A great Blender tutorial: back to school with Blender

One of my projects this fall is to take advantage of online "Open Courseware" classes, for personal and professional development. In setting up my own curriculum, I came across a very nice find: a class on 3D modelling based on the (free software) Blender 3D modelling application. This class, offered by Tufts University in Boston (USA) is one of the most professionally delivered collections of tutorials I have yet seen, and I think it may well be the easiest way to approach Blender if you have no prior 3D modelling experience.

Many tutorials for Blender assume that you already have a professional understanding of 3D modelling process. They are tutorials on how to use Blender, not on how to do 3D modelling. This is fine if you are a professional artist trying to migrate from proprietary software from Maya or Autodesk, but if you're just wanting to learn from scratch it can be a bit off-putting.

For example, it's quite common to refer off-handedly to "modelling", "shading", "lighting", "texture", "rigging" and so on. These words are perhaps largely self-explanatory if used together, but they are based on a model of the thought process (and workflow) associated with 3D modelling, which probably isn't obvious to people completely new to the field. What's needed is an approach that explains these steps so that they become familiar, and you have an overview of the structure of the task you're learning before you start learning the details.

The result can therefore be a bit like Rosalyn Hunter's Completely Lost in Blender article, which really captured the frustration that a new user can encounter when trying to understand any big new system.

Open Courseware

In such cases, a structured class setting can really help!

However, unless you live in a major metropolitan area with a media industry (e.g. Los Angeles), you are unlikely to find a local community college with a good 3D modelling program. Even if you do live in such a place, it may be a real challenge to find one that teaches using Blender.

Fortunately, free online classes can really help. "Open Courseware" is an initiative that was started by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) several years ago, which is based on releasing class curricula (lecture notes, assignments, resource materials, and sometimes even video lectures) online under free (or semi-free) licenses. Today, there is a substantial consortium of schools and universities offering such classes.

The implementation and content of such classes varies considerably. There may be notes only, video or audio lectures, homework assignments, or any combination of these. Far from being limited to computer science (as I had previously suspected) subjects include such diverse topics as evolutionary biology, discrete mathematics, film history, and physics. And of course, there is also computer science.

Blender 3D Design

Searching for interesting subjects, however, I was lucky enough to find a class from Tufts University called "Blender 3D Design". So far I have completed only the first "learning unit" out of twelve total, but I am very impressed with the class structure.

The class is broken up into tiny snippets of video, each containing tutorials on a specific task. This is useful pedagogically, because you can play a video, then, while the material is fresh in your mind, you can try it out immediately in a live Blender window on your system.

Each of the tutorial videos is actually a screen capture of the program with a voice-over by the lecturer. If you've looked at instructional videos on YouTube, you probably realize how easy it is to screw this up, resulting in incomprehensible gibberish. But the Tufts class lectures, delivered by Neal Hirsig, are excellent: clear, concise, consistent, and easy to follow.

One thing I was quite impressed by, after seeing a lot of less successful tutorials for Blender, was the way in which he explains multiple ways to achieve the same effect. Blender (for better or for worse) has a complex interface, and it usually has hot keys, menus, and even mouse-gestures that accomplish the same thing. Many tutorials simply tell you about one of these, leaving you to wonder about the connections with other tutorials which choose a different method (e.g. you are left wondering which is the better approach or how you could figure that out in any given situation).

I also like the way that the class explains a lot of the "obvious" things on the screen. I finally learned what the silly red, green, and blue arrows do, for example. You'd think this would be obvious, I suppose, but there are so many details in the interface, it's easy to get overwhelmed and lost.

Along with the video lecture/tutorials, there are assignments, consisting of additional tutorials written out as PDF files. These provide the necessary "mastery" stage of doing the work yourself.

Check it out

Later I may have more to say about this class or about Blender itself, but for now, it's just the beginning of the school year, and I am just beginning the class. As a parting shot, let me share with you my work-in-progress first assignment (from the "Yellow Submarine" tutorial in Learning Unit #1):

The Yellow Submarine tutorial from Learning Unit #1, about halfway through


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