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Building complex set geometry

Recently, I’ve been making some updated packets to send to potential clients. Included in them are some set designs that I’ve done in the past for artists both large and small, to show clients the range of my design abilities. One of the things that I like to do – especially with smaller set designs that are on a correspondingly small budget – is come up with some sort of visually interesting set piece. An interesting fabric structure, metal or wood cut into an interesting shape to catch (or block!) light, whatever. The idea is to create some sort of visual interest on stage that doesn’t involve expensive lighting effects. While pieces like this are relatively easy to draw (especially when your drawing skills are as terrible as mine!) they can be considerably more difficult to turn into digital representations.

There are a few ways around this, and for several years my go-to software for this sort of thing has been @Last Google Trimble SketchUp. SketchUp, especially after Google acquired it and released it as free software, was great. The functionality was not AutoCAD-level, but of course it wasn’t trying to be: it was 3D modelling for the masses. It did what I wanted to about 95% of the time, and about the only thing I couldn’t make with it was realistic drapes with cloth or fabric. And then Trimble bought SketchUp in 2012, and the quality went all to hell. A few years after they bought it, they started shuttling features that had been free into the $800 “Pro” version – in particular, the ability to import DWG files – which I wasn’t about to buy. Later features have also introduced an annoying nag screen when you first start the software, forcing you to click “Start using” instead of going straight into the program. This of course can be shut off in the “Pro” version. Whatever, it’s a nag screen in the spirit of 1990s PC shareware. Ugh. In hindsight, however, all this might have been a good thing, because it’s forced me to learn some newer and more powerful software for modeling complicated geometry. I have come to the conclusion that SketchUp’s only redeeming quality is its price, and it’s definitely not software that you should use if you want to be designing sets at a professional level.

First of all, the rendering abilities of SketchUp without an external rendering program are abysmal. You get texture, sure, but the lighting is extremely flat, and there’s no option for creating in-world lighting sources. And sadly, the only low-cost / free renderer (That I’ve found so far) that reads SketchUp files is Kerkythea, which has a frustratingly clunky interface and isn’t really meant for what I’m trying to do. The lines in SketchUp have also always been a problem. Whatever engine is under the hood absolutely chokes on models with a lot of lines; turning them off generally increases performance a great deal. If you turn off lines, however, there are extremely noticeable gaps where the lines should be between adjoining faces. Why can’t SketchUp join the faces together without rendering a line? Who knows.

A while back, for a variety of reasons, I decided the best choice for a visualization and drawing software suite was Capture. Capture is able to import the SketchUp format, but it also supports several other 3D formats, including DXF, .3DS, and .OBJ. Recently, I was trying to do something that I thought should be extremely easy: trying to turn a vector graphic into solid geometry that could be manipulated. My graphic was originally a bitmap, and when I initially created the set in SketchUp, I saved the graphic as a PNG with alpha transparency and applied it as a texture to a surface. This was the easiest and fastest way to do “faux transparency”. Capture, while it does support textures, does not support files with alpha transparency, so the graphic would have to be converted into some kind of geometry that Capture could read. And this is where I ran into difficulties.

It could be just me, but I assumed that SketchUp should be able to import a standard SVG file as flat geometry using the paths within the file to draw lines. But not so! SketchUp can’t do a darn thing with SVG files, so that idea was out. Also out was the idea of trying to trace the drawing in SketchUp – even with a graphics tablet and pen, SketchUp’s can’t-turn-it-off snapping (or as they call it, “inference”) behavior makes this practically impossible.

Finally, I turned to Blender, which reads a bunch of 3D formats, but not DWG. The other downside to Blender is that – like many software suites that are extremely powerful – it has quite a challenging learning curve. But! It reads SVG files straight outta Inkscape. So it was a simple matter to open the bitmap in Inkscape, use the Find Edges filter to get the shape of my set piece and convert those to paths, fill the shape with a color, and export the file to an SVG. From there, I imported my SVG into Blender and gave it a more manageable size and depth, converted it to a mesh, and export it to .3DS, which Capture can…oh, wait. No, currently, Capture’s support for 3DS files is terribly lacking. Bummer. But it does much better with Wavefront .OBJ files, which import just fine. The only caveat is that texture support when importing 3D models is a touch dodgy, but that’s not so much an issue because once the geometry is in Capture, I can use the built-in material functionality to give the model texture within that program.


All this to say, I think I’ve finally outgrown SketchUp as a 3D modeling program. It’s still faster than Blender for doing really simple mockups that are just a step above literal bar napkin sketches, but for anything I’d show a client, I’ll make it in Capture anyway because I need the lighting visualization capabilities. The only place for SketchUp, for me, is doing simple “will thing x fit on stage y like this” type stuff, when I just need to make some simple pieces with precise dimensions quickly and see roughly how they look when arranged. My end goal, really, is to avoid SketchUp entirely, and have orders of magnitude more control over the models that I’m creating.

And no nag screens. #byebyesketchup

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