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AECbytes Tips and Tricks Issue #26 (January 24, 2008)

Turning Wood, Blowing Glass, and Throwing Pottery in 3ds Max

Scott Onstott
Book & Video Author

Realistic furnishings and accessories can breathe life into otherwise cold computer-generated architectural imagery. If you regularly present 3D renderings to your clients, consider building a library of textured 3D models to quickly furnish and decorate your architectural spaces. This article focuses on a single modeling technique that you can use to form a wide variety of craft objects including vases, stools, table and chair legs, ceramic tableware, art pottery, glassware, and so on.

Loading Photographic Background in 3ds Max

Although you certainly can model from memory, you'll probably find that modeling from a photograph or a hand-drawn sketch is faster and more accurate. Take a digital photo (or sketch) of any real-world object having rotational symmetry. Download your photo or scan your sketch. It is best to try and shoot the object from the side as much as possible to capture a pseudo-elevation view. Launch 3ds Max and enter the front viewport (F) and maximize it (Alt+W).

Choose Views > Viewport Background or press Alt+B to open the Viewport Background dialog box. Click the Files button in the Background Source group and select your photo or scanned image. Select the Match Bitmap radio button in the Aspect Ratio group, and check Lock Zoom/Pan. Click OK and Zoom Extents All (E).

Modeling Geometry with Spline Profile and Lathe Modifier

Your next task is to draw this piece of the pottery's profile as a spline object. Imagine a vertical line running down the axis of symmetry—you will then draw the profile either on the left or right side of this axis.

Instead of trying to get the spline perfect all at once, I recommend roughing it in as a sequence of straight line segments at first. You'll have ample opportunity to go back and refine the shape after considering the whole. Just like a painter, you want to capture the broad strokes first and then go back and add detail.

Pick the Create panel, select the Shapes button, Splines category, Line tool. In the Creation Method rollout, choose Corner radio button for Drag Type. Click out a sequence of points tracing the left half of the profile. Start at the top, centered on the axis of symmetry, and work your way around and back to the axis at the bottom of the piece.

The background is useful to compare the form in the photo with your developing object, but it tends to get in the way as you're drawing, so feel free to toggle the background image off by pressing Alt+B, unchecking Display Background, and clicking OK.

Right-click in the viewport to access the vertex sub-object level from the tools 1 quad menu. Reposition any misplaced vertices using the Move tool. To give the profile curvature, it's necessary to change some of its vertices to Bezier or Bezier Corner using the tools 1 quad menu. Bezier vertices have handles that stay parallel for smooth curves and Bezier Corner vertices have two independent handles that allow sharper curves.

Continue shaping the profile curve and toggling the viewport background image (press Alt+B) to compare your work with the photo until satisfied.

If you're creating an object with interior surfaces (such as pottery or glassware), it's best to outline the profile segments to create a cross section with discrete thickness. Switch to the Spline sub-object level (press 3) and select the single sub-spline by clicking it. Open the Geometry rollout on the Modify panel and click the Outline button. Drag the spline to give it thickness. Switch back to the Vertex level (press 1) and reposition the new vertices and their handles if necessary to complete an attractive profile shape.

Go to the top level by clicking Line in the modifier stack. Rename this object Urn01. Apply the Lathe modifier by selecting it from the modifier drop-down list—this will revolve the 2D profile and generate 3D geometry. If you drew the profile in the front viewport, click the Y direction and max alignment buttons. If you drew it elsewhere, experiment with different direction and alignment button combinations until the lathe spins splines into geometry the way you want. I like to output patch geometry—click Patch radio button—because it appears smoother than Mesh and is easier to work with than NURBS. Make sure Smooth is checked so the surface normals blend.

Adjusting Position, Scale, Pivot, and Transforms

At this point you might think you're done—but don't be too hasty. The model is not to scale and the pivot is in some arbitrary location. A few more steps are necessary to make this a professional model that you can merge into any scene you work with in the future without any hassles.

The easiest way to set the scale of the model is to create a primitive nearby that is the exact size you are shooting for. In this case I made a cylinder with a 1' radius and 2'6" height. This gives me a 3D template for the real-world scale of this architectural urn. Select and visually scale Urn01 to more or less match the scale of the primitive.

The pivot point of Urn01 should be centered within its geometry and located at the bottom of the object and on the home grid so that it will be easy to place and manage in future scenes. First, let's tackle the problem of getting the Urn's bottom surface onto the home grid. Select Urn01 and press Alt+A to activate the Align tool. Click the cylinder as target object and the Align dialog box appears. Check Z Position and select the Minimum radio buttons for both current and target objects.

Now the urn's bottom surface (its minimum) is on the home grid. Select and delete the cylinder as it is no longer needed.

Switch to the Hierarchy panel and select the Pivot button if it's not already selected. Enter Affect Pivot Only mode by clicking the appropriate button. Click the Center to Object and Align to World buttons. Click the Select and Move tool and then right-click the transform type-in's Z spinner to set the pivot point's Z position value to zero. Now the pivot point is centered on the object and it's on the home grid.

Exit Affect Pivot Only mode by toggling its button. Open the Adjust Transform rollout and click the Scale button in the Reset group. This action resets the scale transform so that the object scale now reads 100% in X, Y, and Z.

Finally, move the object to the origin point by right clicking each of the transform type-in spinners. At this point you're done with the modeling process. You might continue and design a material and assign it to the object, but that's going beyond the scope of this article.

Save the file as Urn.max (download a copy here) and place it within your 3D model library folder structure. You can use the Asset Browser or the File > Merge command to place it within any future scenes that require an architectural urn.

This technique is covered in my 3ds Max & VIZ for Architects video series.

About the Author

Scott Onstott is a book and video author of AEC software tutorials. He has a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley and has served as an instructor there, in addition to working in several prominent engineering, architecture, and interiors firms in San Francisco. He has also worked as a technical editor and technology consultant.

Scott has contributed to over two dozen books and videos on AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop, VIZ Render, Revit, 3ds Max, VIZ, Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter, Fireworks, and Dreamweaver. He most recently co-authored AutoCAD:_Professional_Tips_and_Tricks with Lynn Allen. He can be reached via:

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