane and reduce the opacity to your liking. I like 0.3.

I do want to be able to see through the image planes as I rotate the camera around, though, so I’m going to edit the Opacity property in the Object Data tab of the Properties editor, and dial it down to 0.3 for both of the reference image objects.

Creating a new collection in the Outliner, adding the reference image objects to it, and making the entire collection unselectable

Finally, I want to make these unselectable, so that I’m not grabbing them by accident while I’m working. First I’m going to right-click in the Outliner to create a new Collection for the image planes and then name it References. Then, let’s make the Selectable toggle visible in the Outliner, and just untick the Selectable carrot. Now we can’t touch the image planes. Radical.

Okay! Let’s start with a clean canvas. Hide the reference images for a moment by clicking the eye icon next to the reference image collection in the Outliner. Then, select the camera, light, and cube objects and delete them. There should now be no objects visible in the 3d view, just the grid.

We’re going to use a cube as our starting point, so go to add > mesh > cube. If you’re new to Blender you’re probably wondering why we deleted the cube that Blender gave us, only to create another one, and I’ll tell you: we don’t take what we’re given. We make for ourselves. Blender doesn’t respect you if you cheerfully take its handouts, and you won’t be able to respect yourself, either. By creating our own cube, we’re asserting our agency as users, which clearly establishes the power gradient in our relationship with the software.

delete the face on the left side of the cube, then select the edges surrounding the hole and move them to the center

Now we want to set this cube up for symmetrical modeling. To do that, go into edit mode, and in the top left of the viewport you will see we have the option to select by faces, edges, or vertices – enable faces as our selection mode. Delete the face on the positive X side, then change your selection mode from faces to edges, and alt-click one of the edges – this will automatically select all of the edges in the edgeloop. Move the edgeloop to the center of the X axis so that we’ve only got half a cube.

after moving the edges, the Move parameters dialog will appear. Set Move X to -1 so that the edges are aligned precisely to the Y/Z plane

Every time you apply an edit in the viewport, a dialog box will appear at the bottom left displaying the specific parameters for that edit. For most of the character modeling process, you aren’t going to need to tweak the specific numerical values of every edit, but in this particular case, we want to make sure that Move X is set to exactly -1, so that our edges sit right at the center of the X axis.

Adding a mirror modifier to the selected object.

Once that’s done, go back into Object mode by pressing tab, make sure the cube object is the active selection, and select the modifier tab in the properties window. The modifier tab is the one with the wrench icon. Click Add Modifier, and select the Mirror modifier from the Generate column. You should now have a whole cube again.

Mesh Manipulation

Hide the body by clicking the Visibility toggle in the column on the right, in the Outliner. The Visiblity toggle looks like a symbol of an eye.

In the Outliner, name that cube Body, and then click the eye icon or press the H hotkey to hide the mesh. Create another cube, press the tab key to switch to Edit mode, and try the following commands and tools out on the new cube you’ve made. You don’t need to have them all memorized right away – this will happen over time – but you do need to get acquainted with them before we start.

Selection methods

These three icons represent the selection mode toggles, to choose vertex, edge, or face selection

Vertex, Edge, and Face selection: While you are in edit mode, you can switch between Vertex, Edge, and Face selection using the mode select option in the top left of the 3d viewport.

Pressing the A hotkey will select all of the selectable components of the active mesh.

shift-clicking to add or remove from the current selection

Shift-click will add or remove from your current selection.

alt-clicking to select loops of faces, shift-alt-clicking to deselect loops of faces. note that with face selection mode active, the direction of the loop is determined by the nearest edge, when clicking

While in edit mode, Alt-click will select a loop of edges, verts, or faces. Shift-alt-click will add or remove loops from your current selection.

ctrl-clicking to select shortest path. subsequent ctrl-clicks will continue to add to the existing selection the shortest path from the previous ctrl-click.

While in edit mode, Ctrl-click will select the shortest path from your last selected edge, vert, or face to the one that you click on next.

toggling x-ray mode to see through to the back of the mesh, and select components on the opposite side of the mesh

X-ray: There is an icon at the top right of the 3d viewport that looks like a set of squares, one superimposed on the other. This toggles visibility between an opaque and semitransparent mesh. With X-ray enabled, you can select components throughout the mesh, rather than components limited to faces visible to you.

the tools used in this demonstration.

Most of the mesh editing tools used in this series can be found in the toolbar in Edit mode, but some of them are only accessed in the menus.

moving, rotating, and scaling the selected vertices

Move, Rotate, and Scale: The basic tools of 3d editing. You can move something along a specific axis or plane using the Move widget, or you can move something along the camera plane by grabbing the center of the widget. Its siblings Rotate and Scale are immediately below it on the toolbar, which I’ll be using a bit less frequently. The hotkey for Move is G (think ‘grab’), and the hotkeys for Rotate and Scale are R and S, respectively. It’s a good idea to memorize these right away, as you will be using them all of the time. Scale also has single-axis and planar options, depending where you click on the widget, similar to Move.

selecting a face and extruding it in the direction of the face

Extrude: Pulls out a new face if you grab an edge, or a new set of faces if you grab a face. I tend to use this sparingly when doing character modeling because it is really easy to accidentally invisible, overlapping geometry in places you didn’t intend to, but you will see me using it to pull out the legs, arms, and fingers.

selecting edges and beveling them, then scrolling the mouse wheel to round the bevel

Bevel: Bevel takes one edge or edgeloop and splits it into two or more edges or edgeloops. If you roll the scroll wheel while the bevel tool is active, you can dynamically increase or decrease the number of edges added to round out the bevel. Because the new edges slide along the existing faces, I like using the bevel tool to add edgeloops once my initial block-in is done, it’s a useful way to smooth out sharp edges on a silhouette without going overboard on the polygon budget — the way that you might if you were to simply subdivide the entire model.

cutting loops and sliding them

Loop cut: A loop cut will add a string of edges that will continue as long as it encounters four-sided faces, or quads. Most of my approach to character modeling consists of adding loops and then using the move tool and the edge slide tool to massage them into place.

using the knife tool to cut a row of edges between two vertices across several faces, then using the shift key to cut a row of edges through the center of several edges

Knife: Arbitarily cut edges by placing vertices on edges, directly on faces, or pass through existing vertices. Also accessed with the K hotkey. Useful for redirecting edge flow. Holding down the shift key when cutting through an edge will constrain the vertex placement to the center of that edge.

sliding edges along the adjacent faces

Edge slide: This will move an edge or an edgeloop along the surfaces of the adjacent faces. Super useful when you want to finesse your loop placement on the mesh without distorting the silhouette.

using the Smooth tool to increase and decrease smoothing on all selected faces

Smooth Vertices: To smooth out a portion of the mesh without altering the topology, use the Smooth tool, or select the target vertices and use the Smooth Vertices command in the Mesh menu. This will average out the angles between edges at each vertex and ‘relax’ the selected area of the mesh.

The Snap options, configured for grid snapping

Snap: At the top center of the 3d viewport, there’s a magnet icon with a drop-down option box connected to it, which allows you to set your snapping options. Clicking the magnet icon will toggle snapping on and off. The snapping option we are going to be using most during the modeling stage is snap to increment, with absolute grid snap enabled – this will force edits made with the Move tool to snap to the nearest point on the grid.

how the Move tool affects the mesh when moving only one vertex, with and without Proportional Editing enabled

Proportional editing: Next to the Snap toggle is the Proportional Editing toggle, represented by an icon of a single dot inside a circle, with a drop-down representing the falloff curve next to it. Proportional editing is a sort of ‘soft selection’ that will propogate edits made to the mesh with the transform tools to adjacent verts, edges, and faces in a radius from your current selection, with the intensity determined by the falloff curve. Scrolling the mousewheel with the transform tool active will increase or decrease the size of the falloff radius, as represented by the gray circle surrounding the transformation widget.

selecting edges and pressing the F hotkey to connect them with faces

Create edge/face: Pressing the F hotkey (think “fill”) with a selection active will create either a new edge if you have two vertices selected, connecting those two vertices; or a new face if you have three or more vertices, or two or more edges selected, connecting all selected vertices or edges. Selecting one edge in a hole in a mesh and pressing F will cause Blender to attempt to fill the hole.

pressing shift-d with the cube selected in Object mode will duplicate the cube

Duplicate object: In object mode, Duplicate Object can be found in the Object menu, or with the shift-D hotkey. This will create a copy of the selected object, and automatically engages the Move command, placing the new object where you click.

selecting and joining two cubes in Object mode, so that both of them can be modified in Edit mode

Join objects: In Object mode, select two or more objects, and the Join command will combine all of them into one object. This has no effect on their topology – if they are discrete meshes, they will remain so, but you will be able to edit both of them as they are now both components of the same object.

selecting all vertices in Edit mode, pressing P to separate them by loose parts, then switching to Object mode to select the now-individual cubes

Separate: In order to break apart geometry from one object into multiple objects, select the affected faces and in the Mesh menu, click Separate, or hit the P hotkey. You can also select all, click Separate, and a context menu will appear, giving you the option to separate by selection, material, or loose parts. Separate by loose parts is useful when you have a complicated mesh with multiple discrete elements that you might need to work on individually.

About “Clean Topology” – Quads, Triangles, N-Gons, and Poles:

When you’re modeling characters that need to be animated, it’s typically best to try to create clean grids of 4-sided polygons – quads – with edges that follow the contours of of the body where possible. This will ensure that the deformation of the mesh is clean and believable when animated, and make the modeling process smoother, as many of the selection and modeling tools are tailored toward the manipulation of edge loops, for this purpose.

the Loop Cut tool stops where it meets a 5-sided n-gon

An edge loop is a line of connected edges that each pass through only two other edges, and faces that have four sides – an edge loop is interrupted whenever it meets a face that has more or less than four edges. This means that the selection made when alt-clicking to select an edge loop will end where the loop is interrupted, and if you try to use the loop cut tool, the string of new edges will terminate wherever they meet a non-quad face.

Faces with more than four edges are called n-gons, and should be eliminated prior to exporting to Unity – n-gons will be converted to triangles when exported, but it is best to either convert them to quads or triangles where possible yourself, in order to prevent texture distortion or unpredictable deformation that might be caused by leaving them in place.

A vertex that connects more (or less than) four edges is called a pole. These usually happen at the corners of triangles and where edge loops need change direction relative to the surrounding edge flow. They are unavoidable, but care should be taken to try to place them in areas that will experience minimal deformation when animated.

Similarly, triangles are unavoidable, and necessary when terminating edge loops to step down detail. They are usually harmless but, like poles, it’s generally a good idea to try to place them where they won’t interfere with animation. When your mesh is imported into Unity, the entire thing will become triangles, so you don’t need to stress too much about them.

Bear in mind that these guidelines are primarily applicable to characters that need to be animated. When you’re modeling props, rigid surfaces, environmental objects, or really anything that doesn’t need to deform in an animation, clean edge flow is less important, and you do not need to be as concerned about poles or n-gons. There are other philosophies that govern hardsurface modeling, which are outside the scope of this series.

Next: Character Modeling

In the next part of this tutorial, we are going to be using these tools to model the character. You can delete any objects in your scene that are not the Body object, and make the Body object visible again. While you are working on your model, you may wish to keep this page open to refer to specific tools.

Avatar Creation for Social VR, Part 2: The Blender Interface and Project Setup
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