Thursday, October 11, 2012

Introducing ZBrush by Eric Keller

This is the book that Pixologic should have included with ZBrush. It explains ZBrush in a clear fashion with common pitfalls clearly pointed out and described. If I'd had this book from day 1, I'd have spent less time being confused and confounded by the interface and its way of working.

As it is, I'm still learning new things from this book. Plus, I'm getting the reassurance that those things I've sort of figured out on my own are correct.

My earliest experiences with ZBrush were frustration with it doing things that I didn't understand. At points that made no sense to me conceptually, it would remove work from the editing area above the canvas, sometimes obviously putting the data elsewhere, other times apparently just losing my work--so far as I could tell. It was a field of landmines.

Then, once I started to come to grips with some of the basics of object creation and editing, it became a game of "how do I do this simple task?" Obvious, simple operations in 3D modelling were possible, but performed in mysterious ways. The searches for information done against Pixologic's online documentation were frequently fruitless. But gradually I built up a repertoire of actions I could perform, and remember the processes for, to build models.

But some things remained a mystery. I have no idea how much time I spent watching videos, screaming at the screen "How did you do that?" as they blipped casually past a whole series of critical operations that I needed to learn how to do in a few milliseconds. Note to Pixologic: in tutorial videos use something that shows keypresses and mouse clicks on screen. At least then I can go back frame by frame and find out what sort of finger gymnastics went into the quick and spiffy operation that just flashed by.

The next stage was gathering confidence in what I could do, while trying to gradually expand the envelope on that. While trying to produce models to my prior concept, rather than just sitting down and seeing what happens. Here I had many pieces of work come to a halt because of some simple operation that I didn't know how to perform. How to cut a piece into multiple pieces? How to match colors? How to control dimensions tightly? And so on.

After a while in this phase, I started to get a sense of how ZBrush "thinks", and I started to learn more of the program ever faster. There were still lots of mysteries, including a lot of the buttons in the standard interface, but I was able to do most of the things that ZBrush was good at, and make some of the things that I'd bought ZBrush to model.

That's the point was at where I got Eric Keller's book. It might seem that I was past the point of needing an introductory-level book at that point. But I needed it in the worst way. A lot of the most basic elements of ZBrush that I needed to know, to go from sort of working my way through ZBrush to being really productive with it and using my time effectively was what I needed and what this book delivered. Two chapters in I had a handle on the entire standard interface, now I'm going through the rest of the book, learning different sections in detail.

When is a Button not a Button?
One of the really important things I learned was why a number of the "buttons" around the canvas don't seem to do anything. There are a number of buttons, they look just like the other buttons above and below them. The other buttons do something when you click on them. They turn on the wireframe, or make other parts you're not editing transparent, or whatever.

But these buttons show your click, but do nothing. Seemingly.

That's because they're not really buttons. They're something else.

It's UI, Jim, but not UI as We Know It
These "buttons" are like some throwback to the early days of the Atari ST or Amiga, when intrepid programmers ignored the Human Interface recommendations made by earlier pioneers and rolled their own visual interface components.

They work like this: You click on them, then drag off of them to perform some action.

There are a number of these scattered around ZBrush. That's how color picking works. The color selection tool, which Pixologic calls a "Color Picker" (which is why searches on how to pick a color in ZBrush will be frustrated), has this method of operation as a secondary function (secondary, at least from what it apparent.) Clicking in the Color Picker's central area, then dragging to the Canvas and releasing over some color there will match the color of the object on the Canvas or being edited above the Canvas. Holding Alt while doing this will select the displayed color (including shading) rather than the actual color of the object.

Clear as mud, eh?

Well, Eric Keller makes it clear. That and the other buttons that operate this way.

If you've got ZBrush, no matter what your experience level, I highly recommend this book. The info in it might be elsewhere, but it's not as clear, concise, or as well organized.

Pixologic should provide a copy of this book with every license they sell.