Feature: Where's the Lens Cap?

CGI: Create Your Own Worlds and Let Your Imagination Run Wild

Author: Byron Sletten
Published: September 20, 2010 at 11:00 am


Are you a visual control freak?

When people think of CGI (computer generated imagery) they usually think of animation and special effects. But 3D modeling and animation software is a really powerful way to create photo-realistic illustrations. If you have the right temperament and patience, these programs offer a great way to create your own worlds and let your imagination run wild.

There are four steps in the process:


This means creating wireframes using a variety of methods. You can "sculpt" using tools in the software program, or purchase pre-built models (Check out TurboSquid).

For some projects, using 3D scanning devices could be a good option.

Build and light your environment

Think of it this way: a computer ray tracing program attempts do with numbers, what your camera does with the physics of light. In designing a virtual environment or scene, you create and position cameras and lights in the same way you would in a real studio (setting things like depth of field or light fall off). But you can do some strange things that would be impossible in meat space - like assigning a negative value to a light and suck luminance.

Assign visual properties to the objects

Wireframe models in the scene need surface properties assigned to them (called shaders). Attributes like specular highlights, transparency, refraction, reflection and an unlimited array of texture maps can be set. This is great stuff for a visual control geek freak.

Animate camera, objects, lights, etc.

This can be as simple as panning a camera across the subject. It can also involve a team of animators (did you stay for the credits after the movie Avatar!) But animation is just an option. You may only want one frame, rendered in very high resolution.

Here are a few software programs to consider. They are all very good. The real consideration is not the cost or feature comparisons as much as your investment in the learning curve.

Rhino 3D
Autodesk Maya
Autodesk 3ds Max
Blender (it's free, open source if you want a taste of the process)

These programs are like learning to play an instrument or a new sport. (Ever heard of K. Anders Ericsson's 10,000-hour rule?) Watching a true pro use these tools is a thing of beauty as they sculpt from the wireframes into a photo realistic illustration. The work is unbound by gravity or other physical constraints of the real world.

Give it a try!


About this article

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Article Author: Byron Sletten

Byron Sletten has over 25 years of experience in digital media & interactive design. Please follow on Twitter - @byrons As owner & partner in MindActive (www.mindactive.com) this broad focus on digital media is currently directed to strategies and …

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