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Trent’s Tips: Turning 2D Drawings into 3D Models

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How does concept art become the actual things inside a video game? If you’ve always wondered, concept artist extraordinaire Trent Kaniuga is here to show you in his latest YouTube video. “This is really a video for 2D artists to dive into 3D and see that it’s not really that intimidating,” says Trent at the outset.

He’s right. It can feel intimidating. Going from 2D to 3D is analogous to a writer who is asked to record a video — will your skills translate to a new medium that seems so very different? There’s really only one way to find out, and that’s to give it a try.

This is really a video for 2D artists to dive into 3D and see that it’s not really that intimidating.

Trent shows you how to do it by starting with a line drawing of an urn in SketchBook. He colors and adds a pattern to it. Simple enough. That’s something anyone who draws can accomplish. But the key to moving your 2D drawing into a 3D model is thinking about it from all the relevant angles: front, back, side, and top.

How to Think (and Work) in 3D

To do that, Trent saves the drawing out as a flat file — a JPG in this case — and brings it into Autodesk Maya. (Note for students and educators: Autodesk offers free versions of its software for educational use.) If you’ve never used Maya, Trent’s walkthrough of the basics does a really great job of showing you how to view the different “sides” of your 2D image as a 3D model.

The interface for Maya is divided into four different “planes” that represent each side of your model. This allows you to see all four angles in one four-window grid while you manipulate the details. It’s kind of like looking through a video feed from four different angles. Any time you grab the model and alter it, you’ll see the changes being made in real time in every quadrant.

modeling in maya
Trent’s original drawing used for reference. He fits his 3D wireframe into the same space.

From there, it’s simply a matter of creating a basic shape that has volume and stretching it to fit your reference drawing. It’s not that different from putting up a camping tent, albeit using a mouse instead of your hands. You look at your skeleton made of poles and stretch the tent in various ways until it conforms to the shape of your skeleton.

Skinning the 3D Model in SketchBook

Once he has his 3D model wireframe created, he shows you how to export a “UV Map” of the sides and top as a flat projection.  Trent heads back to SketchBook with his UV Map wrapper to create a rendering of his drawing that will fit the 3D model — one that he can then “drape” around his 3D wireframe. He simply resizes his original drawing onto the map and details the drawing to add shading and imperfections — in the same way he’d finish any drawing.

Drawing a map in SketchBook
Back in SketchBook, Trent details his UV Map like he would any drawing; adding shading, imperfections.

Once he’s done, he can push that wrapper right back into Maya and place it onto his 3D model. Viola. A detailed, hand-drawn vase that can live inside a video game. It can be picked up, thrown, destroyed, or knocked over. Trent even goes so far as to show you the actual vase he created in this exercise in action inside a video game environment.

sketchbook to maya

This process is how some video game makers create the assets for their video games. All the swords, treasure chests, candelabra, barrels, bottles, and battle axes — everything that lives in the world as an object — gets created in this way. The next time you stop and admire a detailed object in a game, consider that someone, somewhere, worked to individually create that object. And it very well may have started out as a line drawing.