Building a Blender Bookshelf

Blender, an open-source 3D creation suite, is now celebrating it's 20th year of existence. Originally created as an in-house application for a Dutch company founded by one of Blender's original developers, Ton Roosendal (and still lead Blender developer). A shareware version was released in 1998 and a large, enthusiastic user base began to form. Eventually, the company Ton created to distribute and develop the application went bankrupt in 2002. However, after fans of Blender donated over $100,000 to pay creditors to release the source code of Blender under the GNU General Public License, Ton created the non-profit Blender Foundation which actively develops Blender software as a completely free program.

 


Blender booth at SIGGRAPH 2009

 

Today, the Blender Foundation is about to release version 2.5 which promises to be one of the most important releases in the history of the application. Not to mention the production of the new, short animated film “Durian” as a means to show off the new Blender version and to develop the software through a practical and rigorous production schedule.

And Blender is entirely free.

“...in the realm of consumer-oriented and graphics software, it remains true that most of the best industrial-strength software applications are proprietary. Even the best open source applications in these areas tend to come across largely as underdog imitations of their proprietary counterparts. For this reason, it is reasonable to wonder what the catch is with something like Blender. And the good news is that as far as the software itself is concerned, there really is no catch. Blender is a robust, fully-fleshed-out piece of software, remarkably free of bugs, and more stable than some proprietary packages with similar functionality.”

-Tony Mullen

Although the Blender Foundation provides very complete documentation and tutorials to learn Blender, there have been, until recently, a decided lack of Blender books published by a major publisher. The focus for these companies has been on those other “industrial-strength” software applications that Tony Mullen refers to. However, in the last year two publishers have emerged as strong supporters of this free and open source 3D software: Sybex and Focal Press. This is important because it provides for increased exposure for Blender to the public at large, but also it adds a measure of long-overdue legitimacy for a publisher like Sybex to release well-written/designed books on Blender at the same time they are releasing books on Maya and 3D Studio Max, the big boys of 3D.

I'd like to review three of these new books for you. Blender for Dummies (2009) by Jason van Gumster and Mastering Blender (2009) by Tony Mullen are published by Sybex (Wiley Publishing); Animating with Blender (2009) by D. Ronald Hess is published by Focal Press. The first book is for beginners and the latter two are for intermediate and advanced users. All three books are well-written and very useful.

Blender for Dummies by Jason van Gumster
Wiley Publishing, 2009
385 pages with B&W illustrations
Content CD includes Blender 2.48a
$34.99

While written primarily for the new user, Blender for Dummies can also be useful for readers who have some experience with 3D, but are completely new to Blender. The author's stated goal is to “bring you up to speed in working in 3D space with Blender.” Using the now standard Dummies (always hated that title for the series, but it sells) format, the book has a reference book feel to it, meaning you can skip around the book a bit and not get lost.

Laid out in five parts: “Wrapping Your Brain Around Blender,” “Creating Detailed 3D Scenes,” “Get Animated,” “Sharing Your Work with the World” and the Dummies-series standard “Part of Tens,” the author takes great pains to orient you to Blenders interface, which has come under a lot of criticism for being too difficult for the beginner. Despite some overly complex sentences at times, the author succeeds in de-mystifying the Blender GUI. Part of the problem is that the program is simply not built using familiar conventions, so where you expect a left mouse click to select something, it's the right mouse click that does it. Also, Blender is really a program that works more quickly using keyboard commands, something that takes time to memorize.

The author's writing style is casual, but focused. He uses small projects to illustrate the ideas behind each chapter and is honest about some of Blender's limitations (NURBS especially). I like this kind of arrangement because you can choose a chapter and focus on mastering it's particular focus and then move on. The Animation chapters are detailed, but seem a bit short to me.

The book is just the right length, but some of the illustrations are hard to read. It's really a matter of cost for a publisher, since color illustrations or glossy paper would make the illustrations much easier to read, but add a lot to the cost of the book. For the Dummies series, the illustrations are adequate, but you may need a magnifying glass if you have old eyes like mine.

The accompanying CD comes in a clear plastic case and is well-protected. It includes all of the author-created material for chapter projects, a copy of the second open movie project, Big Buck Bunny, created by the Blender Foundation, and a copy of the open source VLC player (highly recommended), plus an additional chapter listing 10 community resources for further Blender study. A shame there were no video tutorials for more complex subjects like materials and UV editing. However, the author has a Vimeo channel with some good video tutorials on subjects in the book and there is an accompanying website for BFD with most of the example files available for free. I liked this book very much and the author's writing style is appealing. It's definitely going on my Blender bookshelf for future reference.

Mastering Blender by Tony Mullen
Sybex (Wiley Publishing), 2009
425 pages with B&W illustrations
Content CD includes Blender 2.48
$59.99

Sybex has been publishing books on computer technology for 30 years. They release over 100 books a year, and all of them are high-quality productions. Acquired by Wiley Publishing in 2005, they have continued to excel in releasing cutting-edge tech books that are very well edited. And compared to the textbook market, they've managed to keep their prices relatively low. That they are publishing books on Blender is not a surprise. Very pleased to see them on the Sybex display rack at Siggraph 2009 right alongside the Maya books. This kind of support from a major publisher will definitely encourage other publishers to release books on Blender in the future.

Tony Mullen, the author of numerous Blender books for Sybex, is a widely recognized expert on Blender. Currently living in Tokyo where he writes a monthly series of Blender tutorials in Japanese, he is also an active member of the Blender community.

Mastering Blender, part of Sybex's “Mastering” series, is a step up from the Blender for Dummies book both in the quality of the actual book production and in the writing style. Printed on high quality glossy paper, the illustrations are in a high-contrast gray scale which makes them much easier to read. Plus, they are large enough not to have to whip out the magnifying glass. There are also a lot more illustrations in the Sybex books and they are better arranged.

 


The Wiley Publishing booth at SIGGRAPH 2009

 

Tony Mullen's writing style is easy going, but focused and he manages to explain complex procedures clearly with none of the “jokey” tone that can kill a book like this. He develops his ideas carefully, and at the end of most sections you have a strong foundation to build on for the next chapter. More than anything, Tony conveys an enthusiasm and excitement for using Blender that is inspiring.

Mastering Blender is written essentially for someone who already knows Blender well. The book is divided into 3 main sections; “Mastering Blender 3D,” “Mastering Blender Python” and “Mastering the Blender Game Engine.” His goal is to cover aspects of Blender that are not as well known or as well documented. The first two sections on advanced Blender procedures and Python scripting are well done, but it's Mullen's coverage of the Blender Game Engine that really shines.

“The biggest strength of the BGE (Blender Game Engine) is its ease of use and the relative speed with which creators can create their work. The BGE lacks some of the functionality of high-powered professional game-creation tools.....but it excels in creating fast, high-quality prototypes visualizations, and walk-throughs. Unless you are creating a high-quality commercial video game, the BGE likely will enable you to do whatever you want”
-Tony Mullen

Tony takes you through the entire creation of a simple game in the BGE. From modeling, rigging and skinning a character to setting up the game world with sets and Logic Blocks, this chapter could easily be extended into an entire book itself. His companion book, Bounce, Tumble, and Splash: Simulating the Physical World with Blender (also published in a beautiful color edition by Sybex) is an essential book if you want to master physics inside of your game creation.

All of the assets used in the BGE chapter are available on the accompanying CD (along with assets for the other chapters as well), which makes it easier to follow the often complex Python scripting sections because you have the finished version to compare your work to. You also get a copy of Blender 2.48 and the open source image editor, Gimp. Somewhat skimpy contents compared to other books that go into this level of detail. A few video tutorials, especially on scripting, would have been very useful. And be sure to read the Appendix where you'll find William Reynish's complete presentation of the “Evolution of Blender's User Interface” which makes for fascinating reading. My understanding of how 3D interfaces function with the user was much enhanced by this paper and by Tony Mullen's comments.

I would have liked to include Tony Mullen's most popular Blender book, Introducing Character Animation with Blender, but because of major changes to the animation system due in the Blender 2.5 update (coming in October, 2009), it's almost obsolete. Fortunately, Sybex has announced an update coming in early 2010 to the book. I'll be reviewing it here at Renderosity.com as soon as it's out.

Animating with Blender: How to Create Short Animations from Start to Finish by D. Roland Hess
Focal Press (Elsevier), 2008
352 pages with color illustrations
Content CD includes Blender 2.46
$44.95

D. Roland Hess (also known as “harkyman”) is the author of one of the best books for Blender beginners, The Essential Blender, and has been working in 3D, and specifically Blender, for many years. While working as an IT manager for a mid-sized commercial printer during the day, he has been creating computer graphics for almost thirty years. He is an active Blender developer and is the author of a suite of Python scripts called “BlenderPeople” which allows for the creation of large scale crowd dynamics within Blender.

Focal Press is a major producer of books relating to computer graphics. They've been publishing for over 70 years and their backlist just gets longer and longer with outstanding books on everything from sound editing for animation to creating cinematics inside game engines. Their books are very well produced with high quality paper and full color illustrations. I can't tell you the difference it makes when illustrations are in color. Since the topic you are trying to follow is usually very specific, being able to see the details clearly makes it much easier to grasp the often complex points a technical book author is trying to make. The arrangement of the illustrations and choice of font/font size is superb. This is a company that knows how to produce books on computer graphics. Animating with Blender is a better book because of Focal Press.

Written for users who have “a great deal of familiarity with Blender”, Animating with Blender is a complete guide to creating a short 3D animated film from script to render inside of Blender. Highly detailed, the book consists of 16 chapters that chronicle the creation from idea to render/output of a short film titled “The Beast” (included on the CD). Mr. Hess skillfully guides the user in learning how to write a decent script and creating a Story Reel, creating Libraries and file naming conventions, creating rough sets and blocking, finding sound effects and recording (a particularly well done chapter), building and rigging your characters, animating and lip-syncing, simulating particles, and ends with rendering/final edit with color correction and post.

What makes this really well-organized book so good is not only the organization of the information presented, but the down-to-earth writing style of Mr. Hess. Reading the book and going through each section you feel like the author is right next to you helping with mistakes and pointing out ways to save time. Plus, he covers topics that many other books simply avoid, like file naming conventions and time saving tips/shortcuts that make working with Blender much easier. He also relates basic concepts of working in 3D as far as work flow, animation and, well, just being able to finish your project. I like his enthusiasm for working in Blender, but he also tempers it with a realistic point of view on the limitations you'll encounter as a solo filmmaker.

Every chapter is well presented with actions like keyboard shortcuts written in bold and instructions are bulleted. There are clear objectives presented at the beginning of each chapter (along with the “inbox” which is the knowledge you'll need to complete the chapter) with a summary at the end of the chapter. I really liked the fact that the line spacing of the book is slightly larger than the other books I've reviewed here, which makes each page in Animating with Blender much easier to read since the paragraphs aren't as packed together. Section titles are in bold and in color which also makes it easier to know where you are and focus on following the author's examples.

The CD contains Blender 2.46, which might cause a few snags here and there since the current version is 2.48, but this is a minor issue that is easily solved with a bit of research. Complete versions of the net renderer plug-in FarmerJoe (covered in the book) is included along with all of the example files for each chapter, the complete production media/files from “The Beast” and open source programs Audacity (an excellent sound editor) and the VLC player (another very good video player). Also, the short Blender films “Big Buck Bunny” and “Elephants Dream” are also included along with a complete version of “The Beast” (although not the final version as the author was still working on it when the book's deadline arrived). The accompanying disc is probably the best of the three books covered here, but I still wish there would have been a few video tutorials for difficult topics like rendering and rigging.

Conclusion

The coming release of Blender 2.5 and the accompanying open film project Durian, which is being used as a way of testing the build in a practical production setting, will expand the already large user base for Blender. Publishers like Focal Press and Sybex have taken notice by making available high quality books written by well known (and admired) experts on practically every aspect of Blender. In addition to an extremely supportive community and high level of free documentation, these books fill a need for those who prefer learning by book and for those who want a focused course of study in Blender. Each author writes so well and is such a master of their subject that it's almost like having a mentor as you are working through each book.

Congratulations to Tony Mullen, D. Roland Hess and Jason van Gumster for supporting open source and for writing such good books. Also, Focal Press and Sybex deserve a pat on the back for publishing books on Blender and giving this excellent, free application the importance it deserves.

More information on Blender can be found at their Blender.org site. There is a very good video intro to the new Blender 2.5 design which will get you started on thinking about the new version which might be coming as soon as the end of October, 2009. Focal Press and Sybex have full pages on the books listed here, along with a complete backlist, which is fun to browse through. The Blender open movie project “Durian” is in production and has a great website. Blender Nation and Blender Artists are top notch sites to learn more about Blender and to learn from a very knowledgeable community of “BlenderHeads.”


Editor's Note: Be sure to check out all the valuable resources available right here on Renderosity, for all your artistic endeavors, starting with the following related links:

Also, be sure to check out BlenderArt Magazine, as they continue to support the Blender community by publishing a bi-monthly PDF magazine free for download.


Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
October 19, 2009

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Member Opinions:
By: TonyL on 10/19/09
RL,

Thanks for these reviews. Blender does so many things that it would take a number of volumes to cover it. That being said the reviewed books are a good basis for learning the program.

By: gToon on 10/20/09
Thanks, Tony. You are so right about the amount of books it would take to cover Blender functionality. I'm hoping (and I made this point in the reviews) that the 2.5 update and the accompanying film (Durian) will create renewed and greater interest in this excellent open-source application. Certainly the fact that Wiley and Focal Press are including a number of Blender books for the future is a good indication that Blender is being taken seriously.


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