A hard surface modeller is one of the most diverse and varied job titles in the industry as it can be defined very differently to different artists. Some will take hard surfaces to mean a model with a tight, clean mesh, little curves and hard edges – mechs often fall in this category. Others will take it to mean creating any manmade construct, so arch vis would certainly come under this umbrella. But it could also mean a static rigid object that will not be animated, say for example a weapon.
Whatever the definition, it’s clear that there is a whole world of hard surface models out there to be created, from vehicles, space ships and robots to weapons and environment props. So what are you waiting for? Get modelling with our top ten tips now!
Freelance concept artist
Senior hard surface modeller at Industrial Light And Magic
Freelance 3D artist
Concept artist at Cloud Imperium Games/Foundry 42
Freelance digital 2D and 3D artist
1) Design variety
Interesting variation is also most important when it comes to good hard surface models. Keep in mind to stay with mainly three different size variations or scales inside of your 3D models. For example leaving a certain (larger) area free of small, micro details and filling another (smaller) part with tiny details gives interesting appearance and variation which makes it appealing for the eye to explore. Also don’t forget to add details symmetrically here and there. That is very characteristic for hard surfaces or all kind of technically constructed things.
2) Using MODO for quick low-poly concepts
The Round edge shader can be applied to any material and fakes a rounded edge in the render, by doing this I save a lot of time while in my conception phase. I also tend to use a lot of Booleans in my work and MODO handles that really well without using subdivisions or mesh fusion.
3) Plan out your shapes
If you start to detail out just one part very early without blocking in the rest of the model first, you may find later on that things weren’t the size or in the right place and you will have to redo all that hard work you already did.
4) Make a maquette/blocking model!
Blocking the proportions is essential to a successful piece. You have to make sure with simple shapes that your creation stands on its own and is functioning as a mechanical device. Just by drawing a few simple things to build what you want, you should quickly have something that already looks like what you’re aiming for.
5) Kitbash library
A good idea is to create your own kitbash library. A lot of good people are sharing their ki bash sets, but you can create your own. That’s how you can increase your speed or your effectiveness.
6) New topology
Retopologise complex areas of your sketch into separate pieces using the topology brush. Increase the brush’s intensity above 0 if you want thickness. Once you have the new topology, use Snake Hook while holding Opt/Alt to slide it over geometry that’s underneath.
7) Don’t loop your edge loops
Creating hidden holes in your mesh when hard surface modelling can be a good way to manage edge loops. If you have the opportunity to hide a hole behind another piece of geometry, you can have stray edge loops run into those holes and not have to line up with an edge on the other side.
8) Think modular
Keep everything you build. Each of the pieces can be re-used later, by thinking in a modular way you will be able to go faster. The more you do, the more you can re-use pieces here and there. Think about it as a nice looking Lego object except it’s up to you to build cool bricks. It’s pretty much the way I was thinking when I created the bike concept and when I did NOBUNAGA for the book Nuthin but Mech volume 3.
9) Respecting mechanical joints
Robotics generally have a lot of restrictions on movement and this really sets the foundations of the design (function over design). This is obviously an illusion so I do encourage artists to explore, but never the less to respect and get a believable design. Understanding how joints interact with each other and conveying this in your designs will make it more believable.
Don’t forget to finish up your hard surface meshes or nurnies with beveled edges so that the light can react to them in rendering. Edges that look too hard always look a bit artificially and unrealistic. For many cases the standard settings of C4D’s Bevel tool should work pretty fine here. Keep in mind that even hard surfaces should contain some softer edges or rounded shapes here and there to add interest and variety. Don’t forget to try the Bevel tool in Bezier mode!