How To Illustrate in 3D

A few essential hints …

Cut-sway view of 3D foot model
One form of 3-D Modeling …

How the mind learns … A way to create better illustrations

Figuring things out for itself seems to help the mind own new knowledge.  Or, looked another way, “Not pointless,” I protested. “It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.” (quote from: A Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss)

Play also helps.  Play?  Yup, not only fun, it’s one of the most engaging and deepest reaching forms of creativity.

How the mind learns is an important consideration in this work.  One way to include that might be to demonstrate a concept by asking a visual question meant for the mind to figure out. This can include anything up to and beyond the whole point.   Would it work to nudge the illustrated idea just a little bit around-the-corner … fully illustrate the concept, then remove or alter bits?

Definition: “Zen koan” … a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment. (definition from Google)

Illustrations something like a visual Zen koan, or along the lines of “Coyote Mentoring” might be profoundly helpful.

“Coyote Mentoring” is?

“… a distinctive and highly effective educational approach developed by Jon Young and Wilderness Awareness School over the past 25 years …  This approach develops the capacities of students for learning, problem solving, and full expression, and re-awakens their natural sense of wonder.”

To engage the interest of others …

This form of illustration must provide value to student, instructor, and the tracking world.  It must be accurate, generate confidence in their similarity to real world processes, work to the best advantage of both instructors and students, and provide something useful which cannot be found elsewhere or more easily.



The Computer … Is a good place to start because …

Giant Massively Big Ancient Computer
An Ancient Version

This approach is about building 3D animated model of a translucent foot, using it to create a track with physics controlling the substrate, and the interactions between it and the foot surface.  These illustrations are intended to demonstrate the concepts of tracking, starting with the process of track formation shown in slow motion, and without the foot obscuring the internal track details.

Insights as to why the computer is such an important consideration…

If you aren’t familiar with Blender or other 3D modeling software you might benefit by considering the following issues before you jump in.

Three dimensional modeling, combined with animation and physics simulation, is the use of computer graphics to create moveable objects with more than one dimension by using:

points in space (vertices) …
connected by lines (edges) …
with the gaps filled in by planes (faces), think surface here …
the faces colored and textured however you wish …
and then doing stuff with them.

Animation allows you to make any of the objects move as you wish, and can be combined with physics to control some movements and collisions.  You can also add sound and produce video for almost any platform.

Managing all this complexity is done by the hardware and software of the computer you are using.  Complexity?  While creating and running one of these simulations the computer is doing calculations for the movements of thousands or hundreds of thousands of objects, each with physics applied, and all potentially interacting … For each frame in the clip!

Oh yeah, and the computer is also managing calculations for movement of all the points (vertices) that make up each object.

So if you have 10,000 objects colliding, and each is made of 10 points (vertices), and each object collides with some other object 10 times, that’s 100,000 points, and 1,000,000 collisions the computer has to think about, in one frame.

Put simply, even with all possible corners cut, this is an astounding amount of work!

Fortunately, nowadays many off-the-shelf computers are up to the task and, for learning Blender, a maxed-out graphics computer is not necessary, so if you already have access to a computer that will handle Blender start there.

However,  some computer configurations are significantly more graphics-capable than others, and with large numbers of objects (more than ~10,000) a graphics-capable computer makes using physics as part of illustrating earth and feet interacting go much better and allows much finer detail.

If you decide you want to move further with this work … An example might be creating enough realistically sized soil or sand objects (with physics applied) to hold an entire track, or trail segment, you will need to have, or have access to an appropriate computer … The more graphics-capable the better … Type of graphics card does really matter … Get LOTS of memory … And a bit more!

There are ‘physics cards’ available … worth checking out?

Cooling is another issue you must consider … Your computer’s processor and memory will generate heat, and graphics work, well you’ll find out how adequate your PC’s cooling system really is … There’s a reason some graphics PC’s are water-cooled!

Investigate, network, and search out what kind and configuration of computer you need … If you think you’ll continue doing this … get the best you can afford, or build your own.

What is required?

A computer …

Not one maxed-out for graphics … though that would be wonderful it isn’t necessary.  If you already have access to a computer that will handle Blender you can start there.

Some of the work the computer needs to do while creating scenes in Blender can require the computer to work pretty hard processing a lot of data … which generates heat … you’ll want the computer’s cooling system to be in good order and consider extra cooling.  You can often break Blender processing into smaller chunks, allowing the computer to cool between chunks.  An example of this is rendering; if you need to render a scene with 500 frames, you can render a few at a time with cooling breaks between.

3D modeling software …

The capability to simulate real-world physics is needed to create these illustrations. Blender 3D was chosen as the initial software because it includes that feature, and it’s free.

Blender is open source software and free … A most capable and powerful 3D modeling platform … Well supported … Improved and updated regularly … And has a world-wide community of supportive users and thousands of free on-line learning tutorials.  Pretty amazing actually…

Your experience and creativity …

“Detail” – how much is needed?

Trackers tend to notice the slightest change in shading the eyes can detect, a line made by a single hair as it falls into soft dust, or a slight ridge, no taller than the cross-section of the hair that fell beside it.  A mouse walked across the newly exposed mud … See those holes and ridges left by mouse’s claws?

Realistic appearance is relatively necessary and certainly wonderful, but to have any practical use realistic behavior of all objects in these simulations is paramount because ultimately the objects must exactly simulate the creation of a track, in all essential details, and appear to as well.  Conformation to this standard is one of the primary goals and seen as a long-term process of refinement, and what you will see here is always just the beginning.

“Accuracy” – Requires that objects look and behave as they do in the real world.

In Blender behavior of objects can be controlled in at least two ways:

– Blender’s animation system can control the movement of any object, a foot for example.

– Blender’s Rigid Body physics system can control the movements and interactions of objects before, during, and after collisions, as in the creation of a track .

These tools enable the accurate simulation of realistic behavior of ground, sand, and foot.

At present, the apparent realism and the number of sand objects of ‘sand’ are limited by the processing power of the computer used, the skill and knowledge of the creator, and to a small degree by Blender’s physics system.  3D simulation can generate accurate and realistic imagery with physics applied … watched a movie lately?  How much was “real” and not “green screen”?

The primary simulation systems offered by Blender are: Cloth, Fluids, Particles, Rigid Body, Smoke, and Soft Body. There are also “Force Fields” which include charge, magnetism, wind, and others.  They are very accurate with room for improvement.

Although Blender was originally intended to be a precise simulation system in terms of how real it appears, each new update is nudging it towards greater precision and efficiency.

Continuing this work…

It is suggested that other 3D modeling applications be explored to decide whether one may be more useful for this work.  Not that there is anything wrong with Blender, it’s wonderful!  It’s just that, like most technology, software evolves and sometimes a different platform evolves to where it does certain things better.

   Useful software features to look for:

What are the upper and lower limits of the number of physics-enabled objects the software can manage? Will it handle 500,000 Rigid Body sand objects? A million?

Can it simulate soil or clay?

A sand grain weighs a lot less than a foot … how well does the software’s physics engine do with large differences in weight or mass?

When a foot makes a step … what parts of that process need to be simulated?  Can the software simulate all of them?  As an example; when a foot pushes off from the ground the ball of the foot is pressing backwards and down against the sand, amd ultimately the earth.  Will the software allow the animation system (controlling the movement of the foot) to talk to the physics system (controlling the sand’s interactions with itself, ground, and the foot surface) so the force created by the pressure of the foot can be transferred to the sand, and the animation system will notice and be effected by the resistance of the sand?

A little more about that issue …

Short version …While one can tell Blender’s Rigid Body Physics system to notice and respond to the skin of the foot, one cannot, yet, tell Blender’s animation system to notice and respond to the physics of the sand objects.

This is an example of how Blender sometimes handles things in a “not-quite-real” way.  The interaction between the animation system and the physics system (here the example is the rigid body system) is worth knowing more about.

A way to start is by thinking about what’s needed for the simulation of a track.   Consider the limits that would be involved in the real world.

In one real-world forward step in sand  …

The mind and body move the foot … a bunch of limits here.

The physics of the sand, underlying earth, gravity, and foot surface … another set of limits.

As the foot comes down and pushes while rotating, force is applied by it against the sand.  The sand moves (to some degree), and parts of the foot react to the properties of the sand … Once that physical process has reached its limits the foot will go no lower, or further back, the sand is done moving for a bit, and most of the force is being used to propel the body in some direction.

In the real world – it is the sand and underlying materials, and their physical properties that finally stop the movement of the foot!  Moving the body depends upon this.

In Blender – movement of the body and feet is controlled by the animation system, which doesn’t notice anything else but the parts it’s moving.  So when one needs to simulate the sand stopping the foot, a work-around must be used, and apparent realism reaches a limit where it’s the animation system that stops the foot … while in the real world the physical limits of the compacted sand and underlying earth stop the foot.  This work around functions sufficiently, but is not quite a true reflection of real world processes.

Places to start searching/networking for computer type and configuration (this is worth some time): / “About” / “Software” /click on “supported platforms” (it’s in one of the paragraphs) … Or just Google “blender 3D supported platforms”

Google something like “Blender 3D best computer”

Join and ask..

There are companies that offer computers built with Blender and other graphics software in mind.  Like any other company, some offer quality products, some do a good job of standing behind their products, choose slowly.

Backup and storage …

As you get into this work you’ll be creating lots of large files, some will be worth preserving.  You might want to keep only the most used or current Blender files on your PC’s hard drive and the rest somewhere else … Yes you can get massive internal hard drives … And then your operating system has to keep that big drive organized, another demand on your system…

Consider backing up or storing them on a separate drive, or the cloud (and keep in mind … cloud use relies on connectivity).  Computers can be replaced, but all the work that went into those files?

Updates …

Blender is revised and updated at least once a year (author using ver 3.79).   Some users prefer certain versions for specific purposes.  When a new version of Blender becomes available, it is useful to visit the Blender website and read the “What’s New” info.

Occasionally it helps to use an older version, you can keep older versions installed.


—- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —-
Learning Blender 3D

Giant Massively Big Ancient Computer
Blender Controls…

(skip if you already know it) … Yup, that’s the same picture, ‘cause it’s a fair representation of the complexity of the controls in Blender.  And that is only wall one of four!  But, no worries, you’ll usually need only a small subset.

Beginning steps you might explore:

Start w/ a tutorial or small simple project … Blender has two rendering engines, “Blender Render” and “Cycles Render Engine”.  Start with Cycles … Blender Render will eventually be obsolete.

A well done set of tutorials is: Blender 3D Tutorials by Neal Hirsig

Another well done set: Modeling an Off-Road Wheel, By Zoltan Giber (Not bad! Not too bad at all!).

Get help when you need it … especially while still learning the software.   Solving problems on your own is great, but with complex applications like graphics software you’ll only frustrate yourself and make your head sore (banging head against wall).

Use a search engine to find tutorials.  This will save hours and weeks!  (if you’re using Blender, and they used a relatively recent version most settings and methods should work just fine)

Play with it … What sounds interesting and fun to create?

Break problems down to bite-size chunks.


As a bench mark: the author had many years work experience illustrating scientific papers for PhD theses and publication in journals, very little training in 3D graphics or simulation, and none in Blender.  From a cold start it took about a month to learn enough to produce simple video clips … 2-3 months to start playing with DC 3’s …

Play w/DC 3's (lrg)

And about 6 months to learn enough to create the first sign of a successful track…

Useful tip: When using Blender it sometimes happens that something you are working on doesn’t behave as you expect.  Usually this is NOT a bug and is operator error because Blender is so complex.  You most likely are not the first to hit this particular wall … A search with Google or within the Blender community can work wonders.

If you think you have found a genuine bug and have unsuccessfully searched for a solution, the Blender developers are quick to listen and resolve, so report it and include a copy of your “.blend” file reduced to the absolute minimum that reproduces the problem.

Help w/ Blender …

Google Website Website Website


—- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —-
Plan Before You Illustrate … Timing (and once you’ve got that going, forget the plan and go with your gut)


    How does one find ideas for concepts of tracking to illustrate?

Well, there is any nearby surface: the ground, floors, tree trunks, car hoods, kitchen floor … Oh yes, under water also … The author once found an interesting trail along the bottom of a clear-water Florida pond while snorkeling … A deep groove between straddled tracks.  Deep groove … Large tracks.  He followed it till he realized what he was tracking!  (And they said those animals stayed out of clear water ’cause it’s too cold!  Hah!)

Go for a walk … especially on a lightly traveled dirt road.

Occasionally some aspect of a track, or of reading a track story in the earth will catch the attention.

An image flashing across the mind.

By looking for something in the literature.

What do you want to illustrate?

What concept of tracking do you find hardest to understand?

How can you best illustrate that?

  Who are you illustrating it for, and what do they need to see?

  How can you make it clearest and most obvious to yourself and to them?

  The illustration may seem perfectly clear to you but do you need to make it a little clearer for them?

Timing, length of clips, and slow motion … these are worth planning!

In slow motion a foot stepping and the track forming are much easier to observe … And can have a certain elegance.

Roughly how many seconds do you want the scene to play?

Blender does animation using sequential frames (think picture) where a footstep is captured as one tiny bit of movement per frame.

24 frames per second (fps) is a minimum recommended frame rate, though you can choose your own.  At that rate a pleasantly paced slow-motion footstep takes something like 400 frames (400 images).   400 frames /24 fps = 16.7 seconds.  This includes a few seconds for comprehension before the track forms, and after the foot leaves.

Well, see, how long it takes for that clip to play is one way to determine how slow the motion is, and that is a matter of taste.  So once you’ve created your animation try a few different renders using various lengths of time to see which you like best.  One of the ways to do this is to play with changing the time used by going to the “Properties Editor” panel, look down to “Scene … Dimensions”,  then change the values in “Time Re-mapping”, and render again.


—- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —-
Making Stuff Move

 What is a step?

Relying foot lands …
Trustworthy earth embraces …
Details left behind…

How to simulate this?
So you’re about to build a foot and will want it to take a step. How are you planning to make that first step happen?

Animation is a complex subject … So discussion here is limited to the use of Blender 3D for this project and intended only as a brief overview to offer insights to those unfamiliar with 3D modeling, animation, and Blender.

Examples of animation are cartoons (ever watch the Road Runner & Wile E. Coyote?), movies, etc.

What makes animation work is ‘key framing’ …

‘key’ – adjective: “of paramount or crucial importance” (Source : Google definitions)

‘frame’ – think of a drawing of that foot at one instant in time during a step

The key frames…

This is a good description:
“A frame is a snapshot of the scene at one moment in time. An animation consists of displaying a succession of frames representing successive moments in time; if these are shown sufficiently quickly (at least 24 frames per second), the eye is fooled into seeing smooth movement, instead of a succession of still poses.

Computer animation works in a similar way, except here Blender is your lower-paid assistant. You go to crucial points in the timeline of your animation, position and pose your objects/characters appropriately, and tell Blender that this is a key frame for the relevant transformations (positioning/rotation/scaling) of those objects/characters. Then when you run the animation, Blender will interpolate the specified transformation parameters between key frames, giving you smooth motion over those intervals.”
Description is from:

There are at least three ways to make animated things move …


Key framing the movements of armatures (bones) with mesh objects (skin) attached.

Key framing the movements of mesh objects manually.

Physics combined with gravity

Blender uses a physics engine that provides collision detection, and simulates soft, and rigid body dynamics.

Forces – wind, magnetism, etc.

Problem 1: Making The Foot Move …

A Solution: Use an armature with a mesh foot object attached

To simulate a foot taking a step in Blender, one may begin by constructing and animating an armature (bones) that has a mesh foot object (the skin) parented to it (‘parented’ … think of a seed in a watermelon rolling down a gentle grassy hill … the seed stays in its same position within the watermelon all the way down … till the rock).  This arrangement allows Blender to controlthe surface of the attached mesh foot so that it moves with the armature (bones) in a way that is visually similar to how the skin moves when connected to muscles, tendons, and bones.

Armature With Mesh Foot Attached
Armature With Mesh Foot Attached

And here is a foot, animated by an armature and set as a Rigid Body object.  The foot was made to look like the mesh it really is.

Another solution:

A “Collision Proxy”: Create a duplicate of the foot mesh, subdivide it into smaller parts so it works better with the physics engine, parent all the parts to empty objects.  Instead of using an armature, animate the empties and parts of the foot as needed, and then assign the parts of the foot to be Rigid Body Objects.  To get deformations like the expansion of the foot when weight goes onto it, use shape keys.

Unresolved problem in Blender:  Some illustrations may require greater and more natural control of the deformations of the foot surface.

For the skin to react exactly like the real thing, the surface of mesh objects attached to armatures must be controllable by both an armature and the physics system, or some other way is needed to allow them to deform as real skin would, in response to collisions with other objects … an example would be someone stepping on a small round stone.

One work-around is to use shape keys to control and animate deformation of mesh objects.

So, you have taken that first step, and the foot moves as you wish.  Umm, now exactly how does the track get made?  That topic is covered next in: “Foot meets sand … Collisions”

Introduction To Blender Physics

Blender Rigid Body Physics

The Concepts of Tracking 


—- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —-

Foot meets sand … Collisions

Discussion about collisions will be kept simple.  Essentially they are, sorta like this:   You make a choice … Your foot bangs against the world … The world responds … Other stuff happens.

Why this an essential concept …

Tracks are the results of collisions between foot surface and substrate (sand here).  So one aspect of simulating tracks on the computer is just simulating collisions.  Even though Blender does most of the work of managing collisions, a little understanding will save you time and help achieve better results.

What are collisions?

collision –  “3. Physics; the meeting of particles or of bodies in which each exerts a force upon the other, causing the exchange of energy or momentum.”   (Source:

An example; one part of walking is maintaining forward momentum.  When we walk we’re expending energy to push against the ground, and this gives us forward momentum.  To accomplish this we make our foot intentionally collide with the earth in a controlled manner.  This begins the track, and initiates a series of collisions that happen between the foot, sand particles, and among the neighboring sand particles.

How does one simulate a collision on a computer? …

Collision Boundaries.  You assign a boundary to each object that you will want to collide.  Imagine two dots, each surrounded by a circle, or sphere.  As far as Blender is concerned the collision between the two dots happens when they move and their enclosing outer shapes touch. Boundary-based collisions are one way Blender and the computer decide when objects need to move.

And here’s collision boundaries at work…

Which of those objects would you use to produce the most realistic sand behavior?  The dark green objects, with their tight collision boundaries maybe?  Because they will give the most precise collisions and look the most natural?

Why not leave out the extra complication of a boundary and just say the collision happens when the two objects themselves touch?

 Think about the letter “M” and a period “.” … How would you tell the computer when the “.” touches the “M”?  Which do you think might be easier to figure out collisions on?  How do you tell the computer where they are?  Is their location at their center?  The upper left corner?

What if you enclosed each one in a sphere and told the computer they touch when the spheres touch?  It turns out that, for imprecise uses, it works well enough to say they touch when simple enclosing outer shapes intersect (the Collision Boundary) and use their geometric centers as the location of the objects.

For precision in this work the sand objects need collision boundaries shaped pretty much exactly like each sand object (look closely at the green sand objects), the foot needs one that is nearly identical to any part of its surface contacting the sand objects, and the ground just needs a simple flat collision boundary matching its upper surface ( in this simplest case).

In Blender the Rigid Body system offers “Convex Hull” or “Mesh” collision boundaries that offer precise control of collisions.

What goes on when a collision is happening?

Nature is always applying the rules of physics to everything.  To the colliding objects as the collision occurs, and to every collision that follows.  We’re doing the same thing.

A simpler version?  Gravity is always on, and when one object collides with another energy is transferred, colliding billiard balls are a good example

Is it really that simple? 

For dry-ish sand, ‘Yes’ with complications.  In other cases, ‘No’.  An example of ‘no’ are the more complex collisions of wet sand … What holds a sand castle together?


“2. Cohering or tending to cohere; well-integrated; unified: a cohesive organization.

3. Physics. of or relating to the molecular force within a body or substance acting to unite its parts.” (Source:

When simulating a foot making a track, there are three essential components, the foot, the substrate, the ground beneath the substrate, and physics (Sorry, that’s four … too much Monty Python?).

Topsoil is one of the most common substrates and comes in many compositions.  Sand was chosen as the first substrate to use for this project because it’s a good place to read tracks, can be easily simulated, and the Rigid Body simulation does a good job with one exception, cohesiveness.

Clear examples of cohesiveness are observed in damp sand (grab a handful, squeeze and then open your hand), the disc formed by the toe of a shoe, and a plate formed at the edge of the track wall by pressure against the wall.

Cohesiveness of sand is primarily the result of the surface tension of the water coating the surfaces of two or more sand grains and connecting them. Some aspects of sand behavior can be simulated to a degree by adjusting the friction and damping settings applied in Blender to the sand objects, but not cohesiveness.

To simulate cohesiveness the simulation system must address this connectivity between soil and/or sand particles in some way.  The author explored Blender’s other simulation systems to accomplish this and then tried a Blender add-on for Blender’s Particle System.  That add-on, the Molecular Script (by Jean-Francois Gallant), directly addresses the cohesiveness issue, is very well done and was recently updated.  It requires a more talented computer than the author currently has access to.

One other way to address this problem … different software.  Houdini by SideFX was explored by contacting the developers and explaining the problem. They indicated Houdini will handle this issue. Unfortunately, after installation, the computer presently used took one bite of Houdini, and said, “That ain’t gonna happen …!”  Ending that discussion.

This cohesiveness problem is mostly about computer processing power, and solving programming issues.  It has been addressed and resolved, so it’s just a matter of finding the right software. Furthermore, given the rate of change in computer software and hardware,  it is likely that other solutions already exist and just need to be found, so this issue is no permanent barrier.


—- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —-

Testing the Substrate … Sand (as an example)

The idea: Test various Blender Rigid Body settings and simulation systems with sand objects to find the settings that hold a track the way you are trying to simulate.

This particular example is aimed at creating some aspects of damp sand behavior. One indicator of success will be when the ‘sand’ holds the track wall after the ‘foot’ leaves.

Sand is like the weather: its behavior is constantly changing and moisture content has a lot to do with that. In the morning a clump of packed wet sand holds its shape while resting on your palm, and dried out by the end of the day it may trickle through your fingers.

This clip is set up so the camera can observe the track wall of 5 various physics settings used to control the sand objects.

One thing to notice: in the first part of the clip as the sand objects flow outwards before the ‘foot’ has stepped, the bottom-most group of sand objects is behaving much like dry sand.

After the ‘feet’ have lifted away, the top group of sand objects is reacting much like wet sand, in that it is holding the track wall.

The behavior of substrate objects is critical for these simulations to work accurately, seem believable, or convey the correct information.  Moisture content, surface tension and cohesiveness are important contributors to substrate behavior… and track formation

Watch your own work … Does it convince you?


2 thoughts on “How To Illustrate in 3D

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s