Learn the Basics of 3D Modeling

3D modeling blends advanced technology with creative thinking and problem-solving skills in a fast-paced and detail-oriented environment. From television commercials and video games to blockbuster Hollywood films, 3D modelers fingerprints can be found everywhere in the industry. Still, this isn't all that a 3D modeler is consigned to do. 3D modelers find rewarding careers in the scientific field, designing models for the purpose of research. So, what does it take to get into such a complex and multifaceted career?

The act of 3D modeling may be simple to explain, but it is far from simple to learn or master. 3D modeling is a job assigned to artists and animators who use computer programs to create figures and models in three-dimensional space. There are a plethora of tools that 3D modelers must master in order to create models that meet the standards of their employers. The needs required by a Hollywood blockbuster movie are going to be different than the needs of a medical lab's research study. 3D modelers will be charged with making almost anything that you can imagine – from items in the background to fully realized, detailed primary characters. 3D modeling at its core is a combination of skills that work together for use in our technologically-oriented world. But, while this can be an exciting profession it is also notoriously difficult to learn, and it takes a great deal of patience, advanced math skills and stick-to-itiveness.


Learn Formal Concepts, Methods, Theory & Technique

The art career world is notoriously unreliable in terms of finding straight line career paths from point A to point B. Still, 3D modelers typically fall into one of two camps: self-employed freelancers or employees at larger design firms. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 57% of 3D modelers are self-employed. Either way, the tasks required of a 3D modeler are similar, whether they are working at a firm or freelancing.

A large portion of the 3D modeling industry is located in the world of film. The Bureau of Labor Statistics again states that nearly 13% of all reporting 3D modelers worked within the film industry. 3D modelers aren't typically consigned to specific niches as their tools and understanding should transfer fairly easily. So, this means that on any given week, tasks could be different depending on their assignments. One week a 3D modeler might be creating assets for a video game. The next week that same 3D modeler could be shaping the 3D elements in a movie. 3D modelers will be expected to utilize their wide array of skills and knowledge in a variety of different applications. This makes 3D modeling the perfect career choice for active minds who need to be a part of new projects to stay keyed-in on their work. 

Even though some would say the art world is different than most other careers, there is still a focus on advanced education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests pursuing a four-year degree in fields related to the type of 3D modeling that aspiring artists intend on pursuing. A 3D modeler who wishes to work with scientific laboratories, for example, should focus on a degree that combines physics and 3D modeling. Conversely, a 3D modeler who is interested in working in the film industry would be better served earning a degree that combines some sort of film- intensive focus along with their 3D modeling skills. 

3D modeling isn't a job that you can isolate in a vacuum. To be a successful 3D modeler, you must be able to employ a wide array of knowledge and skills based on the industry that you are pursuing. 3D modelers don't work as little islands; they work as links in a large chain, and working well within a team is essential. Also, understanding core industry concepts will help to enlighten a 3D modeler's work, thus making them a stronger potential hire. 

3D modeling is a profession that mandates a complete understanding of certain software. The field of 3D modeling is always changing, and there will undoubtedly be updates to integral programs, so a 3D modeler must stay on top of their game. There are a few key programs that 3D modelers should understand, including Sculpting – 3D modelers will spend the majority of their time working with some form of sculpting programs like ZBrush or Mudbox. In these programs, a 3D modeler will sculpt the base of what the model will be. Here, a 3D modeler will get to flex their artistic skills while creating an asset that pays huge dividends for their client. 

Another technique required of 3D modelers is Texturing – A 3D model without any texture will simply look like a block of clay. To bring a model to life, a 3D modeler must employ texturing. While texturing isn't exclusively a 3D modeling job, it is another part of the graphical pipeline that is worth learning about. A common texture program is PolyPainting.  Proficiency in animation is another skill required of many 3D modelers. 3D modeling and 3D animating are two different career fields that overlap considerably. 3D animators serve themselves well by knowing how to model, and conversely, 3D modelers serve themselves just as well knowing how to animate. In any event, 3D animating is the act of creating a rig and attaching a model to the rig to create movement. This process is what creates action out of otherwise fixed models.


Build a Strong Portfolio and Professional Network

Working as a 3D modeler will be hard work, but it can pay dividends fairly quickly. With a four- year degree, an experienced 3D modeler can expect to earn an average salary of around $65,000 per year. Due to the self-employed nature of the profession, however, it can be difficult to guarantee an annual salary with any certainty. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a fairly wide gap in salary expectations for the top and bottom 10 percent of modelers. The top 10 percent of earners brought home an estimated $113,000 per year, while the bottom 10 percent earned closer to $35,000. 

Self-employed modelers can opt to undercharge for their work in order to build working relationships. 3D modeling firms, however, are going to stick to industry-standard rates. In any event, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is expected job growth in the industry and modelers in the entertainment industry specifically can expect employment growth nearing 14 percent by the year 2018. 

In the 3D modeling world, you must impress people with your visual skills. A 3D modeler should have at least some understanding of web design, or they should be able to hire someone who does. A good portfolio will be based on an intuitive website that showcases recently completed jobs that will be showcased by a demo reel. A demo reel will have all your best work compiled into a video that tells the industry your story, your experience, your professionalism, and your skills. 

No matter where you end up in the 3D modeling world — arts or science, you will want to focus on creating a network of professional relationships. Networking should begin in school with other students and your professors. The people you learn with today are the ones you collaborate with tomorrow. Otherwise, networking can be undertaken by attending industry events, and living in hot industry cities like Los Angeles or Vancouver can mean you have access to all sorts of professional events. Have business cards at the ready and an updated website as well.

Get to Know Our Experts

Avi Cohen

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Vertex Product Development, Inc.
  • Where:
    Great Neck, NY
  • Experience:
    25 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I became interested in design and 3D during my first year of high school. I had the choice to select a profession that attracted me, and since I always liked to draw and sketch, architecture seemed like the right choice for me.
    • Thinking in 3D and imagining structures and space in 3D came naturally for me, but at the time there were no computer programs to design with, so we did it all by hand.
    • When applying to college, I chose industrial design. Only during my third year, was I exposed to 3D programs on a MAC, which was very primitive and limited, but this sparked something in me, knowing the potential of 3D design.
    • I continued my industrial design education for Master in Pratt Institute.
    • My first extensive exposure to 3D was when I worked as a model maker in a design firm. I saw the designs the engineers were working on upstairs, and I knew I wanted to do the same.
    • A year and a half later I started my own design firm, Vertex Product Development. Using Pro Engineer was one of the tools to design, engineer and create prototypes and actual products at the end of the process. Ever since, I have had the opportunity to work with Solid-Works, Rhino, Maya and many more programs for 3D design.

    Recommended Organizations

    • Behance.net – If you have a portfolio, start a portfolio page on Behance.net. It is free and gets a lot of attention.
    • Yankodesign.com – Submit new product ideas (even if they are only concepts) to Yankodesign.com
    • Core77.com– Look into creating a portfolio on Core77.com, also one of the leading sites for design and 3D work.


    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    I am always pro formal education. It gives the person the foundation and understanding of the field he or she is about to go into. In 3D design however, one can teach themselves how to use and work with the 3D program (I know I did), but learning how to use the tool does not mean you will be able to use it correctly or design parts and geometry that later can be used.

    Use your hands

    Do not rely only on 3D computer generated geometry. Start with hand sketches and modeling geometry with solids by hand. This will give you a better understanding of the way 3D objects interact with one another and better 3D vision before starting to draw the first line.

    Teach yourself

    Pick one of the popular programs (free versions, Student versions) and learn. If I had YouTube in my time, my life would have been so much easier. Use YouTube and look for tutorials.

    Advice on getting your foot in the door

    For industrial design, start with designing new product ideas and execute 3D renderings of these products to create a portfolio. Redesign existing products that you may feel you can do better and add to the portfolio. Do not forget to show your hand drawings skills. Remember, you must start thinking in 3D even without a 3D program.

    Francesco Baldi

  • Title:
    3D Modeler
  • Company:
  • Where:
    Forte dei Marmi, Italy
  • Experience:
    9 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I had my first foretaste of the computer graphic possibilities when I saw the movie Jurassic Park at the cinema. It was 1993, and I was just a child.
    • When I was attending the Faculty of Computer Science at the University of Pisa, I first heard about the possibilities of 3D software. I left the University, and I decided to try to get into the computer graphics field. I wanted to create something, to be part of that world. I didn’t know yet that I would become a 3D modeler.
    • I started looking for information on the internet, and I began to study the most common and most affordable software at the time, which was 3D Studio Max.
    • Looking for another software program that was more focused on modeling sculpting, I learned about ZBrush. In 2005, I founded the first Italian ZBrush web community to increase my software knowledge and bring together people interested in organic modeling.
    • That same year, I completed the 3D Maya advanced course at the NT Academy in Florence.
    • In early 2007, with my first demo reel, I moved to London and I managed to find a job in the CG field. I worked at an animation studio on a modeling project for the web.
    • I returned the same year to Italy because a company called me to work for some TV series for kids. I moved to Pisa, working on 3D series produced by RAI, then to Rome for a feature film, and then to Florence.
    • In 2009, with my partner and 3D animator colleague Monia, we started working on our own TV series project Forestelli’s Wood.
    • Today I am developing our TV series project for kids that we want to present to the biggest Animation Festivals in Europe. In the meantime, I work as a freelancer for animation companies.


    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    I would recommend a formal education only if school or the course that provides your education will be able to distinguish your CV among others or give to you some additional value, such as a direct link with the world of work after the end of the courses.

    Formal training can be useful, not so much for the role of a 3D modeler specifically, but rather to achieve a solid general foundation. If a person does not have an artistic background, then a school could help. It will also teach you how the role of 3D modeler is part of a production line.

    On the other hand, you can become a 3D modeler without any courses. Being self-taught is possible but quite difficult, because you have no confrontation with anyone else and you risk losing your enthusiasm. Do research on the internet, watch tons of tutorials on Youtube and spend your time reading manuals and practicing.

    Practice, but with a plan in mind

    I think exercise is the basis for development of any artistic skill. Start by studying 3D modeling software that can be competitive in the industry. Take the time to consider a few questions: What is your aim? What do you want to do? Be aware that modeling for a video game is very different from modeling for a 3D cartoon or a feature film or that being a character modeler is very different from being a surface modeler.

    Learn how to stand out

    Schools churn out hundreds of new junior modelers each year and the industry has to absorb this flow. Standing out among this mass becomes increasingly difficult. Pick the most original and interesting reels and watch them carefully. Try to figure out what is the current standard of quality and set it as your goal. Try to achieve this standard and try to overcome it. Remember that companies will watch your reel and you have to attract and keep their attention.

    Have a wider view

    Modeling is only a part in the production line of a computer graphic piece. As a 3D modeler you need to prove to be able to receive designs from the concept artist, interpret them and take directions. After the modeling step, your piece of art will probably have to be rigged and animated. So you need to know the requirements that a 3D model must have for a good rig and what to ensure correct movements of the geometry in the animation process.

    Advice on getting your foot in the door

    My first advice is get ready to send your showreel. Put in only pictures you’re sure of, and send it only if it is complete and if it works. Do not be discouraged. It is not easy to get an answer, but if the reel is done well and it works, sooner or later you’ll get positive news.

    You can also subscribe to recruiting services. In every country there are specialized recruiting agencies that CG Companies use to find professionals. Subscribe to these agencies; it is free and you just have to send your CV and your reel so that they can keep you in their archives.

    Use social networks like Linkedin or Facebook, online forums, web communities, and let people know who you are and what you do. Buy a domain, it’s cheap and easy, and build your website to show your portfolio. It must be a place where people can be familiar with your models and where recruiters can watch and download your reel and your CV. Leave things as simple as possible so that the attention is focused on your models.

    Jing Johnson

  • Title:
  • Company:
    PCG, Inc.
  • Where:
    Houston, TX
  • Experience:
    25 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • Both my parents are structure engineers in the building industry. I literally grew up in a large architectural and engineering design institute in China.
    • Consequently, I chose architecture as my major in college. Later on, I continued my education and got my master degrees in architecture, both in China and here in the states.
    • I had worked in architectural firms in China and the US as a project designer, coordinator and manager.
    • Upon starting my 3D visualization company PCG, I furthered my education with an MBA at Rice University.
    • We provide high-quality 3D renderings and animations to key players in the building industry such as developers, architects, building owners, property managers, etc.

    Recommended Organizations

    Unfortunately, there are no formal organizations for licensed professionals. However, there are plenty of places to learn from your peers and best practices. Here are some recommendations:


    On whether or not she recommends a formal education

    If someone’s career goal is to become a 3D modeler or 3D visualization specialist, I recommend a BFA, Visual Effects or a two-year program at an art institute. Although some of us in our profession had architectural degrees, I don’t think it’s necessary.

    Look into local schools

    Take a course at a local college or art institute to find out if this is something you would enjoy to do as a career path.

    Join online communities

    Join some good 3D visualization online blogs and communities to learn the industry trends and learn from the best.

    Practice, practice, practice

    This line of work is very time-consuming. Quality work comes from years of disciplined practice and continuous learning.

    3D Modeling Infographic