03 June 2012

Lance Flavell - Beginning Blender - Ebook Review

Lance Flavell and Apress have been busy writing another Blender 2.5 based book. Lance Flavell (known as Lancer in the Blender community) is a very knowledgeable Blender user. So I was very interested to find out about this book when Apress announced its availability.

So off I went and ordered the Ebook version of the book in PDF format.

Product Specifications:
  • Name: Beginning Blender
  • Author: Lance Flavell
  • Price: $34.99 (1 Dec 2010)
  • Type: Ebook PDF Format
  • Pages: 448
This is a book aimed at Blender beginners who are using the Blender 2.5x series. It takes the approach of introducing a subject and then giving examples and exercises for the reader to try and carryout and as a result learn how some of Blenders features work.

The pictures in the Ebook version are full color and apparently the paper book version also has full color pictures, which is useful. The pictures in the PDF version, unfortunately often had compression artifacts making them look very pixelated. Luckily most of the time the quality of the pictures was just good enough to get the point across, it's a shame the pictures were slightly below par but the rest of the content of the book is a much better standard.

Chapter 1 - This chapter deals with explaining what Blender is, how it came about and what makes it special when compared with other software. Instructions on how to obtain and install Blender are gone over, not in massive detail but in enough to be usable. Especially interesting was the good description of what opensource is and why it is so important.

Chapter 2 - Covers various beginner topics on using Blender, from interacting with the user interface in various ways to manipulating the 3D Cursor and explaining how it works and what it is used for. Once the basic interface features have been described the chapter moves on to explaining Blenders different types of primitive shapes and how to use them to construct simple models. A very good explanation of how to manipulate various parts of meshes and the interface using both the keyboard shortcuts and the mouse manipulations is explained. Usefully notes on possible issues with shortcut key conflicts with various different operating system platforms are highlighted, which I think would be extremely useful for a beginning Blender user to be aware of, as this can often be a problem users encounter and it's not often obvious how to fix it or that anything is wrong when it happens. At the end of this chapter the reader is given an exercise to make a simple robot model. I found this a good way to re-enforce committing to memory the subjects described previously in the chapter. Another thing I liked was the way that keyboard shortcut keys were almost always used and described, even some of the less well known shortcuts were mentioned.

Chapter 3 - Covers the fundamental topics of modeling in Blender, covering the differences between Object Mode and Edit Mode. There is a very clear explanation of what mesh topology is and how it impacts on the overall quality of a finally produced model. Simple modifiers such as Blenders Mirror Modifier and Subsurface Modifier are demonstrated and their uses enumerated. I was surprised the Sculpting and the use of Multi-Resolution Modifier was covered at this point in the book, I was expecting it later on, none the less it was well laid out and easy to understand and guided the user to sculpt a simple cat model. Another very useful feature of Blender covered in this chapter was Blenders Retopology feature. A lot of new Blender users and even some not so new users tend to not know about the Retopology feature (or only find out what it is much later) and I found it very useful that it was covered so early on within the texts. Another example of providing information that is often left out of beginners books is the description of how to use proxy objects when linking objects from a file in Blender. How to create proxy objects is often overlooked as a feature that is advanced and therefore not normally covered, this is not a mistake this book makes.

Chapter 4 - Covers the topics of Lighting and Procedural Texturing. It also covers setting up the camera for doing renderings and its various settings that affect render sizes. A topic I found helpful was how to setup the Blender camera to track objects and lights. After camera setup is covered the various lighting techniques and types supported by Blender are described, not in massive detail but more that enough for a beginning Blender user. Although to my mind the description of how Hemi lights worked was a little inaccurate, but not in a way that is likely to affect new Blender users. The important lighting parameter Dist: was explained very well as were the Spot Light parameters and their uses. How to setup simple lighting rigs and simple explanations of lighting theory were explained but don't expect advanced coverage of the theory side of lighting rigs, but there is a enough there to start with. Good explanations of what Key, Fill and Rim lights are and how they can be combined and positioned for effective lighting of a scene within Blender is described.

Ambient Occlusion and Environment Lighting is very briefly covered. I would liked to have seen more information on how to use environment lighting features and how useful it can be, but in a book of this size, space is limited and you get enough information to get you started.

Having covered the basic lighting features the chapter moves on to describing procedural texturing. It does this by taking a Text object and converting it and applying textures to it, in the form of bump maps and color textures. Applying multiple textures to a material is described and demonstrated on the text object. It was easy to follow and showed just how powerful Blender material and texture system can be.

Chapter 5 - Covers texturing using UV Mapping techniques and the steps involved in preparing textures for modification in external applications such as The GIMP. The description of how to use the Uv Image Editor to unwrap mesh objects is clear and useful. Surprisingly Projection Painting is described, as are texture brushes and how to use them. Another highlight of this chapter was the description of the difference between Bump and Normal Mapping, very informative, as often the distinction is not clear. Also very educational was the description of how Normal maps can be made manually. For those that want to use Blenders ability to create Normal Maps automatically this is also covered. I also really appreciated the section on ways to fix common normal map problems when they are baked, lots of people may benefit from this information not just beginners.

Chapter 6 - Covers Curves, Nurbs and MetaBalls. While curve are often documented in Blender books and tutorials, Nurbs and MetaBalls are much less frequently documented. This is a shame as Nurbs and MetaBalls have features that when used in the right situations can be very useful. The description of how MetaBalls and Nurbs work was not the clearest and it took me a couple of re-reads to get to grips with the information, even so still a useful section. Another small problem with this section is that the text refers to fields and parameter names that have been changed in recent version of Blender, so the names the book gave for parameters do not match, which may be slightly confusing to new users. The coverage of 3D Curves, Bevel Objects and Taper Objects were very clear and I think will be very informative for new user, even not so new users. It's a shame this book was not released a month later as it would have been able to cover RotoBeziers addon which allows for keyframed animated curves, but as it was still a very useful chapter.

Chapter 7 - Goes over basic animation and rigging techniques as well as covering the standard terminology and methodology involved in rigging and animation. The explanation of keyframing both what it is and how to do it within Blender were clear and to the point. Time saving features such as auto-keyframing were noted and their use demonstrated. A simple animation is constructed using a monkey model. The uses for the Graph Editor and Dopesheet are documented, here though I do wish more information had been given as to the differences between what the graph editor is used for and what the Dopesheet is used for. The various bone types and weighting methods are described and each is demonstrated in various ways. Though strangely Blender Auto/Heat Weighting method did not appear to be described, I could have just missed it but if not I do find that very strange.

Chapter 8 - Carries on where things left off in Chapter 7, but this time covering more advanced rigging topics such as what FK and IK is, what Control Bones and Bone Layers are and how and why they are used and the differences between them. A demonstration of how to rig a finger and a leg are gone over as are custom bone shapes. Slightly more exotic features such as Pole Targets are used and a good description of why they are useful is also done. Various ways to create both simple and more advanced foot rig designs were gone over. Once the rigging explanations were completed the chapter moves on to the subject of animation and a basic animated walk cycle is created. The section on shapekeys is very useful as shapekey are often a feature that can be difficult to get to grips with. They are used to demonstrate how to do lip syncing on a speaking character. Overall this chapter was better than most other beginners books in showing some of Blender more useful features, very good chapter.

Chapter 9 - Covers how to use Blender in your Movie Making pipeline. Once you get to this point in your Blender education it becomes useful to use the Video Sequence Editor and Compositing Nodes. So this chapter covers the use of the Video Sequence Editor and Node Compositor to make and do the post processing tasks needed to make movies in Blender. How to use Depth Of Field is covered. The various different methods of Greenscreen usage and filtering is gone over, then it is shown how to composite live action footage and CG together and various Video Sequence Editor filters are demonstrated also.

Chapter 10 - Demonstrates how to use Blender Physics, Particle and Hair features. It's a fast moving chapter and quickly goes over each feature very quickly, but generally in enough detail to be useful as a jumping off point to further study. The features are demonstrated by making a simple exploding rocket that animates a model and particle systems. After the particle settings are described the chapter moves on to describing how hair particles work, and a simple wig is constructed using them. Lastly fluid and smoke simulations are covered, again only very briefly but with enough information to be useful.

Chapter 11 - Covers using the game engine to make simple games. Done mainly using Blender Logic Bricks to construct a couple of simple interactive games. The games that result are very good examples of what can be done with the Blender Game Engine. This is a very brief chapter but game creation is very complex and not a lot can be covered in such a short amount of space. But as a taster of what's possible with the Blender Game Engine it's useful to get you started with game creation in Blender.

Chapter 12 - This final chapter connects up various lose ends topics such as where to get further information on Blenders various features and also has an FAQ section answering and fixing the most common problems encountered by new Blender users. The FAQ section to me seemed very useful as the questions answered were definitely the ones that I encountered when I first started using Blender so I would assume they will be useful to other readers.

So on balance this is an excellent book for a Blender beginner, it even had me re-remembering things I had forgotten. This book is a combination of detailed enough to give a Blender user most of the salient information needed to use Blender effectively, and not to difficult as to make it confusing or overwhelming. Personally I think this is currently the best general purpose beginners book to basic Blender 2.5 features so far. Other lesser books would try to cut down on the number of topics covered and probably make a much smaller book but I think this book benefits from the larger amount of pages. It's not a perfect book it does have its problems, such as having badly displayed pictures in places and sometimes not being quite clear enough with explanations of certain sections of the book.

If you're a Blender beginner or an experienced Blender user that is new to 2.5 or a bit rusty, this book will be well worth the money. I really hope Mr Flavell does another Blender book, given the quality of this one.

Review Score 85%