25 February 2013

Ben Simonds - Blender Master Class

I was recently contacted by No Starch Press, a book publisher that makes a number of books on many different topics, mostly aimed towards education and the sciences;  They asked me if I would review a new Blender book that they had just published.  I agreed to the review so they sent me the ebook.

It's written by well known Blenderhead Ben Simonds, a very experienced Blender user who has created many impressive works with Blender.  See Ben's personal website (http://bensimonds.com/).  He is also the director at Gecko Animation Limited (http://www.geckoanimation.com/), which makes many animations and does vfx work, often involving Blender.  So it's safe to say he knows his stuff and his way around Blender.

The technical editor of the book is Thomas Dinges another very well known Blenderhead and Blender Developer, and I can tell you from experience that he is very talented, check his website (http://dingto.org/). He is also one of the people involved in creation of the Blender Podcast (http://blender-podcast.org/).

So together Ben and Thomas Form form a very formidable combination when it comes to creating good Blender books.

Product Specifications:
  • Name : Blender Master Class
  • Author : Ben Simonds
  • Price : $39.95 (on 25th Feb 2013)
  • Pages : 250+ (roughly)
  • Format  Ebook

Ben Simonds - Blender Master Class

Ben takes the approach of teaching the reader how to effectively use Blender.  He does this by creating three example projects which he uses to demonstrate to the reader the workflow required to complete these projects.  One of the projects he goes through is that of modeling a robotic spider model, which is shown on the cover of the book.  As you can see the quality level of the finished projects are of a very high level.

All of the resources and files from the book are included on the DVD if you bought the printed book;  if you bought the ebook all the resource files are downloadable from the books website (http://nostarch.com/blendermasterclass.htm).

The book is printed in full color on good quality paper.  The ebook pdf version I read is identical to the printed version.

This book is not aimed at the Blender beginner, It seemed to be more aimed at the Blender user who knows his way around Blender's interface, but may not know what a lot of it is for. if you are a complete Blender beginner I think you would struggle to follow all of the instructions that Ben describes.

The two tools the Ben uses to create his projects are Blender and Gimp in combination.  Blender is used for the vast majority of the book and Gimp is only used when it's more efficient to use Gimp as a dedicated bitmap editor for texture creations.

The three projects that Ben guides the reader through are:
  • Modeling A Bat Creature
  • Modeling A Jungle Temple
  • Modeling A Robot Spider
Each of three projects are different enough from each other that they teach Blender project creation from different perspectives show casing different areas of Blender.

The first two chapters of the book covers the history of both Blender and Gimp, and then moves on to covering the basics of each application, specifically the terminology and interface layouts.  If you haven't used a particular area of Blender before this introductory section should serve as a refresher to the major elements of Blender.

After the introductory material the book moves on to preparing for the upcoming creation of the three projects that Ben creates throughout the rest of the book;  It covers how to design concept drawings and acquiring reference materials and photographs.  Once all of your reference material is obtained Ben goes over how to set it up in Blender.  More importantly he describes in a fair amount of detail exactly how you do this effectively.

The three projects are blocked out in rough and Ben details why this is important in getting your projects nailed down.  Then Ben shows how to use Blender's basic features to create the blocked out scenes.  In these early parts of the book Ben takes the time to list all the keyboard shortcuts and processes he uses.  So that in later parts of the book he does not have to.

After the rough blocking is completed Ben moves on to modeling the fine details of the the different projects.  Before he dives into the details, he takes the time to describe some topology theories, covering topics such as edge flow, rings and loops, and why these are important for good results when modeling.

Ben does not spoon feed you at this point in the book, now that he has explained the basics, he increases the pace of his instructions and you will be expected to remember what he said previously, if you want to keep up.  Given that his previous explanations were clear and well paced I don't think this will be a problem.

Clever use of the Ivy Gen Addon is demonstrated to create  vines in one scene he creates for his Jungle Temple Scene.

All the detailing in the projects upto this point were created using poly by poly or box modeling techniques.  This can only get you so far, when you need very fine details in model and envionments.

To cover the very fine detail modeling the book moves on to Blender's sculpting tools.  Ben describes the terminology and theory of sculpting.  He goes over all the different types of sculpting brush settings and how they can be used.  He also takes the time to describe how to create custom sculpting brushes.  I think this is the first time I have seen creating of custom sculpting brushes explained in a commercially available book;  This information will be very useful to people who are big into sculpting.  Also described are the default sculpting brushes used in Blender.  Features that use sculpting such as the Multiresolution Modifier were well explained.  Dyntopo (Dynamic Sculpting) was not covered as when this book came out Dyntopo had only just been released in Blender.  Another really useful piece of information in this section of the book was the coverage of Displacement Modifiers and how to use them to increase detail levels on models that are sculpted.

All the basics of modeling are covered from proportions of models to breaking symmetric models to make them more asymmetric to increase their realism.

Once the high poly sculpting is completed the book moves on to using Blender's Retopology tools to take the high poly models and make them into lower poly count models.  These lower poly models are more useful for animation and are more efficient to deal with than very hgih poly models.  Each of the different retopology methods that Blender supports are covered in a clear and concise way.

UV Unwapping methods are covered as are the most important terminology and tools that Blender uses when you want to unwrap a mesh for later UV Texturing.  Clear explanations of placing seams to aide in unwrapping are also covered in an easy to understand way.

Some of the projects that Ben goes through require hair and fur and Ben goes over Blender's methods for creating both of these material types.  Vertex Groups and Weight Painting are all describe and their use is demonstrated as the different projects are progressed.  I found the section on hair settings for kinks and clumping clear and easy to understand.  Hair is often difficult to get to grips with.

The next major topics covered in the book are Texture Painting and Texture Baking.  The Texture Painting sections covered are done with Blender and Gimp.  Gimps Dynamic Brush System is covered and gives a good explanation of how to create custom gimp brushes for making grunge and texturing brushes for use inside of gimp..  Important topics of texture painting in Blender are covered such as how to deal with seams, as are making various types of texture maps and ambient occlusion textures.  One part that really stood out for me was the coverage of how to make seamless textures in Gimp.  That section alone is probably worth getting the book for.

Blender comes with two different rendering systems by default, the Blender Internal renderer and shading system and the Blender Cycles renderer and Shading System.  They work differently and Ben goes through some of the major differences of each system, covering the pros and cons of each system.  Demonstrations of each different shading system are covered.  Be aware though that you will need to find out most of the information on how Cycles Shading Nodes work from other places, because Ben only goes over Cycles in an overview way.  For some people there may be enough information but if you are new to Blender it may be a bit brief.  Though there are plenty of pictures of Shading Node for Blender Cycles shading.

After shading comes how to light your scenes and Ben covers a lot of the theory of lighting and practical material for lighting the three projects that he previously created.  There's the standard lighting information such as three point lighting and use of shadows;  Also covered are the different forms of lighting that Blender and Cycles supports.

Finally Rendering and Compositing topics are covered.  Using both Blender Internal and Blender Cycles systems for compositing.  Details of the different render passes are covered and Ben shows how to use them effectively to improve the overall quality of a final render.  Node Groups and Frame Nodes are covered.  I am not sure but I think it is the first time Frame Nodes are covered in a commercial book.

The final chapter is mostly a tips chapter which goes over how to take your projects and renderings even further to improve them.

So, all in all a good book, if a little fast paced.  But if you have enough experience with Blender you should not have many problems following along with the text.  Remember that this book does not go over every single step in the process of creating each of the projects, but gives enough information on the processes involved in general;  This means you can use the information in your own projects but not really create the exact same projects Ben made in the book.

Great book go buy!

Review Score 90%