Introduction to Blender 2.8: Building a Spaceship

At the beginning of 2019, to try familiarise myself with Blender 2.8, I started a 100 Days of Making project, on the theme of spaceships. On one day I modelled a spaceship, the next I animated it.

In an attempt to share what I’ve learned, I’m running a workshop at ITP Camp centered around learning Blender by building a spaceship. The workshop is only 3 hours, so it certainly doesn’t cover everything there is to know, but hopefully it’ll give you a good jump start to your 3D modelling journey!

Installing Blender

Still in Beta, Blender 2.8 can be found here. Download the file and unzip it to where you want Blender to live. Inside the unzipped folder will be the blender executable and a number of other files. Click the executable to get started.

You might need to right click > open and choose ‘Open Anyway’ if you get a security warning.

Setting up Blender

Once opened, the first thing we’ll want to do is set up Blender to works best with our system. Chances are at this workshop you have a laptop, so there are some settings we should adjust for that.

Open Edit > Preferences

Input

  • Emulate 3 button mouse: Check this if you don’t have a three button mouse.
    • Checking this option will let you simulate a Middle Mouse Button using Alt + Left Click.

Keymap

  • Select With: This may be controversial, but I will be teaching the old Blender method of right click select. This was default before 2.8. It’s a pain at first, but once you get used to it makes a lot of sense. However if you can’t stomach the thought of this unintuitive shift, feel free to leave left click select as the default.
  • Spacebar Action: Another legacy of old Blender, by default the spacebar would open a global search menu. In Blender 2.8 the default search key is F3, which is difficult to access on my laptop so I keep the spacebar option.

System

  • Cycles Render Devices: If you have a NVidia CUDA-enabled GPU, you can change your cycles render device to speed up rendering. We’re not using cycles much today but this could be useful in the future.
  • Undo Steps: You’re going to want to change this to more than 32. Trust me.

File Paths

If you’d like to set a default location for your renders, do so here!

Double check that your preferences are saved, and exit preferences.


The Interface

The first thing you see in Blender 2.8 is the Default Cube in an infinite space. The temptation is to start clicking around and manipulating 3D objects, but first we must get a sense of how the blender windows work!

Single Window, Many Panels.

Blender was first built in a time when programs would open up many different windows for different tasks. Specifically designed against this practice, Blender is built to exist primarily in one window. Different tasks happen in adjustable panels.

Each panel contains an Editor. The default Blender workspace (pictured above) contains the following panels in clockwise order:

  1. 3D Viewport: the space where you view and edit your scene
  2. Outliner: List of objects in your scene, and basic information about them.
  3. Properties: In depth information about the selected object. Generally, if we want to modify an object, we’ll do it here.
  4. Timeline: Pertinent to animation, the timeline allows us to play back animations. We will not be covering animation today.

Modifying Panels

Change Panel Type

To Change the type of editor displayed in a panel, click on the top left drop-down and choose the new editor type:

Expand/Contract Panels

Expand and contract panels by clicking on a vertical or horizontal bound, and mouse-dragging in or out:

Add/Remove Panels

Adding a panel is known as ‘splitting’, because the way you do it is by clicking on any corner of a panel and dragging inwards. The direction of the drag determines the new panel’s aspect.

Removing a panel (‘collapsing’) is that same process in reverse. Click on a corner and drag in outwards onto the panel you wish to collapse. Note that you can only collapse a window when the two connected sides are the same length.

The mechanism for adding and removing panels can become very confusing, especially when you accidentally activate it. Spend some time getting used to this behaviour to get a feel for how it works.

Important Note

Panel manipulation is NOT part of the undo stack. That means that if you mess up a panel, you have to manually revert it.

[Task!] Remove the Timeline Panel


Working in 3D – Navigation

Camera Movement

Now that we have a hang of the interfaces and can tackle any surprises that come our way, let’s shift focus to the 3D Viewport. The first thing we need to know is how to move around. The default navigation system in Blender uses the following concepts:

  • Orbit (MMB): Move the camera around a focal point, keeping consistent distance.
  • Pan (Shift + MMB): Kind of like dragging your camera around without affecting rotation.
  • Zoom (Scroll Wheel OR Ctrl + MMB): Zooming in moves the actual camera, up to the focal point.
  • View Selected (Tilde + ‘View Selected’): Changes focus point to active object.
  • View All (Shift + C): View your entire scene.

View Selected/All can be really helpful to reset things when your camera rotation goes out of whack.

Viewpoints: Front/Side/Back

It’s often helpful when 3D modelling or animating to see an Orthographic axis view of your scene, meaning a view from one side without any perspective, like a technical diagram of your model. There are many ways to achieve this in Blender, the one we’ll use today is by clicking on a specific axis in the Viewpoint Widget at the top right of the 3D Viewport:

To exit this viewing mode, simply orbit (MMB) out.

Working in 3D – Moving Stuff Around

Finally! We get to the good stuff, actually working with our model. As mentioned before the default scene in Blender contains a cube, a light, and a camera.

Types of Stuff

  • Meshes: For the most part your model will be a ‘Mesh’ – a collection of squares or triangles making up a shape.
  • Curves: Some models are defined by equations, but we will not deal with those today.
  • Lights: Lights… light up your scene. There are different types of lights but that’s all we need to know for now.
  • Cameras: Different to the viewport camera, the Camera Objects in a scene are used to render out your final image/animation.
  • Many more: There are plenty of other types of things in Blender to help with modelling, animation, and even making games.

The 3D Cursor

The 3D cursor is your friend and will tell Blender where you want to add things. To move the 3D cursor you can either:

  • Left Click somewhere in your scene. If you click on an object the cursor will stick to that object.
  • Shift + S for options such as Cursor to Origin or Cursor to Active.
The glorious 3D Cursor
Shift + S brings up options for the 3D cursor.

Adding Stuff

  • Shift + A brings up the Add menu. OR
  • Spacebar and then type what you want to add.

The new object will appear at the 3D cursor. Note that the Outliner now displays the new object as well. If you want to be organised you could should rename the object with a useful name.

The Add Menu

Moving Stuff

The Basics

To activate a transformation, press one of the following keys:

  • Position: (G) Grab your object and move it around space
  • Rotation: (R) Rotate your object around an axis
  • Scale: (S) Scale your object

For Rough Estimation:

Move the mouse around for the desired transformation. With the mouse you can:

  • Left Click to Apply
  • Right Click to Cancel

Axis Locking

The default move mode is not super useful, because it is relative to the camera. More often, we want to move something precisely, e.g. up by 5, or right by 2.

We can lock in the axis of movement by pressing the key for that axis, i.e. X, Y, or Z.

In addition, if we want to exclude an axis, e.g. move something laterally, but not up, we can press Shift + X, Shift + Y, or Shift + Z to exclude that axis.

This works for Position, Rotation, and Scale.

For Precise Control:

After pressing an axis, you can type in a number to move the object that precise amount along that axis.

Global vs Local

Objects remember their original rotation. Then we move, scale, rotate an object, we can do so relative to the Global Space, where X,Y,Z never change, or Local Space, where X,Y,Z change based on the object’s transformations. This feature can be very handy for modelling.

To demonstrate why, let’s add a cone (Shift + A > Mesh > Cone). It will also help our cause to activate the Move gizmo, which is another way of displaying the axis of movement.

The setting is located at the top right of the 3D Viewport:

When we move the cone ‘Up’, or along Z, we’re moving it along the pointy end, as if a rocket is going up. But once we rotate it, Z is no longer along the pointy end, so we’ve lost that rocket-like feature. At least, Z in the Global Space.

If we press Z twice, we switch to Local Space locking, which remembers what the original ‘Up’ direction was. Now we can move the rocket according to it’s ‘Up’ direction regardless of how much we’ve rotated it.

Single press for Global locking, double press for Local locking.

Local as Default

If you want to see the local orientation of an object, change the Orientation Mode at the top of the 3D viewport to Local:

Switch back to Global mode and

Transform Panel

If you press N in the viewport, to the right a Transform panel will open up. This panel records your transformations from the original position/rotation/scale. Meaning, if you’d like to revert to original, simply reset these to Position: 0, Rotation: 0, Scale: 1.

Alternatively, you can reset each transformation type:

  • Alt + G reverts position,
  • Alt + R reverts rotation,
  • Alt + S reverts scale

Working in 3D – Manipulating Stuff

So we’re all on the same page let’s delete any objects in the scene and start with a cube.

Object Mode vs Edit Mode

Up until now, we’re been in the default 3D mode, Object Mode. in Object mode we can move, rotate, and stretch objects, but not much else. A cube will always be a cube, though perhaps a bit wonky.

There are some other modes that allow us more control over our models. The one we’ll look at today is Edit Mode. Switch in the top left of the viewport or by pressing TAB

In Edit Mode we have all sorts of new options. Most importantly to note, though, we are no longer manipulating the Object as a whole, rather its individual geometry; the triangles and squares that make it up.*

*This is important to be aware of when moving an object. In Object mode you move the center point when you move the Object, in Edit mode you do not. The result is that it’s a lot harder to revert changes you make in Edit mode.

In Edit Mode there are three selection options, which we choose by pressing the corresponding number on the keyboard (not numpad), Vertex Select (1), Edge Select (2), and Face Select (3).

Vertex Selection
Edge Selection

Face Selection

We have all the same move/scale/rotate tools in this mode, plus many more. We’ll cover these tools in the next section.

A Note on Quadrangles

As you can see, our models are made up of different faces. Each face, or polygon, has a number of sides. The cube, for instance, has 6 faces of 4 sides each.

In general, we want to create our model with quadrangles (4 sides) where possible, and fall back to triangles (3 sides) if necessary. Any face more with than 4 sides is called an N-Gon and can cause problems which are outside of the scope of this workshop to cover. More info on N-Gons and their dangers, and a Pixar guide to clean meshes.

Edit Mode Tools

With that in mind, let’s explore what options we have available to us.

Extrude (E)

Pull a face outwards

Inset Face (I)

Copy a face, then scale it inwards

Loop Cut (Ctrl + R)

Cut a contiguous loop of faces in half. If there is no contiguous loop of faces this command can have odd results.

This is a 2 stage process:

  1. Use the scroll wheel to increate the amount of cuts. One happy, click LMB.
  2. Drag the cut laterally along the loop to choose what portion of a cut to make. Once happy, click LMB

Building a Spaceship

Planning Our Spaceship: Grease Pencil

Before we jump into modelling we’re going to want to map out a general shape of our ship. By holding down D we can draw on screen. When we pair this with the orthogonal axis views from earlier, we have a quick and dirty way to outline out ship!

Keep in mind that Y+ is conventionally ‘Forward’. When we plan our spaceship we will save some future hassle* if we point it ‘forward’ from the beginning.

*e.g. exporting to games or applying modifiers

To toggle what we’ve drawn, press N to open the view panel, and int the Annotations tab uncheck the box next to Note

Rough Block Modelling

Using the concepts we learned above, we can build out the rough shape of our ship in 3D. Start with a cube, and try to preserve quads as much as possible. A couple of notes:

  • Start with a cube: this will help us preserve quads from the beginning.
  • Build/change your model in Edit mode, not Object mode: While we’re editing the model, we want to make sure that the Scale of the object is (1,1,1). This ensures the final model and any modifiers we apply (more on that later).
  • Stick to Face Select mode, Edge Select in a pinch: moving single vertexes can have strange effects on your model.

Modifiers – Mirror

Soon it will become apparent that we are not modelling either very accurately nor efficiently. The first doesn’t matter too much since we’re doing a rough pass, but surely we could be more efficient?

One thing we can do is use a mirror modifier to ensure our model is symmetrical and that we’re not wasting time repeating operations.

Mirroring saves time because we only have to model one half. To prepare our model for mirroring, we should remove one half of it. We can use the loop cut and then loop select to achieve this.

With our prepared model selected, in the Properties Panel click the Modifiers tab (it looks like a spanner/wrench), then add a Mirror modifier. If our model is oriented correctly, the right hand side (along the X axis) should be mirrored along the left hand side.

  • Clipping: It can help to enable Clipping in the Mirror settings (in the Properties Panel). Clipping basically sticks the right and side to the left hand side along the mirror axis. It helps ensure the model is properly mirrored and there are no gaps.

Continue Rough Modelling, with Mirror Enabled.

Tweak as time or effort allow.


Adding Materials To Our Spaceship

Our spaceship is a pretty boring grey right now. The next step is to add a little colour to our ship.

Shading and texturing is not a core part of this workshop, so this overview is the briefest of the brief introductions.

New Materials

With the model selected (in either mode), go to the Materials tab of the Properties Panel

If we click New, Blender will create a new default material, and apply it to the entire model. We can double click on the name to rename it something useful, such as spaceship.main.

The Materials panel now has a bunch of options. We’re interested in just a few, such as Base Color, Metallic, and Roughness, but more information on the rest can be found at the Principled BSDF docs.

Multiple Materials

If we want to add different materials, say for a window or the engine, click the plus sign in the materials window, add a New material, then name it appropriately. In Edit Mode, select the faces you wish to apply the new materials to, and click Assign in the materials window.

So now we have a model with multiple materials on it. Cool!

But wait! Even if we change colour nothing happens? Why?

Display Modes

There are a number of ways Blender can show you your model. The default is Solid where the model is a uniform gray, with a lighting setup that makes it easy to understand the geometry of your model.

To view Materials, we need to be in Rendered mode. To do that, press Z and select Rendered from the radial menu. If you don’t see much you may want to add a light, or increase the intensity of existing lights, in your scene.

Lighting and Viewing

To render a scene, we need three things:

  1. A model to render (woohoo!)
  2. A camera
  3. A light source.

If you don’t have a camera or light then add them (Shift + A). We can see what the camera sees by pressing Tilde (~) and selecting View Camera from the radial menu.

Moving and rotating lights is the same as moving our other objects around.

[ProTip] In our view panel (N), under view, you can Lock Camera To Position to make setting the render camera a lot easier.

Rendering

If we have time to cover rendering we will go through a little in the workshop. If not, I have a step-by-step guide to setting up rendering in Blender 2.8.

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