3D Design
Jul 2023
Gregory Markov

Complete Guide to the 3D Pipeline #1: Blocking-out

This article is for beginners looking to become 3D artists. By the time you finish reading, you will know how to gather references, the main points of blocking, and the danger of parallel lines. A careful study of the text will take about 10 minutes.

This is the second part of the AAA pipeline series. Here are links to all six. Choose the one you need:

  1. Introduction to AAA pipeline
  2. Blocking-out (You are here)
  3. Mesh optimization
  4. UV unwrapping
  5. Baking
  6. Texturing

What is a blockout?

A blockout is a simplified model made from basic shapes. A well-made blockout differs little from the final model. There are no details such as small elements, damage, or textures on it. However, in the end, all the large and medium forms remain unchanged.

Blocking-out and texturing are the most artistically involved of all pipeline stages since the rest are responsible for technically preparing models for a game. The blocking-out determines how clear and attractive the whole project will be. If the blockout looks obscure, it’s better to redo it to avoid problems later.

How to block-out

Briefly speaking, there are two essential phases of bloking-out:

  1. Blocking when you are forming the general silhouette of the model.
  2. Detailing for adding medium and small elements to it.

In practice, it’s a little bit more complicated, as you can’t start modeling without preparation.

First, understand what you are going to create. Then collect references — photos, videos, and pictures of this object or similar one. Take some time to comprehend the composition, mechanics, and transitions between elements. After this, you are ready to start blocking and finish the whole process with detailing.

A  bad guide would just tell you that, and wish you good luck on the path. Luckily, it’s an excellent guide. So, let’s dive deeper and take a look at each step!

Blocking-out steps

Step #1: Gathering references

References are the key to understanding design. You can even estimate the quality as a skill multiplied by the number of references. It is impossible to create something adequate with this step missing.

Types of references

⦿ Photos are not something we need to explain, though you want these to make your model lifelike. Also, it is the first reference you should look at because any drawing is subjective.

⦿ Concept art is a drawing of a future model approved by the art director and game designers. It shows an object from different sides and illustrates some particular elements. If you work in a big studio, there are concept designers responsible for this type of reference. Otherwise, you may want to draw it yourself.

⦿ Works of other artists are a great help because you are rarely the first one to do something. It is always helpful to look at other professionals' paths in modeling similar stuff to notice some pitfalls.

⦿ Mechanical components help to understand how an object works. For instance, you might need them when creating complicated machinery, robots, or vehicles.

⦿ Materials examples are useful for envisioning an object's future textures. Since you are using real-world references, you don’t need to invent them yourself!

⦿ Roughness and wear references are needed to determine the damage pattern suitable for the object. Without these, you must gain a degree in Materials science to design the rust appropriately.

How to obtain references

  • Take photos of everything that catches your eye. Unlike concept art, photos are always accurate. If you took a picture of a truck, that's just how it looks. Capturing things is the best way to notice the small details of any object.
  • Collect works of other artists to reveal their secrets. Photos have a problem — they are not always expressive. However, one of the goals of 3D artists is to create attractive models. Examine the works of professionals to learn which details are usually omitted and where it’s better to exaggerate.
  • Look for references on thematic sites to find rare shots and blueprints. If you are creating military equipment, study Wikipedia or other encyclopedias. You will find all the necessary information and learn more about the object's historical context.
  • Watch movies, play games and grab exciting ideas from them. If you're creating a spaceship, rewatch Star Wars, and play Infinite Warfare. You can see the models in motion and take a bunch of screenshots.
  • Search boards on Pinterest to find completed lists of references. Pinterest is a treasure trove of different types of images that cannot be seen elsewhere. Artists have already collected vast selections of photos, concept art, and renders, so help yourself.
  • Follow artists on social media such as Facebook, ArtStation, and Behance. Subscribe to top artists and get inspired. After a few months, your feed will become a valuable source of references on any topic of interest.

Where to save references

The main thing you shouldn’t do is to keep all the references in one folder. This way, you won’t be able to find the necessary ones when the time comes. To prevent it, organize your collection using one of these approaches:

Step #2: Analysis

So, you’ve gathered and cataloged the references. Great! Yet it is still too early to start modeling. There is no sense in just collecting images; now you need to get useful information and understand precisely what you are going to create. Consider this:

What primitives does the model consist of?

All models comprise basic shapes — rectangles, spheres, and cylinders. Determine which large forms your future model includes. Comprehend the mechanics of the object and decide which parts to highlight. Figure out how the model works and how its elements attach and interact with each other.

Which parts help you understand the size of the model?

There are things whose size everyone will recall — usually something a human would interact with often. It might be a ladder, a pistol trigger, a chair, or the front door. Such objects make the scale clear to the player.

What colors fit the model?

Life hack: You can use Photoshop to get a palette from any image.

Examine your references and pick the ones with the best hues. You can even use images of something totally unrelated to your model but with suitable colors. Ultimately, choose three or four colors from both cold and warm palettes, which you will use for the model.

Step #3: Blocking

Finally, it’s time to make some polygons. Start with the biggest shapes and consider proportions, scales, and object mechanics. You should end up with the unmistakable silhouette of the model.

Blocking an average model should take you at most 40 minutes. If you commit more time to this step, you probably focus on things that do not affect the silhouette. That is, you won’t cope with the pipeline standards.

To avoid mistakes, concentrate on these:

  1. Silhouette is the starting point of a first impression. Modeling details is only possible if the overall shape is readable. Form the model's body with the primitives, make sure it is expressive and obvious. If not, redo it because even the most exquisite textures will not save the model.
  2. Scale and proportions convey the size of an object. Add details to the model to make it easier for users to understand dimensions. For example, a cereal box and a 20-story office may have the same rectangle shape. However, antennas, wires, and air conditioners hanging on the building make the difference in size distinguishable.
  3. Parallel lines are okay while modelling man-made objects such as rails or furniture. But beware of straight formations when creating parts of the natural environment, as it always looks abnormal.

Step #4: Detailing

This step aims to make the model more realistic. To achieve that, you must fully work out mechanics, and transitions between elements and add necessary details. Then the model will look not only believable but also enjoyable.

The detailing is also a great opportunity to distribute colors over the model to understand its final appearance better. It helps specify accents and work out the palette before texturing. But don’t even think about mesh issues. There is an entire stage to resolve them. Worrying about the mesh at this step is a waste of time.

Stick with these points:

  • Smooth the model after the previous step. There is a reason not to do it during blocking. If you designed the wheel arches but made a mistake with the silhouette, you will have to do it over.
  • Form accurate transitions between elements. Mechanical parts are rarely inserted one into the other. They are either welded or screwed together, which creates seams and bevels.
  • Finalize the mechanics of the model. To do this, study the references and understand how the object actually functions. If you are modeling a lorry, figure out how the suspension works. No need to be an engineer since the player is unlikely to notice that you have moved the shock absorbers a little.
  • Nail the subtleties, get rid of weird-looking parallel lines, break up symmetry, and add details telling your model's story.

Review your work

When the detailing is over, it is time to review the blockout. If it turns out unclear, the final model will also be the same. In that case, you need to redo the work before moving to the next stage since fixing it later in development is impossible. Get in the habit of doing a decent blockout, even if it takes longer than you planned.

The checklist to make sure you have done well:

  • Is it clear what kind of object it is?
  • Is the silhouette of the model readable and eye-catching?
  • Is the proportion correct?
  • Is it clear how this object functions?
  • Have you modeled all the essential elements?
  • Did you add base colors?
  • Are you satisfied with the look of the model?

The blockout is good if you answered “yes” to all questions.

What’s next?

There are two options here, depending on the objectives:

  1. Full cycle: If you are creating a model for a game, proceed to the next stage of the pipeline — mesh optimization.
  2. Portfolio project: Finish the model, paint, create a simple environment, and post your work. For novice 3D artists, stopping here and modeling another object is better. Learn to model readable blockouts before moving to mesh optimization and baking.

Remember, the most common beginner's mistake is to start modeling just after imagining the final result without preparation and understanding how the model works. An inexperienced 3D artist creates tiny details first and then goes to the bigger parts. As a result, they have exceptionally detailed car lights, wrong proportions, and no time left to finish the project. The proper approach is to start with big shapes by creating a blockout.

When you’re ready for the next stage of the pipeline, feel free to go further and become a 3D artist with our complete guide:

  1. Introduction to AAA pipeline
  2. Blocking-out (You are here)
  3. Mesh optimization
  4. UV unwrapping
  5. Baking
  6. Texturing


Based on the material by XYZ Network

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