Book Review: 'Design First for 3D Artists'

Tara DiLullo talks with Tippett Studios Tom Schelesny about the transformation vfx that transpire in Disneys The Shaggy Dog.

Design First for 3D Artists by Geoffrey Kater.

Geoffrey Kater, who cut his 3D teeth on Silver Surfer, says in his book Design First for 3D Artists, Youre going to learn to reach for the pencil before the keyboard. And the first half of the book does have you pencil in hand doing pretty basic design exercises. The second half, however, jumps to doing a 3D animation project, and some cool inside the industry tips.

Kater, a graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, started his career as a traditional designer in automotive design, and has won two national industrial design competitions. He worked at JPL on the design of a Pluto spacecraft and has a spaceship design hanging at Griffith Observatory. He then went to DIC as a prop designer on Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego and, after many years, got to be lead spaceship designer on Silver Surfer. He has been a prop designer, production designer, 3D animator and an illustrator.

He now co-owns S4 Studios in Hollywood, designing for nearly every animation media there is, but he doesnt claim this book will solve all your problems. He states, This book is more of a starting point for those who want to get a glimpse of how design can improve their animation work.

Be a Problem Solver

Kater maintains that the role of the designer within a production is as an aesthetic problem solver who is there to support the story. Design and animation are two different disciplines that problem solve in two different ways, yet each have the same goal. He proposes to teach you how to combine these roles.

The definition of design is broad and what constitutes good design depends a lot on personal taste, but there are underlying basic principles. Kater starts his book with some examples of wonderful design, and then tells you, Anyone can do this because learning how to design can be taught So turn your computer off and get your pencils sharpened and your paper stacked up. Were going to do some drawing.

Start with the Basics

He starts with the four basic shapes, shows you what different pencil thicknesses can do, gets into lighting and shadow, and then has you make a composition of these shapes. For perspective, he refers the reader to other books, saying it is too broad a subject to go into here. He emphasizes contrast, not only in shape and color, but movement and visual imagery. In talking about composition, he uses the opening scene in the first Star Wars movie (one of the most riveting opening shots ever) to illustrate focal points. Kater then goes on to discuss tension and directing the eye, what he calls reading the flow and tangents. All of his points are illustrated by his b&w drawings. Color plates are grouped together in the middle of the book.

From there Kater goes into a discussion of color and how it relates to focus, separation and other design elements. He explains warm and cool colors, as well as the values of gray and how these can be used in design. He discusses how a warm light will cast a cool shadow, adding that in most 3D packages you have to dial in the shadow color, even if the lighting is automatic.

Proportion is discussed next, including size, shape, volume, thin and thick lines, etc. Kater says, Its that contrast in size that makes subject matter interesting to look at or quirky. A photograph comparing an adult model and a baby in the same poses illustrates this very well.

Why Do Wheels Have Five Spokes?

Then we get the question, Even wonder why most car rims have an odd number of spokes? Kater says that it is because asymmetry looks more interesting than symmetry, so use it in your designs. He then talks about the rule of thirds as it is used in cinematography to add interest to your design. He emphasizes the use of contour and the transitions between contours.

Kater stresses the development of a critical eye. Over time youll start to notice what is good and bad design. This can only come from careful observation He asks you to take a common object, such as a phone, and try to figure out why you like the design. Once you think you have a critical enough eye, re-watch your favorite movie and really dissect it. He asks that you pick out color, movement, composition, and environment to see why the cinematographers design was a good one.

Having Fun and the KISS Principle

Okay, now we get into designing your own ideas. Kater says to have fun with this, which is an easy task. He explains gesture drawings and has you practice them, and talks about inspiration, saying that in the Silver Surfer, he used insect and reptilian ideas for the ships of the Skrull. He tells you how to do overlays of your rough designs to get a more polished drawing.

Advanced Construction gets you into 3D. Kater assumes that you already have a 3D program and know how to use it. He simply tells you to model your character design in 3D. He emphasizes the KISS rule: Keep it simple, stupid. One way of doing this is to verbally explain your idea. He says this will allow you to communicate your ideas more effectively pitching new ideas or explaining what Ive created to a client.

Showing Your Work to the Client

Which leads into the next section, Research and Presentation. Here he discusses client guidelines, schedules, audience and demographics. Collecting reference is simply gathering images from all over to inspire your design. They can be anything, chosen for shape, color, texture, anything. Google away.

What you show your client should be edited down to what you can justify for the project. Your presentation should contain all the information necessary to outline your inspiration, animation concepts and the deadline. The presentation can be in booklet form (the bible), which he shows you how to organize, or on a digital format. Find out which the client wants! And send a thank you afterwards, asking for feedback. Then, as a nice touch, Kater gives you a few hints for handling rejection.

Do a 3D Project

The second half of the book is about doing your own project, which is to create a three-minute animation. Kater leads you through creating your character (which he says is the subject of a whole other book), a few guidelines on story, and how to do a story breakdown for choosing what props and characters you will have to create. He shows you the construction of the script he is using for the animation he is doing as illustration.

Storyboarding, Kater says, is quite possibly one of the most critical phases in animation. He tells you how to do a shot breakdown from the script, discusses flow, timing and camera moves, including an explanation of camera language used in animation. He discusses using 2D replacement when necessary, explaining how render time affects what you are doing and where to save render time where detailed image maps are not necessary. Dont build it if you dont have to.

A Design Blueprint

You need to know how your design looks from every angle in 3D. Kater talks about the three-view orthographic drawing as a very detailed blueprint of your design and proceeds to show you how to construct one. He talks about scanning, image maps and 3D modeling. He doesnt try to teach you 3D programs, but assumes you already know how to model and light. He does however give you the design reasons for doing what he asks. He also has a chapter on how to save on render time, very useful.

Another good section is Industry Tips, a good basic primer on what the studios look for when you apply for a job. He tells you The Harsh Reality of Demo Reel Submission and gives some tips on how to improve your chances of getting hired. He warns that demo reels are not returned. The book includes a CD.

Design First for 3D Artists by Geoffrey Kater. Plano, Texas: Woodware Publishing, Inc., 2005. 308 pages, includes CD-ROM. ISBN 1-55622-085-5 ($49.95).

Libby Reed started out at Walt Disney Studios in the 50s on Sleeping Beauty as a painter. She has worked at numerous commercial studios, spent 16 years as a fashion illustrator and wound up at Film Roman as a color designer under Phyllis Craig. Libby has two children, (one is Alex Reed, animation producer at Electronic Arts) and four grandchildren.