Even though the Game Art & Design class focuses mainly of the creation of 2D games and their assets, there are also a number of 3D modeling techniques included in the curriculum. One of them involves rigging a character for animation. You can ask any student who has previously taken this course to list what they consider to be the most frustrating activities they completed in that course and my bet is that 9 out of 10 of them will say rigging a 3D model. And, it is with good reason that I would expect this response.
Rigging involves adding bones to your model, connecting them to one another and then making sure the falloff for what they affect works as expected. It can get highly detailed and is definitely not a task for the casual modeler. Most students enjoy modeling but rigging, that's a whole different ball of wax. However, this year, I think I might have found a solution even though it is far from perfect.
Enter Adobe Fuse and Mixamo. Fuse is Adobe's answer to the 3D modeling. It allows the students to create a bipedal character using various body parts that are already modeled, then using slider controls, one can make adjustments to the character. It also has several outfits one can choose from to skin their model. In short, it makes creating a human character exceptionally easy.
Once created, you can save the model to your Adobe libraries for additional manipulation. From there, you can pull the model into Photoshop and by using the 2D Essentials workspace, you can gain easy access to the materials on it for quick and easy personalization of the model's skins.
Now for the best part: rigging! One can pull the model into Mixamo from their Adobe library or if that was problematic, simply export the model from Photoshop into a standard 3D format such as and OBJ file, then import it into Mixamo and utilize their automatic rigging system! You simply define where specific key points are located on the model (chin, wrists, elbow, knee and groin) and the program does the rest! It even has several predefined animations that you can apply to your newly rigged model, then export it as FBX for use in other applications such as the Unity game engine. It couldn't be simpler. The only downside - it only works with humanoid bipedal models. So, if you want to rig anything else, a monster, vehicles, etc., you still have to rig it from inside a program like Autodesk 3ds Max. But, for getting down the basics, this process should work.
Now for the real test of this change in how I teach rigging and skinning: letting the kids try it out. The modeling part went well and several got into skinning it in Photoshop quickly. Next up when we return to school: getting it rigged. I hope it goes as well as I predict, but more on that later.
This past week, I attended the NCTEDE Annual Conference in Winston-Salem, NC. While there, I had the opportunity to both learn from other Technical Education teachers as well as present the work of my CTE Advanced Studies students. I am going to review some of what I experienced while there.
I will begin with my presentation, since it was in the first time-slot of the day and probably what most of my readers are most interested in anyway. Although I could have taken on many different directions with my presentation (talk about VR in the classroom, discuss group projects, discuss many of the problems and solutions we have come up with, etc.), I chose to discuss how a project like ours can be a good replacement for the traditional internship. How, might you ask, is this possible? Well...for years, our school has not had a Career Development Coordinator (CDC) assigned to it. This individual is the go-between for both CTE teachers and their central office as well as those teachers and the community, including finding internships. Because we have lacked this role at our school, we have had a difficult time finding internship for our seniors. This problem is escalated when you consider that most companies in the game industry have strict confidentiality concerns with bringing interns from what is often their target market through their doors. This is where the Prison Flip Project takes over for my seniors. Throughout this project, the students are working closely with two distinct groups of professionals, which allows me to consider this project more like an internship that an Advanced Studies class.
The first group is Lucid Dream VR. Lucid Dream has been our mentors throughout the process. They have assisted us as consultants and guides throughout the process, much like an internship's supervisor would do for the students. When the students have experienced problems, the members of Lucid Dream have provided instruction and assistance. They have been the individuals who have truly made our ability to do anything with virtual reality possible!
The second group is Growing Change. Growing Change has been a real-world client for the students' project. They are the reason that we are creating the VR walkthrough and they will benefit from the class' work the most. So, without them, we wouldn't have the opportunity to have our "simulated internships" environment either. So, by thinking outside the box of what is normally considered to be an internship, I am providing my advanced students with the opportunity to get all the benefits of an internship without leaving the classroom setting.
Another item from the conference that i want to touch on involves teaching 3D modeling techniques. Working with 3D has never been one of my stronger skills but after lots of practice and research, I found ways that worked for me without using (many) of the state's outdated video tutorials. But, at the conference, I attended a session on teaching students to complete the 3D modeling unit in Scientific Visualization. This talk sparked an idea that I used just this morning with my students. Normally, I lecture using the state's PowerPoint, then I might walk them through the interface and let them attack a number of video tutorials. No more!
While I am giving the class the lecture material for use when studying for quizzes and tests, I am not lecturing it. They are intelligent and can read as well as I can read it to them with minimal added commentary, as that is all that is really needed. Instead, we dove straight into 3ds Max. I started by showing them a few of the items in the interface that they will need to get familiar with and where things are located. During the training, the speaker demonstrated making a dog. I decided to change things up a little by telling the kids: Today, you are making an elephant! We didn't cover every tool or technique they need, but it did give them a glimpse into how one can quickly and easily model change a simple primitive, like a cube, into a complex object. Over time, the modeling and relating techniques will get more involved but for now, this simply set of instructions appear to have really motivated the students about 3D modeling!
One of the most important things that professionals always need to do is keep abreast of current tools and trends in the industry where they are employed. One of the most common ways to do this is by attending professional conferences. This is equally true of the game industry as it is with any other professional field. I introduce my students to this fact by taking them to the East Coast Game Conference. This annual event takes place in Raleigh during the springtime and boasts the largest gathering of professional game designers on the east coast. It is often an eye-opening experience for my students when they interact with the creators of some of the biggest titles being produced both currently and in past years.
However, this post is not about ECGC. This past week, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the NC Technology Engineering and Design Educators Association (NCTEDEA) Spring Conference held in Kill Devil Hills, NC. While there, myself and three other Kenan Fellows shared information on our experience in the program along with our resulting lesson plans. Although the conference was very small, there was a lot of interest in what we had to say. Attendees got to see how four individuals from different backgrounds (an engineering teacher, a business and marketing teacher, an honors chemistry teacher, and myself - a game art & design teacher) were put together to build a wearable device and how we brought this shared experience back to our classrooms in unique and differing ways. While this was useful for the other teachers in attendance and presenting to one's peers is good for all to experience as a professional, I really wanted to bring something useful back for myself and my students.
Not only does attending conferences allow one to gain valuable information by attending formal presentations, but it allows you to network and converse/collaborate informally with one's peers, many of whom you may or may not see in other environments. This is where the real power of conferences comes into play in my mind. In attending, I managed to catch up with a former fellow game art & design teacher, Jonathan Peedin, who has since left the world of education and returned to his former career of designing video games, this time for Boss Key Productions as a senior UI/UX designer. However, he has kept one foot in the world of teaching as he is working on re-vamping the GAD curriculum and requirements to more closely align with the game industry. We had a number of conversations about where these changes may lead and I came back from the conference refreshed and excited about the updates to come. During the formal sessions, Jonathan gave a talk on free design tools and tablet use in the classroom, where he introduced two applications that teachers and students can use. And, I want to encourage my students to look into these tools as they can gain a lot out of both. Plus, being free, the price is perfect.
The first tool Jonathan shared with attendees is Sculptris by Pixelogic. Sculptris is a free 3D modeling application made by the same company that sells ZBrush, the industry standard 3D modeling software. Both products work like modeling in clay, allowing the artist to pull, pinch, push and prod their character or object into shape. Currently, the curriculum calls for teaching 3D modeling using 3ds Max, which has its roots in the world of computer aided drafting. Just considering this information and how we would use 3D models in video games, it is clear that using an artistic approach makes more sense than the technical design approach. We are often working with organic shapes and technical drawing is not really designed for such work. This doesn't mean that one should ignore technical modeling programs such as 3ds Max or Maya. While you can easily model your objects in Sculptris, you cannot rig or animate them and these are important tasks in creating video games. Applying texturing is also handled better outside of Sculptris. Based on all of this knowledge, I was very pleased to learn this powerful and lightweight application is being added to the list of required software for the game design classes.
The second tool I learned about was Krita, which is a free paint program. While Photoshop continues to dominate as the industry standard piece of software for 2D digital artwork, some companies are also looking at what is available to use for free these days. And, I often have students ask me what they can get for cheap, or better yet free, to learn how to create artwork on the computer. And, it may come as no surprise that GIMP is often the answer I provide. Like Krita, GIMP is free. However, it has a steep learning curve and I have often hear students (and myself) complain about getting very frustrated with it. GIMP is not intuitive and if you are used to working in Photoshop, rather hard to understand. At least it is for me. So, when Jonathan told me his coworkers at Boss Key pointed him towards using Krita, it made me even more curious about using it. So, as soon as I returned from the conference, I downloaded the software and started exploring its capabilities. After just a few minutes, I found it to be very intuitive and easy to use, which gave it a major boost over GIMP. And to my amazement, in terms of drawing on the computer, I preferred it over Photoshop! So, while I currently have minimal experience with this software, it has become my new go-to response when students want/need access to a paint program.
The final piece of knowledge that Jonathan touched on was the use of graphics tablets for doing one's artwork on the computer. I have tablets in my classroom but tend not to use them too often. I know...shame on me! But, with everything else I have to do and learn for my classes, I have simply put learning the graphics tablet on the back-burner to more pressing concerns that are constantly presenting themselves to me. But, I do see the value in using them and have always allowed students to do so at their request. I found Jonathan's response to a comment by another teacher useful in re-framing my mind on using them. This teacher asked if it is difficult to get used to drawing on the tablet and looking at the screen as opposed to a pen and paper on a desk. His response, and I paraphrase: you already do this with a mouse...it's just a matter of training yourself to do it with a different tool. So, when I installed Krita, I also grabbed one of the tablets. My first problem was that I could not get different shades like I can with a pencil despite the maker's claim of 1024 different levels of pressure being available. This bothered me. However, after updating the driver, it worked like a champ. All that is left for me to do is learn how to program the hot spot locations on the tablet and I am really ready to use it even more productively. However, even without them, I have started working on my skills and am quickly falling in love with using a graphics tablet. It's really not very difficult to become accustomed to, as Jonathan mentioned, and simply takes a little practice. I believe this will be the focus of my personal learning this coming summer.
So, while attending the conference, I was out of my classroom and at the beach for two days. The question I ask myself is does this benefit my students? I think it does based on everything I discussed above. I learned some new tools and gained a little insight into the direction the game design classes will be taking in the future. I hope you agree with my assessment and if you do not currently attend whatever professional conferences your industry offers, you change your perspective on them and start doing so.
I have now been the lead educator for the Game Art & Design (GAD) concentration at DSA for more than half of my teaching career. In that time, I have grown as an individual, an educator and a gamer through numerous personal and professional opportunities and experiences. However, as a CTE teacher, it is often easy for one to get stuck in the rut of using a curriculum that is provided for you and simply being repetitive over the years. I have seen this behavior in some teachers and have even experienced it myself from time-to-time as the year drags on and we grow weary from overextending ourselves. But, I didn't go into education, and game design specifically, to spin my tires in the mud. This week, I took a long overdue look at just how I have been doing this with relation to teaching 3D modeling.
I have long found 3ds Max to be the most difficult piece of software for me to teach. It requires a different way of looking at digital art, which is traditionally a very flat piece of work. Don't believe me? Look around the Internet at digital artwork. You will find fan art, concept art, simple 2D animations, digital photographs, personal videos, company advertisements, logos, graphic design and yes - video games. All are flat.
But, in recent years, digital 3D artwork has become more relevant. Back in the mid-1990s, as cost of computers started to become more reasonable and advances in hardware and software seemed to occur on a daily basis, a variety of industries began to focus on using 3D artwork in their operations. The cost was reasonable compared to the statement using such technologies made about your work or company. Pixar pushed the popularity of 3D digital animations in entertainment with Toy Story. The game industry was not far behind with iD Software's release of games like Wolfenstein 3D and the original Doom. And the film industry started moving away from using real-world dangerous special effects and adding computer generated (CGI) scenes, effects and even characters. As a result, the use of 3D digital artwork has become ubiquitous in entertainment and has now moved into other industries such as advertising, architecture, and research/development, to only name a few industries. Now, the current trends point toward the integration of 3D printing and the use of virtual reality (VR) to give the individual an even more personal experience with one's product or art. And, this will result in the increased demand for skilled 3D artists.
Warning: Poor excuse follows - as a teacher, I am often stretched well beyond my knowledge, ability, interest and energy levels. Combining this with the state providing me with usable, though often poorly created, video tutorials to teach 3D modeling, I fell into the aforementioned rut with 3D modeling. However, after years of using these tutorials and considering the increasing importance of these skills, I made a conscious effort this quarter to do something about it.
Last year, I began digging deeper into creating 3D models myself. I began by using a book in the Sams Teach Yourself in 24 Hours series which focused on learning 3ds Max. This started to get my skills up-to-par and although I shared a healthy bit of what I learned from this book last year, I continued using the provided videos and still had personal difficulty with using the application. Since the start of the end of third quarter, when we started to work in 3D, I have done some critical thinking about this decision and dug even deeper into personally using the software.
Many of the tutorials I was provided all those years ago contain errors. Most of the errors are minor, like using words incorrectly. Need I say more than identify that the mesh is not edible, it is editable? Or they could have been edited better prior to distribution. For instance, there shouldn't be bells ringing for class change, intercoms making announcements, students talking in the background or clearly making abrupt ends to tutorials because they are being made during the school day. But, more importantly, the version of 3ds Max used for their instruction, as well as some of the techniques expressed in them, is very out of date. This causes confusion on the part of the students and leads them down the wrong road for learning the best practices to prepare them for a future in 3D digital art.
So, about two weeks ago, I decided to focus on the most egregious videos I was provided in my initial training for Scientific Visualization, the introductory course in the GAD concentration. Of the items I previously used, students seemed to experience the most difficulty with the tutorials in objective 6.03, covering the use of materials and maps. This resulted from the tutorials using what is now a legacy component known as the compact material editor while the current default in the software is the newer slate material editor. Although both have all the same options available in them, the compact editor requires several more steps prior to adding materials to one's model, constantly requiring one to move between parent and child materials in the same rollout locations. On the other hand, the slate editor is node-based and allows you to visually see how everything connects in one central view with the parameters of each material/map located off to the side. In other words, it's considerably more intuitive! So, I started with recreating those specific tutorials.
Prior to making the new tutorials, I had to work my way through the original items and script them out. This also allowed me to figure out where and how the differences occur in each version of the material editor. Most of the differences were relatively easy to spot, though I did run into a few problem areas. After two weeks of scripting, modeling, and recording, I shared the tutorials with the students. The kids who reached those particular tutorials expressed a healthy dose of gratitude to me for replacing the out-dated tutorials with the updated ones. While I still have several other tutorials to create, I now have a good start and summer is just around the corner. On top of this, I have a better personal understanding of 3D modeling and using 3ds Max in particular.
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.